The Mysterious World of Cover Songs

14 July 2023

A look at the particular and problematic world of approaching cover songs, as well as a reflection on the three cover songs done by myself so far by artists Hoover, Nomeansno and Bruce Cockburn.

Soft Riot - Cover Songs | Nomeansno : Mama | Hoover : The Lurid Traversal of Route 7 | Bruce Cockburn : Stealing Fire
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Back in the early days of rock n’ roll, most new bands that started mainly played cover songs — whether they be songs by other artists of the day or old blues standards from the decades previous. The Rolling Stones started by playing mostly covers. This attitude started to shift in the 1960s with more of a focus on creativity and writing original material. Probably social liberation at the time and the introduction of recreational drugs into the artistic whirlpool probably accelerated that. Think of The Beatles as an example.

I’ve always been a bit hands-off with covers and the ones I do end up doing are to most people an odd choice and from the left field. There’s been occasions where I’ve been asked to do a cover song for a compilation and I’ve turned them down. In most cases this was because the artist I was asked to cover was too obvious and just not really an intriguing idea.

“Can you do a cover of a song by The Cure for this compilation we’re doing?”

As much as The Cure have been a fantastic band and a seminal influence — especially in my late teens/early twenties – the idea of doing a cover from their extensive back catalogue seemed to be such a banal idea. Or a Depeche Mode cover? I’d rather do some weird ambient or atonal version of a track by an artist like that than try and create something that is familiar to the original.

With Soft Riot there’s only been three cover songs done so far, and they came about with not really any pre-meditated ideas or planning at all. They were mainly songs I grew up with, had some influence on me at some point and mostly in a seemingly unrelated genre to the music I do. I think covers work best this way — when you take on a track that has a vague common or thematic thread from an unrelated genre and mould it into your own. The possibilities are more daring and exciting as to what you can do with it.

I admit, probably my choice of covers hasn’t really worked out in any way that have provided me with commercial benefit or “new listeners” but that’s not really why I do music anyway. In a weird way I feel I don’t choose the songs to cover, they sort of choose me.

Hoover - The Lurid Traversal Of Route 7

Hoover “Electrolux”

Getting into punk and hardcore music in my early teens along with the rest of my peers in the small Vancouver Island town I was living in at the time, I very soon took my own path in my musical interests and what bands I was into. While thrash, pop-punk, “chugga chugga” hardcore and other related genres dominated the battered car stereos of people I knew back then, I was quickly diving into the current and archived catalogues of labels like Dischord, Gravity, Ebullition and Kill Rock Stars. There was definitely something I connected with strongly with the more artier, experimental end of hardcore — or “emotional hardcore” as it was called at the time.

Hoover were a short-lived band from Washington DC that released one LP on Dischord in early 1994, along with a variety of singles on other labels, including a split 7″ with another great east coast hardcore band called Lincoln (yes, there was this “mini-trend” at the time of hardcore bands naming themselves after American presidents). Back when any information about new music came to me through music magazines, underground zines and brief descriptions in distribution catalogues, the descriptions for Hoover just painted them as “sounds like Fugazi” — which isn’t a bad thing, but when I actually listened to them I got a completely different vibe.

Where Fugazi had more of an anthemic, words-into-action feel to their music, Hoover’s music — with a lot of similarities especially with the guitar work to Fugazi — had a very different tone. It was dark, mysterious, cavernous at times that gave you a feeling of driving down a dark and haunted two lane highway somewhere in the dark hills of east coast America. The band was obviously bringing in different influences, such as dub and a ghostly Americana vibe. For me the lynchpin to Hoover’s sound was the incredible bass playing of Fred Erskine – one of my favourite bass players — whose elastic, rubbery yet sparing baselines provided the energising ballast for their often long and meandering noise-rock compositions.

The track that embodies this aesthetic the most was the third of their The Lurid Traversal of Route 7 album entitled “Electrolux”. It’s a long track that loops a catchy bassline in a 9/4 time signature. I had listened to this track over and over many times and during one listen in the early 2010s other sounds kept coming into it in my imagination, driving it more into a droning ambience. This is where the seed of taking a crack at doing a cover of this song came from.

The resulting cover ended up on the No Longer Stranger album — a release that sounds pretty alien to me these days, and to most other listeners as well as it’s a lot of distance musically from where Soft Riot is these days. At that time the project had a completely different modus operandi, and my production skills for this particular project were still well in their infancy.

Sometimes I think if I re-did this cover now it would sound exponentially more exciting, but times move on! It was an interesting document for the time.



Nomeansno - Mama

Nomeansno “We Are The Chopped”

Victoria – the capital of the province of British Columbia — has had a vibrant underground music scene since at least the late 1970s; at least as far as punk rock is concerned. And its relative isolation from the cities on the mainland (Vancouver, Seattle, etc.) has made that scene homegrown, unique and one where there’s a lot of community support. Until their retirement in 2016, Victoria’s Nomeansno had been going for well over thirty years at that point, not only popular in their hometown and across Canada, but with a strong fanbase built over decades in Europe as well.

Along with all of the other punk rock I was getting introduced to in my early teens, I connected with Nomeansno quite early on — one of the first “big” shows I went to (ie: where you had to buy tickets to go to) was in some hockey arena in Nanaimo in the early 1990s for a Nomeansno concert with another local Victoria band at the time (and arguably schooled from the Nomeansno musical textbook) called Pigment Vehicle. I connected with them quite early on as due to the complexity of their compositions and their phenominal rhythm section of Wright brothers Rob (bass guitar/vocals) and Jon (drums/vocals). Rob’s unique and aggressive style of bass playing, along with a band like Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (a number of years later), cemented the importance of a strong bass line in rhythmic, dance-oriented music. Rob Wright is up there with some of my favourite bass guitar players of all time.

I also really related to the band’s style of lyrics — laced with a lot of black humour and at times extremely biting and sarcastic — and arguably more of a musical influence as the years have gone by, especially with how the approach to lyrics for Soft Riot is concerned.

Throughout most of their career they were essentially a punk/hardcore three-piece, with Andy Kerr rounding out the trio on guitar/vocals. However, their first album Mama (1982) was written as just a two piece made of the Wright brothers and sounds noticeably different than their long catalogue of releases that followed that debut. Consisting of just drums and bass guitar — with occasional guitar, synth and piano — the tracks off of Mama are in a style that’s more aligned with British post-punk of the day such as Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four or Au Pairs yet not really sounding like any of these bands. There’s elements of funk, jazz and any number of random styles thrown in there for what overall makes for a very quirky yet unsettling sound.

While writing the album You Never Know What Might Comes Next (2015), I was listening to the tracks of Mama on several occasions and started re-imagining the track “We Are The Chopped” in my head as it would be done on synths by some obscure European synthesizer group. It’s angular, moving bassline and choppy, dance feel seemed fluid to translate over to synths.

Eventually there were two variations of this cover song released — the first version on a limited edition CD version of You Never Know What Might Come Next (now long out of print) and then re-worked slightly for the release of Second Lives in 2021. There’s some subtle differences between the two, the latter having re-recorded vocals sung in a higher register, a new mix and an arrangement that was subtly simplified, cutting out a few of the more meandering phrases of the original for something that was a bit more straight forward.

It works as a unique crossover track, especially hearing the cover version I did in a club soundsystem somewhere in Germany where it blended in with other tracks in the darkwave/synth genre, and likely most attendees dancing to that version at that time likely unaware that it was a Nomeansno track.



Bruce Cockburn - Stealing Fire

Bruce Cockburn “Lovers In A Dangerous Time”

At the time of writing this, I’ve now been on the “other side” of the Atlantic (or Pacific — depends on which way you look at it) for almost sixteen years now. Over the years since being here, when the conversation about music came up — and songs that one grew up to, there’s always for me some CanCon artist that gets name-checked that anyone that wasn’t born in Canada would ever know about (maybe the band Rush might be an exception).

There’s many tracks and albums penned by Canadian artists — especially from the 1980s, when I was an impressionable kid — that will probably stick with me until the end of this life, whether I like it or not. Luckily the work of Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn (pronounced “Co-burn” – a Scottish name — for those that might be having a bit of a chuckle) from that decade has positive staying power, most notably the 1984 album Stealing Fire, which moved his work into more electronic and world music inspired territory, along with more politically charged lyrics reflecting the politics of the age that translate into modern times. His track from that album “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” might be his most upfront composition from that era in relation to politics.

However, from that very same album, the track “Lovers In A Dangerous Time”, which was a hit on Canadian radio in the mid-80s and onwards, has had the most influence — so much so that the seeds for doing a cover started to germinate in the middle of 2016, when I first moved to Glasgow.

Oddly the prompt to work out this cover came from an invitation from the Augsburg, Germany based label Young & Cold for one of their sampler compilations. It seemed attractively counter-intuitive to release a classic Canadian track on a German label, where likely the label themselves, as well as the majority of its audience, would have no idea who Bruce Cockburn is.

The track’s angular rhythmic pattern, especially in the verses, seemingly translated almost effortlessly into a more minimal synth-based version. I took the liberty of taking what were the more open, arpeggiating guitar bits from the original song’s bridges and working them into a more minor key that moves around a bit, offering what I thought was something completely new to the track.

The result seemed to go over well, racking up an impressive and notable amount of listeners on some online platforms, and it was a song that I played out live on occasion where it suited. Two of my good friends in Leipzig told me it was their theme song used for their wedding a number of years back, and a number of people I know who DJ in various clubs around mainland Europe and the UK I’ve heard playing out this cover version, as well as even the original track, introducing “Lovers In A Dangerous Time” a lot of new, younger non-Canadian listeners.

Earlier in this post I had mentioned that any covers I’d done hadn’t really been of benefit, but perhaps this particular piece I opted to re-work is an exception.