“Stand By Me” Again… and Again

Too Often Second Rate, Cover Songs Seem to be Taking Over

The Driftes were the first to record “Stand by Me” in 1961 | Photo: www.die-rock-and-foll-ag.de

Lying on the sofa watching TV, the Austrian music channel GoTV, a familiar song blasts through the TV speakers. The familiar introduction teases a listener, yearning to sing along – until the sickly, swooning vision of a rough-edged rapper fills the screen, crooning in screeching falsetto while sultry girls in thongs drape across an orange fender, buttocks gyrating over stiletto heels to a melody diluted beyond recognition, “When the night has come….”

Is that what music has come to? An old classic “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King, one of the Drifters, dished out by Lemon Ice and his bikini-clad models?  And he isn’t the only one. Every recording artist seems to indulge at one time or another. It seems to be easier to cover songs than to create your own, and few seem to be able to do it well.

Competition is tough for time on music television, so artists often find it safer to cover well-known songs that the producers trust. So “Stand By Me” has had many covers, beginning with John Lennon in 1975, then The Clash in 1980, U2 in 1987, Oasis in 1997 and 4 the Cause in 1998. The original, recorded by the Drifters in 1961, though, seems to be the only one people remember.

Still, nearly every artist seems to do at least one established hit in a newer version. Black Eyed Peas covered “Mas Que Nada,” originally sung by Jorge Ben Jor in 1938. Madonna covered “Hung up” with a melody from “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie,” originally sung by Abba. Shakira and Wyclef Jean covered “Dance Like This,” originally sung by Wyclef and Claudette Ortiz for Dirty Dancing-Havana Nights soundtrack in 2004, but with a different lyric and title “Hips don´t lie.”

Even Pussycat Dolls covered three songs on their debut album PCD in 2004.  “Tainted Love,” originally recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964, which became a hit only when Soft Cell covered it in 1981,  “Where Did Our Love Go,” originally sung by The Supremes in 1964 and “Feelin’ Good,” originally from a 1966 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint-the Smell of the Crowd. They are not the only ones. Robbie Williams has five covers on his new album “Rudebox,” released this year.

Cover songs is a term used in the popular music industry for a recording of a particular song by performers other than those responsible for the original recorded version. It may also be a re-recording of a song by the original performers for a rival record company.

There are three reasons why covers are important for an artist. First, because they provide a song proven to be a hit to the repertoire. Second, to show an important influence on the artist and third to give the audience something familiar when introducing a new act.

The great thing about an old song as a new hit is that each new hit of an old song generates new revenue for the publisher and provides labels and artists a new market.

Audiences in general like to hear something they are familiar with when seeing a new artist perform live and an old song makes them a little more comfortable, especially when most of the material presented is unknown to the audience.

The procedure of doing cover songs was mostly noticeable in 1950´s and 60s and it implied re-recording of a song, mostly done to reach a broader audience. Back then, cover versions were established by white performers recording song originally released by black artists on small regional labels. United States was still a segregated country during the mid-1950s and those songs done by African-American artists would not have gotten the attention they eventually received if an artist like Pat Boone had not covered them at that time. After all, Pat Boone’s recordings outsold Little Richard’s. It was the market forces at work.

There are advantages of doing cover songs. Cover songs can cross language barriers. After the Fire covered Falco´s German language hit “Der Kommissar” from 1982 in English although the German title was kept the same. Pussycat dolls´ song “Sway,” from the soundtrack of the movie Shall we dance? from 2004, is an English version of “Quien Sera,” a 1953 Latin pop song written by Pablo Beltrán Ruiz. They can also attract the younger generation to older songs. Therefore people have made album such as Kiddy contest, an Austrian album, where children sing edited contemporary music.

Cover songs are often used to make familiar songs contemporary, especially when it comes to movies. “Singin´ in the rain” was originally in the film The Hollywood Revue of 1929 but then revised for the 1952 film Singin´ in the Rain. Director Baz Luhrmann has also made old songs contemporary in his films, whether it is the song “Young Hearts Run Free” for Romeo+Juliet or mix of songs by Nat King Cole, Nirvana, Kiss, Madonna, Queen and The Police in the film Moulin Rouge. The covers are carefully designed to fit into the structure of each film and suit the taste of its intended audience.

Well-known artist often cover songs to tribute the artists that inspired them. Kylie Minogue has performed The Clash’s hit “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” a song completely out of character for her but allowed her to show another vocal side of her.

The most covered song in popular music history is Paul McCartney´s “Yesterday,” with over three thousand different versions. George Gershwin´s “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess, has had around 2,600 versions recorded and then there is Irving Berlin´s “White Christmas,” featured in the film Holiday Inn.

If you look at some of the great pop singers in the past, like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or even rock singers like Elvis, you see that they have consistently sought to record ‘‘their’’ version of songs that were hits for others and made it unforgettable. But then there are the others – like Lemon Ice.

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