10 Surprising, Unlikely Cover Versions That Totally Work Anyway

Sometimes, cover versions totally make sense, an obvious fit even before you hear them. Of course that mall-punk band will try out “Another Girl, Another Planet”. That blues group will assuredly play “Stormy Monday”. That pop princess will definitely try to sing that soul favourite to establish her cred. The quality of the results are another question, of course.

But, what about the cover version that comes completely out of nowhere, that has seemingly no relation to the act in question? What about the ones that, in their original forms, actually work against the sound, scale, or the set up of that act? What if those acts are defiant, kick irony to the curb, and play it straight in their own way, and damn the consequences?

And what if it works?

To celebrate this phenomenon, here are 10 cover versions that are surprising, that perhaps really shouldn’t work, and yet do so anyway. Some of them were done live, and many not recorded formally. Others were b-sides, deep-cuts, or rarities. Some were even big hits! The popular music spectrum is well-represented here, stylistically speaking.

But, in some ways, they’re all punk rock.

Take a look.

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1. Witchita Lineman – R.E.M

Jimmy Webb’s 1968 song made famous by country-pop singer Glen Campbell is re-contextualized here by a band pretty far from that original musical context. Yet, R.EM show that the wistfulness and subtlety presented melancholy of the song fits in perfectly well into a modern rock context. And Michael Stipe’s voice turns out to be the perfect timbre for the piece, making it believable even without the actual story of isolation and longing you hear in the lyrics, just by virtue of how well-suited the sound of his voice is to the song.

Perhaps here, they’re taking a “small vacation” away from their impressionistic lyrical homebase for a song that suggests a narrative. R.E.M performed this song while touring their Monster album in 1994-95.  It would appear in a live form on the EP Bittersweet Me in 1996.

2. Always On My Mind – Pet Shop Boys

Another country song to be re-tooled for another genre is this one from Pet Shop Boys, who would score some major chart action as a result, scoring a UK #1 in 1987, representing their most popular charting single. Recorded by artists like Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, and  Elvis Presley, this song of regret and loss fit in perfectly with the country milleu. Who knew it would work so well as an synth-pop dance number?

And it does work well, with the emotional outpouring of the song contrasted with Neil Tennant’s trademark detached vocal style. That contrast helps to create another layer to the song, that perhaps the narrator isn’t entirely repentant of being distant and emotionally unavailable.

3. Paranoid Android – Brad Mehldau 

As I’ve complained about elsewhere, jazz interpretation of pop songs in the modern age can often be said to be stuck in the era of the American Songbook. Yet, some jazz artists have seen the melodic and improvisational possibilities in more recent music. Pianist and bandleader Brad Mehldau is one, here taking on Radiohead’s apocalyptic 1997 track as taken from their era-defining record OK Computer.

Brad Mehldau

With this interpretation as taken from Mehldau’s 2002 album Largo, we get the same delicacy-meets-chaos quality we value in the source material. But, another thing that’s revealed is the almost classical quality of the melodies themselves held within each section of the song, here allowed to breathe in the context of a jazz trio.

4. Somewhere Over The Rainbow – The Flaming Lips

And speaking of the American Songbook, this one by Harold Arlen is an immortal classic, known primarily for the version that Judy Garland laid down for the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.  Sixty years later, art-rock band The Flaming Lips would do their version, known as they were for a child-like approach to grandiose pop. Even if it seems like a quirky choice of cover version, we’re reminded that quirky is the ‘Lips’ musical turf.

Wayne Coyne The Flaming Lips

It’s because this is essentially a child’s song that this cover version from this band works so well, complete with singer Wayne Coyne’s cracked, boyish croon. They played this song on their 1999 The Soft Bulletin tour, which I had the pleasure of hearing live myself.

5. MacArthur Park – Donna Summer

And here’s another Jimmy Webb classic, although this time in disco form! Donna Summer had a smash hit with this song in 1978. Here, the ambitious, and charmingly overwrought song is translated into a dance track, yielding Summer a three-week stay at number one on the charts.

It is the melodramatic nature of this song that made it memorable when actor Richard Harris made it a hit ten years before Summer’s version. Here, it lives again in a genre that practically fed on dramatic presentation, with big string sections and sweeping instrumental passages. In some ways, doing a disco version was inevitable. And that being the case, it may as well have been Donna Summer, the best in her field.

6. Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime – Beck

The original version of this song was by British band the Korgis, who had an MOR radio hit with it in 1980. It was a top 20 hit on the Billboard charts, and top 10 in the UK, to be covered a number of times in the ’80s and ’90s; Yazz, Army of Lovers, Dream Academy, and others. But, perhaps one of the most surprising is this one by Beck, known more for his ironic, cut-and-paste pop music.

Beck Hansen

Beck’s version is featured in the soundtrack for the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that came out in 2004, two years after he’d recorded his own batch of atmospheric, and personal songs about love and loss on his Sea Change album. He’d moved well beyond his original sound by the time he recorded this cover, which made this something of a companion to that earlier set of original songs.

7. Won’t Get Fooled Again – LaBelle

The mod movement in Britain in the 1960s celebrated American R&B, with the Who being among the biggest proponents. By the 1970s, R&B vocal group LaBelle, with vocalist Patti LaBelle at center stage, would return the favour.  The band would record this version of the Who’s anthem on their Moon Shadow album in 1972.

There are a few differences here, of course. The ARP synthesizer line is replaced by a free-jazz soprano sax, and Patti Labelle’s gospel-steeped vocals are a departure from Roger Daltrey’s rock ‘n’ roll bark. But, this song has always been something of a sermon, with a point to make – meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And where best to hear a sermon than in church?

8. Guns of Brixton – Calexico

Paul Simonon’s song as it appeared on the Clash’s 1979 magnum opus London Calling was written about his own home of Brixton in south London.  A place of racial tension that would erupt soon after that record came out, it made the perfect setting for a song about oppression and the threat of violence.

Calexico

So, how does a band from southern California cover it, and have it make sense, not as a The Harder They Come-style reggae song, but as a spaghetti western influenced folk song? Well, the answer seems simple when you think of this not as a tale of urban decay, but rather as that western tale of guns, and fighting with the law when they kick in the front door. Once you make the leap, it’s perfect.

9. Stairway To Heaven - Dolly Parton

In the minds of many, there is a pretty wide chasm between the musical worlds of country chanteuse Dolly Parton and epic hard rock horndogs Led Zeppelin. This is why this cover version of Zep’s classic end-of-the-junior-high-dance classic rock anthem maybe one of the most surprising and seemingly unlikely cover songs on this list.

But, the shared and entwined roots of English folk music and that of American mountain music from Tennessee (Dolly’s home state) is well documented. This is, in the end, exhibit A, appearing on Parton’s 2002 Halos and Horns album.

10. Always Look On The Bright Side of Life – Bruce Cockburn

Monty Python member Eric Idle wrote this tune for the comedy troupe’s 1976 movie The Life Of Brian, a story which concerned itself with a hapless messiah (actually, a very naughty boy!), which ended up also being something of a treatise on how absurd humanity can be around the subject of religion and politics as they inform each other. It was perhaps surprising then that Bruce Cockburn, a songwriter of politically-charged material informed by a deep sense of the spiritual would choose to cover this song for his 1990 Bruce Cockburn Live album.

Bruce Cockburn

Yet, when Cockburn sings it, we’re reminded that for all of the trials, spiritual musings, and raw human experience to be found in the geo-political subject matter in his own material, a sense of humour is a pretty important element that can keep even the most earnest among us focused.  Sometimes when you’re faced with the enormity of existence, it’s time to put the rocket launcher aside and have a laugh and a whistle instead.

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Cover versions should not be perfunctory. They should be bold, and have a life of their own.

Ironic cover versions played for laughs have their place, I guess. But, I like the ones that really show the interpretive skills of the artist delivering them. As we’ve seen, there have been at least 10 that on paper look like odd ideas, or even bad ideas. And yet, there is still a thread that runs through each of them that makes internal sense, while also revealing something of the quality of the original.

So, what are some of  your favourite surprising-yet-effective cover songs?

Tell me all about it in the comments, and otherwise …

Enjoy!

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4 comments

  1. I prefer both the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always on My Mind” and Dolly Parton’s version of “Stairway to Heaven” to the originals (although I do like Willie Nelson’s version of the former song). On the one hand we have a synth-pop band covering a country song, and on the other we have a country artist covering a rock song.

    As for cover versions that have surprised and delighted me, and speaking of Bruce Cockburn, I love the Bare Naked Ladies’ rendition of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (and also prefer it to the original). The Ladies’ (in)famous jokeyness is entirely absent in the delivery and they lend the song an emotional depth that I don’t feel as much when listening to Bruce’s version.

    I look forward to listening to the other covers you mention, some of which I’ve never heard.

  2. Totally agree with Leslie on BNL, they redefined Loversinadangeroustime.
    But my alltime favorite cover is not coincidentally by my favorite band, Foo Fighters covering Gerry Raffetty’s “Baker Street”.

    1. “Baker Street” is one of my favourite songs by anyone. The Foos do a great job with it, and it was pretty unexpected. But, maybe not. Dave Grohl must have grown up hearing it on the radio like I did.

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