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There's nothing unusual about musicians playing songs by their peers. But in between punk and the mid 90s, there was something sort of interesting about the way so many bands used covers to stake out a whole audience and canon and set of shared references around what was still called "alternative" music. By the end of the 80s, as that whole realm gathered up into a thriving thing, there were a lot of those covers. It's hard to capture, from today's perspective, how much they presented as a kind of shared secret, badges for a club.
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These are just some examples; it's thrown together and not meant to be comprehensive! I can think of dozens more covers of lots of these acts, but this a sampling, not a reference database. It should represent the main types, though:
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• Bands covering acts from the 70s to suggest a sort of alternative canon — not just obvious touchstones like the Velvet Underground and the Ramones, but things like Big Star and Sparks and Nick Drake that were largely forgotten.• American indie-rockers covering more stylish UK acts of the 80s (Cure / Smiths / Bunnymen types), connecting the punker side of the audience with the more stylish college-rock side.• Bands covering peers or collaborators from their own scenes, sort of commemorating shared space. Also just insular in-jokes and parodies and loads of songs, both mocking and praising, ABOUT other bands.• Covers used as markers of taste, communicating basically the same thing it'd communicate to pull the coolest seven-inch from your record collection and show it to someone who'll be impressed that it exists.• But probably most importantly, bands covering much-loved recent songs by indie peers, as if trying to suggest that while other people have their "Free Bird" and "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and "With a Little Help from My Friends," in indie-world this Dinosaur Jr. track from last year is our "Free Bird," this Beat Happening song is our "Stairway to Heaven." (Not to mention: "holy shit, the 90s have come and suddenly we're selling records to a bunch of impressionable teens; check out our favorite records too!")
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A lot of things here were only really findable on YouTube, so here's a spreadsheet, with the years of release linked to a video. If you want something more easily listenable, here's a Spotify playlist where I'd been looking at some of these: https://open.spotify.com/user/128222475/playlist/1AJr9a0pzubITjQO7RwdnH?si=Ig5fRT3sSgG4IxulF6LmdQ
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Things with a black box to the left are the ones that genuinely feel like acts covering immediate contemporaries and peers, not just "influences" — i.e., in most cases, the song came out while they were already a band. Email grammarlog@gmail.com with complaints.
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Jesus and Mary Chain"Head On"19891991Pixies*Definitely the prime example of a flagship band covering a very recent hit by another flagship band. And not as a B-side, or anything -- as a single, with a video, that’d play on the same 120 Minutes that was still playing the original.
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Cure"Just Like Heaven"19871989Dinosaur Jr*This is perceived as a piss-take, like Dinosaur Jr were too punk for the Cure, but J Mascis is the same guy who'd later cover Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians very tender "Circle" (1988).
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Magnetic Fields"100,000 Fireflies"19911993Superchunk*If this was at all helpful when they signed Mag Fields to Merge, it was worth it, cuz I assume they made a BUNDLE a decade later.
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Mudhoney"Touch Me I'm Sick"19881988Sonic YouthOn split single with Mudhoney covering "Halloween" (below).
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Sebadoh / Sentridoh"Brand New Love"19871991Superchunk
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"The Freed Pig"19911994Breeders*It's almost as if this were written for "Last Splash"-era Breeders all along?
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Vaselines"Molly's Lips"19881990Nirvana*Probably better known from later BBC session version on "Incesticide," but released as of '90.
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Black Flag"Wasted"19791985Camper Van Beethoven
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"Damaged I" / "Damaged II"19811989Tad / Pussy Galore
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Treepeople"Funnelhead"19921994Archers of LoafDoug Martsch is going to figure into a lot of these.
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Beat Happening"Foggy Eyes"19851991SeaweedThe Sub Pop mainstay that time forgot.
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"Cast a Shadow"19891991Yo La Tengo
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1993Cub*Pretty sure it's Neko Case on drums here.
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1993BMX Bandits
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"Indian Summer"19871992Eugenius / Captain AmericaEugenius = Eugene Kelly of the Vaselines (with members of BMX Bandits and Teenage Fanclub).
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1993LunaDean Wareham described "Indian Summer" as "indie rock's 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' — everyone's done it."
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Pavement"Box Elder"19891989Wedding PresentPretty sure that at the time the Wedding Present covered this, Pavement's entire output consisted of one seven-inch.
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"Here"19921995Tindersticks*
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Butterglory"Waiting on the Guns"19941995Wedding PresentTons of good Wedding Present covers not reflected here, from Orange Juice ("Felicity") to Girls at Our Best ("Getting Nowhere Fast").
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Smudge"Down About It"19941993Lemonheads*Co-written between the two; Lemonheads got theirs released first, but Smudge's still feels "original" for some reason.
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Dinosaur Jr"Severed Lips"19851991Blake BabiesThe end of Blake Babies could not keep Hatfield from covering Dinosaur Jr. annually
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"Raisans"19871992Juliana Hatfield
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New Radiant Storm King"Happy for the First Time in Weeks"19931994Small Factory*Small Factory also had a pretty good song about enjoying the music of Versus.
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"The Opposing Engineer (Sleeps Alone)"19931995Guided by Voices
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Guided by Voices"Shocker in Gloomtown"19931994BreedersDayton, OH stuff. With Guided by Voices peeking into the video. (Also notice a visual joke re: number of strings needed on Kelley's guitar.)
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Sonic Youth"Death Valley 69"19841988Flaming Lips
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"I Love Her All the Time"19851986Camper Van Beethoven
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"Halloween"19851988Mudhoney
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Daniel Johnston"Rocketship"19831987Dead Milkmen*Obviously covering Daniel Johnston would become even more of A Thing for indie acts than covering Beat Happening, but the Milkmen got there early. On the joke-songs-about-others tip they’ll always have “Instant Club Hit,” a swipe at “art f*gs” who enjoy such terrible things as dancing, interesting haircuts, stylish UK bands, and sex
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"Speeding Motorcycle"19831990Yo La Tengo
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1991Pastels*This version is kinda notably great?
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"Walking the Cow"19831991fIREHOSE*Same here; something about covering Johnston makes people bust out their chops.
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"Some Things Last a Long Time"19901995Built to Spill
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"Tell Me Now"19911993Cub*
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Built to Spill"Twin Falls"19941996Ben Folds Five*
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Sonic Youth"Kotton Krown"19871991Everything But the Girl
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Meat Puppets"Lost"19841985Minutemen
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"Whirlpool"19911993They Might Be Giants*On the songs-about-other-acts front there is something lastingly hilarious about TMBG doing the 1987 single “We’re the Replacements,” with its refrain of “Hey where’s Tommy / Someone find Tommy”
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Ed's Redeeming Qualities"Drivin' on 9"19881988 / 1993Breeders*Best-known Breeders version was on "Last Splash" in '93, but they'd recorded a demo years earlier while doing "Pod."
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Velocity Girl"Crazy Town"19921994Glo-Worm*As sung by Pam Berry, who was previously in Black Tambourine with half of Velocity Girl. College Park MD scene.
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Field Mice"Let's Kiss and Make Up"19891990Saint Etienne*Before Sarah Cracknell joined Etienne.
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Smiths"Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want"19841995Halo Benders*Any band with Doug Martsch in it will inevitably cover the Smiths; Built to Spill does it live. (Including contemporary UK covers of them would make this all a mess, but Billy Bragg was doing “Jeane” by ‘84.) Also: shoutout to Halo Benders for being the best band ever to get pulled over on TV on "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol."
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"Bigmouth Strikes Again"19861992Treepeople
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"Ask"19861994Gigolo AuntsOn the songs-about-others front, Morrissey was the subject of various moderately homophobic joke tracks by American bands, serving as a running joke for Mojo Nixon, who’s memorably namechecked in “Punk Rock Girl” by the Dead Milkmen, who got their own jokes about the Smiths and “Depeche Commode” into “Instant Club Hit...” (For the precise opposite of a homophobic Morrissey joke, see Pansy Division's "Homo Christmas")
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Sugarcubes"Hit"19911993Carter the Unstoppable Sex MachineThis band’s collected covers are ... something
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Housemartins"Happy Hour"19861989Griswalds
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Butthole Surfers"Sweat Loaf"19871993Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston"Sweet Loafed" in the cover version.
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New Order"Ceremony"19811989Galaxie 500*
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"Your Silent Face"19831994Velocity Girl
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"Bizarre Love Triangle"19861987Even As We Speak
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R.E.M."Radio Free Europe"19811984ReplacementsCheating slightly: from a live bootleg. They also did Robyn Hitchcock's "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus."
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"Don't Go Back to Rockville"1984199210,000 ManiacsThere's a whole collaborative R.E.M. / 10K Maniacs / Billy Bragg axis that could be gotten into here, they're all over one another's stuff.
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"Camera"19841994Pavement*
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"The One I Love"19871989Butthole SurfersAs released on "Double Live."
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Television"See No Evil"19771988R.E.M.*R.E.M.'s on-album cover of Wire's "Strange" in 87 felt almost too obvious an example of this to include, but ... it's a good example.
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Pylon“Crazy”19811985R.E.M.
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Mission of Burma"Academy Fight Song"19801989R.E.M.
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"That's When I Reach for My Revolver"19811992Catherine Wheel
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1996Moby
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Ministry"Stigmata"19881991Fatima MansionsDoesn't this feel like the oddest track to record a faithful cover of?
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Echo and the Bunnymen"The Killing Moon"19831997PavementLong gaps on these Bunnymen covers, but both feel like good examples of paying respects to bigger-haired UK acts as core "this is what we came up on" background.
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"Seven Seas"19841995Velocity Girl*
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Liz Phair"Flower"1991 / 19931995Pansy Division*Feels notable in this context that a big part of Pansy Division's repertoire could be fun gay-sex covers of recent indie favorites (e.g., covering Husker Du and Beat Happening on the "Nine Inch Males" EP).
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Miaow"When It All Comes Down"19871991Unrest*Nobody could cover a Factory Records single you definitely don't own and haven't heard like Unrest.
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Pale Saints"Sight of You"19891990RideThis is from the same year an NME writer labeled this "the scene that celebrates itself."
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Lois"Valentine"19921993Small Factory
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Scrawl"Rot"19901994Afghan Whigs
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Suzanne Vega"Luka"19871989LemonheadsAnother one assumed to be some kind of piss-take, but consider the subsequent output of Evan Dando.
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Young Marble Giants"Credit in the Straight World"19801994HoleI think Young Marble Giants' "Collosal Youth" was reissued on CD in 1993, and then rapidly became a thing loads of people did covers from.
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"N.I.T.A."19801995Versus
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Sparks"This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us"19741987Siouxsie and the Banshees*
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Big StarKanga Roo19781984This Mortal CoilThere could be any of two dozen Big Star-related things here.
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Go-Betweens"Cattle and Cane"19831992Wedding Present*
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Apartments"Mr. Somewhere"19851991This Mortal Coil*Apartments were Brisbane peers of the Go-Betweens, but went to New York instead of London and never got as far.
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Wire"12XU"19771982Minor ThreatLater just about everyone would do "Outdoor Miner."
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La's"There She Goes"19901993Boo Radleys
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1993SuperconductorCanadian band featuring A.C. Newman.
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Andy Preiboy"Tomorrow Wendy"19901990Concrete Blonde*Preiboy (formerly of Wall of Voodoo) has Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde do a guest vocal on his song, and then somehow Concrete Blonde gets a popular version released before his is even available.
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Hüsker Dü"Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely"19861992Catherine Wheel*
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Depeche Mode"Never Let Me Down Again"19871994Smashing Pumpkins
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Psychedelic Furs"Heaven"19841990Buffalo Tom
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Replacements"Androgynous"19841991Crash Test Dummies
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My Dad Is Dead"Water's Edge"19881992Tsunami
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Nirvana
"Smells Like Teen Spirit"
19911992Tori Amos
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Joy Division"Love Will Tear Us Apart"19801987Frank Sidebottom"Frank's Indie Medley"
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The Fall"How I Wrote the Elastic Man"1980
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Camper Van Beethoven"Take the Skinheads Bowling"1986
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The Smiths"Bigmouth Strikes Again"1986
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