I’m focusing on the ‘reggae cover version’ in this blog. The cover version usually refers to another recorded version, that someone has already originally recorded before them, but the ‘original’ version of the song may or may not have been written by the artist that recorded it. It seems to be a common practice, by reggae artists to cover songs that have originally been recorded by someone else. I’ve created a you tube playlist with original and cover versions of songs that have been turned into reggae songs, or reggae songs that have been given a different treatment. The link to the you tube playlist is below this image:
We often hear that something “isn’t as good as the original”, but is this always the case? There are certainly enough examples where this is true and cover versions may be a blatant exercise in cashing in on someone else’s hard work. Reggae is most closely associated with Bob Marley and I’ll start by comparing one of his most famous songs, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ to a famous cover version that was recorded by Eric Clapton in 1974. Reggae purists may never accept that Eric Clapton’s version of ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ has any merit when compared to Bob Marley’s original recording. I think with any cover version, it has be critically analysed on it’s merits and Eric Clapton’s version is an authentic interpretation by one of the world’s most celebrated blues / rock guitarists. I don’t think Clapton was trying to mimic or cash in on Marley’s classic composition, instead, I think he found a certain funky groove that was suggested by Marley, but not quite realised.
While the music may hold it’s own against Marley’s version, the cultural significance that the lyrical content has for a proclaimed Rastafarian like Marley, who openly practises smoking marijuana and probably cultivates it also, cannot be underestimated. The defiance that this practice would have and the lyrics that testify to that determination to practice their beliefs despite the illegal nature of it, would no doubt be tied to the rebellious content of the lyrics. This is where Clapton’s version would never hold it’s own, but, does it have to? The founder and director of Bob Marley’s record label, Chris Blackwell (Island Records), mentioned that when Eric Clapton covered Bob Marley’s song, it was the most easily identifiable event that jettisoned Bob Marley into stardom on an international level. This would be an example where the person covering the song, has brought attention to the original author of the music and assisted in that artist receiving success in turn.
I feel that music needs to evolve in order for it to remain not only relevant, but vital. Credibility and the cover versions don’t always happily co-exist and often, cover versions may be seen as a blatant money making exercise that doesn’t pay homage to the original version of the song, the lyrical content, the musical content and sometimes, the cultural significance that is often attributed to the song; as is the case with Eric Clapton covering such a significant song such as: I Shot The Sheriff. The same could also be said of reggae artists taking a popular song of the time and creating a reggae version of it, in order to cash in on the popularity of the song simply by providing a reggae beat to the original harmony and melody. I don’t think this could be said of the Dennis Brown version of: It’s Too Late – Carole King. I feel that Brown’s version of the song honours the emotional content of the song and the reggae rhythm works within the format of the original. With this, lies the quality of the vocal delivery and connection that the artist has with the emotional content of the song.
With UB40’s version Neil Diamond’s: Red Red Wine, there was possibly some contention at the time of it’s release that reggae music, had taken a wrong turn and become firmly stuck in the middle of the road. While reggae music had moved on from it’s political associations by the time of the release of this song in 1983, did UB40 do anything politically incorrect by releasing this song? Their name suggests that they were all receiving unemployment benefits and they also started as a reggae band singing about themes of social inequality. Their reggae music has a certain laid-back ‘vibe’ which once again, seems to connect with the emotional content of the lyrics and music seems to be of an appropriate tempo to enable the storytelling to take place.
With the case of Easy Star All Stars version of Pink Floyd’s classic: Dark Side Of The Moon, we see less of a cover version and more of a genuine interpretation using dub reggae as the medium. Another way of thinking about it might be, the medium informs the interpretation. I’ve included a hilarious version of Money, by the Easy All Stars, which plays with the the sound effects that were used on the original recording and associations of reggae music and marijuana smoking, by sampling and editing the sounds of someone smoking a bong and then coughing, repeatedly. I think this interpretation really brings something new to this song and I can see the connection between the atmospheric nature of Pink Floyd’s work and that of dub reggae, with it’s use of lush echo and deliberate ‘breakdown’ in the music. This is where the instrumentation is stripped back and the bass and drums are left to complex interplay between them.
So what if any is the prevalence of doing reggae cover versions? The laid-back rhythms of reggae certainly shouldn’t mean that the lyrical content suffers or that the emotional content of the song is limited. I think significant reggae artists like Bob Marley and Dennis Brown, were like blues artists in the sense that there was a vitality about the emotional expression that is easily identifiable and is in sync with that very distinctive reggae rhythm. In any case, a cover version is a chance for a new interpretation and by laying a reggae rhythm on top of an existing song, does it mean that it’s any less valid? I’d like to think that cover versions are a part of the evolution of music and that new interpretations for new generations keeps good songs alive and presented to new audiences who are always then able to appreciate the original recordings and investigate further if inspired to do so.