Why Do Australians Love Covers So Bloody Much?

Writer Emma Jones investigates why Australians are so drawn towards both ironic and sincere covers, and what makes a great cover so memorable. Words by Emma Jones

By Emma Jones, 31/5/2023

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It’s mid-2016. Malcolm Turnbull had called for a double dissolution election and the country’s at the tail-end of one of the longest campaigns in Australian history; Donald Trump is running for President in the US; the Brexit vote is imminent; climate change is wreaking havoc. I’m 23 and I feel like the whole world is ending as I doom scroll the news and feel the panic set in.

And then, on the radio, I hear Luca Brasi’s cover of Paul Kelly’s ‘How to Make Gravy’ and I’m stopped in my tracks. I listen to the cover on repeat, singing along as it’s blasting in my inner-city Brisbane sharehouse over and over and suddenly, I feel better — momentarily at least. The track takes me back to a different time when things were easier: sitting in the backseat of dad’s car beside my younger sister driving around Far North Queensland, listening to him sing along and tap the steering wheel. In just five minutes, the Tasmanian band transports me to a different time completely. I’m warm, fuzzy, and thinking things might just be okay, after all.

I wasn’t alone. While Paul Kelly is one of the country’s most treasured artists — and ‘How To Make Gravy’ will remain one of his most loved and most covered songs — Luca Brasi’s rendition catapulted the band into the ears and hearts of new fans in what would be their breakout year. Their original song ‘Anything Near Conviction’, performed in the same segment as ‘How To Make Gravy’, made it into the Hottest 100 for that year, while their Like A Version was included in the 200. It has since amassed over 1.3 million views on YouTube, 4.1 million streams on Spotify, and became a regular feature in the band’s live set for the following two years. The band even take the piss out of themselves in their video for ‘Let It Slip’ showing someone holding up a “PLAY GRAVY” sign as they perform their own original material instead.

Kelly also enjoyed a renaissance of sorts with fans old and new off the back of the cover. He released one of his most acclaimed records yet the following year in ‘Life Is Fine’, and joined line-ups for Splendour In The Grass in 2017 and Groovin’ The Moo in 2018. He also established his own annual touring show devoted to ‘How To Make Gravy’, which has taken place around the time of the date in the song’s lyrics (the 21st of December) for the last few years.

Fast forward to 2023 and this kind of success off the back of a Like A Version isn’t even a phenomenon anymore. Post-Like A Version, artists have enjoyed significant critical acclaim and commercial success, potentially shifting their level of relevance to unprecedented heights in just a few minutes. Since 2004, the weekly segment has undergone rapid development to keep up with a shifting demographic and evolving digital landscape. And yet despite these changes, the art of the cover is one that remains at the very heart of Australian culture.

Even before the creation of the national broadcaster’s cover-devoted segment, Australians have cherished a good cover, but the runaway success of Like A Version has seen that appreciation grow into something else entirely as artists try to tap into the possible commercial success, potential virality and broader audiences that can come with the segment. And while such content opportunities do indeed exist elsewhere, the overwhelming and exponential success of Like A Version poses the question — why DO Australians love covers so bloody much?

Maybe it’s human nature. Speaking to Thrive Global, Dr Petr Janata, a music psychologist at UC Davis, confirmed that our brains are wired to respond well to things that feel familiar while also seeking out novelty. We like what we know, and if an artist can take a cover and tweak it enough, the delight that comes with experiencing the novelty of their version feeds directly into our brains in a hugely positive way. Research also shows that the older we get, the less interested we become in discovering new music — a depressing realisation for those (me) who swore vehemently that they’d continue to prioritise new tunes, only to find themselves on a strict musical diet of 2000s hits once 30 rolls around.  The Conversation recently dived into this discovery and found that the reasons for this phenomenon vary from the development in our own identities and social groups from childhood to adulthood, to simply a lack of time to discover music the way we might have when we weren’t burdened with responsibilities.

Covers offer building blocks on which an artist can create something almost entirely their own.

There’s also a more neurological explanation: nostalgia. When we hear music that we know and love, our brains release chemicals that make us feel good while we’re also being flooded with the positive warmth of the memory the song may have stirred up in us. This can actually even have a positive impact on our ability to cope with negative emotions or distressing situations, Psychology Today reckons. And so, much like the day of Luca Brasi’s Like A Version, in an era full of unprecedented times, it makes sense that songs that transport us to a different time might strike a particular chord with music fans. Add in the connection felt by experiencing this alongside others also sharing in that nostalgic glow such as listening to the radio as a cover is performed live, and it’s a no brainer that covers can be cherished in ways the artist may not even know.

Course, Like A Version’s success might be more specific to us Aussies and our revered tradition of “taking the piss”. Covers can be used to — ironically or otherwise — offer a critique on culture itself. Acts belonging to a specific genre or sound could potentially bridge a gap between their usual audience and more unlikely fans by covering an unexpected song that sits well outside their usual remit.

Luca Brasi covering Paul Kelly is hardly ground-breaking, and their cover holds up to the original as a slightly punk-ified variation, but more ironic Like A Versions like Hellions covering Amy Shark’s ‘Adore’ or DZ Deathrays’ version of The B-52s’ ‘Love Shack’ turn the original on its head. The covering artist transforms their subject’s song significantly to sound thoroughly like them. Pop music’s relationship within alternative and niche genre audiences might have significantly evolved over recent years, but a cover song remains an exciting chance for an act looking to briefly don a pop persona. Both the band/artist and their fans can dare to delve into another world cloaked in the safety of indie ‘realness’ instead of pop sheen.

These lines have significantly blurred since the start of the Like A Version in 2004, but irony still plays a major part in the love of covers — even if the artist earnestly enjoys the song (or pretends to). This is especially prevalent when an artist not only tackles a song outside their own genre but brings a song to the triple j airwaves that wouldn’t normally be played on the station. While the station has had some historical resistance to playing the pop music you can hear on the station now — Like A Version gave artists an opportunity to take on something “commercial” and give it a triple j audience-approved makeover. Fans who wouldn’t be caught dead singing along to a pop hit suddenly had licence to embrace these new versions. triple j wouldn’t have regularly played Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’, Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’, or even Cher’s ‘Believe’, but thanks to Milky Chance, G Flip, and DMA’s respectively, these are some of the station’s most viewed and streamed Like A Versions to date. In fact, DMA’s ‘Believe’ is tipped to take out the upcoming Like A Version-specific Hottest 100 on July 15.

So what separates the local cover band at the neighbourhood pub and a truly loved cover? There are purists who believe a cover should adhere to the original, and these people are at odds with those who believe a cover is a licence for artistic expression. The canvas may not be blank, but it does offer building blocks on which an artist can create something almost entirely their own.

Fans who wouldn’t be caught dead singing along to a pop hit suddenly had licence to embrace these new versions.

By reimagining the song and taking creative risks bolstered by ambition, daring covers give new life to the original, and the best covers can exist independently from its original form. Alternatively, if you’re going to cover a song in a way that doesn’t deviate too far from its initial recording, you’d better be prepared to give it your all and make it yours like Denzel Curry’s cover of Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Bulls On Parade’, Ball Park Music’s cover of Powderfinger’s ‘My Happiness’, or even Luca Brasi.

Cover songs allow us to time travel in the space of just a few minutes. They offer momentary reprieve and welcome wistfulness. They distract us from our existentialism and worries. Like it or not, covers are an artform in and of itself. Whether an artist completely remakes the song or gives a very worthy rendition of its original form, the love of covers in Australian music fans is one that’s deeply embedded in our culture. It makes sense, then, that a radio segment devoted to exploring this cultural phenomenon has held such staying power for generations, and, I’m hoping, will continue to do so for generations to come.

Written by Emma Jones, a Brisbane-based music fan and occasional writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @emma_____jones.

Main image credit: triple j, Like A Version 

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