The best cover versions have souls of their own, a life beyond their original origins. And here are a few exceptional cover versions that embody this principle so well, that you didn’t know that they weren’t the originals, did you.
Well, OK. Maybe you did know a few of these. But you’d be surprised. Many don’t!
I love cover versions. Not all of them, mind you. I could admittedly do without a few of them (I’m looking at you, Lenny Kravitz. You too Michael Bolton…). The art of the cover version isn’t as appreciated as it once was. It used to be the order of the day at one time of course. Either a professional writer wrote your hit, or you covered an existing one written by some other artist. Where I would be the last to denigrate the singer-songwriter, I will say that you can really judge the greatest writers by how they do that one cover version of a song you love. Because it’s on the cover that they reveal what turns them on in the music of others. It reveals the music fan in them, and the enthusiasm and joy that goes along with that.
So here they are. 10 cover songs you (might have) thought were the originals.
This song, which many associate inextricably to the King, was actually recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1953, which Elvis probably heard on WDIA radio in Memphis. Thornton’s take on the song was decidedly direct. The ‘hound dog’ in question on her version is a guy who only shows up at her door when he wants some, and is otherwise unreliable at any other time. Obviously, Elvis couldn’t sing a lyric like that. Let’s face it, a lot of guys would love a woman to want nothing more from them than sex and not be around any other time. So, they presumably had to tailor the lyrics accordingly.
Of course what they came up with makes no sense at all – “you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine” instead of “you can wag your tail but I ain’t gonna feed you no more”? WTF? Totally meaningless. To me, the song gets by purely on the strength of Elvis’ performance, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller get paid even more for the butchery of their original song, and Elvis’ fame shoots heavenward. Hear the Original!
Otis Redding routinely proves the cliché that a good singer makes every song they sing their own. ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ dates back to the 30s, when Bing Crosby covered it, modeling it on the original recording by the Ray Noble Orchestra in 1932. Otis recorded it for Stax in 1966 with the MGs and the Memphis Horns backing him, and made it a (rightful) soul classic. Otis’s version inspired a cavalcade of subsequent cover versions, spanning the musical spectrum from Rod Stewart to Tina Turner. It was famously covered again in the 1991 film The Commitments, which was a direct nod to Otis’s version.
Recognized as her signature tune, this track from her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is actually an Otis Redding-penned song recorded by Redding the year previous on his equally famous Otis Blue album. The arrangement turns the point of view of the song on its head, with the woman waiting at home demanding respect rather than the hard working guy coming home, as in the original version. As such, it takes Otis’ rather conservatively-toned song into something of a Women’s Movement anthem. In this version, the woman will not settle for her lot. She wants respect. In fact, she demands it. She’s giving the orders here – “find out what it means to me”. Yes, Ma’am.
On the same album, Aretha interprets Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and Ray Charles’ ‘Drown in My Own Tears’, which established her as a giant in the field of interpretation all around. But, it’s ‘Respect’ which is her strongest statement, aided and abetted by the backing vocals by her sisters Erma (famous for her own solo cover of the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’) and Carolyn which give the tune an extra push-me-pull-you punch. They are the best backing vocals on any record ever. Hear the Original!
Hendrix had long been a fan of Bob Dylan’s work, particularly of Bob’s ability as a lyricist. As such, Hendrix took the song ‘All Along the Watchtower’ from Dylan’s late-1967 album John Wesley Harding and ran with it to the point where even Dylan considers the result to be the definitive version of his song. The original recording is a dusty, spare, sepia-toned parable, which is in keeping with the rest of the JWH album. But the Experience’s version (a highlight on 1968’s Electric Ladyland) is epic, the soundtrack to an impending battle between the forces good and evil. Everything about it demands attention, from the opening strummed chords from Dave Mason of Traffic who guested on the track, to Hendrix’s own soulful vocal and towering guitar-work.
Years later, Bob Dylan would arrange the song in accordance with Jimi’s take on it for his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. It remains to be one of Dylan’s most-performed songs, covered as it has been by the likes of U2, XTC, the Dave Matthews Band, and the Grateful Dead, among many others. Hear the Original!
In the early to mid 1970s, Bruce Springsteen was lauded as ‘the New Dylan’ (as many have been labeled since…) mainly because of a similar love of language and seemingly nonsensical imagery which he displayed in his early songwriting. One great example of this is his 1973 song ‘Blinded By the Light’ which appears on his Greetings From Asbury Park album. It was covered in 1976 by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, with some of the lyrics altered slightly, which was the bigger hit, and known as the definitive version. Springsteen would of course come into his own later in 1975 with his Born to Run album, and even get on the cover of Time. But, this tune would be celebrated as an AM radio and classic rock staple, and be associated with Manfred Mann’s take on it primarily.
Maybe one of the most famous things about this version would be the fact that it repeats the lyric a number of times, yet what the singer is actually saying still is a bit dubious. Part of the problem is that the original version has the line in question as “cut loose like a deuce, another runner in the night”. The MM version, as it turns out, is “revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night”. But for a long time, people were famously trying to guess what the lyrics were, in some cases to comic effect. Hear the Original!
By the early 70s, the state of dance music was in jeopardy in Britain being as it was in the middle of an era of progressive rock music from the likes of Yes, ELP, and Gentle Giant, among other bands. But, there was a movement which started in the clubs in the North of England which celebrated lesser known singles put out by American soul singers, largely forgotten in their own country. This movement and the music associated with it became known as Northern Soul, and Gloria Jones was one such artist linked to it. Her single, “Tainted Love”, which was recorded in the mid-60s, was a Northern Soul staple. And Soft Cell singer Marc Almond was a Northern soul fan.
The influence Northern Soul and Gloria Jones’ song would have on his own work in the Kraftwerk-meets-cabaret stylings of Soft Cell can certainly be viewed as inevitable. The group covered the tune in 1981, and their version became an international hit based on its distinctive electronics, and Almond’s plaintive, theatrical vocal. In 2007, Almond would perform the song with Gloria Jones at a Marc Bolan tribute concert. And Marilyn Manson would cover the song as well, inspired by the Soft Cell version. Hear the Original!
One thing that makes Bowie such a talent is his ability to spot talent in others and add his own touches to it. Bowie’s involvement in the career of Iggy Pop is a prime example of this, first having involvement in the production and mixing of The Stooges landmark third album Raw Power. In addition to this, Bowie teamed up with Iggy again in 1977, producing Pop’s album The Idiot, while also co-writing the songs on the record. Where this record wouldn’t exactly be Iggy’s breakthrough to the mainstream, sessions for the album yielded the song “China Girl”, which was duly included.
Flash forward to 1983 and Bowie’s own Let’s Dance LP, which was certainly Bowie’s breakthrough album to the mainstream, at least where North America was concerned. Although he’d had radio play with other singles, the Let’s Dance album was an enormous smash, yielding multiple hits including a re-vamped “China Girl”, the version on Bowie’s album superceding the one he co-wrote and produced for Iggy years before. Hear the Original!
This one may look a little strange to readers in the UK who already know this. But the breakthrough song ‘There She Goes’ by fey American outfit Sixpence None the Richer (also known for their hit “Kiss Me”) which enjoyed great success in 1999 was a cover version by legendary one-album wonders The La’s. The sweet vocal from Sixpence’s Leigh Nash assure the listener of the joys of love ‘racing through my brain’, somewhat belying the fact the original version of the song is alleged to be about the initial rush of a heroin high. But whether there is any truth to this interpretation or not is secondary. This cover version proves that delivery certainly affects interpretation on the part of the listener, and that such interpretation is just as valid as any intention that may or may not have been intended by the original writer.
The La’s version of the song (which is the definitive version in the UK), whether it is about heroin or not, remains to be one of the most perfect pop songs ever written. Not to knock Sixpence or their version, but it would have been hard to mess that up. Too bad the notoriously perfectionist songwriter Lee Mavers who wrote the song doesn’t agree. In this opinion, not even his version matched what he had intended the song to sound like. Hear the Original!
Through out his career, Kurt Cobain wanted to keep the DIY, outsider ethic of punk alive in his own work and life. By the time this song was recorded for Nirvana’s 1992 MTV Unplugged appearance, he’d become disillusioned by his own success. The band’s cover version David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ (found on Bowie’s 1970 album of the same name) was a big part of how he was attempting to express that feeling – that he had sold out, given up a world of musical purity and dedication to his own view of himself as an outsider. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent to him that the mainstream audience he had gained thought that this was an original song by Nirvana. They hadn’t understood, and that made him a part of the problem in his mind.
Cobain was many things, but one thing that we can put in the ‘positive’ column is that he was a dedicated music fan. It’s too bad that he had such expectations of himself that he would take his own credibility in the mainstream as a criticism to be self-applied, rather than as an opportunity to enlighten his fans about where his music had come from. This is a tragedy to me. Hopefully by now, Nirvana fans have explored the music further, as I’m sure Kurt wanted them to do when he was alive. Hear the Original!
American pop band No Doubt have famously praised British music as being a prime breeding ground for the sound they crafted for themselves in the 1990s and in the early part of the new millennium. For their singles collection in 2003, they included a song which would become a radio hit for them – It’s My Life. But what many among their audience might not have known right away is that the song was a major radio hit for the otherwise avant-garde British group Talk Talk in 1984 as well, on the album of the same name.
The No Doubt version is a faithful reading of the Talk Talk version, with vocalist Gwen Stefani following the keening lines of original Talk Talk vocalist Mark Hollis almost exactly. You get the feeling that the band’s devotion and debt to British new wave and post-new wave music is much like the same devotion British bands had to Chicago blues in the 1960s. I love that kind of cultural turnaround! Hear the Original!
The cover version; an offense or a tribute? It can go either way. But the best cover versions at very least make us wonder about the original versions, make us want to seek them out. And any force in the world that makes us want to find more music can’t be all bad! Here’s hoping that some of the cover songs I’ve listed here will start you on a journey to becoming a fan of music that you may not have otherwise considered. Happy hunting! And please report back; I’d love to hear your thoughts, good people.