When is a cover song not a cover song?
April 4, 2009 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Is it still, technically, a cover song when the original songwriter records a track that they wrote for someone else?

Take, as an example, Iggy Pop's "China Girl" - written by David Bowie for Iggy and recorded in 1977. In 1983, Bowie rerecorded it and put it on the Let's Dance album. Another example, slightly more obscure is "Video Killed the Radio Star" - written by Trevor Horn for Bruce Wooley and The Camera Club, and then re-recorded by Horn's group Buggles. We know which of those versions was better known.

There's other examples too. Are the re-recorded versions, then, still covers, or is there some other term for this?
posted by SansPoint to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You could debate this endlessly. There's no "technically" correct answer.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:52 PM on April 4, 2009

Not the first version, so it's a cover.
posted by cmgonzalez at 6:54 PM on April 4, 2009

Most of the folks who have bothered to define "cover version" on the web seem to think that you can only "cover" a song if you are making a new recording of a song originally recorded by someone else. So even if the writer records a version of his or her own song, if someone else recorded it first, it would be a cover.

Seems silly, though. The terminology's already slapdash; as Dee Xtrovert says, I think there are other, more accurate ways to express the idea - especially because so many songs are recorded by so many dozens or even hundreds of people that they're not all 'covering' the same original recording.
posted by Miko at 7:02 PM on April 4, 2009

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the origin of the term. You can debate the technicalities, but in its most basic definition a cover song is any version that's not the original recorded version of a song, no matter who wrote it.
posted by amyms at 7:05 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that there's probably no consensus on this, but I regard these situations as something other than a cover. To me, covering a song means putting your own interpretation on someone else's song. If you originally wrote the song (even if you didn't record it first), I feel like yours is the original interpretation. You wrote it knowing how you wanted it to sound and what you wanted it to convey.

Also, not to nitpick, but Iggy Pop co-wrote "China Girl" with Bowie, so this situation is something else entirely. Maybe Bowie giving "All The Young Dudes" to Mott the Hoople to record would be a better example. (Sorry, I'm serious about my David Bowie trivia... see username.)
posted by rebel_rebel at 7:20 PM on April 4, 2009

Agreeing that the first recorded version of the song is the first, any others are covers. Like a textbook covers material, artists are covering a song that already exists in "canon".
posted by gjc at 7:20 PM on April 4, 2009

the original songwriter will not sweat this technical distinction when the royalties from all versions come rolling in!
posted by the aloha at 7:53 PM on April 4, 2009

I would say that the first version of the song that is commonly recognized by popular culture is considered the "original". Any other subsequent version would be a cover regardless of who wrote it. After all, not many people pay attention to who penned a song- just who performed it.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 8:01 PM on April 4, 2009

I would say that the first version of the song that is commonly recognized by popular culture is considered the "original".

I see the impulse to think of it this way, but specifying 'commonly recognized by popular culture', would be as hard, or as arbitrary, as defining 'cover' in the first place. Also, it might lead to weird conclusions, like that "Blinded By the Light" isn't a Springsteen original, or that "All Along the Watchtower" and "Mr. Tamourine Man" aren't Dylan originals. You might want to bite that bullet, but I cannae.

I'm in the camp that thinks this is an unresolvable scholastic debate. You should either just spell out the whole story when the issue arises, or else invent a new term.
posted by Beardman at 8:34 PM on April 4, 2009

After all, not many people pay attention to who penned a song- just who performed it.

Hmmm, as a fan of singer-songwriters, I must respectfully disagree. I tend to "pay attention to", and have a lot more respect for, a musician who writes a song, plays that song, and bonus points if he/she can ably sing/perform the song than one who just sings and/or plays it and "looks good" doing it.

It just seems wrong and disrespectful to call a song that a songwriter writes (and down the road, records) a cover just because someone else records it in the meantime. Certainly, the writer of the song "recorded" it in some fashion before someone else performed it and made it "famous"?
posted by ourroute at 9:01 PM on April 4, 2009

Wouldn't the demo version be the first recorded version, and therefore every recording after that is a cover?
posted by divabat at 11:28 PM on April 4, 2009

Well, it makes sense if you consider it for what it is - a recording industry term, not a songwriter's term. It was coined for record company managers to use, and it makes sense in that world. The world of audio recording.

Of course it's awesome if someone can be a songwriter, performer, and recording artist, but a lot of people don't have all those in one package, or just don't have a chance to record a song before someone else grabs it. It's true that most people don't pay attention to songwriters - even singer-songwriters do a lot of covers, and most people just assume they're all by the singer-songwriter unless it's specified. I can think of a number of Nanci Griffith songs by other people, ditto Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan, and Iris DeMent. Arlo Guthrie didn't write "City of New Orleans." But unless you are an obsessive reader of liner notes, you might not know that kind of thing because their status as "singer-songwriter" kind of makes you think they write all their own stuff. Only a few really do that.

Not every songwriter records their own demos for their songs, or records demos at all.
posted by Miko at 12:02 AM on April 5, 2009

Yeah, there's no right answer. Still, I was initially in the "it's still a cover" camp, but then I figured the original writer of the song isn't doing his take of the version (recorded by someone else) that became established and popular. He's just doing a "different" version.

My Beatles trivia fails me at the moment, so this might not be a hypothetical, but if Lennon and McCartney had written a song for another performer, then decided later to go ahead and do it themselves, I don't think anyone would really argue that it was a cover of that first performer's rendition. And it certainly wouldn't be along the same lines of their renditions of "Money" or "Twist and Shout."

And unfortunately, the reality is that most people have no idea who the writers behind a lot of famous songs are, at least for those done by strictly songwriters. Same goes with movies. I've always felt screenwriters never get as much credit as they deserve compared to the director.

And to put it another way, this would sort of be like a movie adapted from a book, and then the author of the book deciding to direct and write the screenplay for his own film version of the book. In that case, he's adapting his own book, not the first film version.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:02 AM on April 5, 2009

"Red Rubber Ball" (one of my favorite songs) was written by Paul Simon, who gave it to The Cyrkle to record in 1966. Simon & Garfunkel went on to play it live, and one of these performances was recorded.

I haven't heard either The Cyrkle's or Simon & Garfunkel's versions referred to as a cover. I wouldn't consider either a cover -- The Cyrkle's because it was released first and was most widely played/known, and Simon & Garfunkel's because they presumably performed it (although not recorded and maybe not for an audience) before giving it away. If the songwriter wasn't originally a performer, that would make it a little murkier for me.

Another example: "I Write the Songs" is considered a Barry Manilow tune (1975), but it was written by Bruce Johnston, who later released his version on his 1977 album Going Public.
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:01 AM on April 5, 2009

Ooh, I was interestingly wrong: "I Write the Songs" was first released by David Cassidy, earlier in 1975 than Barry Manilow's release. But who would call Barry's version a cover? This is another "commonly recognized by popular culture" issue (Cassidy apparently only charted with it in the UK).
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:04 AM on April 5, 2009

I had to add this point as far as people not paying attention to songwriters:

You could come up with a long list of popular, original songs that were written by one person and sung by another. For any given song, some people might only know the singer. Fewer would know the singer and the writer. But I can't imagine who would know the writer but not the singer.

One half may not be more important the other, but in terms of recognition, the writer's often secondary. Elton John's mailbox is no doubt much fuller than Bernie Taupin's.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:13 AM on April 5, 2009

Here's an interesting example I just came across. "Our Lips Our Sealed" was co-written by Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos, and Terry Smith of Fun Boy Three. The Go-Gos did a version that came out in '81. Smith then did his own version with Fun Boy Three in '83. So I don't think anyone would have, or had, considered the latter a cover.

A few other covers have been done since then, perhaps most noticeably by Hilary Duff. And presumably that would be considered a cover of the Go-Gos version, which was more popular in the US.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:23 AM on April 6, 2009

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