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Memories of the 28th Century

Under The Covers

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There I was in Starbucks about six o’clock this morning when I noticed that they were playing more covers, bad covers, mostly of mediocre songs. I asked a barista about it and was simply told that they had to play Starbucks playlists. The employees used to play some of their own CD’s, but that was banned. Apparently there is a problem with royalties. If Starbucks is trying to minimize royalties, then their playlists are only slightly successful, because they still have to pay the songwriter’s royalty, but if one hires the musicians, one doesn't have to pay royalties.

Last week I had a brief discussion of covers versus originals, and my conclusion was that generally the original recording was better, and sometimes the original was vastly better. I learned last year that another group had gained some not doing The Rivers of Babylon, which was written and performed by the Melodians. There is no comparison; the Melodians did a tremendously better job

But some performers do a fair job. For years Judy Collins made most of her living from singing songs written by Joni Mitchell, and many people preferred Judy’s versions, but I can’t figure out why.
An interesting item along this line is the song “Wooden Ships”, written by Stephen Stills, Paul Kantner, and David Crosby. There’s a lot to the story of its writing. The first major public performances of it were at Woodstock. The Airplane included it on Volunteers, released April 1969, and CSN put it on CSN, released May 1969. The Airplane’s version is much better.

A very interesting case where a cover was better than the original recording and the recording by the songwriter was the matter of “Me and Bobby McGee”. It was written in 1969 by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster and originally performed by Roger Miller in 1969, and it ain’t all that bad. Gordon Lightfoot also recorded it in 1969. Then a few days before her death in October 1970 Janis Joplin recorded it, and her version is infinitely better than any other attempt. It was on Pearl

But Janis had a skill at doing covers that were superior, to put it mildly. Her initial grand slam into the big time was at Monterrey Pop in 1967, when her rendition of “Ball and Chain” was supreme. There is nothing quite like it. It was written and first recorded by Big Mama Thornton. I believe that she agree that Janis did a better job.

I’m not a real music enthusiast, but there are certain things that strong feelings about as far as covers go, and I have mentioned a few of those. I think that generally people who do covers don’t understand the original, as was the case with Judy Collins and several of Joni’s songs, especially “Both Sides”, and whoever tried to redo “The Rivers of Babylon”. Conversely, I think that Janis had an excellent understanding of and feeling for “Me and Bobby McGee”, and she brought it to life in a way that ono one else could.

Then there was “Me and My Uncle”. John Phillips wrote it, but he was so wasted that he couldn’t remember it. Judy Collins had a tape recorder running while he was composing it and sent him royalties for it after she started playing it. But the song didn’t fit her or Phillips, but the Greatful Dead started playing it and did a good job at it.

I was just reminded of "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen. A number of people tried to perform that song, but it didn't work, especially when women sang it. There's something about the original that is at a much fuller level than others. Cohen actually knew Suzanne, while the others didn't. . After reading this article about her I enjoyed the song even more. I don't especially like most of Leonard Cohen's work, but this one is great, and "So Long Marianne" is pretty good and more meaningful now, because Marianne has died.

Covers are variable, but the low quality ones that Starbucks uses are noise pollution. Here's a list of 100 most covered songs:

Updated 08-09-2016 at 01:57 PM by PeterL



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