There are many reasons to record a cover song, but it’s commonly used as a way for a young band to put its mark on a classic, to plant a flag in an influence in a slightly more involved way than making a mixtape. But you can only cover “Louie Louie” so many times, you know? There’s got to be more songwriters in the Great Book of Rock and Roll than Misters McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison. One more “Satisfaction” and I’ll puke, I swear on whatever’s left that’s holy. We mustn’t let the canon stagnate. Surely, a truly remarkable piece of songcraft has been committed since 1970. Right?
That’s why it’s refreshing to hear of script-flipping projects like Peter Gabriel‘s 2010 record Scratch My Back, in which he covers some of his favourite works from contemporaries, and more importantly, younger bands. Regina Spektor, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and The Magnetic Fields are among the modern-day masters Gabriel deems fit to try on. It’s at least some part marketing maneuver, there’s some positioning for relevancy with younger audiences, certainly, but there’s a more earnest, artistic drive behind it as well — putting a stamp of approval on the generation that’s carrying his legacy forward; or, at the very least, a nod that says “hey, you kids can write some good stuff, too.”
Today, Gabriel officially releases the companion to Scratch My Back, entitled And I’ll Scratch Yours, wherein a bunch of present day artists take on Mr. Sledgehammer’s own body of work. In the spirit of this saintly, old gunslinger crawling out from his care home (okay, okay, he’s 63) to acknowledge that the kids are, in fact, alright, we’ve compiled a list of these passing-the-torch type covers, when an older artist decides to visit the work of his or her younger counterpart.
Peter Gabriel, “The Book of Love” (The Magnetic Fields)
Near everything Stephen Merritt does is delivered with a heaping teaspoon of wry wit. Gabriel either misses the joke on The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love,” or more likely, is such a technically better singer that he delivers this syrupy thing with 100 per cent sincerity. And maybe Gabriel’s right to strip away the snark — that cool-dude cladding hides a real gem. He’s turned it into a First Dance song — the kind of thing that pulls the happy tears right out of your cry holes.
Johnny Cash, “Personal Jesus” (Depeche Mode)
Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt” would have been the obvious example, but I’ll save something from them for later (they’re basically the belles of the ball when it comes to these kind of covers). Beardo superproducer Rick Rubin gave Johnny Cash a new lease on life with his stripped-down American Recordings series, where the Man in Black took on songs written by modern musicians like Depeche Mode and Billy ‘Prince’ Bonnie. Even when piss and vinegar have sorta always been your stocks-in-trade it seems extra special when you’re nearer-death, too. Depeche Mode didn’t try to bury that outlaw country riff in their own “Personal Jesus,” but Cash’s acoustic take (along with those tinkling keys) certainly brings it to the fore for this dusty saloon ditty.
Tear for Fears, “My Girls” (Animal Collective)
In 2013, Tears for Fears released covers of Hot Chip and Arcade Fire as they readied their first original record in nearly a decade, but it was their rendition of Animal Collective’s “My Girls” that got my attention. It didn’t take much legwork to recast the tropical dance anthem as a luxurious New Wave odyssey, but, boy, does it work. Just when you thought Songs From The Big Chair was an irreconcilable vestige of the ’80s, they go and draw a big bold line between themselves and one of the most vibrant bands working on this side of the millennium.
The Afghan Whigs, “Lovecrimes” (Frank Ocean)
Cincinatti Indie outfit The Afghan Whigs have never been strangers to ripping through a few covers in their live show. Appearing first as a garage rock band, they were later known to bend pretty far into R&B and soul territory, taking on TLC’s “Creep,” The Supremes, and The Fugees. For their 2012 reunion tour, they heavied up Frank Ocean’s “Love Crimes” — just another nod to Ocean’s genre-crossing appeal.
Nada Surf, “Bright Side” (The Soft Pack)
Among covers of Kate Bush, Moody Blues, and Spoon, Nada Surf‘s 2010 release If I Had A Hi-Fi included “Bright Side” by San Diego post-punk group The Soft Pack. The ’90s indie rock staples turn The Soft Pack‘s garage jam into a hazy summer sandblasting, the kind of lackadaisical thing you’d want to throw on your Discman while you skate down to the corner store for a slurpie.
David Byrne, “The Man Who Loved Beer” (Lambchop)
Our art rock Einstein covered Lambchop’s “The Man Who Loved Beer” for his 2004 release Grown Backwards. If that itself isn’t a bit of a gold star for Lambchop‘s creative anchor Kurt Wagner, David Byrne didn’t just shit this thing out. He handled it with reverence. He treated it like a classic. It could stand as a track on John Cale’s Paris 1919, which I’ve long held up as the benchmark of a classic.
Tom Waits, “King Kong” (Daniel Johnston)
From the mind of one lyrical savant to another. Tom Waits takes the story of “King Kong” as told by Daniel Johnston — sparse in composition, but oh so rich in poetry — and fills in the drama with roars and an ooga-chaka chant and an electric guitar.
Devo, “Head Like A Hole” (Nine Inch Nails)
I promised we’d get to NIN. New wave/ synth punk legends Devo gave Reznor’s “Head Like A Hole” a whirl for the Supercop soundtrack, weirding the early ’90s industrial standard out with all sorts of spacey bleeps and bloops, voice-shifting, and the full-on schizoid treatment.
David Bowie, “Cactus” (Pixies)
I’m sure the Pixies were flattered when David Bowie covered “Cactus,” but let’s be honest: in his never-ending mission to stay relevant (and I don’t mean this as a slight; you don’t keep cool for 40 years without doing a little homework), he was bound to have to rip off Boston’s best and brightest sooner or later, who themselves did a lot to define the better part of a decade of music.
Bob Dylan, “Ball and Biscuit” (The White Stripes)
So this one’s kind of cheating because it’s Bob Dylan playing The Stripes’ “Ball and Biscuit” with Jack White; it’s not a cover per se. But it’s interesting because The White Stripes have been known to cover a few Dylan songs: “Isis,” “Love Sick,” and “One More Cup of Coffee” to name a few. The barn-storming blues of White’s “Ball and Biscuit” owes a noticeable debt to Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning” but having Mr. Zimmerman hop on stage to accompany him on it can certainly be read as a rare and illustrious stamp of approval. It says, “Bob Dylan likes where this is going.” That’s if Bob Dylan talks in the 3rd person like Bob Dole in The Simpsons. I choose to think he does.