If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you have more than likely had your fill of positive articles about the Classic Rock format specifically, and the power and impact of nostalgia generally.
Back when we launched and popularized the format that originally featured rock from the ’60s and ’70s, most didn’t take the concept of a gold-based radio station seriously. Many thought it couldn’t possibly last without the infusion of new music to play on a regular basis.
But as we learned, formats rooted in generational nostalgia can be sustainable – if the music’s strong enough and if it can appeal to other generations. Classic Rock’s ability to appeal to Gen Xers and even Millennials has been a big reason why it has had a run that’s now exceeded 35 years. And especially during COVID, still going strong.
One of the interesting ingredients that explains the lasting appeal of the format is “cover versions” of original hit songs.
“Covers” are nothing new – they’ve been around as long as there’s been music. Musicians, often out of respect, pay homage to the originals by recording their own versions and interpretations. Of course, they also became common in the ’50s and ’60s as White artists frequently covered songs first written and recorded by Black artists. Sadly, these “covers” often received better exposure on the radio than the originals.
In today’s music ecosphere, there are different problems. Artists of all backgrounds have a seemingly equal chance of gaining radio – and streaming – airplay. The challenge has been finding enough great new songs to sustain many radio formats, or even personal playlists.
Now many of you may argue that point, claiming new music today is every bit as good as it’s ever been. But among its many other societal effects, the pandemic seems to have slowed the recording process down, which is somewhat odd in that so much music is produced in different studios at various times anyway.
Yet, conversations with programmers in multiple formats tend to lament the fact there’s certainly not an abundance of new music, much less emerging artists with apparent staying power.
And perhaps that’s spawned a rash of covers versions of hit songs, the low hanging fruit of the music industry.
Late last month, Billboard‘s Kevin Rutherford wrote “Covers Are Nothing New: Remakes Keep hitting Rock Radio Charts, Led By Chris Cornell’s Guns N’ Roses Redo.”
The double entendre headline aside, the Cornell beautiful, sweeping version of “Patience” is just the tip of the cover iceberg this summer. Many PDs have a déjà vu sensation about these redos because those covers just keep on comin’.
There was a time when cover versions were the exception, not the rule. These days, you’d hardly know it. And while great covers pay homage to the originals, they may also be a sign of stagnation in the music industry – especially when there are so many.
And why so many in the rock genre? That could definitely be a sign that great newer music has sadly been too few and far between in recent years.
In addition to Cornell’s rendition of the GnR hit, a reversal of fortune is taking place because Sevendust has a cover of Soundgarden’s “The Day I Tried To Live” – yes, originally sung by Chris Cornell.
But it gets weirder.
Three Days Grace has a very out of character cover of Gotye’s #1 pop hit, “Somebody That I Used To Know.”
Five Finger Death Punch has their own version of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “Blue On Black,” while Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong has covered the hit oldie, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” by Tommy James & the Shondells (also covered by Tiffany).
Strange until you consider that Korn just released a cover of the Charlie Daniels Band’s iconic fiddle anthem, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” You may recall that Charlie passed away recently, and while this recording from Korn is a respectful effort, it’s another reminder about how far these covers have gone.
And the list goes on, thanks to Rutherford’s research. It’s noteworthy that so many of these songs are charting – somewhere. And that suggests radio will push its own playlist envelope to find something to play.
It continues the bizarre release pattern of the last few years, perhaps accelerated by COVID, but also by other media trends. How many “new” TV series and recent films have simply been “reboots” of old movies and shows – the video version of covers.
What makes for a great cover?
It’s subjective of course, but one key factor is that the remake respects the original, while still bringing a unique interpretation – something extra – to a song. By and large, the more faithful they are to the original, the more boring covers tend to be.
When a cover adds a new spin to a song, because of the artist and perhaps the times in which we live, it can be special. RUN DMC and Aerosmith’s cover of the latter’s “Walk This Way” was groundbreaking in its mashup of hip-hop and rock:
Some would say this cover trend is fun. But when there are so many of these releases, it borders on the ridiculous.
From a radio standpoint, covers are notoriously difficult to “test” in research. A short 2-second hook played over the phone, over a computer speaker, or in a hotel meeting room might not clearly identify the artist.
Which version of “Come Together” are we testing – the Beatles or Aerosmith?
Or “Turn The Page” – is it Metallica’s cover or the original by Bob Seger that respondents are rating?
There’s an art to choosing covers to record and perform. Some transport fans to a different place, creating multi-generational appeal.
Disturbed’s “The Sound of Silence” did just that back in 2015 – reinterpreting an old solemn song by giving it a modern, haunting twist.
Covers can help build an artist’s repertoire with great “new” material that’s reflective of their original discography. Perhaps one of the shining examples is the late Tom Petty who had a knack for choosing covers really well – and then recording them with his own unique style. When you think of Petty’s body of work, the word “defiant” comes to mind. Songs that include “Refugee,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Jammin’ Me,” “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” and so many others have that middle finger attitude.
And Petty’s cover choices were often in the same neighborhood. The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” may as well as have been written and recorded with his Heartbreakers. But perhaps my favorite is Petty’s unlikely cover of the Monkees’ “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone,” capturing the snarl of this song even better than the original.
The most covered song of all time? It’s “Yesterday” by the Beatles, recorded more than 1,600 times.
And this retro phenomenon got me wondering what might be the next great cover. Connecting the dots around this weird circle between Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, and Guns N’ Roses, it might be time for Axl Rose to go back into the studio. These days, he’s gotten very political, much to the mutual joy and chagrin of his fans. Be that as it may, “Eve Of Destruction” gets my vote.
Here’s the original by Barry McGuire, perfect for these crazy 2020 times in which we’re now trapped.
I’ve linked videos to the cover songs mentioned in this post. And of course, I’ll want to hear your best (and worst) covers in the “comments” section below, and on my Facebook page.
That should cover it.
Special thanks to Kevin Rutherford, Scott Ryan & Haley Jones with MRC Entertainment, Chris Firmage, Mike Stern, and Bill Jacobs.
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