In pop music a cover version is a new rendition of a previously recorded song. Pop musicians may play covers as a tribute to the original performer or group, to win audiences who like to hear a familiar song, to increase their chance of success by using a proven hit or to gain credibility by its comparison with the original song. They may also do it simply because they enjoy playing it.
Although cover versions are often produced for artistic reasons, they are commonly released to fill bargain bins in the music section of supermarkets and even specialized music stores, where uninformed customers can easily confuse them with original recordings, especially since the packaging is usually intentionally confusing. It combines the name of the original artist, written in large letters, with a small-letters periphrase like as originally sung by or as made popular by. Sometimes only the presence of the rather uncommon "cover" word indicates the true nature of the recordings. Certain publishing houses push the perversion up to using an expression like original cover versions. Cover versions are often sold in compilations, sorted by genre. When supermarkets conduct a major cover version sale, they sometimes put in place a DJ to play the items from the special collection exclusively. In America, this is done because compulsory licensing laws allow a musician to perform and publish a previously recorded song without getting the permission of the copyright holder. A band of unknown but talented musicians, then, can churn out imitations of popular songs that can then be sold at a high profit margin. Otherwise, the record company would have to either pay licensing fees to the copyright holders of the music or not even be able to release the music at all, if the copyright holders deny permission.
Early cover versions
From early in the 20th century it was common practice among phonograph record labels that if any company had a record that was a significant commercial success, other record companies would have singers or musicians "cover" the tune by recording a version for their own label in hopes of cashing in on the tune's success.
In the early days of rock and roll, many songs originally recorded by African American musicians were rerecorded by white artists, such as Pat Boone, in a more toned-down style that lacked the hard edge of rock and roll, and vice versa. These cover versions were considered by some to be more palatable to parents, and white artists were more palatable to programmers at white radio stations. Songs by the original artists which where then succesful are called crossovers as they "crossed over" from a black to a white audience. Also, many songs originally recorded by male artists were rerecorded by female artists, and vice versa. Such a cover version is sometimes called a cross cover version .
Modern cover versions
Over the years, cover versions of many popular songs have been recorded, sometimes with a radically different style, and in other cases the cover version is virtually indistinguishable from the original. For example, Jose Feliciano's version of "Light My Fire" was utterly distinct from the original version by The Doors; but Carl Carlton's 1974 cover of Robert Knight's 1967 hit single song "Everlasting Love" sounds almost identical to the original.
Cover versions can also be in different languages; for example, Falco's 1982 German-language hit "Der Kommissar" was covered in English by After the Fire later in the decade, although the German title was retained. The English version, which was not a direct translation of Falco's original but retained much of its spirit, reached the Top 5 on the US charts.
A type of cover version that existed from the early 1950s to the late 1970s in Louisiana was known as swamp pop. Contemporary and classic rock, R&B, and country songs were re-recorded with Cajun audiences in mind. Some lyrics were translated to French, and some were recorded with traditional Cajun instrumentation. Several swamp pop songs charted nationally, but it was mostly a regional niche market.
Contemporising older songs
Cover versions are often used as a method of making a familiar song contemporary. For example "Singin' In The Rain" was originally introduced in the film Hollywood Revue Of 1929. The famous Gene Kelly version was a revision that brought it up to date for a 1950s Hollywood musical, and was used in the 1952 film of the same name. In 1978 it was covered by French singer Sheila accompanied by the B. Devotion group, as a disco song, once more updating it to suit the musical taste of the era. During the disco era there was a brief trend towards taking well known songs and recording them in the disco style. Director Baz Luhrmann has contemporised and stylised older songs for use in his films. New or cover versions such as John Paul Young's "Love Is In The Air" in Strictly Ballroom, Candi Staton's "Young Hearts Run Free" in Romeo and Juliet, and adaptations of artists such as Nat King Cole, Nirvana, Kiss, Thelma Houston, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna and T Rex in Moulin Rouge!, were designed to fit into the structure of each film, and to suit the taste of the contemporary audience for which they were made.
Introduction of new artists
New artists are often introduced to the record buying public with performances of well known, "safe" songs as evidenced in Pop Idol and its international counterparts.
Established artists often pay homage to artists or songs that inspired them before they started their careers by recording cover versions, or perform unrecorded cover versions in their live performances for variety. For example U2 have performed ABBA's Dancing Queen live, and Kylie Minogue has performed The Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" - songs that would be completely out of character for them to record, but which allow them artistic freedom when performing live. These performances are often released as part of authorised "live recordings" and thus become legitimate cover versions.
In recent years unrelated contemporary artists have contributed individual cover versions to tribute albums for well established artists who are considered to be influential and inspiring. Each project has resulted in a collection of the particular artist's best recognised or most highly regarded songs reworked by more current performers. Among the artists to receive this form of recognition are ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, Dolly Parton, Duran Duran, Carole King and Led Zeppelin.
Punk music is known for deconstructing classic rock or pop songs by reinterpreting them in punk form. Bands like Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, NOFX and Goldfinger are especially known for doing so. In recent years, several jam bands and related groups have begun covering hip hop songs, most frequently only live in concert. Perhaps the most famous such-cover recorded in a studio and released commercially is a bluegrass version of "Gin and Juice" by Snoop Doggy Dogg, as performed by the Gourds. Other artists like Phish and Keller Williams have covered "Rappers Delight" (The Sugarhill Gang), "Baby Got Back" (Sir Mix-A-Lot) and other hip hop songs.
An extreme example of punk cover versions is the punk band GABBA, who mix the songs of ABBA and The Ramones.
Most covered bands
The Beatles have been covered more than any other band; "Yesterday" has been covered over three thousand times since its original release in 1965. Other songs which have been released many times as cover versions include the infamous "Louie Louie" by Richard Berry, "Free Bird" (Lynyrd Skynyrd), "No Woman No Cry" (Bob Marley & the Wailers) and many of the less recent works of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (as of December 5, 2004, there were at least 940 published cover versions of Cohen songs  (http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/test.html)).
Many popular bands have a tribute album, consisting entirely of covers of their songs performed by various other bands, often quite different from the original. The soundtrack to the film I Am Sam was a particularly popular example of this; it consisted of Beatles songs redone by various modern artists. This was done because of the refusal of the Beatles to license their songs to soundtracks. See above for an explanation of compulsory licensing and copyright relating to covers. Another notable example is Conception: The Interpretation of Stevie Wonder Songs, which is an album consisting of covers of songs originally recorded by Stevie Wonder and an original song by Stevie Wonder's mentee India.Arie, singing about Stevie Wonder. There are also bands who create entire albums out of covers, but unlike Tin Pan Alley-style traditional pop singers, they often perform the songs in a genre completely unlike the original songs. Examples include the Moog Cookbook (alternative and classic rock songs done on Moog synthesizers), Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine (top 40, including punk, heavy metal, teen pop and indie rock performed in a Vegas lounge lizard style), and Hayseed Dixie (a play on the name AC/DC, they started covering AC/DC songs and progressed to other classic rock, playing them as bluegrass songs, similar to The Gourds' version of "Gin and Juice.")
History of the term "cover version"
The term "cover version" is in wide use today, among musicians and record collectors; however, there is little agreement on exactly what it means!
In the first few decades of the recording industry, it was common practice for record companies to record all the songs they expected to become "hits." When a new song was released, it was the job of the "song plugger" to convince the record companies, as well as performers, that the song would become a big seller. As a result, many...in some cases, most...record companies issued versions of those songs successfully promoted, sometimes even by the same artist! When the average record buyer went out to purchase a new record, he/she/it usually asked for the song, not the artist...although there were a few exceptions, such as artists like Al Jolson or John McCormack.
This began to change in the later 1930's, when the average age of the record-buying public began to drop. During the "Swing Era," when the bobby-soxer went looking for "In the Mood," they wanted the popular Glenn Miller version...not someone else's! However, record companies (there were only three or four at the time!) still continued to record different versions of songs that sold well.
After the pop-music doldrums of 1946-54, rock'n'roll began to emerge...and, with it a new way of thinking among record buyers. When a teen went out to buy "Rock Around the Clock," they wanted the same recording they heard on the radio! Since this was a bit before the emergence of artist/songwriters, anyone could have recorded the tune, and some did...but their records simply didn't sell!
However, a new trend began to emerge. When a recording became popular in a specialty field...such as country & western, rhythm & blues (a euphemism for Black music) or even ethnic music, "name" artists often did "cover versions" of the songs in a more staid style. Several of Hank Williams' c&w hits were so treated, as well as a number of Black artists' discs. The term, as used today, is usually applied to the latter records.
While it is all but impossible to trace the actual history of the term "cover version," it is likely the term began to be used by record collectors once the early rock'n'roll records had become collectible. For example, many of Pat Boone's hits were copies of popular records by Black artists, as well as some by Rick(y) Nelson, and these are usually dismissed as "cover versions."
Today, the term even applies to live music/ A band who performs mostly hits in their chosen genre is known as a "cover band," since their performances "cover" older hit performances. This is, of course, to be distinguished from a "tribute band"...a band which tries to perform the hits of a well-known band, in the same style and as closely mimicked as possible.
The actual term, "cover," probably applies to the fact that the artist who recorded the newer version of the song would have his records literally "cover" the original version...if, indeed, it was available in most record stores.
- A Straight Dope column on cover versions (http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_324b.html)
- They Did it Their Way (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml;sessionid=0YYI3EIM55XSLQFIQMGCM54AVCBQUJVC?xml=/arts/2004/11/20/bmcovercont20.xml&sSheet=/arts/2004/11/20/ixtop.html&secureRefresh=true&_requestid=35206), the 50 greatest cover songs of all time, as selected by The Telegraph (November 23, 2004)
- The Covers Project (http://www.coversproject.com), an online database of cover versions, searchable by artist.