Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti.” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion.” The Bangles’ “Manic Monday.” Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer.” Puff Daddy and Faith Evans’s “I’ll Be Missing You.” Which of those are cover songs?
For music heads, it’s a question with a lot of potential answers. Let’s think about five different categories of “covers.” Do they all count? Decide for yourself.
The competitive cover
The term “cover version” dates from the early 1950s, when it wasn’t uncommon for artists to record similar versions of the same song. Often, in that crucible era of rock and roll, white artists would cover R&B songs by Black artists, whether out of cynical appropriation or sincere appreciation, with commercial considerations always in mind. Among the most infamous example is the ultra-square Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” Even when the Black songwriters made money on the covers, they’d justifiably smart at having their association with the songs diluted or erased.
Even in that era, there were a lot of different types of cover versions. Think of the Drifters’ soulful take on “White Christmas,” for example. Then there’s a song like “Hound Dog,” written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller for Big Mama Thornton and later covered by Elvis Presley. “Rock Around the Clock” was first recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights; that version went nowhere, but Bill Haley made it a hit. Given that the song was written by Max Freeman and performed by Haley onstage before Dae made his recording, which version counts as the cover?
The tribute cover
Most “cover versions” we talk about today fall into this category: an artist taking a song originally written and popularized by another artist and performing a version that isn’t intended in any sense to replace or erase the original, but to supplement it.
A lot of artists make this kind of cover a staple of their live shows, tossing in covers to to add variety and value. Early in artists’ careers, before they build substantial song catalogs, they’ll often use covers to fill out their sets and signal their influences. R.E.M.’s 1980 debut show, for example, included covers of songs by the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, and the Monkees, among others. When they broke out as a startlingly original alternative group, some of the early Athens scenesters were astonished since they thought of R.E.M. as basically a cover band you’d hire to play your kegger.
When tribute covers are recorded, they can become hits in their own rights. This doesn’t happen today as often as it did in the past; when Weezer hit the Hot 100 with a cover of Toto’s “Africa” in 2018, it sparked discussion as to whether covers were having a resurgence. They weren’t – at least not on the pop charts – but as artists have found themselves playing stacks of livestreams in the COVID-19 pandemic, many have dipped into cover songs as never before.
The surprise cover
This category encompasses more songs than you might think. From Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (originally recorded by Gloria Jones) to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (originally recorded by the Arrows) to the Swinging Blue Jeans’ “Hippy Hippy Shake” (originally recorded by Chan Romero) to Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Piece of My Heart” (originally recorded by Erma Franklin) to Heart’s “Alone” (originally recorded by i-Ten), music history is full of hits that were first recorded by other artists before being covered so successfully, the original artists remain unknown to many.
When does a new version of a song change it so drastically that it counts as a whole new song?
“I’ll Be Missing You,” the Notorious B.I.G. tribute that became a chart-topper for Puff Daddy and Faith Evans, is certainly a different song than the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” but when a song interpolates both a hook and a melody (in this case, with new lyrics), the borrowing definitely goes beyond a sample. You could also put parodies in this category: “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” is different than Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” which is different than “Pastime Paradise,” but all benefit from that catchy Stevie Wonder chorus.
This is also the category where the lawyers start to get involved, as they did in the case of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” ruled to be an “unconscious plagiarism” of “He’s So Fine” (written by Ronnie Mack and recorded by the Chiffons). Robin Thicke and Pharrell were controversially found to have lifted the “feel” of their hit “Blurred Lines” from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”; along with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (riding the bass hook from “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie), that may be a case where you might wish the artist had just gone ahead and done a full-on cover.
(All genres of music repurpose other elements, but the history of sampling in hip-hop is particularly intricate and fascinating. You can read more about it in Nate Patrin’s recent book Bring That Beat Back.)
The song-for-hire cover
Throughout the history of popular music, performers and songwriters have more often than not been different people…so if you consider every song not written (or at least co-written) by the performer a “cover,” you’re encompassing a truly vast amount of music.
Few would call Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” or Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” covers, since songwriter Jim Steinman isn’t a recording artist and those were the songs’ original recordings, both of which became substantial hits. But what about Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” written by Steinman but first recorded by Pandora’s Box?
Now, what about the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” or the Family’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” songs written by Prince? By Prince’s own choice, the Bangles and Family versions were the original recordings, but Prince is such a storied performing artist, it’s hard to separate the songs from the songwriter.
Then there are the cases where a songwriter is a recording artist and, in a sense, reclaims a song – as in Neil Diamond’s version of “I’m a Believer” (a Diamond composition that was originally a Monkees hit) or Carole King doing “The Loco-Motion”: a song she and Gerry Goffin wrote in their Brill Building years, which became a number one hit for first Little Eva and then Grand Funk Railroad before King ever recorded it herself? In that case, does the “original” become a “cover”?
To appreciate the kind of impact a cover can have, consider “All Along the Watchtower,” a Bob Dylan song so radically transformed by Jimi Hendrix that Dylan himself said he always considered his own subsequent performances tributes to the Seattle guitar god. Then, to bring it back to Neil Diamond, consider “Red Red Wine.” In Diamond’s original 1967 recording, it’s a tender ballad. UB40 had a chart-topping hit with an uptempo reggae cover of the song in the ’80s, after which an all-too-delighted Diamond put his own reggae spin on the song.