I feel fortunate that I came of age during a renaissance, of sorts, for cover songs. New Wave opened the floodgates for all kinds of sublime musical combinations. DEVO's "Satisfaction" stands as a hallmark for this kind of mutation. It might take a listen or two before Stones recognition set in, and after that it offers the chance to make sense out of lyrics that had gone unnoticed before. DEVO's version plainly points out the consumer issue at the heart of the song. What's on television may not be the truth.
Another favorite band of mine, Oingo Boingo, has made bookends on their career by including a cover song on their first album and their last. "Only A Lad" includes their version of "You Really Got Me" - a much more desperate and frantic reading of the Kinks' classic (Kinks' Klassic?). On their last album, they do a version of "I Am The Walrus" that is every bit as bloated and sonically burdened as "You Really Got Me" was young and lean.
The Dead Kennedys have a few covers in their catalog, but none equal the anarchic spit in the eye of "Viva Las Vegas." Their version really sounds like Hunter S. Thompson just before the bats arrived on that sun bleached stretch of highway. I'm not sure even Ann Margret could keep up with this one.
Making Beatles covers work is a much more challenging task - there have been countless polite renditions but straying too far from the original source tends to make listeners tense - just ask the Residents about that. The Damned's cover of "Help!" is just an exercise in speed Beatles. They do much better with Love's "Alone Again Or..." - so much so that it often takes casual listeners by surprise to find out that they didn't do the song originally. For a treat, check out Beatallica - a Beatles/Metallica hybrid that about as many successes as failures, but when it works - it's magic.
This brings us to the subject of tribute albums. By their very nature, tributes tend to be way too polite to make any vital contributions - too respectful. There are some mild exceptions - such as Jill Sobule's sweet little take on Warren Zevon's "Don't Let Us Get Sick." Most artists seem concerned with "making the song their own" - which tends to leave one shrugging shoulders, wondering why they picked the song to record in the first place. Again, every rule has an exception, and for this I would pick Johnny Cash's version of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" as the perfect example of form over function.
Great songs are great songs - and songwriting will win out even when the singer lacks. I only own one Grateful Dead album - but I play the disc of their songs covered by other artists at least twice as often. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan provide some pretty amazing raw material for any aspiring vocalist. Check out this kid Jimi Hendrix's reworking of Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower," or imagine that it took Manfred Mann to take "Spirits in the Night" to number one on the charts. That would be the potential power of cover versions.
The other power would be that of conviction. Nothing works better than a straight face. For this, I cite Lyle Lovett's "Stand By Your Man." The irony is thick as maple syrup, but Lyle isn't smirking - he's singing from the heart. It's not gender confusion, it's just damn good advice.
A few manifestations ago, U2 - a recognized leader in B-side covers - made a show of performing "Helter Skelter" on "Rattle and Hum." In Bono fashion, he announced "This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles, tonight we're giving it back!" It has been the wish of my friend Joe and myself to take the stage at Madison Square Garden and explain, "This is a song U2 stole from Charles Manson, and tonight we're giving it back." Sing - sing a song. Make it simple, to last your whole life long.