I like Supertramp. A lot. It’d be fair to say that Supertramp isn’t my favorite band of all time, but they’re pretty high up there on my list of “Artists I’d need to have on a desert island.” Some that know me well know that there is only one song that will make me smash whatever radio is playing it, and it’s the Goo Goo Dolls’ cover of Give A Little Bit.
Normally, I’m okay with the Dolls. They make good music… except when they poorly cover Supertramp. One might say “Dan, you’re okay with many covers of other songs, but why is this one so grating to you?” Glad you asked! The first reason is that the musical depth of the Goo Goo Dolls’ cover is vastly reduced compared to the original. It’s basically acoustic guitar with a little crunchy rhythm in the background. That’s it. The multiple layers of instrument texture, like piano, organ, multiple vocal harmonies, don’t exist. Where’s the saxophone? It’s gone, and nothing really picks up where its place in the song goes, leaving an empty hole. The bridge section completely collapses without some alternative melody instrument like the saxophone. Plus, the cover is mastered in the new Wall-of-Sound method, reducing the dynamics to jack and squat.
When you hear the original, there’s several key rhythms and melodies absent in the cover. Namely, the iconic “da dun, da dun” banging of Rodger on the piano isn’t referenced at all in the cover, which was always the defining part of the second half of the song. There’s beefy guitar rhythms in the original which are glossed over in the cover. You could say that the cover is kind of a Cliff’s notes version of the song, or something sanitized for a youthful audience.
If that occurred to you, then you’ve reached a key insight about the cover. This particular cover was done in the span of three days at the behest of Warner Brothers to be used to get people, specifically children watching Cartoon Network, to care about the Tsunami relief effort in India in 2004. It’s not like the song hasn’t been used in this context before – but it’s always been the original. The Dolls, along with a few other artists, recorded hastily arranged covers to plaster on commercials to get kids to bother their parents about contributing to the tsunami relief.
This isn’t the first time such a thing happened, either – and it was the Gap that perpetrated a terrible series of commercials with awful covers of this great song nearly ten years ago. At least the tsunami ads (I hesitate to call them public service announcements) had the pretense of using it for the force of good. The Gap mangled it over and over for the sake of hipster jeans.
When I sit down and think about it, I try to wonder why I have such visceral reactions to covers of this particular song. The reasons I listed before are actually fairly capricious – after all, the Goo Goo Dolls’ style of music is completely different than a 70s progressive rock group, so it’s fair that most of the music itself might not transfer over. I think the core of it is that the people covering it just don’t “get” the song. There’s more to it than just vapidly singing “Give a little bit of your love to me” or playing some chords on an acoustic guitar. It’s the simplification, the reduction of the complexity of the original for the sake of using the song as a vehicle for someone to suit their own purposes. That’s what bothers me, I think. Kind of like making a kid-friendly version of Carrie – it defeats itself.