The 7 Rules of the Best and Worst Cover Songs

by Gordon Elgart on January 26, 2011

What else would I put on an article about cover songs? Jeff Buckley? That's been done.

Someone was tweeting something about cover songs, and I immediately went to work on twittering away the rules of cover songs. I got to rule #3, remembered that I’m the editor of a music blog, and went to work writing the other rules down. And now, I present to you, everything you need to know about cover songs. Is there anything I left out? Let me know below. But first, we’ll start with rule #1:

Rule #1: If you flip the gender in the lyrics of your cover, you’re making a crappy cover version.

Listen, sing it like it was sung before, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. If you can’t handle the homo-eroticism that this causes, get out of the kitchen. There’s a few songs that work toward proving that this rule is true. Sheryl Crow’s “Sweet Child of Mine” and Joss Stone’s “Fell in Love With a Boy” are horrifying examples, but not the worst. This is the worst, and possibly the worst cover song ever:

Rule #2: If everyone else’s cover of the song you covered covers your cover version, you’ve probably done a good job.

There’s one really great example of this. Rogue Wave did a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” Here’s a fan vid:

Then the Rachel’s Getting Married trailer came around, featuring their cover song. Except it wasn’t. Someone had covered their cover to use in the trailer: same arrangements, same vocal style, same tempo … now that’s flattery! (It starts at the :57 mark of the video.)

Rule #3: If a band’s first single is a cover song, that may be an indication that the band’s own songs aren’t all that.

I’m not here to talk crap about The Black Crowes, but when “Hard to Handle” was their first single, it occurred to me that the band might not be so good. And sure enough, I didn’t find much else to like about their first record. They got more interesting as time has gone on, but their musicianship has always been better than their songs, in my opinion. That’s why their most satisfying record is the one where they do all Led Zeppelin songs with Jimmy Page. Well, that and the song “Sometimes Salvation”– that’s pretty great, too.

I feel like the Black Crowes are an exception, as even a really good cover as a first single is a sure sign that you have a one-hit wonder on your hands:

Rule #4: If you don’t know the words, don’t just make up your own. Look them up. It’s easy.

One of my all-time favorite bands is Moxy Fruvous. I’d link to their website, but they let it lapse many years ago, as they went on hiatus back in the 20th century, leaving their de facto lead singer as a popular CBC host, and the other guys in the band to do whatever it is Canadians do, like play in Great Big Sea and teach Canadian folk songs to school children. And I loved this band, but their cover of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” has made me cringe for years.

Lyric from Abba: See that girl, watch that scene, diggin’ the dancing queen.

Moxy Fruvous version: See that girl, catch that beat, diggin’ the dancing queen.

Now here’s the thing about Canadians. They enunciate. It’s what makes them great. But every time that non-rhyming “beat” was sung with proper emphasis on the “t,” I wanted to punch someone. Sure, that’s because I’m an OCD lyrics nerd, but I couldn’t have been alone.

I’m sure there’s countless examples of this, but unless you’ve got some important reason you’re changing the lyrics … and it better be good … sing them right. It’s not your song to change.

And because I do love Moxy Fruvous, enjoy one of their original songs:

Rule #5: If you’re not the first to do the novelty cover, don’t do the novelty cover.

This is the part in this post where I should link to 300 covers of “Single Ladies.” Or some sort of parody version of Cee Lo’s “Fuck You.” Were I the czar of music for this great country of ours, there’d be an application process to do a novelty cover, especially when the song itself is practically a novelty song (I’m looking at you, Mr. Green). It’s just too much. Thousands of tweets per day are wasted on horrible cover songs made for horrible reasons. I can’t tell you how many novelty covers there’s been of “Empire State of Mind” AFTER the only that’s ever mattered:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Alicia Keys – Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down
Rule #6: If you’re a band opening for someone famous, and no one knows you all that well, a well placed cover song will win you some fans.

This is pretty much the corollary to rule #2 above. It’s ok, if you’re brand new, to play a cover. In fact, it will probably help. I mean, if you’re in a club, and there’s a bunch of people waiting around to see the band they really want to see, and they don’t know who the heck you are because your single hasn’t really caught on yet, it’s a great time to play a cover. Now don’t go playing the same cover songs as everyone else. We don’t need another version of “White Rabbit,’ or anything by The Beatles or Rolling Stones.

The best cover song move I’ve ever seen was when Dream Theater opened for Yes. Because the older Yes fans were probably wondering who these metal kids were, they needed a way to get into their good graces. And they did something that most bands would never attempt: they covered the headliner! And it was glorious. This is (unfortunately) the best clip I could find of Dream Theater playing Yes’s “Machine Messiah” while opening for Yes. Amazing.

Rule #7: There’s enough acoustic versions of Top 40 hits on Youtube to last society through the End of Days. For godsakes people, stop!

Here’s the search results for “Kesha acoustic cover.”

It’s not pretty, people! There’s two different ones at the top there with over a million views each. That’s about 5 million minutes of time spent watching acoustic covers of a song that wasn’t even that good in the first place. Multiply that by all the songs in the world and all the versions, and all of that time could have solved any of this planet’s more pressing concerns. I love Pomplamoose, but Pomplamoose haters would not have had a Hyundai commercial to kick around this winter. We could have had that high speed rail now, and not in 25 years. Independent energy by 2035? Easy! By 2025! People of the world, we have enough acoustic covers of songs to last us until the end of time. You don’t need to make another one, listen to another one, tell a friend about another one, ever again. Ever!

Unless you’re this guy. If you’re this guy, PLEASE KEEP GOING!

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben January 26, 2011 at 4:27 pm

For rule #2, you might add Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Rufus Wainwright’s version seems to stick to LC’s original, but it seems like most other versions you’ll hear are copying JB pretty closely.

That clip of the acoustic guitarist covering Metallica is awesome, btw.


Ben January 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Oops, just read the caption accompanying the photo at top. I take it we disagree about the JB cover!


Ben January 26, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Ah, and at this point I do a third-take and actually understand your caption. I think I’ll stop commenting now.

Gordon Elgart January 26, 2011 at 4:55 pm

You can keep on commenting if you’d like. Yes, I think you get my caption. I simply wanted to do a Hallelujah-free cover song article, which is why I didn’t mention it. And that guy has over 100 acoustic covers, nearly all of them awesome.


John Marcher January 26, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I had forgotten how truly awful Tiffany was.
My favorite cover- a disco version of “Stairway to Heaven” by something called the Far Corporation. It’s a fascinating trainwreck, terrible, but to tell the truth, I’d rather hear that one than the original at this point. Which leads me to proposed Rule #8- if you lack the talent to make it your own, at least make it quirky.


Gordon Elgart January 27, 2011 at 12:39 am

That’s a good rule. Someone gave me another one on Facebook. “Don’t just do a carbon copy of the original.” These are good. Five more and I smell a sequel post!


Stacy January 29, 2011 at 8:35 am

Wow, and how the whole thing started? Hallelujah. So yes, Buckley’s been covered (pun intended), but dude…this was a great post. I’m not gonna lie, I want to send you a link to an amazing cover of Single Ladies (novelty-style, sung by a guy w/the correct lyrics intact, and it’s acoustic too)…but I won’t. Unless you trust me & wanna hear it. Your call 🙂


Dakin Hardwick January 29, 2011 at 8:39 am

So, I spent some time with the acoustic Ke$ha covers. Most are boring, but this one is pretty amazing:


ChrissieK from IRC in #moxyfruvous March 9, 2011 at 12:34 pm

GORDON is that you?! Where have you been? Do you remember me from IRC back in the late 90s?


Gordon Elgart March 9, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Yes, I believe it is me. Who else would mention Moxy Fruvous?


ChrissieK from IRC #moxyfruvous March 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I’ve been posting videos up onto Youtube from past performances of fruvous.
Are you on Facebook? (I want to make sure I’m sending a request to the right person) 🙂


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