Any song you hear – live, online, on the radio or TV, on a computer playlist, CD, record or tape – is referred to in the music biz as either an “original” – a song written by the performer or performers you’re hearing – or a “cover” - a song written by someone else. Nazareth’s powerful 1975 version of “Love Hurts” was a cover, as was another of their hits; “This Flight Tonight”.
Joni Mitchell wrote “This Flight Tonight” and recorded it on her album “Blue” in 1971. The sparse recording features just Joni and her open-tuned guitar with a brief addition of extra voices and a slide guitar in the bridge. The focus, though, is on Joni’s urgent vocal delivery and introspective and regretful lyrics.
Nazareth’s version of the song could not be more different. Manny Charlton’s driving electric guitar groove rocks hard and Dan McCafferty’s vocal adds a swaggering tension to the lyrics. This is one of the rare cover versions I like better than the original.
Nazareth’s reworking of “This Flight Tonight” is a radical but classic example of what's called an "arrangement" – the changing of the presentation of a song in a way that stamps it with a new musical personality. Transforming a Joni Mitchell song into a rock anthem is no mean feat, and the band's unique arrangement – the parts invented by the musicians (or an arranger or producer), the phrasing of the singer, the sequence of verses, choruses and bridge – was fundamental to the success of their recording. Nonetheless, the basic integrity of the song itself – the lyrics and the melody – remained the same.
In the case of all "cover" versions, the relationship between a song and it's arrangement is simple: there can be no arrangement, without there first being a song to arrange. As a result, the recipient of the songwriting credits, and royalties, is equally clear and uncomplicated.
The members of Nazareth receive none of the songwriting royalties generated by "This Flight Tonight" or their version of "Love Hurts" – but their recordings of those songs have brought them other, significant, rewards.
For one thing, additional royalties are also paid by the record company to the artists themselves when copies of their records are sold or downloaded. A cover that becomes a hit can propel record sales – and those royalties – dramatically. Hits also make touring more likely. Live shows create additional income and help develop an audience that will buy the artist’s recordings and so on ...
Covers have also been seen as a good way to attract and win over new fans. If someone already knows the song, the thinking goes, they’re half way to liking your recording of it. As an example, six of the fourteen songs on the Beatles' first album were cover versions.
The other eight songs, though, were written by two members of the band – John Lennon and Paul McCartney - and this idea of the self-contained rock band, writing their own songs and playing their own instruments, arguably marked a turning point in the history of popular music – and of songwriting.
As song creation began taking place within autonomous bands, the traditional view of what a songwriter was – and what constituted songwriting – began to become less clear. The question of who was entitled to the songwriting credits – and royalties –began to come up more often.
I’ll start on Part Three now ...