As the saying goes, if writing a great song were easy, we’d all be doing it.
Writing a classic track is an art form. It’s part of the reason that we laud great songwriters.
I think there’s also something to be said, though, for those that interpret other people’s songs and manage to make them their own.
Coming up with a great cover is an art in itself. Effectively, you’ve got to take a strong template established by someone else and rework it enough that your voice shines through, while retaining the integrity of the original piece.
It certainly isn’t easy. When you think about it, there have been many, many cover versions released over the years, but only a minority of those can hold a candle to the original version.
The canon of great covers – those that match, or even surpass the impact of a cherished original – is very narrow indeed.
Off the top of my head, there are a couple of notable examples.
Jimi Hendrix’s electrified – and electric – take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is one. The drama and dynamics of Hendrix’s version took Dylan’s understated original to a new level. Dylan himself admits that he prefers Hendrix’s version:
“It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took licence with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
And, testament to his love of Hendrix’s take, he’s performed Hendrix’s arrangement over 2000 times in concert.
You’ve also got Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
One of the most covered songs of all time, Buckley’s take on “Hallelujah” certainly wasn’t the first. In fact, in terms of arrangement, it actually cribs pretty heavily from another cover - John Cale’s take from the 1991 Cohen tribute album “I’m Your Fan.”
But Buckley’s rendition was certainly the take that pushed the song to legendary status, and for many, his emotive delivery remains the benchmark when it comes to interpreting the track.
So those are two exceptional covers. But there are more out there.
And that’s where you come in. Let us know what your favorite cover version of all time is. And, more importantly, tell us why you think it’s worthy of inclusion in the great cover canon. What did it do to improve upon the original? What is it about that artist’s interpretation of the song that makes it so special?
As always, share your stories in the comments section. If we get enough responses, we may do a follow-up story with the best of Thalia readers’ insights.
“Playing the guitar is like telling the truth - you never have to worry about repeating the same [lie] if you told the truth. You don't have to pretend, or cover up. If someone asks you again, you don't have to think about it or worry about it because there it is. It's you.” – B.B. King