(This essay was written for a music class I took in college, taught by musician David Grubbs)
The cover song. It can make or break an artist.
Make them because if another musician covers their song and it turns out to be a huge success, they are set with a new found fame. Break them because if another musician covers their song and it turns out to be a bomb, they are stuck with the same fame they started with. Well, maybe the cover song, defined as any recording of a song that was “first recorded or made popular by somebody else,” would not necessarily “break them” as much as keep them stagnant. But what if the first is truer than the latter?
Take for example Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version of “Hallelujah,” featured on his debut album Grace, originally recorded by Leonard Cohen, featured on his 1984 album Various Positions. Despite possible evidence to the contrary, it can be argued that Buckley was the sole musician to bring Cohen’s 1984 song to life. After its release, Buckley’s version has appeared on numerous “greatest cover songs” and “greatest songs” lists. A music electronic magazine, Digitaldreamdoor.com, ranked Buckley’s version as one of the greatest cover songs on their “100 Greatest Cover Songs” list while Rolling Stone Magazine ranked his remake number 259 on their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in 2004, stating that, “during his famed early gigs at the New York club Sin-e, Buckley used to break hearts with his version of this Cohen prayer. Buckley called it [sic] homage to ‘the hallelujah of the orgasm’…” On a 2003 “10 Best Cover Songs” list in The Agitator, written by Radley Balko, Buckley’s “Hallelujah” was ranked number one with the comment, “best Cohen cover. Maybe best cover. Spooky. Romantic. Angelic. Ghostly. Beautiful.” (Cohen’s version was named the tenth greatest Canadian song of all time in Chart Magazine’s 2005 reader poll, while Rufus Wainwright’s cover of the song for the “Shrek” soundtrack was listed as number 70 for Retrocrush.com’s best cover songs list with the note, “Though I got a lot of requests to include the Jeff Buckley version of the Cohen tune, I really prefer the Rufus Wainwright version from the ‘Shrek’ soundtrack. They’re all good no matter which one you prefer, for that matter. It’s such a beautiful soulful song from all three folks.”).
The two songs, however, are drastically different. Cohen’s version is quite masturbatory – the vocals are mind-numbing and sleepy with a dependency on gospel hymn vocals and synth keyboards, definitive of 1980s folk – while Jeff Buckley’s 1994 take relies more on grieving guitar work. The vocals are reflective and mournful and, overall, the song is fatalistic and religiously erotic. Unlike Cohen’s version, which the Canadian musician is quoted as saying took over two years to write in the 1993 Saturday Night article “Growing Old Disgracefully” by Ian Pearson, Buckley indulged himself in over 20 different experimental takes on the song, only to have Grammy Award-winning music studio engineer Andy Wallace splice together the final piece from said experimentations, thus arriving to the song heard on Buckley’s Grace, according to the Tim Buckley/Jeff Buckley biography Dream Brother by David Browne. Browne also wrote that Buckley discovered “Hallelujah” in 1991 after purchasing the Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan while rummaging through record bins at music stores for different songs to cover. It was on that tribute that Buckley heard John Cale’s 1991 version of the song and decided to put his own spin on it. Lyrically, both Buckley’s and Cale’s versions are different from Cohen’s 1984 original. All three contain explicit biblical references in the lyrics – for example, the line “She broke your throne and she cut your hair and from your lips, she drew a ‘Hallelujah’,” which can be said to be taken from the idea of Samson’s strength in the Book of Judges – however, in 1994, Cohen released a different version of the song on Cohen Live (recorded in 1988), retaining only the final verse of the song, and in this version, the lyrics take on more of a sexual shape. It is said Buckley and Cale mixed the original lyrics with the 1988 version.
But how were Jeff Buckley and other artists able to obtain the rights to record and distribute their variations? According to a 2004 article, “The Cover Song Quagmire: Three Ways to Obtain Mechanical Licenses for Legally Recording/Distributing Cover Versions on CD,” by Dale Turner, as featured on www.CleverJoe.com, in order to legally obtain rights to record and distribute a cover version of any song, a musician must first obtain mechanical licensing, which is the licensing of copyrighted musical compositions for use on records, tapes, audio CDs and certain digital configurations. A musician can also obtain digital licensing, which is the licensing of copyrighted musical compositions in a digital format, such as downloads, on-demand streaming and CD burning. The article goes on to say that musicians covering a song should be aware that while they are granted mechanical licensing, it does not mean they can reprint the original lyrics of the song in their album’s sleeve. According to Turner, a performer must clear the rights to reprint any lyrics through the publisher directly and in order to use audio excerpts from the musician’s original master recording, the cover artist would need to be cleared separately by obtaining a master recording license straight from the record label that owns the master to the recording. Turner also goes on to say that once a song has been commercially released by an artist, that particular song can conceivably be re-recorded and released by anyone choosing to do so, only holding true if the melody and lyricsdo not significantly differ in the cover version and that proper fees and royalties are directly paid to the song’s copyright holder (he does warn that if a musician is to release cover songs on an album, then try to acquire proper licensing afterwards, they are no longer eligible and can possibly subject themselves to penalties and prosecution for copyright infringement). So in short, anyone redistributing and re-recording a song is entirely accountable for meeting the licensing requirements of said song and paying any related fees and royalties to the owner of the said original material.
It seems that Buckley was right to take on the task of being another musician to cover such a poetic song. His cover, despite the fact that it had failed to peak on the charts, according two Billboard websites: www.billboard.com (Billboard Magazine) and www.billboard.biz, (in fact, according to the aforementioned sites, neither John Cale’s 1991 cover version of “Hallelujah” nor Leonard Cohen’s original made any of charts), has received praise among music-aficionados. On an internationally-visited website dedicated to cover songs, www.cover-vs-original.com, Buckley’s version has so far received 78.5 percent out of 1071 votes in a poll about which version of “Hallelujah” is the better one, while Cohen’s original has only received 21.5 percent. A user, simply identified as Matt from New York City, commented on the site, “Buckley’s stripped-down version sounds more sincere & graceful. Cohen’s original seems less elegant & his spoken/sung lyrics sound almost tongue-in-cheek. Just my opinion. They’re both great versions of a masterfully written song.” While others on the website do not necessarily agree that Buckley’s version is the “ultimate best,” most favor the cover versions over the original. One user, Kelly from Ottawa, Canada, wrote, “Leonard Cohen is an amazing poet and songwriter; however, his voice does not do his songs justice. Some of the best versions of Cohen’s songs are covers, but this does not discredit Cohen’s talent in writing the songs.” Another user, Jan Verdonck from Antwerp, Belgium, wrote, “I’m sorry to say that my favorite version is the John Cale cover. You can come across it in the first ‘Shrek’ movie. Sadly, on the soundtrack CD, it’s yet another performer, Rufus Wainwright, the least of all, in my humble opinion.”An album review of Grace on Sputnikmusic.com called Buckley’s remake “intensely emotional” and “one of two of the album’s finest moments.” Another review on Amazon.com stated that the cover was “taking a Leonard Cohen standard and making his own testament.” There are also two online forums that have dedicated threads to the song. One thread, found on Whirlpool.com, which dates from September 28, 2005 to May 24, 2006, is a long discussion on the “most beautiful song in the world,” starting with one user claiming that such a titled belongs to Buckley’s “Hallelujah” (over 25 out of 35 posts tended to agree). Another forum, which dates from April 28, 2002 to May 24, 2006, on 8notes.com, a site devoted to finding sheet music for particular songs, starts with an inquiring into how to find sheet music for Cale’s version as heard in “Shrek” but turns into personal opinions of the song. Other artists who have put their spin on the 1984 classic are: Bono, lead vocalist of U2, Bob Dylan, Allison Crowe, crooner K.D. Lang, “brat pack” member Anthony Michael Hall, Ryan Adams with Willie Nelson, Fionna Apple, Imogen Heap, Ari Heist, Jeff Buckley fan Howie Day, Gavin DeGraw, Irish folk artist Damien Rice, Bronx-born Regina Spektor, Starsailor (who took their name from a Tim Buckley, father of Jeff Buckley, song) and Gord Downie. What’s particularly interesting is that Bono and U2 guitarist the Edge performed “Hallelujah” at one of their concerts out of respect for Jeff Buckley after his drowning in 1997, (this isn’t a bit surprising as many artists covered songs by Buckley after he died, most notably Canadian band Our Lady Peace, who did a rendition of Buckley’s song “Eternal Life” during numerous concerts). There is also an A Cappella version of “Hallelujah” by Clemson University’s Take Note, which is included on the Best of College A Cappella 2006 album. And, to add, emo group Fall Out Boy sampled “Hallelujah” for their track “Hum Hallelujah” on their 2007 album Infinity on High. Each artist adds their own flare to the already haunting yet oddly uplifting Cohen copy but it seems most artists follow step-by-step the notes of either Buckley’s or Cale’s variation rather than Cohen’s. Most artists listed who have covered the song have covered it after Cale’s version was released and most notably, a large body of artists covered it after Buckley had, which makes one wonder: while some musicians put there own spin to the Cohen song, was Jeff Buckley really the musician who helped propel it into the spotlight?
Let’s take a look at two particular covers: K.D. Lang’s, featured on her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel , and Anthony Michael Hall’s, for 2004’sThe Dead Zone television soundtrack. KD Lang’s version relies heavily on the piano, as it is the primary instrument that carries out the song, rather than the guitar-driven and reverb-heavy 1994 Buckley version, but her voice, indeed full and harmonic, tends to lean towards Buckley’s melody, creating a mix of the gospel-inspired style of Cohen’s original and Buckley’s lament one. Anthony Michael Hall, however, copies Buckley’s song note for note. The guitar work, while not as overplayed, sounds close to Buckley’s and Hall’s vocals too, while not as sharp or melodic, are similar. One student journalist, Audrey S. Yap, notes in her 2004 article “Foreseeing Death: A Truly Weird Science” for the University of California at Berkley newspaper The Daily Californian, “the highlight of the [The Dead Zone] album is Anthony Michael Hall’s acoustic, wailing rendition of ‘Hallelujah.’ Earnest, unexpected and complete with choir back-ups and angelic cooing, Hall renders a lullaby quality you’d expect to hear in Baptist church.’ According Answers.com, Jeff Buckley’s version has appeared on numerous television shows and movies and also has been mistaken as the original version. When researching the number of films and television shows, it turns out that “Hallelujah” has appeared in, those listed were released after 1994, as according to Answers.com, and no one show or movie using the song premiered between 1984, when Cohen’s version was recorded, and 1994, when Buckley debuted his cover. In particular, three movies listed (1996’s “Basquait,” 2001’s “Shrek,” and 2004’s “The Edukators”) featured covers of the 1984 original – “Basquait” and “Shrek” both used John Cale’s 1991 remake (Rufus Wainwright’s 2001 recreation of Cale’s cover was included on the “Shrek” soundtrack), while “The Edukators” played Buckley’s version. (Other movies that used “Hallelujah,” but didn’t list which version, are: 1995’s “When Night is Falling,” 2005’s “A Lot Like Love,” the 2006 documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” and 2006’s “Lord of War.”)As for television shows, Showtime’s lesbian drama “The L Word,” which premiered in 2004, used Wainwright’s cover, while the campy teen soap opera “The O.C.” featured Buckley’s rendition twice and once by Imogen Heap and coroner-turned-unofficial copper drama, NBC’s “Crossing Jordan,” which premiered in 2001, used Buckley’s cover in one of the episodes. Other shows that used “Hallelujah” with no mentioned of which cover are: BBC’s “Holby City,” FOX’s “House,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” ABC Family’s “Falcon Beach” (a Canadian show), CBS’ “Criminal Minds” and “Without a Trace,” NBC’s “Third Watch,” and FX’s “Nip/Tuck.” It seems that if it wasn’t for Buckley’s now-famous remake, or even Cale’s 1991 cover, Cohen’s original would not have gained as much popularity as it has in the past 13 years after Buckley’s release of his debut album Grace, which his version appears on. The number of artists who have went on to record their own rendition of “Hallelujah” either debuted or covered the song after 1994. However, one cannot just attribute the revitalization of Cohen’s 1984 song to Buckley’s or Cale’s popular take on it. If it also weren’t for popular culture, i.e. being television shows and mainstream films, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” might not have received as much recognition as it has. This theory, however, bears a new question: which came first, the cover or the television show/film? That’s something that can only be speculated and answered another day.