Listen to this track by venerable country-folk patriarch and one-time Man In Black Johnny Cash. It’s “Hurt”, a song as taken from his 2002 album American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash’s 87th (!) studio album, and last to be released in his lifetime. As may be ascertained, that album was one in a series starting from the 1990s that had Johnny Cash working with producer Rick Rubin, showcasing material that on the surface seemed to be unlikely candidates for songs for Johnny Cash to cover.
This is certainly one of those songs, written by Trent Reznor the creative fulcum behind industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails. Upon hearing that Cash would cover his song, Reznor was flattered. But even he thought it might be an awkward fit for the guy who once had a hit with “A Boy Named Sue”. And yet, even Reznor would discover that through this new version of the track from an unlikely, and some might say mismatched, connection between artist and material, that there were hidden layers of meaning that could be brought out in his own song. Cash’s take on the song was a hit, as was the album off of which it had come; his best selling, non-compilation album in decades. But by the time this song was recorded, Johnny Cash was not a well man, suffering from neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. It shows on this performance. It certainly was demonstrably true as evidenced by the gut-wrenching video that accompanied it.
This goes well beyond the realm of commercial success of course. This remains to be one of those songs that goes beyond its writer, and in many ways also beyond Johnny Cash. And maybe that’s why it had such impact. Read more
Listen to this track by experimental pop collective and repositioners of classic R&B songs The Flying Lizards. It’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, a cover of the much-beloved 1959 Barrett Strong original. As often as it was covered, by both The Beatles and by The Rolling Stones among many others, The Flying Lizards made this one their own. After its release as a single, it eventually appeared on their self-titled 1979 debut album and became an (perhaps unlikely) hit single; number 5 in the UK, and number 22 on the dance charts in the States.
In some ways, it sounds as though this take on the song is trying to throw its own fight in the appealing pop music stakes. And yet somehow, the opposite effect knocked listeners out during the height of new wave when weirdly cool records were able to thrive as record companies, perhaps, were still trying to figure out the paradigm shift. Even in 1979, this sounded pretty weird coming out of the radio; a true novelty hit.
But beyond the novelty aspect of things, I think there is something underneath this version of a classic and well-covered R&B song that does more than just amuse us by being such a curiosity as a hit single.
Listen to this track by British pop chanteuse and peerless interpreter Dusty Springfield. It’s “Windmills Of Your Mind”, a shimmering pop gem as taken from her seminal 1969 album Dusty In Memphis.
That album was a strategic move on Springfield’s part to make a bona fide R&B album in the very heart of where some of the greatest soul albums were created during that era. The results of this and the story behind them is an epic tale with a who’s who of characters including Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and The Memphis Cats all in tow. But, all the while, Springfield proved above all that she was able to sing anything and in any style and make it all work on an LP that comes together in an extraordinary way. This tune isn’t strictly a soul song, for instance. But, it certainly has soul as Springfield sings it. So, it fits because of her voice.
Among other places, it was featured very prominently in the film The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, and sung by Jose Feliciano at the 1968 Academy Awards, at which “Windmills Of Your Mind” won for best original song. Its place in the film is where a lot of casual music fans will recognize it the most. So, how did Dusty Springfield take this song, and make it the one by which all others must be judged? Read more
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!
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Listen to this track by self-motivated pop song interpreter and songwriter Kirsty MacColl. It’s “A New England”, her 1984 single of Billy Bragg’s original song that would get her to the top ten in Britain.
By the time this single was recorded, MacColl was a latter-day signee to Stiff records. While there, she’d record a few singles. But, it would be this one that would make the most impact during her tenure there, with a tale of a young person suddenly confronting the end of a relationship, corresponding with the end of innocence, too. It also talks about love and its complexities, and its power to create as much disappointment as it does to create joy.
Besides filling out the song in an arrangement full of jangly guitars and spacious production, it’s MacColl’s ability to carry the material off which separated it from it’s original context, and created a new one in its place. And the song’s author would help with that process. Read more
Listen to this track by Stax staffer, soul music innovator, and future South Park cast member Isaac Hayes. It’s “Walk On By”, Hayes’ expansive interpretation of the Bacharach-David pop hit that appears on 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul.
Hayes had been a stalwart songwriter at the Stax label, penning many hits for resident artists, most notably Sam & Dave, and their song “Soul Man”. But, the time between that song and the end of the decade was a wide one. A lot had changed. One important thing that had shifted was the standing relationship between Stax and Atlantic, the latter of which had distributed the former’s catalog from 1965. Atlantic had claimed Stax’s output when it in turn was bought by Warner in 1968 as per the contract signed by Stax founder Jim Stewart when the distribution deal was initially struck. The requirement to back-fill Stax’s offering with new work was suddenly a vital priority. It was the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
How did this turn of events help to establish Isaac Hayes as a soul music icon, a status that lasted over a forty-year career as a solo artist? Read more
The Beatles established the idea for British beat groups that if you wanted to make your mark, you had to write your own songs.
But, before they were writers, they were music fans and record collectors – just like us! They had influences, like any other band. In their earliest days, The Beatles considered themselves primarily as a rock ‘n’ roll band. But, they pulled in a number of influences that allowed them to define their sound even early on; soul music, rockabilly, traditional pop, movie soundtrack music, Latin music, and more.
A lot of the time, their choice in material was made so as to distinguish their sets from those of other bands working the same clubs as they did. And it also served them as a live act when they were a bar band in Hamburg, playing eight-hour shows. To play sets that long, you’ve got to cover a lot of ground, and make sure you’re ready to play anything for the sometimes volatile audiences. More material is better than less in those situations; better to know it and not have to play it, than having to play it, and not knowing it.
What this anything goes approach also helped them to do of course is to create a template for how wide their reach would be as songwriters on their own. So, which songs did they cover that helped them to do this best? Well, in the tradition of the Delete Bin, here are 10 to consider as great Beatle-starters, and as prime cuts of pure pop magic all on their own. Take a look! Read more
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.
George Harrison had always been seen as the kid brother to his bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But, that would change.
Although it took him a while, George soon became as good a songwriter as his partners in The Beatles had become, and did so largely on his own steam. Yet, that was the kind of artist he’d always been, focusing his ear for melody early on in his solos, which were meticulously and very patiently wrought, as much as they were inventive, and later to be applied to some of the most celebrated songs in rock history.
Yet, by the mid-to-late 1960s, he’d pen some of the most enduring songs of that group’s catalog as a songwriter. This would be a skill he’d take with him into his solo career as well.
So, in celebration of that skill, and of the birth of George Harrison which is coming up this Saturday, February 25, 2012 (he would have been 69!), here are ten distinguished covers of Harrison’s songs that span his most fertile period. In that time, he mastered acoustic folk styled tunes, sumptuous psychedelia, Indian traditional music, and of course straight ahead guitar pop too. As such, the artists who covered his songs are varied across the stylistic spectrum as well, from pop crooners, to soul men, to blues players, to singer-songwriters.
Take a listen! Read more
It ‘s Paul McCartney’s birthday this coming Saturday. And for the ocasion this year, I thought I’d take a look at some of the cover versions of his songs, both with the Beatles and without, that stand out as shining gems in tribute to Sir Paul on the occasion of his 69th (!) birthday, born as he was on June 18th, 1942.
One of his greatest strengths as a songwriter was his ability to ‘write in the style of’, which allowed him access to all kinds of musical genres, and helped to expand the reach of pop music as a whole. This of course means that he was celebrated by a wide range of artists in turn, on the rock, pop, soul, punk, and other points on the musical spectrum besides. Here are 1o favourites, some being classics on their own, while others are simply just notable for how far Macca’s reach is as far as what sort of act can take up his material.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the list!
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