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I hate most audiophile music. Without question, the recordings sound stunning as a rule–open, dynamic, gleaming. Your system will never sound better than when firing up a cut from any number of audiophile publishers. But once you get past the recording quality, most audiophile music can be pretty lame. Awkward melodies. Technically-perfect-but-emotionally-uninspired performances. Songs that are either too esoteric or downright banal. It’s the type of music that makes normal people want to jump off of a roof.
It’s fun to contrast that with death metal, which revolves around its own sort of hate most of the time. The singers almost always sound like they’ve just taken a mighty puff from a crusty old meth pipe followed by a Clorox chaser. The songs are almost always fast paced, but like audiophile music, they can be quite excellent in terms of performance yet lacking in humanity. When left to their own devices, death metal songs tend to be about silly topics and devolve into a lot of double bass drum work and guttural screams.
What death metal can teach us, though, comes in the form of an interesting bit of radio programming by the guys over at Sirius XM. From time to time they do a concept called “The Corridor of Covers.” It turns out that death metal bands love to do cover songs. They often cover really off-beat stuff, which can catch even the most astute music fan/student a little off-kilter. But with that said, these tracks can sometimes suck you in for not just one song, but often a rabbit-hole listening session of the cover versus the original or a cover pitted against yet another cover. Why is the Corridor of Covers so compelling? It is thanks to a familiar melody. It’s thanks to strong songwriting. Perhaps it’s helped by the band’s God-given ability to shred, but not always. I think it was Dick Clark who famously said, “If it ain’t in the grooves, it ain’t in the grooves,” and with these crazy cover tracks, the goodness is actually in the grooves–even if the grooves are about to spontaneously combust.
Need some examples? Of course you do. Here’s a Liquid Metal band favorite, Type O Negative, doing a cover of the Neil Young classic “Cinnamon Girl.”
Pretty heavy, huh? Its catchy too. Like all covers, it is a bit faster than the original. Because of its melodic familiarity, it is somewhat easier to musically digest than you might expect from its caustic genre. You know the melody like the back of your hand, and perhaps you hang around a little longer than you might have because of it?
For those of us who love progressive rock–and God knows new-school, death metal bands sure do–here is a look at one of the most sacred anthems from the genre, King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” done by Canadian metal act Voivod.
They add a new energy to the classic track and use it as a vehicle to show just how hard they can shred. And yes, they can shred.
These metal acts aren’t tone deaf (OK, let me finish the sentence…) to new music. Here is an uncredited cover of Lady Gaga’s hit pop song “Poker Face.” The performance is pretty much totally absurd, but the catchy hook eventually cuts through despite the silliness of the track. I wonder if Gaga ever envisioned this type of interpretation of her music back at Juilliard? I doubt it.
Outside of the scope of death metal, there is a longstanding legacy of the best rock bands and acts doing cover songs. Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” from Electric Ladyland is a vast upgrade over the original Dylan performance. Hendrix’s more obscure cover of The Beatles “Day Tripper” is arguably even better in terms of performance and song-styling as a cover track. The Beatles’ version of the tune is excellent, but the Jimi version is even more groovy and stylish. Check out this insider’s look at the making of Hendrix’s “Day Tripper” here.
Perhaps the most epic cover of a classic rock song comes from Van Halen, who start their version of The Kink’s “You Really Got Me” with Eddie Van Halen’s all-time-great guitar showcase “Eruption.” By the time Eddie is done with “Eruption,” Dave is gyrating disturbingly and vocally spouting off as only Diamond Dave can. The song is owned by Van Halen.
Hell, Van Halen filled nearly half of their fifth studio album with covers, highlighted a riff on Roy Orbison classic “Pretty Woman” that is 1000 percent Van Halen. Not to be outdone, Metallica also did an entire cover record that highlighted their early and mainly U.K.-based influenced. To prove the point that great songwriting and kick-ass song styling tends to always be worth your while musically, check out the boys doing a cover Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy.”
So, why don’t all of the best bands and performers do more cover songs today? The sad reality is that money got in the way. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the music industry was at its peak as a business, and with examples from Linda and Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and others, songwriting was at the heart of where the money was being made. It turns out that owning the rights to a song like “Happy Birthday” is a really good way to make a passive income if you could ever get your hands on the rights to the song. Michael Jackson did pretty well by owning the early Beatles catalog. And pretty much everyone in the music business was saying “don’t sell your songwriting,” which implied that you wanted to have as many songs in your portfolio as possible.
But what if you were putting out a record and you just didn’t have enough good songs to make the record as good as you like? Do you pack it with filler or do you let someone else make the money on the songwriting? Far too many times in modern music, it was filler over quality but as we heard above, sometimes it’s a good idea to go with the quality song and let the performer make the song his or hers. The cliché of “you have your whole life to write your first record and nine months to write your second” is true, and that’s where a good cover or two comes into play to keep the quality high.
But hey, at least the metal guys are keeping the cover song alive. Not everyone can be the most prolific songwriter for every album, especially over a long musical career. There was a time in the mid-1980s when Prince couldn’t conceive of a song that wasn’t going to be a hit. He filled his own albums with them and had extras to give away to the likes of Sinead O’Connor (“Nothing Compares 2U”), The Bangles (“Manic Monday”), and a host of others. Later in life, he respectfully just wasn’t cranking out the likes of “Raspberry Beret” and “Purple Rain,” but he still had a ton of style and was one hell of a performer. A good example comes from his cover of a song Malibu resident Bonnie Raitt made famous in “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The song was a smash hit for Raitt. For Prince it was better than filler for one of his larger records, Emancipation, which he put out with the hopes of getting out of his incredibly lucrative but somehow enslaving Warner Brothers record contract.
The moral of the story is this: the song matters. But the performance and the style of the performance matters too. When it comes to your audiophile system, do yourself a favor and spend as much time as you can listening to stuff that genuinely moves you as much as it moves your transducers. That’s what matters first and foremost.
What heavy covers do you like (if any)? Comment below. As always, we want to hear from you.