The Art of the Cover

Reuben Brown 12 October 2020
Kurt Cobain MTV Unplugged 1993 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Covering a song is a risky business. Artists walk across a precarious musical tightrope; change the song too much and you are labelled a heretic, attacking another musician’s gospel; change too little and you risk sounding like a mediocre X Factor contestant, who just scraped through to the live shows. The song may be perfectly nice but what is the point if you don’t do anything new with it? We already have the original. Even the best covers infuriate many.

So why bother? And how to do it?

Whilst difficult to get right, a good cover can not only be one of the most flattering tributes a musician can pay to another, but it can also serve as a bridge between new audiences and a forgotten artist. It can give that artist’s music new meaning and a much needed lease of life. The very best covers can even become the authoritative versions of the song such as Amy Winehouse & Mark Ronson’s recording of ‘Valerie’ originally by the Zutons and Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

Amy Winehouse (Image Credit Fionn Kidney, flickr)

There are no hard set rules for covering a song, but successful covers tend to have a few things in a common:

• A core knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the original song and artist. This is crucial if the artists wishes to give the audience something genuinely different whilst avoiding accusations of heresy. It doesn’t just mean listening to the song a few times on repeat, but taking the time to genuinely grasp the song’s melodies, complexities and intentions. In order to change something without destroying it you have to know what you are changing and why.
• Covers don’t imitate. This is where so many covers fall short and can be skin crawlingly embarrassing for all involved (see the Script’s Danny O’Donoghue’s painful attempt at ‘Lose Yourself’…).
• Innovate. Innovation can come in many forms; Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is far more boisterous and electrified than Bob Dylan’s original. Speaking about Hendrix’s version in 1995 Dylan said “it overwhelmed me really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t even think of finding. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using.” [1] Equally, Nina Simone’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ has an earthiness and womanly confidence which entirely shifts the perspective of the song.

Here are some of the best covers:

1. ‘On the Road Again’ – Nas (Originally by Memphis Jug Band)

It is hard to imagine Nas covering a song released in 1928 but the result is epic. The song was recorded as part of The American Epic Sessions (which are worth watching in their own right). In footage of one of the sessions Nas addresses the importance of songs like ‘On the Road Again’: “It just goes to show me that rapping is a natural poetic thing. It’s always been there, as long as there was English and black people there was rap”.

2.‘All Along the Watchtower’ – Jimi Hendrix (Originally by Bob Dylan)

The song is undisputedly better than the original and went on to be the biggest hit of Hendrix’s career. Dylan was so impressed that he took inspiration from Hendrix’s version. Speaking in 1985 Dylan said: “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him [Hendrix] in some kind of way”. [2]

3.‘The Man Who Sold the World’ – Nirvana (Originally by David Bowie)

Although ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ is now reckoned to one of Bowie’s best, it was is was not a huge hit when it was first released in 1970. Nirvana performed the song on MTV Unplugged in 1993 and their cover quickly outshone the original. Whilst Bowie was fond of the cover version, he jokingly quipped that when he performed the song “kids come up afterwards and say, ‘it’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!’” [3]

4. ‘Flowers’ – AJ Tracey & Jorja Smith (Originally by Sweet Female Attitude)

Radio live lounge covers can often be underwhelming. This wasn’t. Jorja Smith’s voice is breathtakingly good and AJ Tracey’s relaxed but purposeful interventions are welcome in a song which otherwise risks becoming boring. The performance now has 7 million views on YouTube and whilst it is relentlessly overplayed it remains an excellent cover.

5. ‘Hurt’ – Johnny Cash (originally by Nine Inch Nails)

‘Hurt’ was one of the final songs Cash released before he died, and it is one of his best. The song goes to the heart of what Cash is about: pain, remorse and sincerity. When Nine Inch Nails lead singer Trent Reznor was sent Cash’s version he said it “felt like I was watching my girlfriend fuck somebody else.” [4] Reznor eventually got over it, reflecting that: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. Some-fucking-how that winds up reinterpreted by a musical legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains its sincerity and meaning, different, but every bit as pure”.

6. ‘Romeo And Juliet’ – Indigo Girls (Originally by Dire Straits)

‘Romeo And Juliet’ is a hauntingly beautiful song written by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler. The Indigo Girls’ version masterfully conveys the pricking sense of abandonment felt by the title character Romeo.

7 .‘Suzanne’ – Nina Simone (Originally by Leonard Cohen)

I am a die-hard Leonard Cohen fanatic and loathe most covers of his songs. Simone’s version of Suzanne is an exception to that rule – it is better than the original.

8. ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ – Krept & Konan (Originally by the Notorious B.I.G, Mase, Diddy)

Another Live Lounge export, Krept & Konan bring ridiculous amounts of energy to Biggie’s song, which was his second posthumous number one. The band also deserve huge amounts of credit as does SheZar who sings on the track.

9. ‘Un Canadien errant’ – Whitehorse (Originally by Antoine Gerin-Lajoie)

‘Un Canadien errant’ (‘A Wandering Canadian’) was a folk song written in 1842 by Gerin-Lajoie written after the Lower Canada Rebellion (1837-38). The song is about the pain of exile and has been adopted as an anthem by many Canadians. Whitehorse’s version carries that pain all the way through, even if you can’t understand the lyrics!

10. ‘Make you feel my love’ – Adele (Originally by Bob Dylan)

The song features on the Tottenham born singer’s debut album ‘19’. Originally, she was not keen on covering the song. She told Premiere Networks that “I was being quite defiant against it. I said, ‘I don’t want a cover on my album. It kind of implies that I’m incapable of writing enough of my own songs for my first record.’” Adele’s manager then played her the song in New York and she changed her mind. “It just really touched me. It’s cheesy but I think it’s just a stunning song, and it really just summed up everything that I’d been trying to write in my songs”. [5]

Adele 19 (Image Credits:, William Alink, flickr)

[2]Booklet accompanying Biograph album released in 1985, by Columbia Records
[3]Pegg, Nicholas (2016). The Complete David Bowie (7th ed.). London: Titan Books. ISBN 978-1-78565-365-0