When it came to performing on stage, my belief in generating interest in a crowd was simple: Hook em in with covers, keep em there with originals. My experience in live shows was that a crowd was generally more in tune with covers. They could sing along, dance to it easier, and feel more comfortable with knowing the song in general. For some bands, playing a cover meant taking the tune and putting their own 'flair' to it. Others try to make it sound just like the original as best they can. In both scenarios artists have been successful at producing the piece in a manner that is pleasing to the listeners which proves there is no "correct" way to play a cover tune. But which direction is the correct one for your band to take?
To some degree, playing a cover tune is more challenging than playing your own, because your listeners know the tune as it was done by the artist themselves. If you're going to play Bohemian Rhapsody exactly the way Queen recorded it, you better be prepared to hit those high notes on que, and research not only the instruments used in the studio, but also the techniques. There's actually an interesting 3 part documentary available to view on YouTube titled "Inside the Rhapsody" which goes into great detail the history of the song - definitely worth watching in my humble opinion.
Over the years many artists have taken an original and put their own creative flair to it. In some cases, the results are astonishing. Others, not so much. Some covers ended up becoming more famous than the original. Certain songs that come to mind include:
- "Lady Marmalade" (Christina Aguilera recorded the cover in 2001, but check out the original version recorded by Eleventh Hour in 1974)
- "Saving All My Love For You" (Whitney Houston's cover in 1985 was originally done by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr in 1978)
- "Black Betty" (Ram Jam recorded the song in 1978, but is actually an early 20th century African American work song credited to Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter in 1939)
Some covers over the years have even been translated from another language. In 1974, Terry Jacks recorded "Seasons In The Sun" - a cover of Jacques Brel's original song from 1968 titled "Le Moribond". With today's social media allowing pretty much anyone to upload and share anything, it would be pretty hard to find a mainstream song not being covered either by a viral sensation or by a lesser known band just looking to share their sound.
When trying to play a cover just as it was done by the artist that inspired you to play it, the risk for critique is probably at it's highest, because anyone who listens to you perform it will have a greater chance of recognizing the subtle differences, right down to "it should be sung higher pitched" or "the drums were off" - and if certain instruments are missing, like a Chinese gong or a kazoo, it will be noticed. But at the same time, being able to nail it note for note is most likely the easiest way to gain a positive response from the crowd, because you played it just as they are used to, and you're not messing with their spotify favorites by putting your own creative flair to it.
Some musicians (like myself in this case) take a mainstream song and put their own flair to it without changing the overall sound too drastically. There are several reasons for doing this. For some, they want to just add in their own creative flair to the song. Others didn't want to or couldn't stick to the original score as written. In my own personal history, I worked with a guitarist who wanted to cover Bridge of Sighs by Robin Trower. At the time, I never heard of the 1974 tune, and couldn't find a score to the bass line if my life depended on it. So after listening to it a few times and keeping a close eye on my guitarist for note transitions, I ended up just creating my own riff to it, and hoped I came close enough for anyone who recognized the tune. I think it worked out in the end, at least for the half dozen times we played it live...
As many artists as there are who try to keep the tune as close to the original as possible, there's probably just as many artists that want to take the song into a whole new direction. For some, it involves changing the genre, others adapt the lyrics more to their suiting, and some just totally rewrite the song to where it's almost unrecognizable. Just like those who stick as close to the original as possible, those who change the song entirely will most likely get a reaction. While the ones looking to imitate the song will get the most critique however, those who look to redo the song entirely may not recognize the negative receptions as easily. While some listeners will simply keep their opinions to themselves and just tell their social media network how bad the band botched the song, others may just ask the band "what the hell was that?" and refrain from asking further. There will still be the outspoken fans that will simply tell you how bad it sucked and move on.
Understanding the reception is key to whether you're on the right track to playing the song correctly, no matter what song you choose. Yes, part of the creativity process is being able to express your version of the song, but it doesn't necessarily have to be liked or understood by the listeners. If you're looking to play the covers live, they need to be well received, no matter how you do them.
Also note, if you're recording your covers, whether it be for airplay, social media attention or distribution, keep in mind unless you have written permission from the original artist/composer to redistribute their works as a copy of your own, as a general rule you are not entitled to any earnings for that recording. YouTube will not pay out royalties on video links, and musician membership groups that collect and distribute royalties like SOCAN, ASCAP and others will generally not pay out unless you can prove expressed written permission was given for receiving earnings for covering their song. But business side of music in regards to royalties I should cover at another time.
In the end, the best way for you to cover songs is to simply do them in a manner that feels most comfortable for your project as a whole, but don't be afraid to challenge yourself in the process. Take that one song you know inside and out and ask yourself if there's a way to make it more your own. Discuss it with your bandmates, and don't be afraid to experiment. That's part of the joy when it comes to covering songs.