The cover version, as I’ve said so many times, should bring something new to the listener that they can’t get from the original. It’s a good general rule. There are perfunctory cover versions anyway, of course. And there are ones that you think couldn’t possibly work, and yet they do and sometimes gloriously so!
But, what of the cover version that seems to have been inevitable? What of the ones that appeared to have been waiting for the artist to take it in their arms and give it some sweet musical lovin’? I’m not talking about predictability here. No. I’m talking about that “of course!” factor; of course that artist recorded that song. It was made for them, even if they didn’t write it, or record it first!
Well, here are ten of those; songs that silently demanded that they be covered by the given artist, and that the artist framed the song in such a way as to bring out personality traits in it that weren’t obvious before, true to their own personalities and previous works. Some were big hits. Some were only minor entries into the charts. Some were little-known live versions or bonus tracks. But beside all those details, with each one comes the feeling to a listener that a sense of resolution has been revealed, that because each of these cover versions exist, finally the cosmic tumblers have fallen into place. Proceed!
Best known as the opening song from the 1987 film The Lost Boys, and featured on that soundtrack album, The Doors’ “People Are Strange” is confidently taken up by Liverpudlian post-punk concern Echo & The Bunnymen. Before hearing this cover version of the 1967 original, I certainly never would have even thought of the two bands in the same musical compartment. By 1987, the sixties seemed pretty far away to me, and I suppose they kind of were.
But, lead singer Ian McCulloch’s voice is perfectly suited to this, not only because his vocal timbre is so much like Jim Morrison’s (something else I really never noticed), but because he is able to deliver this song as an anthem to the weird new wavers that took the Bunnymen to their black-clad and overcoated bossoms by the eighties. This cover was a culmination of teenaged alienation felt most keenly by kohl mascara-wearing, lopsided hair-doed music fans in that current decade, even if when The Doors recorded it, it was the hippy counterculture that was perhaps the target audience. I never would have thought it before I heard this version of the song. But, this cover version put the key in the lock that maybe not much had changed for those who were considered “strange” across the decades but for the costuming.
Sinead O’Connor made this song her own by 1990, a cover version of a mid-eighties Prince side project called The Family. With this cover version, it really was a match made in heaven, or at least in purgatory given the depth of suffering depicted in it. O’Connor’s intense-yet-vulnerable delivery on this helped her to establish her style, and certainly cemented her place in the stratosphere where chart showings were concerned. It was a hit single, and helped to propel her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got into top ten positions all over the world.
Maybe the “of course!” factor here is less about how familiar everyone was with the original version so as to make a logical comparison to O’Connor’s version. The Family version wasn’t that well-known by most. But, it’s how O’Connor was able to get to the emotional core of the song, that made it something undeniable. What also helped to underscore this was the heavy rotation of the video that came complete with real, actual tears, on the lines “all the flowers that you planted, mama, in the backyard/ all died when you went away.” In interviews, she explained that the line reminded her of her own mother, who had passed away. The memory made her mourn again as she sang it for the video. Sometimes, that “of course!” moment happens for the artist as well.
Sometimes, it’s not so much the band or artist that creates that moment of scales falling from the eyes (or ears in this case) when it comes to cover versions. It’s just a simple stylistic shift that reveals the possibilities for the material that had always been there when the original was recorded. This is definitely true of The Big Six’s rockabilly take on this Marc Bolan & T-Rex classic.
The original song was a key track in the glam rock movement in the seventies, full of rock ‘n’ roll pomp that seemed showered in glitter and wrapped in a feather boa. But, glam drew from the fifties as much as it did from the androgynous and ironic pop approach that most listeners associate with the genre. Bolan himself borrowed heavily from that previous decade, and rooted his writing in early R&B and classic-era boogie beat rock ‘n’ roll. When plaid-clad rockabilly outfit the Big Six got a hold of this tune of Bolan’s, the bones of a great little sock hop number were already in place. It’s just that most of us didn’t know it yet. And the result is revelatory, sounding like some long lost Eddie Cochran number rather than one from the glam era. The song was prominently featured in the 1998 film The Truman Show, a story that evokes these same idealistic visions of a previous post-war era, making that rockabilly sound with a dash of irony all the more appropriate.
At other times, the reason that a cover version clicks so well has to do with the perfect tonal balance at the heart of an artist’s key strengths. Norah Jones had built up an amalgam of country, jazz, and pop into one sumptuous package. But, she also created enough space within that spectrum to focus on any given point within it when the material called for it. Meanwhile, head writer of Wilco Jeff Tweedy, the author of this song, had done the very same, albeit in his own style and with his own take on how that mixture of pop and roots ingredients should be balanced.
The result was this cover version that made it seem like Jones and Tweedy were not only mapping out similar territories when it came to roots music with a pop sheen, but that they were long lost musical kindred spirits. The melody of this song written by Tweedy sounds like it could have been written by Jones. And her command of the phrasing and emotional content in the lyrics at least made one wonder if Tweedy had written it with her in mind. This version appeared on the bonus disc of her 2009 album The Fall.
I know what you’re thinking. There have been many versions of this song in the last twenty years in particular. And a good many of them are very powerful takes on the original source material from Leonard Cohen. As good as Jeff Buckley’s version, John Cale’s, and k.d. lang’s are, this version from Rufus Wainwright is the perfect fit, with Cohen’s fellow Montrealer Wainwright seeming to be born to sing this song about hopelessly doomed love, full of anguish, longing, and regret all at once, featured on the soundtrack of Shrek, even if it’s Cale’s version that is heard in the actual movie.
This song is meant to be sung by the voice of experience. This certainly fits into a lot of the material that Wainwright has done in the past. Yet, here there is something extra to be found. In many ways, the youth of the singer should work against that requirement that the material makes on the one delivering it. Somehow, Wainwright’s voice is full of the same sense of world-weariness that Cohen’s original carries, with the added element of his youth that seems to bring out a sense of contrast that is unavailable elsewhere. This dynamic can be found across the spectrum of material Wainwright has done since he began, making this cover version inevitable for him, being one of the greatest anthems to being jarred by the cruelty of love, and the attraction it holds in spite of that cruelty.
When Elbow debuted, there was many a comparison between the voices of lead singer Guy Garvey and Peter Gabriel. Maybe this one does border on the predictable to some. But, this song seemed to go beyond the simple similarities between the two voices. It’s the whole band’s approach on their own music that makes this cover version such a perfect fit that makes it seem as though a loose end has been tied up by virtue of their take on this, the orginal track from Gabriel’s 1986 album So, and recorded by Elbow in 2013 as a part of the Scratch My Back/And I’ll Scratch yours project on which their are many possible entries on this list, so well matched in theme and tone are the covers found there (David Byrne on “I Don’t Remember” being one that leaps to mind, full as it always was of Talking Heads-like paranoia).
Once again when it comes to this cover version, it’s not just the voices that make this a good fit. It’s that this song could have very easily have been written by the band, and not by Gabriel, if the Muse had bestowed it upon them. This sounds like an Elbow song as they play it. As such, this cover sounds like a homecoming. Elbow and Gabriel were more closely aligned than other entries on this list, of course. They recorded at Gabriel’s Real World Studios, for instance. And, as the project name Scratch My Back implies, Gabriel covered their song, “Mirrorball”, which may also indicate that the Muse could have redistributed the creative bounty accordingly the other way around.
This song was covered at least one time before the Isleys turned it into a languorous funk-soul slow jam – by it’s author! Todd Rundgren’s former band The Nazz recorded it in a psych-rock flavoured style, only to be re-envisioned during his solo career into something more akin to a Brill Building style pop song to be featured on 1972’s Something Anything. But, all the while, burbling under the surface was the soul of the song, rooted in jazzy chord progressions and a funky haziness that was waiting to burst into the foreground. That’s what the Isley Brothers’ version does for us here, bringing out that potential that had always been there, waiting to be born. Magic!
It should be mentioned too that this song had always been recognized for this kind of crossover potential. Rundgren played it live on the dance programme Soul Train around the time his version was released as a single. This put the song squarely into the sights of an audience of R&B fans. The Isley’s recorded it 1974, making the musical subtext into the text itself, full of glossy electric piano and plaintive singing. It appeared on their album Live It Up. Maybe this cover version was unexpected at first. But, the Isleys also performed this song on Soul Train, as if the number had always been a standard of seventies soul. And with two classic performances on the mainstream outlet which that programme represented, maybe that was what it had always been made to be.
Starting as a new wave angry young man by the end of the seventies, it wasn’t immediately obvious to pop music record-buyers that Joe Jackson had had formal training in composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Further, from his first album, not many knew that he was an accomplished pianist and arranger, or that his interest in jazz was as great as his interest in rock music. So, upon hearing his cover of Steely Dan’s “King Of The World” many years after the new wave tag had been relegated to a past era for Jackson, you can hear traces of his own compositional approach in this cover version – it’s full of Jackson-isms! Once again: there’s a definite “of course!” factor here. This version of the song comes from Jackson’s 1999 live record Live In New York: Summer In The City, on which he performs his own material, and other cover versions of songs that have informed it.
It should be mentioned that Jackon, Becker, and Fagen have similar musical profiles and interests. The two Dans also had academic backgrounds, interested in matching the sophistication of jazz with the accessibility and commercial appeal of pop. Their music also employs a certain dry cynicism and irony that casts a distanced and disdainful eye on the given subject matter. This fits right into Jackson’s own paradigm, with a mutual love for New York jazz informing the musical proceedings. This song is full of bright and jazzy piano contrasted against his petulant vocal style, much in the same way that the original song’s angular jazz chords contrasts Fagen’s non-traditional vocal lead. Like the other entries on this list, these similarities would never have been brought to light without this cover version. And with it, we understand the artists involved all the more.
Whether solo or with pop rock collective The New Pornographers, Neko Case mines the themes of love and the roles it places upon us in her own songwriting, choosing narrative forms that go beyond beginning/middle/end or indeed verse/chorus/verse. . On her 2014 record The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight The More I Love You, she included this cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s 1989 original as a bonus track, something of an oddly angled treatise on the dangers and delights of female sexuality and love. With her background, who better to cover that song, and to include it into her own pantheon about those same dangers and delights? Again, it’s that “of course!” factor at work, with tornadoes that love you and wild creatures fighting to be wild appearing as metaphors for love in her own songs meeting Hitchcock’s own beautiful and dangerous image.
Musically too, this song fits with Case’s work with The New Pornographers in particular, full of sixties style jangle as it is, to the point where upon hearing Case’s version it’s amazing that this song didn’t come to them and not to Hitchcock. That connection perhaps could never have been made had Case not recorded this, revealing that both bodies of work are connected by common threads, musically speaking. But, its the similar themes that recur in the work of both artists that is the main tie that binds here, with Case inhabiting the role of the central figure that Hitchcock had always been singing about. With this cover, the circle is complete, with Case even keeping Hitchcock’s English “Madonner” pronunciation as a sly and, if you will, stinging wit.
As a prominent modern folk artist, Kate Rusby has kept British folk music traditions alive, while also being a vital force in bringing it all into the modern era. With her work, it’s the micro cultures of Great Britain that come to the forefront, pulling in regional folk music traditions and repositioning them in a universal way for new listeners. So, how does this track when it comes to this version of The Kinks’ 1968 almost-title cut to their then current album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society? Well, first is an understanding that folk music isn’t a static thing, and that the modern music of one era can turn into the folk music of a later one if it’s given enough time to be absorbed, and be hummed, whistled, and yes, covered, over the years. That makes the whole “preservation” angle kind of ironic with this cover.
Writer Ray Davies was interested in the minutiae of English life, found in the small details and simple pleasures. That what this song is about, which makes it an ideal candidate for a folk tune, even though at the time it was a pure pop song released as a radio single. Rusby’s cover reminds us of the thin veneer of difference between these two poles, which is why it works so well, and seems strange that British folk singers hadn’t embraced this one as their own a lot earlier before Rusby finally did. This version was used as a theme to the BBC series Jam & Jerusalem, a series about a women’s guild in a West Country village. This is kind of an “Of course!” too, with this song having always been an anthem to little England, and the characters, landscapes, and general accouterments to life lived there.
Sometimes, cover versions are revelatory. They reveal all kinds of angles not only about the original source material, but about the artist doing the covering as well as the writer of the song. With this list of ten, we’ve certainly got all that, um, covered.
Which of the above are your favourites? Which ones should be on this list but aren’t?
As always, let me know all about it in the comments sections. Otherwise, also as always …