Introduction to Unknown Original

unknown originals are rarely played on the radio

Unknown Original explores the journey from an original recording to a (sometimes) more well-known cover version of a song.

A good song is a precious thing, not only for the person who recorded it but for you, the listener. A certain song will implant itself in your brain, intertwine with your memories and emotions, and never leave you. Songs are selected for weddings, funerals and pretty much all of life’s significant moments. A song is more than just a song, it’s a piece of your life.

As well as key moments in your own life, a song is associated with its singer or band, its sound and its place in time. These three elements seem inseparable. But many songs are covers. Many songs are unknown originals. The notes, the chord progressions and the lyrics you associate so strongly with a certain musical act is actually the work of another artist. But don’t despair, this is a good thing. You have uncovered a rare gem – a unique and new (to you) version of a song you already love.

What is this website all about?

Unknown Original was created with the hope of re-introducing songs that you thought you already knew.

This website is not a top ten list of original song versions you never heard about. There are plenty of those lists you can check out online using the power of Google. Rather, Unknown Original is an in-depth exploration of many unknown original songs and their more famous covers, with new posts every week. We tell the story of the journey from original to cover – the similarities, the differences, the re-imaginings.

We hope you’ll find a few surprises, but we recognise that there will be a few original versions you already knew about. In some online lists of songs you “never knew were a cover” are songs that are obviously covers, like Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” or Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”. But what’s obvious to some may not be obvious to others, depending on a person’s generation, music tastes and general knowledge.

Unknown Original will tell you about both the original and the cover, and any other versions, then point you in the right direction so you can have a listen and a compare for yourself.

What makes an unknown original?

When a song becomes a hit, sometimes people are unaware (or forget) that it actually originated with another artist. It’s a cover, a re-interpretation, maybe even a cover of a cover.

Sometimes you’ll hear what you think is a cover of your favourite song, but later learn that your favourite song was actually the cover all along. A twelve-year-old at the start of the millennium might have thought that Gwyneth Paltrow’s 2000 version of “Bette Davis Eyes” was the original song. And people might smirk at that knowingly as they recall Kim Carnes’ 1981 version with its excellent synth riff. However, did you know that a decidedly more up-tempo original version was released by Jackie DeShannon in 1974?

Many well-known songs have been covered, some of them multiple times. These are not unknown originals. What we mean by an unknown original is a song that has been eclipsed by its cover version. By this we certainly don’t mean that the original is no good. Far from it – we hope this site helps you discover a number of hidden gems. Just that the cover version is more well-known. Maybe it was performed by a more famous musician, maybe the timing was better for the cover version or maybe the reinterpretation is simply something incredible. However, this shouldn’t detract from the contributions the original version made to the music scene.

What is an original version?

According to Dictionary.com an original is “an original work, writing, or the like, as opposed to any copy or imitation”. For the purposes of this website, we consider an original version to be the first recording and commercial release of a song.

Often it’s obvious what entails an original song version. “The Man Who Sold the World” was written and recorded by David Bowie in 1970. The song was covered by artists such as Lulu in 1974 and Nirvana in 1993, but Bowie’s version is most definitely the original.

When it comes to folk and other traditional songs, it’s less obvious who created the original version of a song. “House of the Rising Sun” is a folk ballad of unknown origins made famous on a global basis by The Animals in 1964, but the oldest known recording of the song was made by Clarence “Tom” Ashley in 1933. In this website, when we’re talking about traditional folk songs, we’re defining the first known recorded version as the original. In the case of “House of the Rising Sun” Ashley’s version would be the original.

What is a cover?

A cover version is “a recording of a song by a singer, instrumentalist, or group other than the original performer or composer”, according to Dictionary.com. It’s a new production and recording of an earlier version of a song. “Cover version” is a term that originated in the twentieth century when the recording industry took off and changed the world forever.

The history of cover versions

According to Wikipedia, prior to the onset of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, several versions of a song were recorded by the singers of the day, each giving it their individual treatment. From the second half of the twentieth century, cover versions were recorded and released for many reasons. It could have been because a song was amazing and deserved a second, third, fourth etc. release. It could have been because the cover artist had limited original material or they were a big fan of the original artist. Sometimes a cover version of a song was released in an attempt to increase its appeal to younger generations of listeners once the demand for the original song dwindled over the years.

And then there are some songs that aren’t truly appreciated until another artist re-creates it and makes it their own. Sometimes a newer version brings out something special in the song that listeners didn’t notice before. Music genres and the sound of the singer’s voice can make a world of difference to a song. A wistful ballad can transform into a dance number that fills the nightclub floor every time, or an old rock tune can become a pop hit with the catchiest riff you ever heard. The original version could be an equally quality tune, but the cover artist has re-imagined the song with such breadth and brilliance that many listeners don’t realise, or don’t remember, that it’s a new version of an old song.

Cover versions of songs can blow the original right out of the water, or they can serve as a satisfactory companion, or fall short of the original’s glory entirely.

Covers and racism

There’s also a dark history behind some covers. When you look at the songs that made white rock ‘n’ roll singers into stars during the 1950s, there’s almost always an original version by a black artist who received no royalties. If you want to read up more on this issue, here’s an article about white singers and their record companies making a ton of money off black music. For some truly fabulous tunes, we recommend checking out the unknown original songs sung by black artists. We hope they ultimately receive just recognition.

Is a remix a cover?

Nope. Although the distinctions can be blurry.

remix is a piece of media (in this case an audio remix, i.e. a song) which has been altered from its original state by adding, removing and changing parts of the song. A remix often involves significant changes to the song’s production, whether it’s to improve the fidelity of the master version or to revise it completely for different audiences. A common example being dance remixes where a song might feature the same vocals, but the music is much faster and more electronic. The original version might not suit nightclub audiences, but the remix does.

Basically a remix is the original recording of a song with (sometimes drastic) changes, whereas a cover is a re-recording by another artist. The following table summarises the main differences between a remix and a cover version of a song.

RemixCover
Performed by original recording artist or another artistPerformed by another artist
Sounds different from the original versionSounds similar to the original version
Modification of the originalRe-recording of the original

Is a sample a cover?

Nope.

In music, sampling is the reuse of a portion (or sample) of a sound recording in another recording. A sample can be a rhythm, melody, speech or some other sound. Also, a sample is never an entire song, but a cover is. A sample may be taken from the original version of the song, but a cover is always a new recording.

Conclusion

Is the unknown original better than the cover? That’s up to you and everyone else listening to the song. It’s an entirely subjective matter of opinion.

We reckon that some unknown originals are way better than their more famous cover versions, but some covers do surpass the originals when it comes to sound and overall musicality. We’d like to think, however, that the unknown originals are always unexpected.

Great musical passions are often developed by going backwards. Almost everyone has started with a band they like, then explored the band’s influences and their influences’ influences. At the very least, think of an unknown original as a little musical gift to yourself.

The main thing is that we hope you make some new discoveries when perusing this website. There might be more unknown originals out there than you first thought. Happy listening!

Comments ( 2 )

  1. Pedro Samayoa Arenales
    Nice place!...More: Un excelente recurso para los musicofílicos. Saludos How can I suscribe to this blog?
    • nic
      Thanks for your feedback! You can subscribe by clicking on the green "Follow" button on the right panel in the homepage.

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