We’ve all been to a concert where the band plays a famous song differently. We expect the song to sound close to the band originally recorded it – but the band surprises us! There’s a tempo change, a few new lyrics, and a major change in the accompaniment. We get confused, even angry. We want to yell “that’s not how your song goes!” Still, we listen, what else can we do? Sometimes we even feel the artists’ new vision for their song. Sometimes when an artist presents their songs reimagined, we hear how the song should have been written.
At times, it’s tempting to label these reimagined songs as a cover. This temptation comes full force when the original band splits – when it’s just the principal songwriter performing the song. Still, when this is the case, we really should not call it a cover song, we should call these “songs reimagined.” That’s exactly what the artist is doing – the artist is reimaging a song in a new light.
When have reimagined songs worked well? What makes these songs better the second time around? Let’s examine a few prime examples.
Sting & Edin Karamazov: Message in a Bottle
The original Message in a Bottle by The Police is a great song and earned its spot as a pop-rock classic. The fast tempo mimics one’s beating, yet desperate heart. Sting does not sing, but rather strains, the vocals – and we yearn for the answers the protagonist needs. From start to finish, Message in a Bottle is an amazing song. Yet Sting made Message in a Bottle better.
Along with Edin Karamazov, Sting reimagines Message in a Bottle as a ballad. The heartbeat tempo is gone, as are most of the instruments. We hear a couple of classical acoustic guitars, and that’s it for the accompaniment. Sting sings in a very slow, less urgent, and yet somehow more melancholy way than the original. We still hear emotions from Sting’s voice, but they’re different emotions. We still hear desperation, but instead of an urgent desperation, we hear pessimistic desperation. Sting shows that the protagonist is at the end of the hope – the hope that’s kept him alive.
This solemn approach to Message in a Bottle emphasizes the song’s ending well. With the fast, pop-rock version of Message in a Bottle, it’s easy to miss the 6 billion answers to the protagonists’ cries. However, the quiet ballad version of Message in a Bottle highlights the 6 Billion bottles washed up on the shore.
Neko Case & Eric Bachman: Sleep All Summer
The original version of Sleep All Summer was recorded by Eric Bachman’s band “Crooked Fingers” as a duet. We hear an almost country flare throughout the song, especially in the instruments. The lyrics of Sleep All Summer show two lovers who care deeply about each other, yet regularly abuse each other’s emotions. They yearn for each other, yet they know the toxicity of their relationship.
On her 2019 album Hell-On, Neko Case re-records Sleep All Summer with Eric Bachman. A piano, rhythm keeping drums, and simple guitars replace the twangy instruments of the original. Meanwhile, Case and Bachmann slow the tempo down a few beats. Sleep All Summer is not a song, but the reinvented song still insists on a slower tempo.
The biggest changes come from the female vocals. The original Sleep All Summer features Australian singer/songwriter Lara Meyerratken, who makes us shiver with her sultry voice. But Neko Case – well, Neko’s voice is transcendental. Lara expresses sadness, but Neko portrays yearning. Neko also sings a higher harmony in the chorus, which showcases her voice more than the original harmony might.
The de-countrifying of Sleep All Summer makes us feel greater emotions from an already emotionally charged song.
John Fogerty & The Foo Fighters: Fortunate Son
Fortunate Son is one of the most important anti-war songs ever recorded. While primarily talking about Vietnam, we can easily substitute any conflict into Fortunate Son’s thesis. That’s exactly why CCR frontman John Fogerty (with the Foo Fighters) version of Fortunate Son is so important.
The reimagined Fortunate Son features a new(er) generation of rockers to scream about sending poor kids to die in unjust wars. The new version of Fortunate Son shows the problems have not been solved. We’re still where we were in the 60s and 70s. We might not have a draft, but we entice the poor to join the military with promises of education and better pay. A life those of who are not sons of millionaires and senators may not see otherwise.
Colin Hay: Overkill
Men at Work were known for three things: the song “Down Under,” the song “Who Can it Be Now,” and their Australian origins. Yet Men at Work were more than just a two-hit wonder from the land of drop bears, kangaroos, and Crocodile Dundee. The songs “Everything I Need,” “Be Good Johnny,” and “Overkill” proves Men at Work’s worth as a band. Let’s look at the song Overkill. Overkill does such a great job of showing the emotions of someone overthinking their love life. Using complex rhymes, (imagination, exasperations, complications, desperations), we get a picture of someone whose mind is at full throttle – when they really should just go to sleep knowing all is well.
Fast forward 20 years. Men at Work is no more. Frontman Colin Hay recorded an album called Man @ Work featuring several reimaginings of Men at Work. While Hays sings Men at Work’s two big hits, the stand out track is Overkill. The original Overkill had a definite 80s sound: power-pop guitar riffs, a ton of saxophone, and too much studio engineering. The reimagined Overkill takes the strengths of the song (ie the brilliantly crafted lyrics) and sets them in a slightly slower tempo with only a couple guitars for accompaniment. While the original Overkill trips over it’s overproduced sound, we’re free to experience the philosophy of Overkill in Hay’s reimagined version.
Eric Clapton: Layla
in 1970, Derek & The Dominos recorded Laya – a nearly perfect rock song. With Duane Allman and Eric Clapton dueling lead guitar parts, what can go wrong? Add Clapton’s screaming lead vocals and, not to mention Jim Gordon’s Piano exit! Not much can be done to improve the 1970 version of Layla.
Eric Clapton had to know he couldn’t possibly top the perfection of Layla. Still, Clapton offers an alternative take on Laya in his 1992 MTV Unplugged show. Clapton makes four major changes with the reimagined Layla. Duane Alman’s lead guitar part disappears, as does the piano exit – yet we hear a tribute to both parts. Clapton’s guitar duels with a piano part made of different sections from both Allman’s Guitar and Gordon’s piano exit.
Another change comes with Layla’s tempo and rhythm. Clapton changes both to that of a blues song. Finally, Clapton’s screaming vocals find a gentler tone. We immediately accept this new version of Layla, without forgetting the hard rock masterpiece recorded 20 years prior.
Eric Clapton’s Layla shows that songs reimagined do not have to compete with the original. Instead, the two versions can coexist in peace.
More Songs Reminaged
These are just five examples of songs reimagined. There are literally hundreds of examples I could have picked. With the MTV Unplugged series alone, I could populate an entire 60 song playlist of songs reimagined. Artists change over time, as do their songs. Next time your favorite band comes to town and changes the genre your favorite song, listen with open ears.
With that said, Songs Reminaged is part one of a new and ongoing series. Next month, I will examine a few more songs reimagined, this time with terrible results. I might also write a few articles simply highlighting the best songs reimagined from the MTV unplugged series. You’ll just have to wait and see.
I leave you with this reimagining of They Might Be Giants Istanbul (Not Constantinople). Obligatory music geek trivia – TMBG’s original version of Istanbul was a cover. Still, TMBG made Istanbul (Not Constantinople) their own.