The Temptations & Pitfalls Of Musical Tributes

From Prince to Radiohead to Dylan, there's no one right way to do it.

Bob Dylan is not impressed.
Photo:Binary Ape, Flickr Creative Commons
The Temptations & Pitfalls Of Musical Tributes
Download Audio
Audio Playlist
The Temptations & Pitfalls Of Musical Tributes

I've heard They Mght Be Giants interpret Chumbawumba. I've heard Frank Sinatra do the Beatles. I've heard R.E.M. do Three Dog Night doing Paul Williams. I've heard Nancy Sinatra do the Beatles. I've heard Kurt Elling and Cassandra Wilson, both jazz singers, cover the Monkees. I've heard the Hold Steady perform Huey Lewis. And as regular listeners to the show know, my mind was blown last year by an evening of the New York free jazz arkestra Burnt Sugar playing, as they put it, the Steely Dan Songbook.

One question is: do all these reinterpretation and tributes have pretty much the same status?
What's the relationship between the original artist and the person doing the cover, and how does that changes from project to project?
If you want to hear that question embodied in one performance, get on YouTube and listen to Paul Anka do "Smells Like Teen Spirit." 
You can join the conversation. E-mail or Tweet us@wnprcolin.




Definitely a fun subject to talk about. Your mention of The Beatles as a band that is often covered got me thinking about their early records when they were doing the covering. Or should I say interpreting? They truly did take ownership of songs like "Twist and Shout," "Boys," "Money," etc.

One of my favorite song interpretations is Harry Nilsson's version of the Badfinger song "Without You." According to an interview I read years ago, Badfinger happened to be in the same studio as Harry when he was recording the song and he invited them over to hear his version. The members of Badfinger were absolutely blown away: Harry had shown them what the song should be!

Badfinger's original:
Nilsson's version:
Wikpedia page about the song: <-- There were some great musicians on this version.

Keep on keepin' on!


Phish is the greatest cover band in the world! For their Halloween shows they do a 'musical costume' and cover an entire album. So far they have covered:

The White Album - The Beatles
Remain in Light - Talking Heads
Quadrophenia - The Who
Loaded - Velvet Underground
Exile on Main Street - The Rolling Stones
Waiting for Columbus - Little Feat
Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd

And the versions of all of these albums are truly incredible and definitely worth a listen. It's amazing to see how Phish's sound changed after they practiced and learned these various albums over the years.

They also do an awesome version of Prince's 1999, Golden Age by TV on the Radio, La Grange by ZZ Top, Roses are Free by Ween and a whole bunch of other tunes by many, many artists.


Just talking about this last night with my ambivalent teen. The examples I offered were the following:

Jump by Van Halen (not my favorite band) and that of Aztec Camera

And Bethovan's 5th as the traditional and that transposed by "Jazz" guitarist Frank Vignola:

Great topic.


I'd love to hear a full symphony orchestra do The Stone's Gimme Shelter. Really. Think of that lead-in.


My vote for cover songs that equal the original, if not surpass:

The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" by 801 on 801 Live (Brian Eno, Phil Manzenara, et al.)

Devo's version of "Satisfaction" by Rolling Stones - hearing that for the first time was a shock and jolted by musical world into a new era!


Hi Colin:
I am so disappointed that you are not taking calls today since this is a topic about which I have much to say.
I am a jazz trumpet player and I'll start with the fact that I am currently working on a CD project that is a tribute to Motown Records, playing the music of many great artists (including Al Green, who's music you just played on air).
When I play any music that I did not write, I think back to when I recorded my first CD. I was lucky to have friends like David Raksin (composer of Laura), Mike Stoller (as in Lieber & Stoller), and David Shire (Academy Award winner) compose originals and/or give me obscure tunes of theirs to record.
All three of these composers were at my recording session, sitting in the booth, and they all had the same take on interpreting their tunes. That take is that there is a fine line between making the tunes your own, the way they intended them to sound within the limits of tasteful interpretation, and taking their tunes and turning them into something they never intended them to be. I have found that most composers are flattered to have their tunes recorded, but disappointed when artists make their tunes unrecognizable. I think people should write their own tunes rather than destroy something as personal as a great composer's work.
When I teach I tell my students to imagine that the composer is sitting in front of them. I suggest that they ask themselves if they are being true enough to the music that it would please the composer.
Be it George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Mike Stoller or Prince, the music, as the composer wrote it, deserves respect.
I don't have time to write everything about this topis that is in my head.
Great show today!


I know you know that the tradition of reggae artists
covering Dylan or The Bee Gees, etc. has absolutely
nothing to do with*popularizing* of so-called "race music"
during the Jim Crow era; while ripping off royalties from
earlier generations of African American artists who might
have been payed a flat fee for a hit song.

I 'd agree with Taylor that a cross-genre (reggae?) cover can bring a
new/renewed appreciation (not to mention bigger audiences and
bigger royalty checks) for the "original artists."

That's a whole different proposition from
segregated radio (or MTV for that matter).