You’ve seen them at weddings, bars and the occasional school function. They play hit songs from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and even the not-so-far-away ’00s. You most likely gawk at their awkward stage presence, confused as to why a group of 50-year-old men would even think to cover Blink-182. Yet you can’t help but smile when you hear them strike up “Don’t Stop Believing,” regardless of how out of time they are and how many times you’ve heard it before.
Ah, yes, the cover band. It is certainly a strange phenomenon that provides people young and old with a form of cheap entertainment and even breaks through to music nerds like myself who have a hard time admitting to listening to anything top 40.
In response to the recent incarnation of Every Time I Die members Keith Buckley and Steve Micciche – along with other local musicians – in what they bill the “premier 90s alternative cover band in Buffalo” called SoulPatch, I’ve been thinking about the role that not only cover bands, but cover songs play in our own often divided, underground music scene.
It seems that the punk cover has become a staple of live shows, with such legendary acts as Nirvana even performing sets of mostly cover songs. But why is this form so important and what does it offer to audiences that they couldn’t get from the original recordings?
Upon further inspection I’ve narrowed it down to two things: we listen and enjoy cover songs because we either feel a certain sense of nostalgia towards those tunes that defined our adolescence and/or we are enthralled at the way in which artists are able to so fluidly transform something we’ve become attached to into something new, complete with its own artistic merit.
Buckley writes in Buffalo’s alternative gazette ArtVoice on this venture: “music isn’t something to which I was attracted because of the glow it emitted to an attention-starved teenager with a curious new erection, but because it is my unholy parasitic twin.” Buckley is acknowledging that the music he grew up on is an inextricable part of him and in a way he’s looking back at it as something that had an undeniable effect on the course of his life. The cover song reminds us of a fact that many musicians forget and letlive. frontman Jason Butler is noted for saying: “You were a fan first.”
One doesn’t have to be a professional musician to understand this concept; I’m sure you can all remember your first concert or the first time you really fell in love with a song. For me it was “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd and although my taste in music has changed dramatically since I listened to that song in my bathroom through a dusty radio while brushing my teeth before going to bed, I’ll always be reminded of that moment. When I hear that opening acoustic guitar hook I’m immediately transported back into my bathroom where I first heard the lyrics “We’re just two lost souls / Swimming in a fish bowl / Year after year / Running over the same old ground / What have we found? / The same old fears / Wish you were here” and was suddenly in awe at what these words could mean and how they had such power over me.
To grasp this nostalgic effect of the cover song, I’d ask you to look no further than Streetlight Manifesto’s 2010 album 99 Songs of a Revolution: Vol. 1. On a logistical level this album is often viewed by fans as a means for the band to escape their record contract with Victory Records, which I agree with to a certain extent. However, when I purchased that album and opened up the booklet inside I realized something else – this wasn’t just about using a cover album to get out of a much-lamented contract; this was paying homage to the music that affected frontman Tomas Kalnoky and inspired him to create his own unique style of music.
Kalnoky provides explanations as to why each song was chosen, offering a candid look at the musical memories that have shaped his life up to this point. A perfect example of this nostalgia in play was their performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Kalnoky writes of the song, explaining how his father was superintendent of an apartment complex in Keasbey, NJ and how “[w]henever someone up and disappeared, it was like Christmas morning for the super’s kids. Whatever was left behind was to be thrown away, but not before we went through it. This one guy had a massive, massive record collection . . . and the Simon and Garfunkel Greatest Hits record became a mainstay on my record player for years.” Here, this song and the duo’s greater catalogue of music are not important to Kalnoky simply because of their chord progressions or the complexity of their lyrics or other aesthetic factors, but rather because of the memories they are associated with. Covers have a way of, for both artist and audience, connecting us with our own past in a manner that goes beyond the content of the music.
This Streetlight Manifesto record also illustrates the way in which covers act as an insight into the intricacies of a band and how they set themselves apart. In attempting a cover song, it seems bands would be limited to follow in the footsteps of the original artists, but in reality it allows them to reinvent the song in their own personal way, breathing life into a new beast that is distinctly separate from its predecessor. Streetlight demonstrate this ability in their cover of The Postal Service‘s song “Such Great Heights,” replacing the beepy bloopy synth intro with their own catchy set of sporadic horn notes. To take an entirely electronic track known for its own pop-driven sharp attack and transform it into a ska-punk banger is a testament to how cover songs tell you more about the covering artist than they do about the original song. Not all bands can pull off a good cover, but when it does happen, I’d ask you to appreciate it and cherish that artist, because the cover song, while always popular, has become a lost art form.
With the ever-increasing popularity of such compilations as the Punk goes . . . series it’s easy to get lost in a sea of regurgitated pop songs interspersed with cliché breakdowns, but I urge you to wade through these trendy covers and instead search for those that bring something more to the table. Yes, it should inspire that sense of nostalgia I referenced earlier, but remember, it should also stand on its own, independently successful of the original song.
So the next time you sit down in a crowded bar and hear a cover band plodding along through their rendition of “Hotel California,” remind yourself that for every bar band that covers classic rock staples, there are songs like The Clash’s “Police and Thieves” that are able to not only remind an audience of their roots, but also create their own musical impact.