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Published: 2003/04/26
by Jim Wrantz

5 Simple Rules For Covering A Song

[Editor’s note: Please free to send us your comments as many of you did with the last Jim Wrantz essay. Oh yes, and for the record, I do not concur with his assessment of "When Doves Cry," (and Gov’t Mule for that matter) along with one or two other assertions contained here as well…]

I once read a review of a Phish show that actually used the words "Rocky Top" as a verb. As in, "The Cavern’ encore was mediocre, but at least they didn’t Rocky Top’ us." Yes, that’s how much the preponderance of cover songs has polarized our scene in recent years. But like it or not, ever since Pigpen growled out the first "Midnight Hour" more than thirty years ago, they’ve been staples of our bands’ setlists. And nowadays, it seems like you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting "Windjammer." The latest trend has bands trying to outdo each other by covering a random Flaming Lips b-side or some horrible Ween deep cut that has you running for a bathroom break. Well I’m here to stand up, put my foot down, do whatever it takes to put a stop to lame covers.

The problem came to a head for me a few summers ago, when I went to catch Widespread Panic in Wilmington, Delaware. The show was sensational. The crowd was faithful. The jamming was tight. JB was drunk. It was everything you could hope for when you pass through the turnstile and enter a Panic show. Afterwards, people couldn’t stop talking about the highlight. Was it the rare "Dirty Business"? No. How about the egg-fryingly hot "Sleepy Monkey"? Try again. It was because they busted out "All Along The Watchtower." This brings me to Rule #1: Don’t cover "All Along The Watchtower." I feel so strongly about this that I made it Rule #1. Look, I have been in bands before. I know how easy it is to play "Watchtower." Frighteningly easy. And if you want your band to get some quick cred, it’s the perfect song to cover. But what makes a well-established band like Widespread Panic get the urge to trudge out a stumbling version of the song? Here’s a news flash: The song was mastered more than 35 years ago when Jimi recorded it for "Electric Ladyland." It hit its peak then and no one has come close to touching it since. I’d lay $5 down that Bob Zimmerman agrees with me, too. And while we’re at it: Can we please get someone to hypnotically induce the lyrics from Bob Weir’s memory?

Rule #2: If you’re going to cover a song, at least come CLOSE to making it sound like the original. Nine out of ten times, when bands try and do a song with a new arrangement, it goes over about as well as William Shatner singing "Rocket Man." It’s like when I started seeing "When Doves Cry" on setlists for (the wildly overrated) Gov’t Mule, I thought to myself, "Maybe I’ve been too hard on these guys." Now, I’m not afraid to admit it: I love that song. I did when I was in 6th Grade and I do now. But listening to Warren sl-ow-ly belt out the lyrics over a wailing guitar almost made me throw up in my mouth. And then there’s String Cheese’s bluegrass version of "Walk This Way." I don’t think there’s ever been a track in the history of albums that made me hit "eject" faster than that travesty. If you’re band’s name isn’t "Run-DMC" or "Aerosmith", don’t play "Walk This Way."

Rule #3: That’s it with the Talking Heads. Enough. Look, I was a big "Talkinghead" in my day. A lot of us were. And there’s no denying their importance on the history of rock. Phish has done a great job with "Cities." "Papa Legba" is always enjoyable to hear. But it’s been played out. We get it. They were disregarded for many years by mainstream popular music, but now it’s cool and trendy to like them again. So there’s been this mad dash to cover them recently. Not the songs everyone knows ("Once In A Lifetime" or "Burning Down The House"), though, but rather the ones even Tina Weymouth has barely heard of. When will the madness stop? Before or after someone busts out "Mommy Daddy You and I"? There are so many other great bands out there that could be covered ad nauseum. How about trying a nice Soul Coughing song on for size?

Rule #4: If you do feel the need to cover a song, to quote Steve Martin from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, "Here’s a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more enjoyable for the listener." That being said, avoid covering lame songs. Yes Phish covered "Tubthumping." And "Get Jiggy With It." Once. And it was funny. Fishman rapping and dancing "Big Willy Style" was classic. But if I want to listen to Cracker’s "Low," I would have bought the album by now. So Al, Rob, Chuck: I love you guys. Love your shows. Drop the Cracker and no one will get hurt, OK?

Rule #5: As I made abundantly clear in my last article, The Grateful Dead’s music is outstanding. At the risk of sounding like your old stoner college roommate: Their songs are both complex in their simplicity and simple in their complexity. Busting out one of their tunes mid-set is good for an easy cheer from the crowd. But unless you are in that band now, or were once in the band, or if you have a current member of the band joining you onstage, don’t cover the Grateful Dead. Look, if you’re able to go out on a tour outside of your hometown’s city limits, then you’ve clearly shed the "Dead cover band" label, so play one of your own tunes instead.

Now this is of course not to say that all covers are horrible. String Cheese’s versions of "Birdland" that I’ve heard have been pretty phenomenal. Widespread’s "Hot In Herre" from this past Halloween gets my vote for cover of the year. And then there’s Umphrey’s McGee. These guys routinely amaze me with their amazing ability to make covers cool. Their recent encore of "The Song Remains The Same" from the Bowery Ballroom in New York had the crowd dancing for more (until Brandon commented that they had to go because of a busted drum). And based on their version of "Billie Jean," the King Of Pop should look no further than South Bend to secure a touring band (assuming he ventures out into sunlight ever again.)

And then, of course, there are the songs that are just screaming to be covered. For example, I always felt that the Dead should have done "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" by Procol Harum. The song has everything: Popular among their fans (but not TOO popular). Lyrics right in Jerry’s wheelhouse ("But the crowd called out for more!"). And rhythmically it fit perfectly in the "Jerry ballad" section of a Dead show. After August 9th, 1995, though, it became a moot point. But hey String Cheese, it’s not too late for you. Do you guys know George Benson’s "Give Me The Night"? Take a look at the lyrics: "Cause there’s music in the air/ And lots of lovin’ everywhere/ So gimme the night." Or even the opening line: "Whenever dark has fallen/ You know the spirit of the party/ Starts to come alive." Just TRY and tell me those lines wouldn’t get a huge reaction in the Hula Hoop demographic. Then there’s Particle. I mean is it possible that they’ve NEVER heard the Miami Vice theme song? They absolutely KILL Pink Floyd (in a good way). Imagine what they could do with Jan Hammer! But most glaring to me is the fact that Widespread has never covered "Midnight Train To Georgia." This one is a moral imperative. Picture it: The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Last encore of the tour. JB steps to the mic and sings, "LA…proved too much for the man." By the time he gets to "So he’s leavin’/ On that midnight train to Georgia" half the Peachtree state would already know about it via cell phone, two way, or whatever.

Look, I’m not picking on these guys. I love these bands. You love these bands. They write tremendous songs on their own. So why do they feel the need to play someone else’s? And if the song sucks to begin with, explain to me why we need to hear THEM cover it? I understand that musicians like to pay homage to their roots by covering the music they love. But come on. For the love of all that is good and holy in this world, please leave "Willie The Pimp" at soundcheck and we’ll all be happier people.

Some people still know Jim Wrantz as Jonathan Denbo.

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