Avoiding the "One-man wedding band" trap
November 20, 2008 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Help me find some well-known songs to cover that don't suck!

I'm a keyboardist/singer/songwriter who's recently started playing open mics again for the first time in years. I've got a relatively big catalog of originals that I play, but I've found myself wanting to throw some good covers into the mix as well, if only to have something people will recognize.

The problem is, my tastes tend toward the more obscure side of things. I want to try and cover songs I'd love to have written, but an average coffeehouse audience isn't necessarily going to be won over with American Music Club, or "Ballad of El Goodo." I've covered Bruce Cockburn's "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (which themselves verge on overdone cover status, but people seemed to like them, and I didn't feel dirty for singing them), but I want to expand the repertoire.

There's nothing wrong with "Candle in the Wind" or "Piano Man," but I'd rather not have to play stuff like that just because I happen to use a keyboard instrument.

...and so I call upon the hive mind: can you think of songs that would sound good in a piano/vocal arrangement with some semi-universal familiarity that aren't uber-cheesy?
posted by anthom to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Tainted Love. Well-known and uber-cheesy, but in a good way.
posted by googly at 1:41 PM on November 20, 2008

Redo pop music. I am usually impressed when I hear covers of Britney Spears tracks for example, even though I'm not really a fan of her music at all. (Except for Toxic, which is awesome.)

Nirvana songs are good too. Stuff from there unplugged album would probably work well with one dude and a keyboard.
posted by chunking express at 1:42 PM on November 20, 2008

Check out some of the covers Ben Folds has done. He's covered "Wonderwall" "Such Great Heights" and "BItches Ain't Shit" to name a few, with a keyboard and vocals and they all sounded really good, if a bit goofy.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 1:50 PM on November 20, 2008

Check out Low's cover of "I Started a Joke."
posted by bunnytricks at 1:55 PM on November 20, 2008

Obviously it all depends on the audience that shows up, and maybe what kinds of bands play on nights other than the open mike. I have all kinds of specific songs I could suggest.

Here's your goldmine, though: these are the Top 200 played songs of 2007, according to something called "Disk Jockeys Unlimited." (I found it by doing a Google search for "top ten party songs." The stuff that comes up from about.com is worthless because it focuses too much on the current top 40 charts.)

Anyway, the list's exact accuracy doesn't matter too much, since it serves really well as a representative list of songs that are well-known to a general audience (plus some other more specialized lists below it). (The first one that occurred to me when I read your question, "Brown-Eyed Girl," for example, is #4 on the list.)

There are probably plenty of other ways to search for lists of well-known songs... Google is your friend.
posted by gohlkus at 1:57 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Although a lot of people won't recognize Randy Newmans songs because they weren't big hits, a lof of them are extremely well written and funny, so they'll get a good reaction aside from the "I recognize this so its great" Pavlovian reaction. Plus they are often written just one man at a piano. (In particular, I love his album "Sail Away".)

Also: I've found that nearly everyone can get down with classic soul and R&B songs. For songs specifically written for the piano, I'd recommend something by Ray Charles - he has quite a few really rollicking piano numbers that will get people going whether or not they know the original version.

Finally, Johnny Cash's last few albums are a goldmine of good songs to cover - not that you have to cover them the way he did, but he slash Rick Rubin had a knack for picking out really solid songs. Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman". Bonnie Prince Billy's "I See a Darkness". Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat". They're all great songs from really gifted songwriters, so I think that it might be worth it to start with his versions and then maybe work your way back to the source material.
posted by Kiablokirk at 2:05 PM on November 20, 2008

If Alanis Morissette can get away with covering "My Humps", so can you.
posted by flabdablet at 2:19 PM on November 20, 2008

A kid at an open mike the other night sang "Two Headed Boy" by Neutral Milk Hotel and it was great. Unfortunately I think most of the crowd didn't know it, but that's because he was in a hostel bar and not a hipster coffee house. Many music geeks like me have an emotional connection to that song (and album). It makes people melt.

Some of Radiohead's earlier stuff would play well in open mikes, eg. Street Spirit, Fake Plastic Trees, High and Dry.

Maybe unplugged-style Nirvana? The Man Who Sold the World? (on preview: oops, beaten)

Neil Young! Especially: Helpless. One of my favourite songs.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:26 PM on November 20, 2008

Well, if it's any consolation, I'd get up and kiss you if you played "Ballad of El Goodo" anywhere in my vicinity.

I feel like plenty of '70s Bowie should be good for these purposes -- cool songs that plenty of people know. The thought of a good keyboard arrangement of "Ziggy Stardust" strikes me as potentially awesome.

Crowded House songs would lend themselves well to this, too, methinks; Neil Finn is really one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, though I feel like he's criminally underrated/overlooked everywhere outside New Zealand and Australia. Everyone knows "Don't Dream It's Over" and (maybe to a lesser extent) "Something So Strong," but they had plenty of other amazing songs as well.
posted by scody at 2:40 PM on November 20, 2008

Oh, and as a Paul Weller obsessive, I'm obliged to suggest a few songs he wrote as well. Even people who don't think they know who Weller is seem to know "Town Called Malice" by the Jam and "My Ever-Changing Moods" by the Style Council, probably from various film soundtracks.
posted by scody at 2:44 PM on November 20, 2008

I heard a slowed down acoustic version of "Hit Me Baby One More Time" with gorgeous vocal harmonies that made my spine shiver.

Also, slowed down acoustic version of "Livin on a Prayer" that Bon Jovi did at the 9/11 concert was very effective I thought.

Perhaps I'm a fan of taking pumped up pop hits, slowing them right down, making it acoustic and adding interesting vocal harmonies ... but I always look for things like that to cover.
posted by Admira at 2:57 PM on November 20, 2008

I love some of these suggestions (like "I See A Darkness," "Such Great Heights," and "Two-Headed Boy," which I play all the time to myself in my living room) but I think the question was about what is well-known and reasonably good, not just what's good.

So, for the record, I don't like all that many of the songs on the top 200 list I posted... but I'm sure there must be a few places where good taste and popularity collide on that list.

Some other specific suggestions that may be near the intersection of good and well-known --
  • something from "Plans" by Death Cab for Cutie would be good ("I Will Follow You Into the Dark," perhaps, or "Marching Bands of Manhattan");
  • something by R.E.M. ("World Leader Pretend," "Man on the Moon," "Get Up," "Daysleeper," "Driver 8," "Gardening at Night," etc.);
  • you could break their hearts with Elliott Smith ("Miss Misery," "Ballad of Big Nothing," "Between the Bars," "Say Yes," "Coming Up Roses," "Independence Day")
  • Elvis Costello ("Alison," "Accidents Will Happen," "Indoor Fireworks,") though I guess he's a little obscure
  • A lot of good sixties stuff is pretty well-known ("God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys, "White Room" by Cream, "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas, songs by the Zombies, Simon & Garfunkel, etc.), not to mention the Beatles...
  • INXS? James Taylor? The Smiths? Paul McCartney solo stuff? The Police? Squeeze? U2? (On preview, Bowie and Crowded House, yeah!)
[Neat, <ul> works on MeFi]

Anyway, I love music. Hope this helps...!
posted by gohlkus at 3:00 PM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Pretty much any Joe Jackson that you might like is piano-able. "Stepping Out" would be neat to hear as a solo, but everybody loves "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" I don't think I've ever hear any JJ songs from busker/openmic types.
posted by rhizome at 3:11 PM on November 20, 2008

Someone mentioned Randy Newman, and I'm seconding that emotion. In particular -- it's actually not TOO well-known, but he had an adorable little song off his Good Old Boys album that I heard used in an episode of Monk once - "Naked Man." All it's really about is this little old lady being scared by a streaker, but it's insanely catchy, and there's always something inherantly funny about singing about naked people.

It always pops into my head now when I hear about unexpected nudity in public. Lyrics are here (scroll down a bit).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:16 PM on November 20, 2008

Pancho and Lefty by Townes Van Zandt

It's a lot easier to play in G instead of the normal D

That is if you can sing that low, or high.
posted by chillmost at 3:32 PM on November 20, 2008

How about some Ray Davies?

Waterloo Sunset — gorgeous and moody
Sunny Afternoon — a personal favourite, it would sound great on piano
Lola — for the gender benders
Victoria — a great singalong
I'm Not Like Everybody Else — another great singalong. Imagine a coffee house full of hipsters yelling the chorus in unison.
posted by timeistight at 3:56 PM on November 20, 2008

Speaking of hipster singalongs: anything off the first Violent Femmes' record!
posted by scody at 4:10 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

From "a keyboardist covering pop/rock tunes" my mind's first stop was Tori Amos. Your Tori Amos mileage may vary (mine does), and obviously you'd want to adapt arrangements of songs like these to fit your own style. If nothing else her covers show the suitability of particular songs for just piano and voice... I'm thinking specifically of her versions of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," The Rolling Stones' "Angie," and Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" (which I do think had slightly more heft to it than most Bon Jovi songwriting).

I personally think Elvis Costello is a damn good songwriter. "Alison" would work, as would "Blame it on Cain," "Every Day I Write the Book," and probably many others.

Ditto what was said earlier about Randy Newman. My fave of his is "Marie," although it's not his best-known tune.

One pop/rock songwriter I always get a kick out of is Jim Steinman. Big, broad, unabashedly romantic, even cliched - but witty. Tongue-in-cheek. First song that comes to mind is "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Some of the stuff he wrote for Meat Loaf could probably work too, like "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)," and maybe even "It's All Coming Back to Me Now."

Apart from that... Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" works as piano & voice. I also recall a street musician who made me hear Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" in a new light. OTOH, he was playing acoustic guitar... but hey, you know, piano might work.

Other random ones that occurred to me which are decent bits of songwriting and could work, depending on your type of voice, etc:

R.E.M., "Man on the Moon"
Peter Gabriel, "Don't Give Up" and "In Your Eyes"
Don Henley, "The End of the Innocence"
Rolling Stones, "Let's Spend the Night Together"
Santana (w/Rob Thomas), "Smooth" (I think it would hold up even without all the guitar riffing)
Bruce Springsteen, "Backstreets"
Sting, "Shape of My Heart"
Toto, "Rosanna" (OK, it's not exactly Mozart... but it's fun, and it'd work)
U2, "Walk On" and "Bad"

Oh, and you might be able to do something with the tango arrangement of The Police's "Roxanne" from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.
posted by JustDerek at 4:24 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Backstreet Boys "I Want It That Way" :) it's actually a really good pop song! for real!

What about some Motown? I really like the Spinners.. "I'll Be Around" and "It's a Shame".. Temptations..

Some Tom Waits? early stuff is mostly piano..

Gnarls Barkley "Crazy" (there have been a lot of covers of this, granted)

Some Velvet Underground, the quiet stuff, like "I'll Be Your Mirror," the self titled album: "Pale Blue Eyes," "Beginning to See the Light," "After Hours"?

also I just thought there are a lot of Kinks songs that are super catchy and pretty familiar, though no idea whatsoever about what sounds OK on piano.
posted by citron at 4:34 PM on November 20, 2008

I think you want to do straight keyboard (ideally piano or rotary organ) versions of decidedly non-straight keyboard styles e.g. Metal. Who is not going to love Ace of Spades (Motorhead), Long Way to the Top / For Those About to Rock (ACDC), God gave rock n roll to you (Kiss), Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden) or Paranoid (Black Sabbath) sung by a mild-mannered keyboard player? Plus you get to have a bundle of fun with all the chord progressions and solos :-)

Maybe the Rap angle has been done too much already but Funk (everyone knows at least 5 James Brown songs) and on.

But don't deny the cheese. There's a lot of mileage in doing cheesy songs with a little irony/straight:

Say No Go - Hall and Oates
Physical - Olivia Newton John
Like a Virgin - Madonna
Abracadabra - Steve Miller Band
Centerfold - J Giles Band
Stayin' Alive - Bee Gees
Le Freak - Chic

and so forth.
posted by i_cola at 4:48 PM on November 20, 2008

In fact I would pay good money to hear you do a piano cover of 'God gave rock n roll to you' in a Maine coffee shop. How good would you feel doing the spoken word ('I know life sometimes can get tough...') bit at the end with the audience joining in with the backing (as they surely must)? I want 15%. (But I'd settle for 10 in the end.)
posted by i_cola at 4:52 PM on November 20, 2008

Doing Velvet Underground songs is pretty cliche, but it is so for a reason--you almost can't go wrong.

Think about your audience. For example, if you reckon they are 30-something ex-college-radio-hipsters, then maybe find something from Left of the Dial. Or any of the more well-known songs from John Hughes movies.

A lot of good cover versions I can think of are cases where the cover-artist is from a radically different demographic from the songwriter. So, for example, since you're a guy start looking for songs by female artists that are painfully obviously written by a woman but knock your socks off. Or if you're definitely an urban-person, spend a few weeks getting into traditional old-time country and keep your ear out for lyrics that really speak to you.

Lastly, you might want to try this exercise. Get friends of yours that you know have good taste in music--but is different from yours--to suggest songs. But not to give you a title and artist and a copy of the original. Just ask them to print the lyrics to songs that they think are great lyrically and hand them to you. When the lyrics grab you and demand to be put to music, compose the music yourself without ever hearing the original.

I'm in a band that does a lot of originals with a handful of covers thrown in. Some are just straight covers arranged as best we can given the different instruments we're using compared to the originals and they go down well. Some of them are well known and some are obscure enough that the audience think they are some of our originals. But I think the strongest ones we do are
A. the one one everyone-knows-it classic that is very much a song written by a man but now being sung by a woman and
B. the song that the singer loved and wanted to cover, but couldn't manage the barre-chords on the guitar. So she made up her own chord-progression to fit the lyrics and we built it up like an original from there.
posted by K.P. at 5:39 PM on November 20, 2008

Wow, some excellent choices, everyone. I'm getting the beginnings of a decent set already - keep the good stuff coming!

(I really like the "new music to existing lyrics" idea, K.P. - that could even be a MeFiMu challenge...)
posted by anthom at 6:35 PM on November 20, 2008

"God Only Knows" strips down to piano just fine. Everyone will recognize it and it's gorgeous without the "HEY EVERYBODY LOOK I'M PLAYING THE BEATLES" hackiness associated with most Greatest Ever type songs.
posted by Simon! at 6:36 PM on November 20, 2008

Well, if you like obscure, I'd have to put in a suggestion for Stan Ridgway. His songs and lyrics are very noir and would lend themselves well to a solo cover with piano.

"Harry Truman" and "Walkin' Home Alone" for starters.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:41 PM on November 20, 2008

No Doubt holds up well when reduced to its core components, especially the ballads ("Don't Speak," "Simple Kind of Life," "Underneath It All"). If you're looking for something more up-beat, maybe "Fidelity" by Regina Spektor? Or some Supertramp ("Dreamer," "Breakfast in America," "School")?
posted by Gotham at 8:45 PM on November 20, 2008

Burton Cummings has a good live album with just him singing and playing the piano that you might want to check out. One of his better covers is "Daydream Believer". Matchbox 20 does an all piano version of 3am that is also pretty good.
posted by Yorrick at 9:43 PM on November 20, 2008

I'll admit I'm perplexed by the idea of asking people what songs you should cover. You shouldn't be covering a song if you don't feel some kind of affinity with it, like you've found something within it that you can bring out in a unique way. Random strangers can't tell you what songs to cover.

That being said, there are plenty of great Leonard Cohen songs that aren't Hallelujah which are ripe for re-interpretation. I did a version of So Long, Marianne once that was a lot of fun. I've also been wanting to do Sisters of Mercy, Chelsea Hotel No. 2, I'm Your Man, The Traitor, and First We Take Manhattan. Any of those would probably be good.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:07 PM on November 20, 2008

You could do a lot worse than to check out some of Harry Nilsson's work. A keyboardist himself, he's best known for "Everybody's Talking," which he didn't even write, but he's got loads of lovely / funny / obscure tunes. I am a big fan of his albums Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson Schmilsson , Son of Schmilsson, and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, but there are gems on every one of his discs, even the later ones when alcohol had got the best of him. I guarantee your audience will look up and smile if you pull out "Me and my Arrow" off of The Point.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:27 AM on November 21, 2008

Ooh, another idea...

I saw Dave Frishberg at The Bottom Line in New York years ago -- they often did combination sets where they took four acts that they didn't think could stand alone, and put them all on the same bill, and he was on one of those combo bills. It was just him and the piano, and I remember his work as being kind of low-key quirky, quasi-jazzy, amusing little stuff. (Think a jazzier Randy Newman.) I remember liking the song he opened with, "Can't Take You Nowhere," and he closed with his "most requested song", something called "My Attorney Bernie."

He actually won the audience over completely, though, by revealing that he was the guy who wrote "I'm Just A Bill" for Schoolhouse Rock, and as the crowd was almost completely comprised of Generation X members, we reacted to this news like he was an absolute rock star. He then played and sang the first verse for us, and I must say, a roomful of 50 people all drunkenly singing "I'm Just A Bill" is one of the more amusing things I've ever heard.

...which reminds me that if your audience is largely Gen-X, anything from the Schoolhouse Rock songbook could also work.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:19 AM on November 21, 2008

How about "Be My Baby" or "You Keep Me Hanging On" ?
posted by GIMG at 10:23 AM on November 21, 2008

To sort of echo Simon!, I'd like to add that there are plenty of Billy Joel songs that are not "Piano Man". I think "Honesty" or "The Stranger" are good ones, and not necessarily overplayed. Similarly, Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" is probably familiar but not cloying.

I'm not sure of a whole lot else to suggest. Actually, here's an idea. Many of the songs on the soundtracks for the Shrek movies were pretty decent, and decently well-known classics. I think "Hallelujah", which you mentioned, was on there, but there are a host of others, including some songs by Eels.

And no one has to know where you got the idea from!
posted by Night_owl at 3:51 PM on November 21, 2008

I know that this is almost over a year since you posted this question, and I hope your return to performace has been a successful and motivating one. I found your question while researching my own and I just absolutely, had to, mention Yellow by Coldplay.

There is a version out there on the internet, and it is absolutely worth looking for. A world weary Chris Martin wakes to a morning radio interview where they pester him to play some music. He sits at the piano and re-creates "Yellow" in heart wrenching solo piano awesomeness. I don't know a whole lot about piano, but it seems easy enough to play. This would make a great addition to your setlist.

A quick search finds out that it was at MTV and can be heard here.

I hope you find this.
posted by swimbikerun at 8:14 PM on October 20, 2009

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