Standard Songs of the Modern Era

This was originally published at Fresh On The Net and is inspired by my colleague Neil March’s article on great cover versions and the subsequent discussion that took place in the comments.

The subject of cover versions can be a touchy one for many independent musicians trying to build a creative career distinct from the karaoke performers, function bands and tribute acts that fill many mainstream venues. Some artists adopt a policy of only ever performing original material in an effort to get away from Freebird requests, X-Factor associations and the lucrative but entrapping world of cruise ships, weddings and bingo club cabaret (the money is hard to turn down for a starving artist, but he who pays the piper calls the tune). Though I understand this attitude, I consider it misguided – the world of music is too vast, too developed and too fundamentally based on communication for any artist to barricade themselves in a tower. As musicians we are all part of something way bigger than any of us, our own creative efforts exist in the context of what has gone before and the culture it has created. If we’re lucky we get to add something lasting to that culture, whether on a grand level or a local one. The rest of the time we take the things that have moved us personally, communicate them according to our own interpretations and pass them on to hopefully inspire the next generation, and that is how music and culture grows.

Which brings me to the subject of standard songs.

Standards are a special class of cover song that have fully developed a life beyond any one version. These are the songs that everyone encounters and learns at some point, the songs you can call at a jam session, gig or rehearsal and be fairly confident that everyone will be able to join in. The term is most associated with jazz, as the history of the genre developed around musicians riffing on popular songs and showtunes of the day (often with no rehearsal, hence the need for a common songbook), but other genres have accepted standards too. If you are a folk singer, at some point you will learn She Moved Through The Fair. If gospel is your thing and you don’t know Amazing Grace, you’d better learn it pronto.

This then is a list of ten songs, in no particular order, that I consider to have reached standard status in the modern era (1960s onwards). It is not exhaustive or definitive, so please let me know about your favourites or any I have missed in the comments below.

My criteria for inclusion on this list is:

1 – The song must have been first released after 1960.

The 1960s is when the idea of the Singer-Songwriter became standardised. Before then it was accepted that there were professional musicians and professional songwriters and no-one expected Frank Sinatra, for example, to write his own songs. Singer-songwriters were mostly wandering troubadors like Woodie Guthrie and Robert Johnson or iconoclasts like Chuck Berry or Billie Holiday. And in the era before widespread international record distribution getting other musicians to play your song was the main way of getting it heard.

Post Beatles, Dylan and pop music radio the music buying public came to expect the records they bought to be the original, heartfelt creations of the performers on the front cover, whatever the reality of the situation. That’s why the Colonel arranged it so any songwriter being covered by Elvis Presley would have to sign over writing credits – if Dolly Parton hadn’t told him where to go, I Will Always Love You would have been the preserve of Elvis impersonators long before Whitney Houston sang it to Kevin Costner.

As such, songs now are strongly associated with the artist who first had a hit with them (especially if that artist is also the writer-composer), making it harder for a song to escape the orbit of the original recording. It’s also worth noting that the most recent song on this list was written in 1988, thirty years ago at the time of writing this article. Test of time is definitely a factor.

2 – There must be at least three credible answers to the question, “What is your favourite version of…”

In his article on cover versions, Neil disqualified covers that made no attempt to significantly change or build on the original. To qualify for this list, a song needs to have enough space for interpretation that any new artist can have a chance of leaving their mark and making the song their own. And it needs to have happened more than once – Johnny Cash made Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt his swansong to the effect that Trent Reznor declared it “not mine anymore”, but anyone covering Hurt now will struggle to reclaim the song from both of those performances, at least for the time being. The same applies to Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse’s reinvention of the Zutons’ Valerie.

There are standard rock classics that everyone learns in their first guitar bands – Smoke On The Water, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Seven Nation Army, much of American Idiot – but those songs are still associated with Deep Purple, Nirvana, the White Stripes and Green Day, respectively. The rest of us can only borrow them.

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Hallelujah

First released in 1984

Written/composed by Leonard Cohen

Notable versions: Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, K.D. Lang, Alexandra Burke

Though a unique and influential recording artist in his own right, Leonard Cohen has made major contributions to the modern era songbook, with every singer able to find a favourite Cohen song to call their own. But it is his 1984 epic Hallelujah that most throroughly cracked the mainstream, being sung everywhere from alternative rock clubs to churches, sporting events and even family movies – Simon Cowell chose it for an X-Factor prize single after it had been featured in Shrek, of all things.

Hallelujah is a masterpiece of open interpretation, and some would say subversion. Cohen drafted around eighty verses of the song, bringing in varying degrees of biblical reference, sexual innuendo and ironic detachment that left room for everyone to find their own personal focus even after John Cale reduced the reams of lyrics to the version followed by most subsequent covers. The tune ain’t half bad, either.

Tainted Love

First released in 1964

Written/composed by Ed Cobb

Notable versions: Gloria Jones, Soft Cell, The Scorpions, Marilyn Manson

A Northern Soul deep cut that had already been covered a few times before Soft Cell turned it into one of the defining moments of synth pop. The relentless shuffle groove, funky chord progression and CLAP CLAP rhythms of Tainted Love make it perfect for all manner of reinterpretations.

Libertango / I’ve Seen That Face Before

First released in 1974 (original instrumental), 1981 (English & French lyrics)

Composed by Astor Piazzolla, English & French lyrics by Grace Jones and Barry Reynolds

Notable versions: Astor Piazzolla, Grace Jones, Sharon Shannon feat. Kirsty Maccoll

The genre definer of Nuevo Tango, Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango (literally, Freedom Tango) has been an orchestral and ballroom dance staple since its composition in 1974. Various sets of Spanish lyrics have been written, but for my money the defining vocal version of the tune has to be Grace Jones’ sinister masterpiece I’ve Seen That Face Before, placing the singer in a shadowy, sleazy version of Paris nightlife to be stalked by a mysterious figure who could be a former lover, an obsessed admirer or the pale figure of Death himself, depending on interpretation. Grace’s lyrics are bilingual, combining English melodic verses with spoken French interludes. Toi aussi, tu deteste la vie.

I’d Rather Go Blind

First released in 1968

Written/composed by Etta James, Ellington Jordan, Billy Foster (credit)

Notable versions: Etta James, Rod Stewart, Beth Hart, Sydney Youngblood

Etta James co-wrote I’d Rather Go Blind with Ellington Jordon while the latter was serving jail time for robbery. As she told it later on, she had to give her writing credit over to then-husband Billy Foster for tax reasons, a decision she went on to regret.

A piledriving soul ballad that has been covered by everyone from Rod Stewart to Beyoncé, the entire song unfolds over a repeating I-II-V-I chord progression, leaving space for every band and singer to make their own mark. Etta James acknowledged a subtext in the lyric comparing desperate devotion to a loved one with chemical addiction and even the physical symptom of actually going blind through substance abuse. When singing this, it’s up to you to decide how far to pursue that particular interpretation.

Lean On Me

First released in 1972

Written/composed by Bill Withers

Notable versions: Bill Withers, Club Nouveau, every gospel choir there is.

The antidote for anyone sick of contemporary RnB autotuned noodling, Bill Withers is the master of understated soul and could leave goosebumps without oversinging a note. So who better to write an anthem to friendship and unity based almost exclusively around the first five notes of the major scale, which anyone can confidently join in with with gusto. A secular staple of choirs the world over, there can’t be many singers who haven’t sung this at least once.

Withers said of the song, “It’s a rural song that translates across demographic lines… somebody who would probably stand in a mob that might lynch you if you pissed them off, would help you out in another way.”

No Man’s Land / Green Fields of France

First released in 1976

Written/composed by Eric Bogle

Notable versions: The Fureys & Davey Arthur, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Joss Stone & Jeff Beck, June Tabor

With songs like No Man’s Land and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Scottish Australian Eric Bogle is up there with Blackadder Goes Forth as a go-to commentator on the brutal madness of the First World War. Variously titled No Man’s Land, The Green Fields of France, The Flowers of the Forest (not to be confused with the traditional Scottish tune mentioned in the chorus) and combinations thereof, this one casts the singer as a hiker who comes across a gravestone in the poppyfields and speculates about the brief life of the soldier laid to rest there.

The dynamic qualities of this song are a joy to sing, moving from conversational verse to despairng pre-chorus, to churning refrain and bittersweet resignation, repeating the cycle again with each subsequent verse just as the vicious cycle of war continues long after the conclusion of the “war to end wars”.

The King of Rome

First released in 1988

Written/composed by Dave Sudbury

Notable versions: June Tabor, Brian McNeil & Iain MacKintosh, The Unthanks

There is a strange kind of magic about The King of Rome. Described dispassionately, the pathos-ridden story of a Derby working man and his champion racing pigeon sounds as cheesy as they come, but go ahead and listen to or sing it. If it hasn’t stirred something in you by the final note, you must be made of stone. You will believe a man can fly, or at least that his dreams can.

June Tabor first discovered the song when Dave Sudbury entered it in a local song contest for which she was a judge. It did not win, but Tabor was so taken with the song (as was fellow competitor Brian McNeil, who went on to record the song with Iain MacKintosh) that she recorded and released her own haunting version over a soft synthesizer drone. The song enjoyed a recent surge in awareness following a much requested live recording by The Unthanks and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.

I Think It’s Going To Rain Today

First released in 1968

Written/composed by Randy Newman

Notable versions: Randy Newman, UB40, Nina Simone

One of the more musically complex songs on this list, but hugely evocative with bitter sarcasm and deep melancholy. “Human kindness is overflowing”, it declares testily, before settling on a discarded tin can being booted in the gutter as the perfect metaphor for how humans actually treat each other.

The cynicism of the lyric foreshadowed Newman’s own fortunes with the song. Though a widely covered standard, little of the royalities found their way back to the songwriter due to his having signed away publishing rights early in his career, a mistake he now implores songwriters not to repeat.

Pablo Picasso

First released in 1976

Written/composed by Jonathan Richman

Notable versions: The Modern Lovers, John Cale, David Bowie

No-one ever got called an asshole for covering the Modern Lovers’ John Cale-produced art rock classic. As with many of the songs on this list, the beauty of Pablo Picasso lies in its simplicity and flexibility, consisting as it does of three spoken word verses riffing on the painter’s inexplicable charisma over a single chord groove. This is one you can call in any jam session in the world and develop however the band sees fit.

Oh Well (part 1)

First released in 1969

Written/composed by Peter Green

Notable versions: Fleetwood Mac, The Rockets, Oh Well, Haim

A killer riff, one of the best paced build ups in rock and a kick ass lyric add up to a classic rock staple, a regular live favourite, an eponymously released 80s electrofunk cover and a truly theraputic experience for performer and audience alike.

Author Peter Green was less than pleased with the song’s popularity, heavily disparaging it in comparison to the more progressive “part 2” on the single’s b-side. But if your songs are like children, sometimes you just have to wish them all the best as they head off into the world.

If you’re a musician/singer, give these songs a go. If not, maybe these will get you started.

Can you think of any other widely covered standards not in this list? Any other favourite versions of the songs listed? Let us know about them in the comments!

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