In the days after Leonard’s Cohen’s death, “Hallelujah” was everywhere.
Easily the singer-songwriter’s most famous song, “Hallelujah” was a part of every report on the 82-year-old’s death and seemed to be playing on a loop across every radio dial.
However, Cohen and “Hallelujah” quickly disappeared.
2016 wasn’t kind to celebrities, and it didn’t take long for others to take Cohen’s place. Florence Henderson, John Glenn, Carrie Fisher et al. passed away, pushing Cohen and “Hallelujah” right out of the news cycle and articulating a sad truth: When Leonard Cohen died, “Hallelujah” died with him.
On an episode of his podcast, “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell examined the series of events that led to the success of “Hallelujah,” first released by Cohen in 1984. The timeline goes like this:
In 1984, Cohen released “Hallelujah” on his LP, “Various Positions.” No one liked it.
In 1991, John Cale — formerly of the Velvet Underground — covered “Hallelujah” for “I’m Your Fan,” a Cohen tribute album. No one liked it.
In 1994, an unknown musician named Jeff Buckley was house-sitting for a friend when he found her copy of “I’m Your Fan.” He put the CD on, heard “Hallelujah” and decided to cover it during his next set at an East Village dive bar. When Buckley performed the song, a record executive from Columbia was in the crowd. The executive signed Buckley, and later that year Buckley released a cover of “Hallelujah” on his debut album, “Grace.” No one liked it.
In 1997, at just 30 years old, Jeff Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River. In the aftermath of his death, fans and critics revisited “Grace” and heard “Hallelujah” in an entirely different context. The song went to the top of the charts all over the world, and over 300 artists have recorded “Hallelujah” since. It became such a phenomenon that in 2012 rock critic Alan Light released “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah,’” a work of non-fiction that checked in at 254 pages.
However, in considering the song’s unlikely success, Gladwell missed what’s most remarkable about Jeff Buckley and “Hallelujah.” “Grace” would still be a classic album without it. “Hallelujah” led listeners to the rest of Buckley’s work, and the other nine songs on “Grace” elevated him from one-hit wonder to musical legend.
How would we look at Jeff Buckley’s career if he were still alive? Would his version of “Hallelujah” have wallowed in obscurity until the end of time? Would he have scored a hit on his second album, leading new fans to check out his earlier work and stumble upon “Hallelujah?” Obviously, there’s no way to definitively answer these questions, but there’s a precedent for wildly successful artists who found mainstream success thanks to a cover song.
The following artists, who are considered icons today, have a discography teeming with innovative, original material. However, they all scored their first hit thanks to their covering someone else’s song:
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience — “Hey Joe”
“Hey Joe” was registered for copyright in 1962 by Billy Roberts, a folk singer from South Carolina who spent his days grinding out gigs in California coffee shops. Roberts was relatively unknown until “Hey Joe” won him fans in the Los Angeles music scene of the mid-1960s, leading to recordings in 1965 and 1966 by more established acts like the Standells and the Byrds.
In the fall of 1966, Jimi Hendrix — as precocious a talent as the guitar world had ever seen — decided to move to the United Kingdom after struggling to find an audience in the United States. Upon his arrival, Hendrix formed an eponymous band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. The Experience released their first single, a cover of “Hey Joe,” in December and the song quickly climbed to No. 6 on the U.K. charts.
While “Hey Joe” had already been recorded by dozens of artists in an assortment of musical styles, Hendrix’s version stood out for one specific reason: its pace. Hendrix enlisted the services of the Breakaways, a trio of English female vocalists who were considered the premiere session vocalists of the 1960s. The Breakaways sang backing vocals on Hendrix’s track, and their contribution gave the song’s narrative — a man is on the run and headed to Mexico after shooting his unfaithful wife — a gravity that eluded its previous recordings.
Behind the success of “Hey Joe,” the band released its debut LP, “Are You Experienced,” in the spring of 1967. The album reached No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 5 in the U.S., and established Jimi Hendrix as an international star. The song became so popular that Hendrix closed out his set at Woodstock with it, giving “Hey Joe” the distinction of being the last song played at the 1969 festival.
It certainly doesn’t justify the shooting of his old lady, but the success of Hendrix’s cover undoubtedly left Joe smiling way down in Mexico. Provided a hangman didn’t put a rope around him, of course.
- Van Halen — “You Really Got Me”
Van Halen recorded “You Really Got Me” for their 1978 debut album, “Van Halen,” and released it as their first single — the perfect song to introduce David Lee Roth’s sexualized lyrics and Eddie Van Halen’s powerhouse guitar to the masses. “You Really Got Me” was an instant radio hit and jump-started Van Halen’s career — just as it had done for the Kinks 14 years earlier.
“Van Halen” went platinum in just five months, and in 1979 the band released “Van Halen II.” The follow-up’s first single was “Dance the Night Away” — an original song — and it became the band’s first top 20 U.S. hit, setting the tone for the next 11 years that would see Van Halen score four number-one albums in the United States.
However, while Van Halen ranks as one of the best-selling bands of all time with more than 80 million records sold, there’s one person who isn’t a fan — Dave Davies of the Kinks. The guitarist is on record as having a personal dislike of Van Halen’s cover saying, “When I first heard it, it sounded like someone trying to cash in on my own music. Van Halen’s version was very Middle America. It was like, ‘Hey man, look at me with my tight trousers!’ There’s a chasm between the two versions. One’s about a comfortable, American urban life. And one is about a raunchy, desperate kind of survival instinct. Van Halen would be penniless without the Kinks.”
If there’s one person qualified to criticize a cover of “You Really Got Me,” it’s Dave Davies, as he’s responsible for the song’s signature electric guitar riff. Davies achieved the riff’s distorted sound by slicing the speaker cone in his amp, and — flashy presentation aside — his power chords are all over Eddie Van Halen’s rendition. However, Eddie lobbied against releasing “You Really Got Me” as the band’s first single because it was a cover song — he wanted to release an original song first to gain credibility, but since it was the band’s first album, their record label, Warner Brothers, overruled them.
Warner Brothers knew what they were doing — not only was the song a commercial success, but Van Halen has performed “You Really Got Me” live more than any other song. What’s more, despite the song being a cover, Van Halen has all but secured ownership of it — Dave Davies has also complained about how often people come up to him and say, “I like your cover of Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me.”
While Davies has every right to feel aggravated about people attributing his signature song to an entirely different band, don’t feel too badly for him — he’s been cashing royalty checks for the past 38 years.
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers — “Higher Ground”
Unlike the immediate success of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Van Halen, the Red Hot Chili Peppers waited six years before people really took notice of what they could do. And if it weren’t for Stevie Wonder, they might never have had the opportunity.
In 1989, the California funk-rockers released their fourth album, “Mother’s Milk.” Given their lack of success up to this point, the LP was a surprise hit thanks to a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” The band reworked Wonder’s music and replaced his keyboard with a heavy-handed bass slap and a tighter guitar medley. “Higher Ground” ended up charting in six countries, and “Mother’s Milk” was certified gold in early 1990.
Knowing their next release would make or break their careers, the band enlisted super producer Rick Rubin to work on their fifth record, “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” The album was released in September of 1991 and it went on to sell a staggering 13 million copies, setting the bar for the rest of the band’s legendary — and still ongoing — career.
- The Black Crowes — “Hard to Handle”
The American Dream in action:
1984: In Marietta, Georgia, brothers Chris and Rich Robinson start a band. Chris is 18 years old and Rich is 15 years old. The band is called “Mr. Crowe’s Garden.”
1989: Now going by “The Black Crowes,” the Robinsons sign a record deal with Def American Recordings.
1990: The Black Crowes release their debut LP, “Shake Your Money Maker.”
1991: Behind the success of its biggest hit — “Hard to Handle” — “Shake Your Money Maker” goes triple platinum. Originally released by Otis Redding in 1968, the Crowes reworked “Hard to Handle” in classic blues rock style. The result was a Southern, riff-oriented jam that became an instant radio staple and climbed all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart.
1992: The Crowes deliver their second album, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.” It enters the charts at No. 1 and the supporting tour sees the band sell out concerts across the United States.
When aliens come to Earth and ask us to explain American music, I say we put on “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.” If “Thorn in My Pride” hasn’t launched a life-altering introspection — “My angels / My devils / My thorn in my pride” — you’re missing out. If “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye” hasn’t held your hand through a breakup — “Sometimes a memory / Only sees what it wants to believe” — it should have. If you don’t start every Easter with “My Morning Song” — “Kiss me, baby, on an Easter Sunday / Make my haze blow away” — you’re doing it wrong. And if it wasn’t for “Deep Purple Syndrome,” a terrible disorder I just made up for the sake of this case study, I wouldn’t have to bring this up because the Crowes’ place in history would be markedly different.
Think about it: Deep Purple is every bit as influential and awesome as Led Zeppelin — seriously, they are — but they are a highway star away in terms of popularity and reverence. Why? Because when you think Zeppelin you think Robert, Jimmy, JPJ, and Bonzo. When you think Deep Purple? Take your pick. They’ve had fourteen members. Not to be outdone, the Black Crowes have had seventeen members. That’s not the kind of lineup stability that lends itself to mystique and aura.
So, thank you, Otis Redding. Like you hadn’t done enough for us already.
- Marilyn Manson — “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”
Feel free to renounce the Antichrist Superstar and his pandering to disaffected white teenagers all you want, but the fact remains: Marilyn Manson has sold over 50 million records.
How is that possible?
Blame it on MTV.
In 1995, Manson released “Smells like Children,” an EP that was anchored by a cover of the Eurythmics’ 1982 international hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” In his heavy metal take on the synthpop classic, Manson included some lyrics of his own such as: “I wanna use you and abuse you / I wanna know what’s inside you” and “I’m gonna use you and abuse you / I gotta know what’s inside you” because of course he did.
Upon its release, MTV put the video for “Sweet Dreams” in heavy rotation. The video included a shot of Manson wandering around a vacant street while wearing a tutu and getting defecated on by birds. It also included a shot of Manson — covered in mud and wearing a cowboy hat — riding a pig because of course it did.
The video made Manson a household name.
By the time their next LP, “Antichrist Superstar,” dropped in October of 1996, Manson’s persona was well-established. The album debuted at No. 3 on the U.S. charts, and the world’s highest profile Satanist had arrived.
I’m not sure if that’s what Annie Lennox and David Stewart were going for when they wrote “Sweet Dreams,” but who are they to disagree?
Nevertheless, what we can agree on is this: The next Jeff Buckley is out there somewhere, and some unsuspecting song is in for one hell of a ride.