On Cover Music…

Just a short thought…

I’ve spent part of this afternoon, while writing other things, listening to Imagined: The John Lennon Sound Project, which was put together in honor of Lennon’s 70th birthday.  Why did I take the time to download this from a torrent of my easiest convenience?  Well, I had heard a tune on FolkAlley that was a bluegrass interpretation of one of I am the Walrus that was pretty neat through half a listen, and based on what the announcer said I figured this track would be part of the collection.

I was wrong, and instead was (mis)treated to a downloaded collection of really, really terrible John Lennon/Beatles covers.  Oh, it was bad.  It’s hard to complain about free music, but in this case…. We’ll just say it’s already deleted and the trash has been emptied.

Anyway, got me thinking through covers I knew of John Lennon’s music, specifically that written during his time as part of The Beatles, and trying to think of enjoyable versions, or at least decent versions, that I had heard.  The list was, well, incredibly short.  In no particular order:

  • Elliot Smith – “Because”
  • Johnny Cash – “In My Life”
  • Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Dear Prudence”

…and that’s about it.  Maybe an honorable mention for two versions of “Across the Universe,” one by Fiona Apple and the other by David Bowie.  But still, slim pickings.

It’s always been my firm belief that the talent of a songwriter is most recognized not in the original performance or recording, but in subsequent performances and interpretations by other artists.  In other words, if a song is great, then aspects of it will hold up even in a mediocre cover or tribute.  Then again, it’s always been my firm belief that John Lennon was one of the most important and talented songwriters in the history of pop/rock or even music.  Perhaps that’s prioritizing the accomplishments of the near-contemporary (Lennon did die ten months before I was born) or the relatively recent, but I think it’s a reasonable enough statement that most people aren’t going to call for my head if I make it.

So, what to make of this?

I’ll try to posit a theory, we’ll see what happens.  The genetics of any song recording is two parts: the skill of the writer, and the skill of the performer.  Naming the best rock/pop songwriter title would probably result in a tie between Bob Dylan and Neil Young.  Now, let’s be honest… neither of those fellows are that great at performing, and in fact, usually the version of their songs I like the best are those played by other artists.  John Lennon was a fantastic performer, and a very good songwriter, which means that his songs are well-done, but very difficult to cover effectively.  Paul McCartney, on the other hand, was a mediocre songwriter and an above-average performer, meaning that covering his songs is also difficult because they’re crappier than Lennon’s, which makes it hard to cover his music at an effective quality because there’s less there to work with.  In both cases, a good amount of the song’s ability to stand up comes from the ability of the original performer, which means a cover artist has big shoes to fill.  Songs by say, Dylan or Young, are easier to cover because more of the quality of the original comes from the songwriting than the performance.

I should stay away from music commentary.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.