I remember reading about the Violent Femmes album Why Do Birds Sing? when it was released in 1991. Specifically I remember one of the band members responding to a question about the inclusion of a cover version of the Culture Club hit “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” on the record. It was conceded that no one in the band had any particular affection for the song, and that it was only included as a stab at getting a little more attention and a little more airplay. They were counting on the combination of familiarity and novelty to pique the interest of a few people who might otherwise ignore the record, especially, I presume, ever fickle college radio programmers. Before that, I always assumed that cover songs fell into two categories: songs the artist genuinely loved, and the sort of ironic tomfoolery that peppered the most legendary train wreck shows by The Replacements, where they’d play, say, two minutes of a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song only to give up mid-chord. Thanks to the Femmes, I now saw another motivation: bored calculation.
So a few years later, I approached Afghan Whigs covering a smash by the pop trio TLC with great suspicion. The Afghan Whigs had been the recipients of some grandly laudatory reviews, but that had yet to translate into strong attention from either record-buyers or radio. As a resolute eschewer of Top 40 radio and the increasingly insignificant MTV, I didn’t really know the original, but the whole thing smacked of opportunism. I still have no idea why the Afghan Whigs chose to cover the song, but I know it was damn good. What’s more, it served as an unlikely gateway for me, and a couple of TLC albums wound up in my CD collection, both of them striking outliers compared to the material surrounding them on the shelf.
I have a strong affection for good covers, for a lot of different reasons. For one, sometimes they lead me back to originals that I never, ever would have found otherwise.
(Disclaimer: As far as I know, the only place this song showed up was on the EP for the “Honky’s Ladder” single off of the band’s Black Love release. That album is still available for purchase, but the EP, it seems, is long gone. So this is presented in this space with the understanding that it is unavailable for purchase in a way that will provide remuneration to the artist or the original songwriter. If anyone with due authority to do so tells me to remove it from the Interweb, I will gladly and promptly comply. Left Eye 4EVA!)