Do it again, just a little bit slower

Well, technically, it doesn’t have to be slower.

It was Trini who introduced me to Coverville, a semi-weekly (mostly) podcast by Brian Ibbott, devoted to the propagation of new — new to me, anyway — versions of old songs. I think I started listening around episode #510 or thereabouts; there have been more than 400 since, and I’ve discovered lots of fun stuff.

The usual term here is “cover versions,” but purists of a certain stripe prefer to restrict “cover” to a version made at approximately the same time as the original with the specific intention of going after a different market niche: everything else is a “remake.” Since most of this expropriation in the early days of rock and roll consisted of white acts redoing black R&B originals, and often as not placing higher on the charts, the R word is routinely trotted out. I demur, and always have:

Rock orthodoxy holds that black R&B = good, while white attempts at same = somewhere between pathetic and insulting. This pronouncement today is considered every bit as obvious as, say, there being four other guys in the Dave Clark Five; after all, Alan Freed never played those awful white cover versions. The argument can usually be summed up in two words: Pat Boone.

And it can always be refuted by pointing to, for instance, the Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’,” a decided improvement over the Gladiolas’ original, or the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” which isn’t even in the same universe as what the Top Notes had recorded earlier. John Lennon learned this song, though, from the Isley Brothers’ cover, which originated as an effort by Bert Berns to show that upstart Phil Spector what’s what. (And speaking of the Isley Brothers, they cut a very sharp cover of “Love the One You’re With.”)

Michele Catalano distinguishes covers and remakes differently in her list of the 10 Best Cover Songs and Remakes. A cover is just a cover, but a remake is a remodeling:

I’ve always said, if you’re going to remake a song then really remake it. Don’t just re-record what the original artist put down. Take that song and make it your own. Turn it on its head. It’s even better when an artist takes a song completely out of their genre and does something spectacular with it.

The archetype here, perhaps, is Jimi Hendrix’ utter transformation of Bob Dylan’s acoustic — and rather wan — “All Along the Watchtower.” Eventually, Dylan himself was working bits of the Hendrix rearrangement into his live shows.

There was a brief scandal this week, when the cast of Glee unleashed a version of “Baby Got Back” in an arrangement that owed a lot to Jonathan Coulton’s alt-country revamping. Coulton, for his part, is wondering just how much is owed.

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