360°Sound spoke with Ray Padgett, an expert on cover songs and founder of the widely read blog Cover Me. Padgett has written about music for many publications, including The New Yorker, SPIN and Vice. He is the author of the book Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs Of All Time.
This exclusive interview focuses on his forthcoming book I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, part of the 33 1/3 series of books on classic albums. The 168-page book, which comes out Sept. 3., tells the story behind the 1991 tribute album that revived Cohen’s career and helped make “Hallelujah” the standard it is today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Please start by telling us how you so got interested in covers and tribute albums.
Padgett: In college, 12 years ago, I was listening to a radio show that Bob Dylan used to host called Theme Time Radio Hour [on XM Satellite Radio]. He played this cover as part of a bunch of songs he was playing on the theme of summer. He played a version of the Gershwin song “Summertime,” which I’ve heard that song a million times. The version he played was by soul singer Billy Stewart. I’d never heard it. Every other version of that song I’d heard in the past was very slow and languid. But the Billy Stewart version is fast and there’s scatting and it’s up-tempo, and it’s electric and exciting.
I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I didn’t know you could do this to a song.’ I didn’t know you could take the same lyric and roughly the same melody and transform it so dramatically. It’s one of those rare lightbulb moments where I thought, ‘What other songs do that?’ So that’s how I went into the rabbit hole of cover songs. Pretty soon after, I started a blog on this subject. I don’t think I even knew what a tribute album was at the time, but if you start paying attention to cover songs, pretty soon you’ll start discovering what tribute albums are. Pretty soon that was a reasonably big part of what we were writing about on the site.
A tribute album typically refers to various artists covering different songs by the same artist. Is that right?
That’s the definition I use. The idea of one artist paying tribute to another artist has been around forever. Johnny Cash did a couple of them, Merle Haggard doing Jimmie Rodgers, Aretha doing Dinah Washington. That’s been around as long as the album format has been around. But the idea of the tribute album as this tribute compilation started in the ‘80s.
The movement was mostly kicked off by Hal Willner, the late great producer who sort of came up with this eclectic idea to combine a bunch of artists from all sorts of different genres to pay tribute to a single artist. The first one he did was for [Italian film director Federico] Fellini’s composer, which was super esoteric, a guy named Nino Rota. But eventually, Willner got slightly more well-known people and then they were just big enough that other people jumped on this idea.
In the ‘90s, the format really exploded with tributes by all the major record labels and every famous band then appears on a tribute. It’s still going today. Every year I probably come across 50 to 100 new tribute albums.
Of all the tribute albums to write a 33 1/3 book about, why did you choose I’m Your Fan?
I knew I wanted to write a book about tribute albums in some sense. I pretty soon decided that the only way to do that would be the 33 1/3 series, because I’ve read a lot of those. I wanted a similar approach of picking one album and kind of zooming out where half the book is not specifically about that album.
I made lists of all the tribute albums I like, and that was an extremely long list. That was hundreds. Then I narrowed it down to tribute albums that other people have actually heard of, and that was a much shorter list because most of my picks were pretty obscure. What landed me on [I’m Your Fan] was tribute albums that have had a concrete impact on music history and were relatively early in the format’s existence.
A thing you hear a lot with tribute albums is, ‘Has it broadened the artist’s appeal?’ Has it revived their career?’ And that’s true with a lot of tribute albums, including I’m You Fan. I was looking for a specific, measurable impact a tribute album had. With I’m Your Fan, the measurable impact was “Hallelujah” basically becoming famous via this album, John Cale to Jeff Buckley. I thought it was a nice hook to have a tribute album that had a really specific impact on the music industry. As a tribute album it’s quite good, and I’m a Leonard Cohen fan.
What’s your favorite Leonard Cohen cover on I’m Your Fan?
The initial one that jumped out at me was R.E.M. doing “First We Take Manhattan,” which I think is kind of the definitive version of that song. On some level, it’s not all that different, but Leonard Cohen is a good person to cover for his songs from the ‘80s because he kind of fell off the deep end on incredibly ‘80s production techniques, which sometimes hamper otherwise great songs.
One that jumped out at me while working on this book is the African singer Geoffrey Oryema. “Suzanne” was, up until I’m Your Fan and “Hallelujah,” the most covered Leonard Cohen song. Even by 1991, it was hard to do a new or different version, but I think he definitely did.
In general, what makes a good cover?
My first answer is to flip it and say, ‘what makes a bad cover song?’ People always ask me what the worst cover ever is. My line always is that the worst song ever is a tie between any cover that doesn’t change anything. The very baseline level is you have to change something. You have to make it your own. That can be changing it entirely, or it can be more subtle changes. My favorite covers are all over the place. The only thing uniting them is that somehow, they are different than the original.
I would think that because a lot of tribute albums are not on streaming and have never been pressed to vinyl, there’s a niche market for tribute CDs. A lot of them you can probably only hear on CD.
Yeah, including I’m Your Fan, because these labels would do all the licensing for CD format, but they wouldn’t do it for digital music because it wasn’t a thing then. And of course, that’s true for any album, but if you’re talking about Nirvana or Pearl Jam or *NSYNC, whatever CD-era album, then you just need one or two people to sign on to a new license and negotiate with a couple people to get it up on streaming.
With a tribute album, you might need 20 different people with 20 different managers and 20 different lawyers, many of whom are not on your record label. It’s certainly doable, but a lot of times people don’t bother, which I think is a huge shame. Any new tribute album that comes on now is on streaming. It’s no problem for the tribute albums of the past decade or so. But this whole first wave of CD-era tribute albums for 20 years are really hit or miss on streaming.
What are a few tribute albums you’d recommend?
One of the first great tribute albums was The Bridge, a tribute to Neil Young. It’s got Pixies, Sonic Youth and Nick Cave. That one is just amazing. Flying Nun Records, this cool record label in New Zealand, did a tribute to ABBA [entitled Abbasalutely]. And ABBA is not a band that you’d expect cool hipster indie rock labels to be tributing [laughs], but it really works out well.
Peter Gabriel did this really interesting thing where he traded covers with a whole bunch of artists. He recorded an album of covers called Scratch My Back, where he covered Talking Heads and Bon Iver and all these other people, and then he got them to cover his songs, and that’s the tribute album. It’s called And I’ll Scratch Yours. It’s got David Byrne and Magnetic Fields and Arcade Fire and Lou Reed. It’s amazing.
I’m Your Fan track listing:
- “First We Take Manhattan” – R.E.M.
- “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” – Ian McCulloch
- “I Can’t Forget” – Pixies
- “Stories of the Street” – That Petrol Emotion
- “Bird on the Wire” – The Lilac Time
- “Suzanne” – Geoffrey Oryema
- “So Long, Marianne” – James
- “Avalanche IV” – Jean-Louis Murat
- “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” – David McComb & Adam Peters
- “Who by Fire” – The House of Love
- “Chelsea Hotel” – Lloyd Cole
- “Tower of Song” – Robert Forster
- “Take This Longing” – Peter Astor
- “True Love Leaves No Traces” – Dead Famous People
- “I’m Your Man” – Bill Pritchard
- “A Singer Must Die” – The Fatima Mansions
- “Tower of Song” – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- “Hallelujah” – John Cale