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Come On Baby, Cover Me

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All the cool kids are discussing cover songs, and Jim Henley has links. Not to mention a list of his own. I’m late to the party, as usual, but I plead overstretch– we had dinner guests Saturday, followed by frantic paper-writing Sunday, and I spent today fuming over being stuck in a courtroom suffering through the most aggressively stupid voir dire process ever. I thought that there could be no other system that could rival the BCS for sheer stupidity, but I was wrong.

But that’s a rant for another day. In an vague attempt to cool off before I have to go back for another day of trial by ordeal, here are some scattered thoughts on cover songs.

It’s sort of a broad topic, actually, and there are lots of different subcategories. There are covers that most people don’t know are covers– Kate once accused Tom Waits of covering Rod Stewart, even though Waits is the guy who wrote “Downtown Train” in the first place. I was surprised to learn (via a perfectly cromulent post on the subject that “Tomorrow, Wendy” was a cover (I’ve never heard the original), and there are probably a great many people out there who think that Elvis Costello wrote “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

Of course, that sort of shades into the category of songs that the covering artist has made their own. The quintessential example is probably “All Along the Watchtower,” which is a perfectly serviceable Dylan song that got raised to a whole new level by Jimi Hendrix (I wish I could explain what it is about that intro that’s so amazingly creepy…). Prince put “Nothing Compares 2 U” on his Greatest Hits collection, but the version everybody remembers is by Sinead O’Connor, before she went all goofy (of course, to be fair to the Intermittently Named One, I heard a version of the Joan Osbourne chestnut “One of Us” that he did that by all rights ought to displace the original). I’ve heard the original version of “Hallelujah,” and it didn’t make any real impression, while the Jeff Buckley version blew me away.

A fair number of cover songs seem to exist only for the sheer weirdness and warped humor of it. I’m rather fond of the Meat Puppets version of “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation),” and “Just Like Heaven” really needed the heavy-metal guitar break on the chorus that Dinosaur Jr. added, but I can’t really pretend that they’re not silly. The same is probably true of Greg Dulli’s lounge-singer treatment of “If I Only Had a Heart,” and a lot of the bluegrass-metal songs cited by Jim and others as well. I thought that Metallica, of all bands, had an entry for this category, but it turns out to be a note-perfect cover of some other band’s arrangement of “Whisky in the Jar.”

The most memorable category of cover tunes is probably the cover that should never have happened. Somebody should’ve been clubbed to death before the Fugees were allowed to mess with “No Woman, No Cry”, and I really, really hate the Cowboy Junkies version of “Sweet Jane.” (I’m aware that it strongly resembles an alternate version done by the Velvet Underground, to which I can only say that Lou Reed has never been known for his stunningly good judgement…) The worst I’ve run across in recent memory is probably the Joan Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, which was simply horrifying. Closer to my own musical era, a number of people on other blogs have approvingly cited recent covers of cheesey 80’s tunes (Reel Big Fish doing “Take On Me,” for example, or Save Ferris doing “Come On, Eileen”), but they generally leave me asking “Why?” Without the unreal falsetto, a-ha just doesn’t have that much to offer, and I was much happier not knowing what the Midnight Runner in the overalls was mumbling, thank you very much.

The worst offenders in this category often turn out to be artists re-working their own songs (that, or Star Trek cast members). I was seriously underwhelmed by the acoustic version of “Layla” that became so inescapable some years back (it loses all the energy of the original), but the most egregiously awful self-cover is probably “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86.”

(Which is not to say that self-covers are intrinsically awful– some artists re-invent their own songs to great effect. Bob Dylan is probably the king of this– he doesn’t seem to play a song the same way twice. When we saw him in concert, he did a country-tinged “It Ain’t Me, Babe” that was almost wistful– more of a regretful, “if I could, I would” kind of take on the song, rather than the kiss-off of the original. A minor change of emphasis here and there, and it was like a whole new song. Of course, he is a genius…)

The biggest single category of cover songs has to be the utterly undistinguished cover. These are generally nearly note-perfect copies of the original, and they’re generally quickly forgotten. The cover of “The Boys of Summer” by the Ataris that almost everyone mentions is a good example. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t actually piss me off– it’s just too inoffensive for that, and it’ll be gone soon. Examples of this abound, or ought to, but they’re kind of hard to come up with, because they’re so ephemeral. A lifetime achievement award ought to go to Lenny Kravitz, though, for making every song he plays sound like a reverent cover of somebody, even when he wrote the tune.

In the end, as many other people have noted, the best cover songs are those that make some sort of significant change to the original, be it gender, genre, or some subtler twist that makes the song sound new again. My favorite cover song at the moment is probably “Lost in the Supermarket” by the Afghan Whigs– they take the Clash song, slow it down a hair, and put a soul-crooner spin on it without losing the original feel. They throw in a bit of “Train in Vain,” and some Ben E. King for good measure. It’s a great piece of work.

Of course, Kate and I danced to that song at our wedding (it wasn’t the first dance, but it was memorable), so I might be just the slightest bit biased. But, having gotten from Jury Duty Hell to that happy memory in just shy of 1100 words, I’m going to stop now, and go to bed.

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About Chad Orzel

  • Best cover ever: Ben Folds Five doing Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head.” The album liner notes called it “anarchic.”

  • My favorite cover song is not techinally a cover song: U2’s Temple Bar Remix of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” It sounds like U2 doing a cover of a bar band version of a U2 song.

  • My favorite cover song is not really a cover song: U2’s Temple Bar Remix of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” It sounds like U2 doing a cover of a bar band version of a U2 song.

  • My favorite is hopelessly obscure now, but 80’s Athens, Georgia instrumental band Love Tractor did a version of the Kraftwerk song “Neon Lights” that is revelatory. Instead of tech-worship, they did it with six and 12-string guitars, in an almost raga-rock strum, with the vocals even more fragile than Kraftwerk’s lilting over the top. Stunning in its surprise and very beautiful.

  • Most annoying cover: Manfred Mann’s Blinded By The Light.

    A wonderfully transcendent early Springsteen song turned into a formulaic radio hit about feminine hygiene products.

  • Dan

    I like Crystal Blue Persuasion and Little Wing, done by Concrete Blonde, and Mrs. Robinson by the Lemonheads to name a few.

  • i have a “punk” cover of Tainted Love, i don’t know the artist, but it’s a damn cool cover. The NOFX versions of the Cheers theme and Stand By Me are probably my faves tho.
    Then there’s Less Than Jake’s cover of the Happy days Theme,
    Ten Foot Pole’s version of Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog
    the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra’s cover of the Sesame Street theme (Ok that doesn’t really count as there’s hardly any words. But it’s really funky)
    a couple of covers of eighties tunes that i think are more well-known than their originals are:
    Video Killed The Radio Star by Presidents Of The USA
    On A Rope by Rocket From The Crypt
    (i’m afraid i don’t know the original artists)
    there’s also Pump It Up by The Wildhearts, altho unfortunately i don’t think that’s so well known a cover.

  • Worst cover ever (bar none): Barbra Streisand’s version of John Lennon’s ‘Mother’ where she ‘belts out’ the primal scream section.

  • Eric Olsen

    My God, the very thought of it causes intestinal blockage.

  • Eric Olsen

    Hey, we did a big thing on cover tunes on Ross hte Bloviator’s site last August. I just went to look for it but the comments to the post are closed – maybe Ross can dig them up.

  • David

    The immortal Dickies will always hold a place in my heart for their perfect pop-punk covers of Paranoid, Sound of Silence, and, of course, the Gigantor theme.

  • You can’t mention The Dickies without mentioning their version of “Knights in White Satin”

    Going the other way, Albertos Y Trios Paranoias’ (if I’ve spelled their name right) barbershop quartet version of “Anarchy in the UK”.

    Aztec Camera’s laid back version of Van Halen’s “Jump”.

    I can’t remember who it was that did the kazoo version of “Whole Lotta Love”.

  • Dude

    Would jazz players covering well-known standards count? If so, covers by Ella, Lady Day, Louie, Nina, etc. are always beyond heavenly.
    But Art Tatum’s run-through of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Tiger Rag” is the greatest 2-minute sound ever recorded. Ever.

  • Jason Fitch

    I don’t know how many people who read this site are Phish fans, but I do and I am. One of my favorite things about Phish are the cover songs they perform live. Some of the songs are fairly regular parts of their ever-changing set lists (Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times.”) Some have only been played once and will probably never return (Pavement’s “Gold Soundz,” Elton John’s “Amoreena.”) Phish has even managed to cover entire albums (usually on Halloween – a musical “costume”) such as The Beatles’ White Album, The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” The Talking Heads’ “Remain In Light,” The Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon.” Some of the artists that they’ve covered won’t come as any surprise to the casual Phish listener (The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, Little Feat) while the same casual listener may be surprised to learn that they have covered such disparate artists as The Beastie Boys, XTC, Smashing Pumpkins, AC-DC, Boston, The Edgar Winter Group, Duke Ellington, Areosmith, David Bowie, Ween and Frank Zappa.

  • “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was originally part of a double A-side single (at least on Radar) with Rockpile doing Costello’s “Girls Talk”. And speaking of Rockpile, their sole lp (as Rockpile, not as Edmunds or Lowe’s backing band) came with a four Everly Brothers song EP, so I guess they were covering the Bryants (writers of most early E.B. hits).

    – glt

  • David wrote:
    “The immortal Dickies will always hold a place in my heart for their perfect pop-punk covers of Paranoid, Sound of Silence, and, of course, the Gigantor theme.”

    Gigantor is a knockout, but their version if “Knights In White Satin” 45 with the infamous KKK picture cover beats all.

    Amazingly the Dickies are still out there performing…

  • David

    I forgot the Dickies also did “Eve of Destruction.” I haven’t heard their “Knights of White Satin”.


    JFA-Charlie Brown Theme
    Johnny Cash – I see a darkness and Hung my Head
    Social Distortion-Ring of Fire
    Goo Goo Dolls w/Lance Diamond-I could never take the place of your man and Down on the Corner
    Mighty Mighty Bosstones-Police Beat
    Too Much Joy-Seasons in the Sun (but not Billy Bragg’s “A New England”-sadly, they do nothing for this GREAT song)
    Presidents of the USA-Devil in a Sleeping Bag
    New Bomb Turks-Mr. Suit
    Metallica-Last Caress/Green Hell
    Living Colour-Talkin’ bout a revolution
    Rage Against the Machine-Ghost of Tom Joad
    Melvins-Going Blind
    Crash Test Dummies-Androgynous and Peter Pumpkinhead
    Cake-I will Survive and Sad Songs and Waltzes
    Jello Biafra-Still is still moving to me

    Limp Bizkit-Behind Blue Eyes
    Sheryl Crow-Sweet child o mine
    Any cover song Lenny Kravitz does
    Any cover song Kid Rock does
    Whatever crap band that did the New Order cover a couple years ago-though the original rules baby, rules!

  • you do realise American Woman was a cover? but Lenny’s version is damn good

  • Yes, I know that “American Woman” was a cover (a not particularly inspired one, at that). I was just referring to his gift for making original material sound like he lifted it from some obscure 60’s band.

  • Kevin Schulz

    original cover that sounds original: “Twist and Shout” Beatles…enough said there

  • ken

    the best? jimi hendrix’s version of bob dylan’s ‘all along the watchtower’ is easily my fave cover.