EASY BREEZY BEAUTIFUL COVER SONGS…OR HOW TO EMBRACE THE ART OF THE COVER
Cover bands catch a lot of crap from songwriters and artists. In his podcast “The Accidental Creative,” Todd Henry concludes every podcast with the tagline “Cover bands don’t change the world.” I’ve given cover bands plenty of grief myself. I used to be the guy shamelessly rocking original songs in the battle of the bands amidst droves of bands covering Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Matthews and Chumbawamba and getting way more girls than I did. I used to think covers were the devil.
But now I’m not so convinced.
Want to know the name of the most famous cover band of all time? Their name was “Johnny and the Silver Beatles,” which quickly changed to just “The Silver Beatles,” who eventually became just…The Beatles. Yep, believe it or not the Fab Four started playing mostly covers. Lennon and McCartney started writing songs early in their career, but the majority of their early set lists and albums were filled with rehashed covers of popular songs.
When I realized this, I was a bit humbled about the whole “covering songs” idea. Like the Beatles, I think we can gain some things from covering songs:
• Covering songs helps you understand songwriting on a more comprehensive level. I recently played with a brilliant sax player, who said he transcribes several famous solos every week so he can understand the style of great jazz players better. I read an interview with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo who claimed he did the same with Kurt Cobain’s songs. Learning or performing covers gives songwriters a small glimpse through the lens of a great writer. It’s like learning to draw by tracing first. When covering a hymn or a classic, songwriters can learn a lot about crafting lyrics, arranging, and chord structures.
• Learning covers can kick-start your creativity. Once I learned a new song every week by an artist I admired. My songwriting and chord vocabulary matured more in that six month period than any other. I learned new chords, alternate guitar tunings, and creative song structures. I started experimenting with them immediately- the new tools were like creative crack. The new chords led to still more chords and voicings, and new melodies followed soon after. Ironically, learning cover songs led to my most prolific songwriting streak to date.
• Covering songs gives your audience a way to ease into your original material. I don’t know many people who will sit through an unknown songwriter’s set of all-original material. By nature people gravitate toward the familiar, and drift away from the unfamiliar. Face it- crowds are tough, especially when you are showcasing original material. But peppering in covers into your set helps people get down with the originals.
The Beatles’ first audiences were not adoring fans. They weren’t even serious music fans for that matter. The Beatles’ first long-standing gig was for a rowdy bar in Hamburg, Germany. They did hundreds of gigs in less than a year playing 8 hour sets every night. The ruffian crowds were restless and sometimes violent, and demanded to be entertained.
• Covering songs helps you gauge the strength of your original songs. I can’t tell you how much I learned from studying the songwriting of the Beatles. Their chord structures were complex compared to my cowboy chord songs. They loaded their songs full of melodies- my songs only had a melody or two. The Beatles had a wide, whacky variety of styles within their albums- all my earliest songs all sounded the same.
Covering songs can teach us humility, and reveal how much we have to learn. You have to be careful, as Seth Godin says, not to “compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” If you are mopey because you are a creative genius and nobody “gets” you, be careful here. But if you can detach yourself from the songs you write, an objective approach to critiquing your own music can become a healthy habit.
• Covering songs enables new generations to breathe life into outdated arrangements or lyrics. Have you ever heard Jeff Buckley’s version of “Corpus Christi Carol”? Mind-blowing. You’ll cry like a little baby. And Wyclef’s adaptation of the disco hit “Stayin’ Alive” was remarkably cool. Re-imagining cover songs within your own creative context gives listeners a fresh perspective without demanding too much out of them.
There is a creative movement going on within the modern church to update old hymns. Who still talks in “thee’s” and “thou’s”? No one. Who still sings hymns strictly to a pipe organ? No one (except congregations that could be mistaken for senior centers.) Thankfully, this hymn-update movement is revitalizing old classics in a context that makes sense for modern ears. You can do the same thing with cover songs.
You gotta’ crawl before you can walk. And if the Beatles had to pay their songwriting dues, so do you and I. Take a note from Glen Hansard’s character from the film “Once”:
“During the daytime people would want to hear songs that they know, just songs that they recognize. I play (original) songs at night or I wouldn’t make any money. People wouldn’t listen.”
Do yourself- and your audience- a few favors. Work up a few unforgettable covers , and you’ll be a cover-song convert. Promise.