I recently picked up a copy of The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You: 40th Anniversary Edition. It has a remastered version of the original 1981 album and a bonus disc of never before released songs recorded throughout the 70s. One of those songs is “Drift Away” recorded in 1974, just one year after Dobie Gray had a huge hit with the same song. That got me thinking about how that would never happen nowadays even though it was normal 40 or more years ago.
One of the most famous covers ever is Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” which was released just three years after Big Mama Thornton’s original. Linda Ronstadt released “Tumbling Dice” in 1977, five years after the Stones released it on Exile on Main Street. Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles both recorded Beatles’ songs in the 60s. Herman’s Hermits put out their “Wonderful World” five years after Sam Cooke. I think you get the idea. It was common for artists to record recent hits.
Something happened in the 80s. I’m not sure why, but it became extremely important that performers write their own songs. It became an insult to say, “But he doesn’t even write his songs.” Some covers still happened, but they were covers of songs that were at least 10 years old. Artists would cover songs that they grew up with, but not that their peers made. It would have been natural for AC/DC, Van Halen, and Aerosmith to record each other’s songs, but it never happened. If Thriller had been released in the sixties, dozens of artists would have put their spin on “Billie Jean”. Instead, we had to wait thirteen years for Alien Ant Farm to give us their take on “Smooth Criminal” to get a hit MJ cover.
This change makes me sad. I love to hear cover versions of songs. A really good song can handle it and the different interpretations are fascinating. I don’t know how, but I want to bring back contemporary covers. I want to hear Valerie June’s take on a Tedeschi Trucks Band song or vice versa. John Mayer should try some Phish. Adele should do some Beyonce. Who’s with me? How do we get the artists to listen to us? I’m open to ideas.