How many historians does it take to start a cover band?

When we began the Brighton hub of Wellcome’s sexology and Song-writing project we imagined that the young women involved would undertake some sort of original research and then write songs about it. It quickly became clear that the young women participants and the youth work and music practitioners had some different priorities.  The practitioners wanted to concentrate on building a secure and supportive environment in which to build a collective group identity, and the young women wanted to sing songs that they already knew and liked.  The young sexology song-writers didn’t want to write songs.  They wanted to cover and recover them.  Once we recognised that the priorities of the practitioners and of the young women needed to be our priorities too, we moved towards their goals.  We weren’t training them to be researchers.  They were training us in their modes of re-enactment: an active and creative intervention in a cultural circuit that brought together the legitimacy of publicly celebrated singer-songwriters, with their own experiences and voices.

I want to explore the agency and creativity of their cover versions, then I want to think about the lessons that they have taught me about being a historian.  There seems to me to be a close relationship between the two assumptions with which we begun the project.  Our assumption about what constituted research, and what constituted song-writing both privileged certain sort of production.  When we began we thought about encouraging the song writers to undertake their own original research, perhaps through interview.  And we imagined that they would take inspiration from the content and translate it into original lyrics and music.

Partly this was because Wellcome were funding us to produce original songs.  But it didn’t seem very appropriate to make the young women become song-writers when they didn’t want to be.  It was not clear how enforcing our agenda would fit with our wider responsibility to enable their self-expression and facilitate a sense of ownership of the project.   When two slightly different points came together the problem shifted out of the way.  Firstly, we could read cover versions as a creative active engagement rather than a lack of creativity, secondly we could read historical research as much closer to a cover version than it is to singer song-writing.

The research that I shared with the group was a historical analysis of two songs about sex, Bessie Smith’s Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl, (1931) and Salt N Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex (1991).  We talked about the difference between measuring how sexuality changed over time, and measuring how the way in which sexuality was talked about changed over time.  So although the group used data from the Good Sex Project for their ‘research’, the box of photocopied primary sources on sex and sexuality (e.g. Little Kinsey, and the  Hayes Code,) that I had supplied remained unopened.

The girls added their own verse to Ed Sheeran’s The A Team which was one of the songs that they enjoyed singing as a group.

The young women in the project’s resistance to write in favour of performing well known tracks pointed to a lack of confidence in their own skills.  They were not comfortable in producing music that would give them their own voice and instead deferred to the expertise of established successful female singer song writers like Adele, Lily Allen and Ella Henderson.

The young women in the project may have lacked the confidence to initially define themselves as song writers, but that did not mean that their decision to sing other people’s songs was an abdication of their own creative potential.  The collective act of singing covers together can be read as democratising, the redistribution of an individual star’s success amongst a group of young women sharing lines, taking turns, and making their consumption an active process.  When they sang in rounds, with one voice building on another, it helped the individual voice fit into the collective chorus. The cover version is therefore an active, re-enactment, rather than a low quality replay of the original track. (Furthermore, as Farrell Williams, George Harrison, and Country Joe Macdonald have all learnt the originality of an ‘original’ composition may not be that simple either.  Subconscious or conscious musical plagiarism suggests how often it is that ‘melodies align’ across time and genre, even unwittingly).[1]

The Lily Allen track Smile, which the young women enjoyed singing together, is built around a sample from the 1968 track Free Soul  by the Soul Brothers.

In the current cultural context it isn’t really surprising that the young people in our project did not have any concerns about the inauthenticity of the cover version.  The cover band is bigger business than ever.  The karaoke machine and the dance mat provide regular opportunities to put yourself in the original artist’s place.  Computer games like Sing Star, for example, combine karoake with role play of the journey from starlet to stardom. There are a number of well established local and national music festivals that specialise in tribute acts; TribFest, Glastonbudget, Fake Festival, Wannasee Festival to name just a few.  Dermot O’Leary’s Live Lounge developed the cover song as a cunning, knowing and creative intervention.  Glee built each episode’s narrative structure around a chirpy cover of an often incongruous pop or rock classic. Whilst the TV talent show certainly isn’t new, the dominance of a very particular reality TV or ‘gamedoc’[2] format situates the cover song at the centre of the creative process.

In X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice, and the earlier incarnations of the format, Popstars and Pop Idol, good singers get their break at audition by singing someone else’s songs, chosen from a list of pre-agreed choices.  If they ‘make it their own’ well enough, they might get through to the next stages of the competition after which they will be reliant on their mentors or judges to choose the right song, costumes and arrangements for them.  To be a real star, you need to be packaged and scripted by a real star-maker.  The line between the individual artist competing and the star-maker behind them blurs all the time. It gets pretty hard to work out who has won, or failed, when the songs are popular with voting audiences or bomb. It’s worth noting that professional tribute acts have generally had a difficult ride in musical gamedocs,  perhaps that is because they embody the tensions around what counts as original and what counts as a cover.

In the media literate group of young women in the song-writing project, it wasn’t surprising therefore that the act of choosing what song they would cover was in itself an active process. It was also a process that ended up fulfilling both sets of practitioners’ expectations: it helped cohere the group and allow the project members to situate themselves within that group as individuals.  The discussions around finding a song that spoke to everyone, or that everyone knew,  involved developing a shared musical language.  Being the person who had their song chosen, or insisted that they would only sing their own song choice, positioned individuals in the group.  Having your choice of cover chosen by the rest of the group had a status of its own.  In other words the participation in this project was less focused on the participation in the production of a song, and at least as much focused on participation in, and negotiation of, a collective experience.

In Play it Again, an edited collection dedicated to the analysis of cover songs, Don Cusic defended the cover as a legitimate form of musical expression.   Cusic cited Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ as a ‘glorious (if obvious) example of a cover in which everything goes right’.[3] But he also explained the economic circumstances in which the singer/song-writer is valued over the singer as performer.  In the commercial music industry if you don’t own the words, you don’t earn the money. ‘If an artist has no songwriting credit on an album, they have lost a revenue stream’. [4] The value of writing your own songs, tells us as much about the difficulty of avoiding exploitative contracts as a performers as it does about the cultural value given to authorship over performance, or to production over re-production.   Songwriters in bands own the actual words and notes they perform, even if they don’t own the name they perform under, style or public image.

I am suggesting therefore that the young women’s choice to cover rather than write songs intervened in the assumed passivity of their consumption in a way makes sense of the cultural world which they inhabit.  They demonstrated agency in the covers that they chose and how they sung themselves into the established songs that they sung.   But I recognise the conditions in which this freedom to choose NOT to produce takes place.  The values of the music market don’t map simply onto the cultural capital of performers’ and of audiences’ active investment in music.  What if a performer doesn’t want to make a cover their own? What if they want to be part of the original imagining of the song? I wanted to think about the values of replicating an emotional attachment to the original artist’s recording by singing it in a new context and what light a historical approach might shed on the contested value of the cover version.  Two historical concepts sprung to mind, the first was the idea of the cultural circuit, that there is an active process to the way in which we fit our own experiences into the way in which we see ourselves represented in popular culture.  Secondly was the historical specificity of the idea of a cover version itself.

Al Thomson’s work on Anzac veterans used the idea of the ‘cultural circuit’ to explain how the oral history interviews he conducted in the 1980s with those who had fought in Gallipolli ended up with the interviewees describing scenes from the 1981 film Gallipoli, rather than giving voice to their own stories of their own experiences.[5]  He argued that the big public story as put together in the film, validated certain stories which Thomson’s interviewees then slipped around their own experiences.  They found a way of speaking for themselves by rehearsing the narrative that was already public.  Similarly, the young women involved in the project were not just active consumers and reproducers of cover versions, they were part of a conversation between the past and present.  Thomson’s cultural circuit could also suggest that when they were mapping their own song singing experiences into the song writer’s experience.  When the young women in the project attached themselves to an already established song, they found a space for their own experiences within an authorised musical narrative.

Furthermore, our idea of the cover version as inferior to singer/song-writing is historically specific, but it is also political. During the 1950s, according to George Plasketes, for example the cover version was shot through with the politics of race.  ‘It was [he wrote in 2005] beg, borrow and steals, as prejudice, plagiarism and [underpinned…] the widespread practice of covering songs. Whilst white artists Elvis, Pat Boone and Bill Haley produced an “appropriate sound” for segregated American by reproducing black artist’s sounds and styles.[6]

In Sixties Britain, Cilla Black was a young white female singer with a back story of Liverpudlian authenticity that traced her to the Beatles and the Cavern Club. Cilla Black’s cover of Dionne Warwick’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ was so close to the original that Warwick famously said ‘I honestly believe that if I’d sneezed on my next record, then Cilla would have sneezed on hers too.’.   (Forty years later, Warwick recognised that the producer, the star maker, Brian Epstein was the one who she should have blamed.[7])

In the late 1970s a group of left wing activists who called themselves Rock Against Racism, wrote an open letter to Eric Clapton, calling him out for making anti immigration statements whilst simultaneously making a fortune covering Bob Marley songs and emulating black musician’s style. (‘Who shot the Sherriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!)

Plasketes situates the cover version as we now recognise it in the Eighties.  ‘Since the 1980s, ‘‘Re’’ has been the predominant cultural mode. This condition is an endless lifestyle loop of repeating, retrieving, rewinding, recycling, reciting, redesigning and reprocessing’.[8]  Cover versions were easy (and cheap if you owned the rights) products to be churned out by pop factories to fill new satellite music channels and deregulated radio broadcasters.  I would challenge the idea that the cover version is rooted in the Eighties. The idea that artists should produce their own work, rather than utilise their own musical talent to translate the song in their own way, is itself historically specific.  Brian Ferry blames Bob Dylan. But something does happen to the cover version in the Eighties.  The growth of new media platforms, editing techniques, affordable technology, the hang over of a DIY Post punk subcultural ethos,  and a group of cultural studies academics waiting to apply their new toy, post-modernism, to cultural production and consumption, gave new meanings to the process of re-use. So the Eighties doesn’t invent the cover band – but it certainly makes it worth thinking about.

These young women’s preference for re-enacting rather than producing music is much closer to my own historical approach than I had first thought – although I do love a good cover band.  My all time favourite is the seven piece tribute band ShoMaddyMaddy who perform two split sets, one as Showaddywaddy and one as Madness – it makes perfect sense.  I also feel ever so slightly guilty that I convinced one of my favourite little boys that we were watching the real Lady Gaga in the back bar of a holiday camp in Cornwall.

But during the project I realised that the cover version also spoke to me as a historian. The tension between the cover and the original gets to the heart of debates over what History is for, or in National Curriculum terms what History is ‘good history’.  Is History as a discipline with the goal of uncovering what happened in the past, excavating the data, piecing it together, producing a narrative? Or is it about finding an echo of ourselves in the past, or analysing the processes through which it has been produced?  What is so special about writing the original? Or being the first one to get your hands on a source, or the first to uncover some hitherto lost voice? In the most romanticised imagining of the historian, he, or she, is the explorer of a lost world,  uncovering forgotten artefacts through which to produce new historical knowledge.  Although that does sound pretty exciting, it isn’t really how I’ve ever worked.  I am much less interested in creating that re-using evidence.  For me, historical meaning isn’t produced in the genesis moment of production alone, but in the dissemination, consumption and memory of a cultural artefact.  Singing someone else’s songs, like re-using someone else’s interviews, is therefore a way of having a conversation with the past, that keeps track of how it has been valued and maintained over time.

So what is the difference between historical analysis and a ‘cover’? The lesson of the Sexology and Song-writing project for me was to put my historical methods into practice.  I have no problem re-analysing someone else’s sources, so why shouldn’t they want to sing someone else’s song?  In fact, let’s go one step further, and take up their lead, exploring re-enactment, collectively but in our own voices.

A shorter version of this post originally appeared on the Good Sex Project blog


[2] Hill, A. (2002). “Big Brother: The Real Audience.” Television & New Media 3(3): 323-340.

[3] Cusic, Don, ‘In Defense of Cover Songs: Commerce and Credibility’, in Plasketes, G. (ed). Play it again: cover songs in popular music, ‘Ashgate. (2001) p236

[4] Cusic, Don, ‘In Defense of Cover Songs: Commerce and Credibility’, in Plasketes, G. (ed). Play it again: cover songs in popular music, ‘Ashgate. (2001) p223

[5] Thomson, A Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend, Melbourne, OUP, 1994

[6] Plasketes, G. (2005). “Re‐flections on the Cover Age: A Collage of Continuous Coverage in Popular Music.” Popular Music and Society 28(2): 145

[7] McMormick, Neil ‘Dionne Warwick: ‘I’m reaching out for something new’, The Telegraph, 15/03/15

[8] Plasketes, G. (2005). “Re‐flections on the Cover Age: A Collage of Continuous Coverage in Popular Music.” Popular Music and Society 28(2): 132

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