You Can’t Ruin a Good Song

It’s one of my personal theories about music. If a tune is good, it’s always good, no matter what you do to it, whether it’s covered by another artist, remixed or mashed-up.

Perhaps the best example of this is Hurt by Nine Inch Nails. When Johnny Cash covered it, even Trent Reznor had his doubts. But after he heard Cash’s version, he said the following:

I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure

Not every cover version works, perhaps. A few, like the above, actually reinvent the original song and improve upon it. Others, like all the songs being covered on the TV show Glee try to retain the spirit of the original. I’m a huge fan of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ which has been on the show (and will be on the Season Finale tomorrow night). I also used to believe that some songs were sacred, but I do quite like the Glee cover. Is it because the song is so good that it works no matter who sings it? I think so.

Another (more obscure) example is the song Just Good Friends by the Scottish singer, Fish. He originally recorded that track for his album Internal Exile but later released it as a duet with Sam Brown. The original song was more or less a rock piece, but the duet was more country. Amazingly, re-recording the song as a duet added some layers of complexity to the song, changing it into something slightly different than the original, but just as good.

So, what do you think? Are there songs that remain good no matter what? Let us know!

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Stephen Herron

Northern Irish writer and technologist, now living in Cleveland, Ohio.

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4 Responses

  1. tim pelan says:

    For me Roxy Music’s cover of Jealous Guy far surpasses Lennon’s original, which is still good but a little too understated. Nice whistling too!

    Another example is Thunder Road,amongst other of his tunes, reinterpreted by Bruce Springsteen. Stripped down or rocking out, they always sound great because of his evocative writing and story telling.

  2. Ray Schuck says:

    Great post with some intriguing ideas …

    Maybe this is the difference between a good song and a good performance, but I don’t think so. I think some good/great songs are made for particular kinds of voices (whether based on range, pitch, timber, or other characteristics) in mind. I’d think it’s similar to some pieces of music being written for certain instruments, so that, for instance, the piece sounds excellent on a violin but doesn’t translate on flute or piano. Voices, as instrumentation, work the same.

    My case in point would be Journey’s “Open Arms.” I think when Steve Perry sings it, this is a great song, particularly given how emotionally powerful it is. Yet, I don’t think every voice can make it work. The cover of it by Mariah Carey (who, in fact, has a greater range than Perry but has a different timber to her voice) illustrates how horribly this song can be mangled. I remember watching something on VH1 once where they talked about how while the writing the song, Jonathan Cain of the band imagined Perry’s voice on the refrain and just knew he had a hit on his hands. Sure enough, they did, and voices like Perry’s bring out the emotion in the song, while other voices, like Carey’s, don’t.

    Perhaps, though, that means it is a good song, but not a great one. Maybe that’s the case, though when I hear it sung by Perry I have a hard time thinking it’s not great. Again, though, maybe that’s where we get to the distinction between a performance and a song.

    And, actually, as I write this, I’m struck by the Peter Gabriel song “In Your Eyes.” This would get my vote as the the greatest song ever. Yet, I don’t like the Edwin McCain remake of it very much.

  3. Tim, I’d agree with your take on Roxy Music’s “Jealous Guy” cover, though I tend to hate whistling in songs. A personal gripe, though I may forgive it for that track.

    Ray, I like your point about “good song” versus “good performance” – it may well add another dimension to my theory. Certainly some artists can get away with almost anything. I think that any song can only really be judged by a good performance of said song, and that a bad performance can ruin anything. Also, inappropriate changes that fundamentally change that song being covered can ruin it.

    Two examples: Peter Gabriel’s version of “The Book of Love” may well be the definitive take for most people, but I prefer the original Magnetic Fields version. I love Pete, but I think he took a simple song and over-orchestrated it.

    Likewise, Sarah Brightman’s cover of “Deliver Me” is also “beloved” by many, but I prefer The Beloved’s original version. Big change there, from a man singing the song (thereby lending the track a rare masculine vulnerability) to a woman singing; I think the song loses much of its strength because of that.

    Peter Gabriel’s version of “The Book of Love” is, however, one of the exceptions to my

  4. Marc Majers says:

    My rule is that if you are going to cover a song, make it your own. Jacob Dylan and the Wallflowers did a great remake on “Heroes” by David Bowe. Keeping in the Dylan family, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door is one of the quintessential classic rock songs of all-time even Bob Dylan’s song writing skills can make Axel Rose sound good.

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