Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Warning: Velvet covers may cause drowsiness

Two sure signs that a band is coasting or running out of ideas:

1. The band's main songwriter is sucking his thumb and lying under a desk in the fetal position.

2. The band records a cover version of a song from the Velvet Underground and Nico album.

A classic that didn't sell when it was released in 1967, Wikipedia calls the Velvet Underground and Nico, "One of the most influential and critically acclaimed rock albums in history."

If you're desperate for material, that's not a bad place to start. And, for the sorry entertainer with a hankerin' for some artistic credibility, an added bonus is that people's unfamiliarity with the original songs might even make them think that you wrote them yourself.

Ahhh, instant creativity, credibility, gravitas, authenticity, and karma at your fingertips.

Make sure the candy's in the original wrapper...

When one band covers another band's song, it might make for a pleasant diversion, make you chuckle at its clever irony, and even earn some money for the original artist. But the best version of a song is almost always by the person who wrote it.

I love Ray Charles' "Yesterday," for example, but Paul McCartney's is better, because he's the dude who thought it up and called it "Scrambled Eggs." Sorry, Ray. Or do I just apologize to Jamie Foxx now?

I once saw a Bob Dylan concert with a family member who said, "He played "Blowin' in the Wind" wrong." Uh, no he didn't: he wrote it, which makes the version he just played the definitive version.

Applied to the Velvet Underground, the law of diminishing returns is laid bare. As one of the greatest albums of all time, is there really something that we're missing in "Femme Fatale" that only Duran Duran can bring to the fore?

Didn't think so.

Bad cover version

Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker sings of disappointment in the aptly named "Bad Cover Version:"
Such great disappointment when you got him home
The original was so good; the one you no longer own.
It's not easy to forget me, it's so hard to disconnect
When it's electronically reprocessed to give a more lifelike effect.
It's worth noting that Pulp's biggest hit, "Common People," got covered by William Shatner - and it's actually pretty great. But Cocker may just as easily have been talking about Bryan Ferry's version of VU's "All Tomorrow's Parties:"

Or Simple Minds' lame version of the same:

At its worst, a bad cover version can be so bad that people may not even recognize it as your composition. In the case of Billy Idol's "Heroin" dance remix, it may be a blessing:

If nothing else, it's nice to know that an ability to make great music isn't a prerequisite to liking it, which might explain why there's a need for a band like OMD to cover VU: to prove that they're not the synthy sissies we might otherwise think them to be (say that fast three times):

Good cover version

Perhaps the best Velvet Underground cover of all time is by the VU's own drummer, Maureen "Moe" Tucker, who does a hypnotic take on her own band's "I'm Waiting For the Man." Perversely, the song isn't available on YouTube or even the Internet, it seems, but you can download a 30-second sample here.

Tucker recorded the song with Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, and John Cale, otherwise known as - you guessed it - the Velvet Underground:

For a complete list of Velvet Underground covers, check out the Velvet Underground Covers Project.


  1. Great post!
    I'm actually pretty fascinated by covers - I think they change the experience of the song when done right, by providing a different tempo, voice, or instrumentation. The ones you listed were all pretty brutal, however.
    The video for "Bad Cover Version" is pretty fantastic in itself - impersonators doing a bad cover of the song and parodying Band-Aid and the video for "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in the process.
    On the subject of Pulp, I'm actually a pretty big fan of the Nick Cave cover of "Disco 2000." The pub rock version isn't available on YouTube, although a slower version is, but it is on the Deluxe Edition of Different Class and is previewable on Amazon.
    Not velvet-y or pulp-y at all, but I'm also currently in love with Marianne Faithfull's cover of The Decemberists' "Crane Wife 3," which also features Nick Cave. In that case, I prefer it to the original.
    You know, I think I might have to do a whole post about covers on my own blog.

  2. You love all the same music as me, and you clearly know your stuff.

    I eagerly await your blog!

  3. The exception to the rule in this guy's humble opinion; Big Star does a great (possibly better...I said possibly) version of Femme Fatale.

    ANybody see Elvis Costello at the folk-fest this year? He brought on those C&W sisters and did some honkey-tonked version of some V.U.
    It was an otherwise great concert.


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