Cover Songs, Really?

What’s up with bands getting big playing cover songs? In my opinion, the rise of the tribute band has been a big contributor to a weird new phenomenon. It seems to me that, in recent years, bands that play cover songs get more respect than bands that play music they’ve composed themselves.

Recently, I was at the gym and a guy asked me, “What cover songs does your band play?” I told him that since we play just about all original music, we really don’t play many cover songs. I was shocked when he was not at all impressed that Reverend Horton Heat plays original music – he was actually disappointed. Then, he went into some expert explanation of how important it was that Jerry Garcia cut his teeth playing cover songs. Puuuuleeaase!

I know, I know, I shouldn’t even be bothered about this one opinion. But it kind of made me wonder if there are more people with this same wrong-headed way of thinking out there.

So, just in case there are people out there who think that playing cover songs is harder than writing and playing your own, I’ve got this rant for them.

First off, we have the Beatles and Stones to thank for the major paradigm shift in the music business that caused record companies and the public to truly appreciate bands that wrote their own songs. Sure, there were great artists writing their own music forever, but it wasn’t until the Beatles that the record companies really got pulled away from trying to pin a “hit song” on an artist instead of finding and accepting a song that the artist had written themselves. Sure, the Beatles did release a lot of cover songs, especially at the beginning of their recording career, but they seemed to really hit big with the songs they wrote themselves. And we’re lucky they wrote great songs or things may have never changed. It was the same thing with the Stones and others who popped up in the mid-sixties. From then on, managers and record companies were more concerned with new bands being able to write and play their own songs. The only problem was that it was almost impossible for new bands to do this because the crowds at clubs and dances still demanded that the local bands play songs that were familiar – hits of the day or songs that people knew and loved.

Things were pretty much like that all the way up until I started playing in bands. The first bands that I played in, worked the high school dances, ballrooms, clubs and frat parties. You could not get gigs in those places playing original songs. And, you had to be good at covering the songs you chose to play. I got pretty good at learning guitar parts note-for-note off of records. And some of the people in the bands that I played with were phenomenal at mimicking the hit singers and players of the day. So, there were some really good cover bands out there in those days, but we all knew that none of the record companies would have you unless you wrote your own songs. So, we wrote songs and tried to fit them in on the gigs. It never worked. It was an instant train-wreck on the dance floor (although we didn’t use the term train-wreck back in those days). It was super frustrating. Therefore, back then, bands that could get by playing mostly, if not all, of their own songs, could hold their head high as all of the other bands were sure that they were going to get a big record deal….Ha Ha. I can only think of two bands in all of Texas that played their own songs and got good gigs. The rest of us just dreamed of being in a band like that and kept cranking out the covers.

So, the fact that Reverend Horton Heat started out playing mainly original songs was a real milestone in my life. I thought that I may never do it, but I did. I wrote the songs that got me the gigs and made Reverend Horton Heat grow. Every musician in the world dreams of doing that, but most fail. I failed – in earlier bands. The sad thing too is that even if bands have some pretty great songs, they have to play cover songs to get the gigs, it’s a terrible Catch-22. But, I somehow managed to overcome that and I’m still proud of it. It did help that original music was a little more accepted in the alternative days of the late eighties.

But now, are we in a situation where people respect cover bands more than original bands? Maybe we are. Look at all of the tribute bands. Some are bands that pay “tribute” to bands that are still actively touring, so the “tribute” band tours and the “real” band tours. The band Sublime has a tribute band that plays

some pretty big venues I’m told. I’ve heard that some of the “tribute” bands are so big they play in the same venues as the real bands. This is really pathetic. I guess that there are a couple of tribute bands that I’ve enjoyed, but it’s still a little weird and somehow sad to watch. My favorite cover bands are bands that pick some really obscure cover songs and make them work. So, I don’t want to beat up my fellow musician cover band artists out there – I’ve been there too, but there is a point here that needs to be made.

It really gets my goat when one of my friends, someone I’ve met at the grocery store or someone anywhere says something to me like, “You would be really great if you could play ‘Free Bird’ by Lynyrd Skynrd.”

Here’s what should be my stock answer, “I used to play that song note-for-note and still could play that song or any song note-for-frickin-note if I had the time to sit down with the record player and learn it like I did when I was sixteen years old. Now I do something way harder, I write and play songs that sell CDs and concert tickets. And if you knew the years and years I spent playing cover songs, dreaming of making it with my own songs, you would realize just how stupid that remark you made is.” Of course, at least outwardly, I’m too modest to say that, so I just say, “Yeah…’Free Bird’.”

So that’s about it. I will leave you with a funny cover song story though.

I was in a band that played a wide variety of cover songs and became kind of like a ‘show band’. It was a band that was stuck in the cover song Catch-22 like all of the bands were in those days. I was just the guitar player in a group of some really great singers especially – but everyone could hold their own. Anyway, we were learning the song ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ by Queen. Someone brought their album and we had it on the turntable in lead singer’s garage. There’s a long part in the middle of that song that gets a little weird. We went over it several times and finally figured it out – or thought we had. We played the song live in many clubs for about a year when one of us brought a different copy of the album to practice and we figured out that the album we learned the song off of had a skip in that weird middle section. So, we were playing the skip! There was about four

seconds of the song that we didn’t even know was there, so we didn’t play it! Instead of re-learning that section of the song, ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ had about run its course so we just dropped it, but playing it like the album that had the skip actually shortened it up a bit and made it a little more palatable for the dancing crowd.

After watching one of those awful episodes of the TV show ‘Hoarders’, I was cleaning out a bunch of stuff when I came across a few boxes of our 1999 vinyl single ‘King’ backed with ‘The Girl in Blue’. So Jimbo came over and we autographed a bunch of them and are selling them on reverendhortonheat.com. We listened to one of them and it sounded pretty good and really ‘authentic’. Go to the ‘merch’ tab on the website and check ‘em out.

Until next time, stay as safe as hot rodders can be. Thanks for the gig.