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Anatomy of a Cover Song – Four takes on "Big Yellow Taxi"

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The practice of adapting someone else’s well-known (or even little-known) song as part of your live set or recorded work has long been a standard in the music business. Careers have been launched on the strength of a well-crafted cover song, and evidence that covers can be effective – and be a lot of fun for you and your listeners – can be found across every musical genre on every level of the industry.

So you picked a cover song, now what? Rather than copying the original version note-for-note, the best covers typically take the essence of the original and reshape it, so that the performing artist makes the song their own while adding something special and recognizable to their repertoire.

To try and help quantify this concept, I met up with veteran studio engineer Jeff Crawford to compare four versions of Joni Mitchell’s classic song "Big Yellow Taxi," originally released in 1970. In so doing, we’ll see how pop-punk outfit Pinhead Gunpowder, the Counting Crows, and Joni herself reinterpreted the iconic song, bringing different styles – and different meaning – in the process.

Big Yellow Taxi
Click to hear each version of the song on the free streaming site Grooveshark:
Joni Mitchell (1970)
Pinhead Gunpowder
Counting Crows
Joni Mitchell (2007)

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
We started by taking a close listen to the original to see what elements might be consistent with the covers we would soon be evaluating. Jeff commented that the original is straightforward, clocking in at just 2:15. It’s made up of four identical verses that end with this four-line refrain.

"Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot."

"The first two lines are sung softly and plaintively, while the latter two are delivered matter-of-fact, to emphasize the absurdity of altering nature for man’s needs," Jeff observes. "There’s just enough production to support the song’s story line, which uses satire to make its point."

We discussed how the sparse instrumentation intentionally puts the lyrics to the song front and center. Her acoustic guitar is the rhythmic drive for the song with percussion and background vocals adding color and texture at various points.

Another key to this version of the song is dynamics. As Jeff points out, "She uses dynamics carefully to draw in the listener. While each verse is up-tempo with a clear, strong vocal delivery – underpinned by her driving acoustic guitar – she makes a dramatic shift in volume and intensity for the key lines, ’Don’t it always seem to go …,’ which she uses to set up the final lines of the refrain. She alters her strumming pattern and all of the percussion except the triangle drops out, adding importance to the next to last line. By doing so, Mitchell creates a tension that is immediately resolved with the last lines of the refrain, ’They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.’ It’s a very effective technique to cement that last line in the listener’s brain."

Lyrically, the first three verses address the world Mitchell was observing as she critiques a massive hotel built over the natural beauty of Hawaii, putting trees in a museum for people to view for a fee, and farmers spraying their crops with chemicals. However, in the fourth and final verse, the song turns personal, with Mitchell relating how her "old man" left in the middle of the night, driven away by a "big yellow taxi" – a possible reference to 1960s Canadian police cars which were reportedly then painted yellow. In this light, the first part of the refrain, "Don’t it always seem to go …" takes on added poignancy.

Mitchell then concludes the song whimsically, by repeating the final line ("They paved paradise …") three times, varying her delivery on each before the track ends with her trademark laughter. "That small touch is important as it helps the listener feel as if they were right in the studio with the artist when she recorded it," Jeff concludes.

Pinhead Gunpowder – Jump Salty (1995)
Although there are numerous cover versions of "Big Yellow Taxi" (Bob Dylan, Amy Grant, Nena, and even a big band version, among the 223 recordings that pop up on, the first version we chose to study is by Pinhead Gunpowder, a part time pop-punk outfit from Northern California that includes Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. It was featured on their first album, Jump Salty, released in 1995. By choosing a classic song that is part of the pop canon from the 1970s, Pinhead adapts the original intent and message Mitchell sought to convey into their own version, stamping the song indelibly with a loose, rough, energetic drive of their own.

The track clocks in at 1:56, kicking into high gear from the very first note. And while Pinhead stays true to the original four-verse song structure, they don’t follow the dynamic map of Mitchell’s original reading, especially in the refrain. Instead, in part due to the conventions of the pop-punk genre, they play steady, rhythmic and repeating figures, with a few variations in their arrangement in each verse. For instance, a second voice joins in on the final line of each refrain to emphasize, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." This gets the same result as Mitchell did, focusing the listener on this key lyric, but with a different technique.

Another way Pinhead Gunpowder dynamically highlights the refrain is by featuring the kick drum insistently pounding a pattern that underpins the message of the song. They also use descending bass figures juxtaposed against ascending stereo panned lead guitar lines to spice up the refrain.

Jeff says that, to his ears, Pinhead Gunpowder’s version shares another key characteristic with the original. "The energy of the band comes across in part from the live acoustic drum sound which features a highly tensioned snare that provides a similar propulsion as Mitchell’s acoustic guitar. The bass and guitars echo that energy. The listener feels like they’re part of the track because the recording has a great live feeling. This rough-around-the-edges production style closely models on Mitchell’s original reading, which as noted before, also seems to be performed just for the listener."

So, even though the instrumentation and vocal style is very different than the original, this reading is an effective cover that clearly represents the artistic intent of the band, while keeping the integrity of the song’s original message. One interesting wrinkle is that with a male vocalist, the band chose to keep the original lyric for the last verse when the "old man" gets taken away. Interestingly, this gives a different meaning to that character, who then represents the singer’s father.

Counting CrowsThe Counting Crows – Hard Candy (2002)
Next, we turn to the Counting Crows and their interpretation of the song that appeared as a hidden track on their 2002 album Hard Candy. From its first notes, the live feel of Mitchell and Pinhead Gunpowder is abandoned. Instead, the Crows set up the song with a funky groove and a contemporary urban feel with an acoustic bass synth patch. Then the band expands the sonic palette into a rich tapestry of dozens of instruments and textures, which opens up a huge array of instruments, effects, and colors for the band to utilize while developing their own interpretation of the song which runs nearly double the length (3:58) of the original.

Where Mitchell brought down the dynamics for her thoughtful line, "Don’t it always seem to go…," the Crows tack in the opposite direction, building their arrangement with a blend of stereo-tracked acoustic guitars, an electric guitar, and a few other textures bursting out at that moment. The band then follows Mitchell’s road map, albeit two lines later, when the added instruments drop away, leaving just the drums, bass, and a funky wah-wah guitar line. The dynamic shift focuses the listener on the final refrain lines, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Jeff notes that at the beginning of the second verse, strings enter, with a processed and possibly gated effect, used to punctuate Adam Duritz’s second verse vocal delivery. To keep the song building, by the next refrain, the textures become a bit richer and denser than they were in the first refrain.

Verse three kicks up the energy a few more notches. Duritz jumps into his patented head voice, and supporting him is a repeating acoustic guitar riff that helps build tension. Meanwhile, a slowly ascending line of lush acoustically tracked strings add another level of sophistication and shimmer to the track’s evolution. The strings continue through this refrain, which Duritz chooses to repeat. Another sonic color, a harmonica, is also briefly added.

After a quick turnaround, a solo verse appears that features a lower register acoustic guitar that is a variation of the song melody. As the final sustained tremolo chord is held, the band fades back, and Duritz’s vocal takes on an intimate tone, to play the narrator’s role for the final verse.

Here the arrangement adds a level of realism by adding the sound of a door clicking shut set up by a stereo split of a guitar strum, harmonics, and the door slam. The band also adds a car sound when the taxi appears, and Duritz chooses to personalize the lyric, singing, "took my girl away," unlike Pinhead Gunpowder’s reading. Jeff notes that it’s this reading of the final verse and refrain that makes the Counting Crows’ cover especially notable.

"Duritz shares the personal sense of loss he brings to the character. At the same time, the rhythm section has completely dropped out, leaving only the string patch and a few select guitar accents, drawing the listener further into his narrative. What’s artful about this version, is that by shifting the emphasis and dynamic arc of the recording from Mitchell’s satirical and repeating verse-refrain structure, suddenly the listener is a witness to the character’s emotional low point in a much more visceral way than the other versions."

Although this fourth verse is the emotional apex of this version, the band picks things back up and Duritz returns to earlier form, singing three repeats of the final line that Mitchell sang in the original, adding his own improvisations as she did to each. Then the track continues with new material in the form of a vocal vamp that features a variation on the original funky drum and bass parts, and literally dozens of intricate interwoven guitar parts by the band’s talented guitarists, Dave Bryson and Dan Vickrey.

Joni MitchellJoni Mitchell – Shine (2007)
In 2007, Joni Mitchell re-recorded "Big Yellow Taxi" on her album Shine. How did the artist approach a classic song that has become one of the most well-known recordings of her long career?

Mitchell’s new reading of "Taxi" is vastly different than her original take on the song. It’s more sophisticated and modern, and gone are the exuberance and playfulness found in her 1970 recording. They’re replaced with a lower-pitched, staccato vocal delivery missing the long lilting phrases of the original. Jeff points out that she has a bit of a world-weary tone and tellingly adds one essential word to the opening lyric: the word "So." Thus, she kicks off the track with, "So they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Now, she’s reflecting back on the intervening four decades, using this version to observe that her earlier warning to preserve the natural aspects of the world around us went unheeded.

Instrumentally, she also explores new directions. As mentioned, her voice is the mature Joni – lower, smokier, and understated. She still uses acoustic guitars as the central instruments, but rather than a steady, driving rhythm, she sets up a choppy, syncopated series of strums, adding more tension to the backing track. The percussion parts of the original are gone; instead, a zydeco-flavored accordion punctuates her vocal lines. From time to time, synths fade in and out of the background, including a reedy, bassoon-like synth part that complements her vocal providing an instrumental commentary to match her resignation. All in all, it’s a very creative and complete arrangement that suits Mitchell’s intent.

HatschekHeadshotKeith Hatschek is a regular contributor to the Disc Makers Blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

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25 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Cover Song – Four takes on "Big Yellow Taxi"

  1. I’ve been in so many mediocre bands that don’t want to bother to learn the nuances, harmony parts breaks, and small details of the original recording, saying they don’t want to be a copycat band. This usually ends up with all the songs in the repertoire sounding the same, just going through the chords and lyrics, leaving out all the special parts that give a song its personality. (and the band a repeat gig.)

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  5. I’m in a band that plays 98% cover tunes.  We try and make them our “own”.  With (usually) different instrumentation, and our voices not “theirs”, it pretty much comes naturally.  We have several songs where we have female leads for songs that originally had male leads.  The opposite of those guys singing Joni’s song.  We start by choosing great songs, ones WE really like!  Them we try them and see if they work for our band.  We’re telling the original artist, “Hey, it makes us very happy to play your incredible music!”

  6.  Andre, nice to read your reply. Maybe I dug a little too deep on the ‘misinformation’ thing, but you gotta know that the words ‘cover song’ drip with derision in the modern vernacular. My personal crusade is to get the slime off those words and make them be said with respect instead of disrespect. And indeed, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but the idea among a lot of songwriters is that there’s something wrong with you if you ‘flatter’ another artist by performing their song, and I’m tired of it.

  7. “Cover” songs formerly meant songs copied by mainstream, largely white, artists from lesser-known, largely black artists.  Often they used the exact arrangement. Some “covers”  were better than the original, most were not.  I prefer the term “interpretation”  to “cover song” 

  8. Good article. You could have given examples of other big artists who were covered, such as Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”, and the like. Some more recent examples of cover songs going big would have been more of an inspiration, rather than the Joni Mitchell song, which got attention, but is not very in tune with artists nowadays who might have never heard those versions, or if they are younger, might have never heard of Joni Mitchell (OMG….how could they not)…..but anyway, this was informative.

  9. The idea that “Canadian” police cars were yellow in the 60’s is ridiculous. Each jurisdiction had its own distinct styling whether at the municipal or provincial level and NONE of them were yellow!

  10. Counting Crows cover was my favorite after the original. Her performance at Isle of Wight (sp?) was super.

    Bummer that Joni smoked her beautiful soprano (and falsetto) away. (Awesome artist/career though, and really sad, moving story behind having to give up her baby daughter, but reuniting after she’d grown—that’s what song “Little Green” was about.)

  11. I pretty much agree with the comments so far, because they demonstrate a respect for the materiel they are working with. But Kieth, I gotta tell ya, when you say things like this  -“So you picked a cover song, now what?”, I just cringe at the level of misinformation that you are adding to. You don’t play a cover song – You cover a song. There is no such thing as a cover song until you cover it. A song is always a song first. Most kids nowadays have been erroneously trained to think that anything they didn’t write is a cover song, even if they aren’t playing it, or never have played it. Plus, there is a great deal of social disrespect built into the modern meaning of ‘cover song’, -that it is somehow inferior to a ‘real songf’ which would be one you wrote yourself. A song is not a cover song until someone who didn’t write it plays it. And furthermore, the real truth is that most ‘original’ songs which are written by novices are not even close to being as good as the songs they call ‘cover songs’, which have usually gotten airplay or are somehow known to the public on a grand scale. Furthermore, when I play your original song, it’s just another cover song all of a sudden. It’s high time to start getting this definitional ego trip straightened out. People need to return to the convention of referring to a song as a work by an artist, like, ‘this is a song done by or written by so and so’, not ‘here’s a cover song’. Radio jocks always used to say who the song was by until about 20 years ago, when the ‘cover song’ movement started. Now music on the radio is just disposable anonymous filler. The world is what we make it, and I’ll never quit correcting people who call songs ‘cover songs’ when they are not covering them.

    1. That wasn’t Keith’s line… that was the editor’s (me). You’re right, it should read, “you’ve picked a song to cover…” Not sure I get how it’s misinformation, though. In the end, “cover song” is just a common phrase to refer to a song not written by you, if you are a performer of your own material. I never considered referring to a “cover song” as a means of disrespect. In fact, I’d argue it the other way. If I’m taking the time and energy to learn and perform your song, seems to me it’s a high form of praise.

      1. I agree with Randy.  Along the way the business has promoted the singer/songwriter paradigm to the extent that “covering,” or as I prefer to say “interpreting,” songs is now considered culturally less than writing and performing your own songs.  I actually heard some on NPR (!!!) say once, “If someone has not written the lyrics, I don’t think they really mean it.”

  12. Good story – great when you include the song links.
    My best example: I do an old Taco Bell jingle (“Put a smile on your face…”) in a slow Tom Waits style.

  13. I guess the songs that I like to cover are either the ones that lyrically mean something important to me, or the ones that I have been humming to myself for the last forty years, and in that time, they have taken on a different form, altered subtly, unconsciously… and eventually turned into something that I thought I wrote in the first place. On these latter occasions, I often will listen back to the originals and discover that they sound nothing like the version that I have been humming all these years. My reggae version of the Christmas song “We Three Kings,” is a perfect example of this phenomenon. That rhythm was just the way I had been singing it to myself as I walked down the street one frosty Yuletide.

    The complete opposite is my version of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” (check out the song here )This was totally calculated to reflect the concept of living the same patterns over and over until you get your life right. The obvious reference is the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which the song is featured and denotes the reset time (6AM every day) for Bill Murray’s character. For me the change from 3/4 to 4/4 symbolizes the movement from potential to finality. I had just met my wife, and we were planning to get married. I use the original’s 3/4 time basson riff and set it as a flute part that my wife plays over the funky 4/4 opening bass lick. The fact that we are a husband and wife team covering another husband and wife team just seals the deal for me. And, as usual, the one song that we considered a whimsical bit of trivia… is probably the one that we get the most complements on.

  14. From my own perspective, learning a cover song note-for-note is the very best and most interesting way to reshape it, because then it has all of its original elements in place, as well as your own customizations. I sincerely believe that without fully learning the original version of the song before putting your own spin on it, you are doing an injustice to the composer and to his or her work. Try looking at this from the point of view that you are the composer and someone else just bastardized your work of art and then I think you would agree with my point of view. The style can be taken from its original form and put into a completely different genre without destroying the parts and then the end result will always be amazing because you have preserved what was originally written.

  15. It’s simple common sense. The counting crows sang a melancholy song in a melancholy way. Genius! This is something that took me no time to realize when I first started writing but took the music industry decades. DUUHHHH! I see it all the time (more so in older music) and it is simply annoying when you hear a sad song with upbeat music and vocals. Just by ending the last word of each line in a low note instead of a higher like Joni it gets the whole mood and point across better in my opinion.  

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