Never judge a song by its cover

As Phil Collins's work gets an unlikely R&B makeover courtesy of Lil' Kim, Brandy et al, Steve Jelbert explores the curious world of the tribute album
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The Eighties, aka the Worst Decade Ever, refuse to die. Those with a radio that tunes in only to commercial pop channels have recently been assailed by a cover of "Another Day in Paradise", Phil Collins's hit about how viewing the homeless when dining can put you off your meal, even in a decent restaurant.

But Brandy and her brother Ray J's tepid cover (helpfully subtitled "R&B version") is merely the first salvo from an astonishing new development in the underestimated business of tribute albums, now second only to bad film soundtracks in the release schedules. The pompously titled Urban Renewal is a collection of work by today's hottest young "urban" (ie, African-American, but especially American) singers and producers, plus the UK's very own Dane Bowers, paying their respects to the unloved actor/singer/drummer by covering some of his works in a manner that renders the songs mercifully unrecognisable yet still results in Collins picking up the publishing royalties.

Everyone's happy. Phil gets some unexpected cred on discovering that the likes of Ol' Dirty Bastard, with a predictably incoherent "Sussudio", and the hip producers the Neptunes are aware of his tunes. The artists get to spread some Ghetto Fabulous style on what Brits consider Suburban Tedious; comical though Lil' Kim's rap about "me and my niggas getting high all day" is, on ­ what else? ­ "In the Air Tonight", it still beats the original.

But the very fact that Collins can be safely considered a fit subject for a tribute album neatly encapsulates the music industry's pomposity and self-regard. Such a statement has nothing to do with an artist's actual worth; it's just a nod to their money-generating power and, of course, the fact that unimaginative radio producers will find covers of already overfamiliar songs easily digestible.

Tribute records aren't a new invention. Deliberate nods to the music of their youth such as Bob Dylan's impressively half-hearted 1970 cover collection Self Portrait, David Bowie's 1974 Pin Ups, and John Lennon's 1975 Rock'n'Roll were obvious answers for the unmotivated or litigated-against artist. But the true daddy of the modern tribute album was 1978's mega-flop Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the soundtrack to Robert Stigwood's ill-advised follow-up to Saturday Night Fever. Just why the idea of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton plodding around Pepperland pausing only to massacre the odd Beatles classic was deemed viable is a mystery.

It was several years before anyone dared approach the concept again. Hal Willner's witty and idiosyncratic collections ­ such as Stay Awake, a collection of songs from Disney cartoons that included Tom Waits's take on the Seven Dwarves' "Heigh Ho!" ­ redefined the concept, showing that material could be drastically overhauled without embarrassment to its originator or interpreter. Honestly.

Here, a sudden fashion for trib albums occurred a decade ago; they were often put together by the Lancashire micro-indie label Imaginary, which understandably chose saleable subjects such as the ultra-credible Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart and Velvet Underground. Yet even when attracting serious talent (usually XTC, for some reason), they rarely caught on. Despite the occasional success, one unavoidable fact remained: the original artists were better than their acolytes, generally well-meaning plodders delighted to get a day or two in a studio on someone else's account.

A few lucky souls have benefited. Neil Young, going through one of his not infrequent "unintelligible" phases, had his reputation elevated with the 1988 release of The Bridge, on which the Pixies and Nick Cave helped to restore his reputation, and all for a decent cause ­ his wife's foundation for handicapped children. Leonard Cohen found himself tributised twice, first by his former backing-singer Jennifer Warnes, on 1987's unexpectedly good Famous Blue Raincoat, and by a host of alt.rock stars including REM on the shamelessly titled I'm Your Fan, four years later. To this day, Nick Cave's version of the great "Tower of Song" remains the most lugubrious performance ever captured, at least until someone tapes Will Self at a karaoke night.

But those are the exceptions. The average trib disc is more likely to feature Kiss songs covered by Garth Brooks and Lenny Kravitz (it exists) or Eagles tunes re-comatised by people with names such as Travis Tritt, Clint Black and Suzy Bogguss. Occasional interesting ideas such as the New York art rockers Pussy Galore's attempt to cover the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street in its entirety (itself inspired by Sonic Youth's idle boast of reworking the Beatles' White Album) often drown in legalese. Though, to be fair, the letter from the Stones' lawyer made a very nice T-shirt design itself. A similarly affectionate cover of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is due this summer from someone calling themselves Dougal Reed.

Still they come. There are now two volumes of Symphony in Black, a serviceable set of Ozzy Osbourne songs by hapless young US metal bands. Couldn't they have just sent him a big thank you card and had done with it? The Smiths Are Dead left one pining for the Eighties, even. And last year, on London Calling, many Americans murdered Clash songs. More recently, the accurately named Substitute reminded the world that The Who were very definitely better than Stereophonics or Pearl Jam, let alone Cast and Phish.

Praiseworthy works are hard to find. More Oar, a fascinating reworking of the obscure Skip Spence's obscure 1969 album ­ on which his genuinely schizophrenic ramblings are transformed into music by an unlikely cast including Beck and Robert Plant ­ and the noted miserablist Mark Kozelek's recent attempt to recast the early work of, yes, AC/DC as traditional folk songs are recent niche successes. The recent Brand New Boots and Panties was a genuinely affectionate salute to the great Ian Dury.

There are other ways of paying tribute, though. Sonic Youth recently failed to turn up to a scheduled night in honour of the recently deceased acoustic guitar maestro (and notoriously unreliable curmudgeon) John Fahey, because that's what the man himself would most likely have done.

But what is the point of the tribute album? Cover versions should be saved for B-sides or encores. No one has ever bothered to gather together various "names" to pay their respects to Bob Dylan, because his songs already live beyond his own performances. (The cruel might suggest that every one of his shows is an erratic tribute to the material, so I will.) Similarly, no one touches Roy Orbison's greatest moments, because they'll sound stupid in comparison.

At least the Phil album is silly. Which reminds me. Where are Gabba now, the only band ever to play Abba songs in the style of the Ramones? Their stunning covers ­ "The Pinhead Takes It All"; "Gimme Gimme Gimme (Shock Treatment at Midnight)" ­ offered two tributes for the price of one, neither of them to be taken seriously.

'Urban Renewal: the songs of Phil Collins' (WEA) is out on Monday