10 Cover Versions That Seemed Completely Inevitable (But Not Predictable)

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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10 Rolling Stones Covers To Surprise and Amaze You

These days, the Stones are known as a seemingly eternal rock ‘n’ roll brand, with a rather straightforward approach that doesn’t appear to take too many chances beyond an established musical template.  Yet, a lot of critics, and even some of the fans, forget that Jagger and Richards are accomplished songwriters, putting out tunes in their heyday that were not only immediate pop hits, but were also as highly interpretable as anything Lennon and McCartney ever put out.

The thing that strikes me most about their work is how prescient it is in terms of stylistic changes to the trajectory of rock music.  In much of their work, they seemed to anticipate the development of blues rock, country-rock, and even post punk well before those ideas developed.

So, here are 10 Rolling Stones covers to surprise and amaze you.  You’ll notice that many of them are as far removed from what you might think as being songs written by Jagger and Richards, who have become less known for their incredible songwriting past, and more for their tenacity as a touring unit.  Yet the fact that acts as disparate as The Sundays, The Feelies, and Ike & Tina could pick and choose tunes from the Jagger/Richards songbook reveals the measurement of the quality of the songs themselves.

As Tears Go By – Marianne Faithfull

In the early days of their career, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were not songwriters.  They had to be bullied into it by their then-manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who had another act he was trying to develop by 1964.  That act was a very young Marianne Faithfull, a virginal daughter of European nobility with a great name and the right look that Oldham knew would pay off.

Her first hit was the Jagger/Richards penned ‘As Tears Go By’ a song that Oldham demanded to evoke ‘high cathedral windows and no sex’ to suit the image of his new act.  Of course, Faithfull would be corrupted by the Stones in other ways, taking Jagger as a lover, and eventually plunging into a heroin habit that would almost claim her life.  But this song does what it sets out to do; be a song of innocence, sung by an angel who is untouched by the evils of the world.

Satisfaction – Otis Redding

The debt the Stones owe R&B is incalculable, building a career on cover versions of Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, and Solomon Burke, among many others.  It must have been quite an honour to in turn be covered by one of the greatest soul singers of his era, and perhaps for all time.  Otis Redding was a giant in soul music, easily crossing over into the rock world by delivering one of its anthems in a sweaty Southern soul package.

Where the original version is powered by Keith Richards’ central riff, here the song is all about Otis’ voice.  And the thrust here is less about the lustful tone of the original, and more about the song as a sermon.  Somehow, Redding makes this into a pleading address to the state of the world.  The art of the cover version is all about tone, about subtlety, and adding dimension to the source material in some way.  Redding covers all the bases here with ease.

Rod Stewart – Street Fighting Man

Between 1969 and 1974, it is possible that Rod Stewart was the greatest rock vocalist on earth.  And he holds back none of his considerable chops here, on the Jagger/Richards 1968 anthem ‘Street Fighting Man’.  Rod put it out on his debut album the following year, and is backed here by future Rolling Stones member Ronnie Wood on slide guitar, Stewart’s writing partner in the Faces.

I think what Stewart brings here is a sense of the pervading tensions of the era, a time when the Paris riots and the riots in Chicago seemed to mark the time that 60s idealism was coming to a head, and that violence was not only to be a possibility, but was rather to be expected.  Half of this cover version adds something of its own melody, the song of someone confronted by a violent world. By the end, Stewart takes up the full thrust of the original melody (with a quick nod to another Stones single ‘We Love You’ as well ), presuming to have become a part of that violence sung about at the top of the song.  Stewart’s version turns the song into a little movie of one man’s reaction to a world gone mad.

Honky Tonk Women – Ike & Tina Turner

Mick Jagger’s androgynous stage appearance was an early stand-out, owing much of his success on his ability to move on stage less like Elvis, and more like Tina.  This was the case from early on, when she and Ike took the band to England to tour in the 60s, with the Stones in tow on the bill.  Jagger watched her in the wings, took mental notes, and was advised by Tina herself.   Later, by the 70s when he’d perfected his stage presence, the Stones would return the favour when Ike & Tina opened for their big stadium shows.

Despite Jagger’s debt to a female role model, a common indictment against the Stones is that of misogyny.  In many of their tunes, women are sexual objects with little dimension.  The intricacies of this are arguable.  But, what is  revealed on this version of the song, with none other than Tina Turner singing lead, is that the song itself lends as much to female empowerment as it may do to the image of the philandering male.  In this tune, Tina is in charge, and the song does nothing but support the idea.

Dead Flowers – Townes Van Zandt

Keith Richards and former Byrd Gram Parsons had become great friends by the end of the 60s and into the 70s.  As such, the country music that Richards had been interested in since he began came alive to him in a whole new way thanks to Parsons.  With his friend’s influence, he was able to write this tune, a bona fide country song, which appeared on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers in 1971, and also covered by Parsons’ band the Flying Burrito Brothers.  It was also covered by Jerry Garcia’s The New Riders of the Purple Sage.

But, my favourite version is this one by country legend Townes Van Zandt, which takes the wasted desolation of the original to new lows, in a profoundly impressive way.  His craggy voice, the brittle acoustic guitar accompaniment, and the whooping sounds of the live crowd, is perfect for the sound of this song, a country song about the darkness and ultimate loneliness of drug addiction.  Unfortunately, this was something that Van Zandt, Parsons, and Richards himself knew quite a lot about.  And only Richards would live to talk about it.

Paint It Black – The Feelies

In Technicolor Swinging 1960s London, I wonder what music fans made of this song, which despite Brian Jones’ sitar, sounds less 1966 London, and more like the 1979 Manchester of Joy Division, or indeed the 1979 New Jersey of the Feelies.  Even though the Feelies play this one pretty close to the original, they certainly bring out the genius forward-thinking that caused Jagger and Richards to write it in the first place.

You can see that the pessimism that lay at the heart of the original fits perfectly into the Feelies milleu, along with the thudding, base rhythm that really drives this one along.   And once again, it proves that the new wave/post-punk era didn’t so much erase the past, but brought out what lay at the heart of rock music of the classic era all along.

The Sundays – Wild Horses

Break-up songs in rock music are many.  But few hit such a vital chord as this song does, written around the time the celebrated relationship between Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull had turned sour, and came to a crashing end.  But, the song itself is bigger than any autobiographical background that lies behind it.  By the 90s, the Sundays version of the song had found a new audience outside of its classic rock home base.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post about the Sundays that  lead singer Harriet Wheeler’s voice is a vital instrument, with all immitators left in the dust when it comes to plaintive-yet-honest vocal delivery.  With this song, she brings fresh-faced optimism to a song that is about heartbreak.  With this song, you get the feeling that even though the narrator is struggling for a lost cause, that she’ll be OK in the end.  As such, The Sundays have turned this song about the tragedy of a dying romance into a hopeful tune somehow.

The Soup Dragons – I’m Free

If the Stones wrote songs which could be construed as pessimistic, than they were equally adept at writing optimistic anthems, too.  And this is certainly one of them, one of their lesser known songs that seemed to fit perfectly into the celebratory subculture of early ’90s dance-rock.

And one of the proponents of that sound was the Soup Dragons, with this being a big club favourite and an anthem to the scene. Perhaps it’s ironic that in a scene where the state of rock music was decidedly away from traditional guitar rock, that one of its most vital club anthems  came from the Stones, who by the 90s were not exactly on the cutting edge.  Yet, their song was, written  twenty-five years before this version was released, and before dance-rock was conceived.

Faraway Eyes – The Handsome Family

The measure of how influential a band is often down to how many different types of musical seedlings they are able to plant with their own body of work.  So far, we’ve seen that many of the songs written by Jagger and Richards added dimension to blues-rock, country, dance-rock, and even indie music and post-punk.  Another branch of the musical spectrum is alt-folk by the end of the 90s and early 2000s.  And one of the most notable bands of this scene is the Handsome Family.

Where the original version of this song is something of a low-rent redneck short-story, the Handsome Family make it into a stark, cinematic excursion in dustbowl-era sepia tones.   The original has the rock ‘n’ roll rebel of Jagger’s smirking, faux-Bakersfield accented hero at its centre.  But in this version, a po-faced and dour outcast on the fringes of society stands in his place.  The Handsome Family take the source, and make it into a tale of Biblical doom. This is a tribute to their ability to repurpose the original song to build a portrait of old, weird America.  It shows the strength of the material, too, that encourages creative interpretation as any great text does.

You Got the Silver – Susan Tedeschi

With all of their rock ‘n’ roll decadence, and drug-addled misadventures both on record and in real life, Jagger and Richards’ firm hand when writing and performing love songs is often forgotten.  And this song – taken from their 1969 Let It Bleed album, and sung by Keith Richards on his first lead vocal on a Stones album –  is one of their best.  One of the reasons, possibly, is by using the images of diamonds, silver, and gold as poets do, but as told from someone in love who can’t really find a way to describe that love.

Blues and roots singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi takes the original and brings out the crystalline beauty of the song.  Where Richards delivery seems to make the narrator tentative – What is in your eye?  Is that the diamonds from the mine? –  Tedeschi proves that the narrator was right on the money, that once again it is the small things about a person that we love the most.  The result is of course is that this is a love song which is as honest as love itself, and just as difficult to ultimately define.  And Tedeschi preserves this, while bringing clarity at the same time.


For a couple of guys who never intended to be songwriters, it’s clear that they hit a stride important enough to influence a multitude of musical branches.  Even if their reputation for established stadium rock endures more so than their reputation as songwriters, the songs themselves have been proven to be bigger than any narrow ideas surrounding them as a band, or even as individuals.  Once again, art is greater than the artists.


10 Beatles Cover Songs Which May Be Better Than The Original

The Beatles as a favourite band may be an unoriginal choice. But, there it is. Sometimes, a band chooses you, not the other way around. If you’re a regular reader of the Delete Bin, you’ll know that the Fabs tend to come up a lot, despite my own fairly wide tastes. My own preferences aside, I think one of the things which can be said of the Beatles is that their songs have a quality that go beyond individual performances, even their own. They are great songs, no matter who is performing them.

This is a handy thing since they’ve been covered so much by so many artists from different backgrounds, genres, and (let’s face it) levels of competence. But, here are 10 notable cover versions. Some of these are so good, they threaten the originals for the number one spot . Others are unique statements of their own just by being in existence, so much so that they simply deserve a mention for their temerity.

Hey Jude – Wilson Pickett

Wilson Pickett Hey JudeThe Wicked Pickett covered this song in 1969, the year after the original Beatles single which had stayed on the number one spot for 9 weeks, despite it being over 7 minutes long. Pickett included it on his album named after this cover version, Hey Jude. The arrangement dials up the gospel overtones of the original, while also bringing in the truly supernatural guitar chops of Duane Allman. Wilson Pickett made a career of singing soul music as if fighting for his life, and this is a great example of Pickett’s approach – a rough and ready tone that belts out the lines of encouragement in a way that Paul McCartney would have done it, had he been born a Southern Baptist preacher. The soulful evocations of “It’s gonna be alright!” in the famous coda section, along with the heavenly horn section and Allman’s fiery guitar make this a contender for best version ever.

Allman’s work on this track gained the attention of Eric Clapton, who would work with Allman on the Derek & The Dominos album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in 1970. Wilson Pickett would continue to have an impact on the rock world by covering “Fire and Water” as written and recorded by (the very underrated) British blues-rock band Free, who had written and the song recorded themselves all the while with Pickett’s voice in mind.

With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker With A Little Help From My FriendsJoe Cocker recorded his first album With a Little Help from My Friends named after this cover version , in 1969. On doing so, he employed several musical luminaries which include Jimmy Page on lead guitar, Merry Clayton on vocals, Carole Kaye on bass, Henry McCulloch on guitar, and Steve Winwood on organ, among many others. The record is aptly named, then. And Cocker is a powerhouse vocalist, probably one of the most gifted blue-eyed soul vocalist Britain had yet produced. His delivery here is muscular-yet-vulnerable, backed by an imaginative arrangement, some fine playing from Page, and a great interplay between Cocker’s lead, and the back-up vocalists. Like the Pickett version of “Hey Jude”, this cover of “With A Little Help From My Friends” seriously threatens to overshadow the Beatles original from Sgt. Pepper.

Cocker would of course go on to record two other famous Beatles cover songs in “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Something” on his second album Joe Cocker!, which again ratchets up the bluesiness of the songs in question. Having reached the heights with these covers, and those covers of songs by Traffic, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, Cocker would find greater fame in his recording of “You Are So Beautiful” and “Up Where We Belong” in the late 70s and early 80s respectively. But this first single and his first two albums remain to be his best work.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds – William Shatner

William Shatner the Transformed ManThis is a legendary recording, possibly for different reasons than were originally intended. William Shatner of course is no singer – he’s an actor of stage and screen, possibly most famous for his role as James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek series. Here, the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” becomes less thelysergic anthem from Sgt. Pepper, and more of a (very) dramatic reading of the song’s lyrics (which actually turns out to be pretty trippy too…). Where this version of the song may not rival the original as some of the others in this list, it remains to be something of a bold approach, if unintentionally humourous at the same time. And to me, this is why it warrants inclusion. And because it throws a wrench in the works as far as what you were expecting of this list – right?

The version was a part of Shatner’s album The Transformed Man, released in 1968 at the height of his tenure as the Captain of the Enterprise, while also pulling from his stage acting background. Shatner would make more of these types of recordings through out his career, even into the present day with his spoken word album Has Been, made with songwriter Ben Folds in 2007.

We Can Work It Out – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder Signed, Sealed, and Delivered“We Can Work It Out” is a pretty dark tune in the end. It’s about a struggling relationship, possibly on its last legs. The narrator of the tale is becoming pretty tyrannical in his approach to making his relationship better – “why’d you see it your way?”, “think of what I’m saying…”. In his 1970 cover version of the song found on his Signed, Sealed and Delivered, Stevie Wonder infuses this love-gone-wrong tune with an effervescence that draws a striking contrast to the darkness and desperation in the lyrics. You find yourself smiling at this tale of a man trying to push all of the blame on his partner. Who knew that narrow-mindedness and trivializing the opinion of a lover to get your own way in a relationship could sound so joyous?

Stevie Wonder would go from here to create some of his own pop classics, and of course make a contribution to a song which talks about relationships of another kind in duet with the author of “We Can Work it Out” – Paul McCartney. That tune of course is the immortal “Ebony and Ivory”, taken from McCartney’s excellent 1982 Tug of War album. Now, that song is annoying beyond belief, of course. But, at least the two voices behind each version “We Can Work It Out” were expressing the value in respecting different perspectives in a relationship, side by side on the piano keyboard as they are.

Eleanor Rigby – Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin Live at the Filmore WestIn keeping with the trend of a dark theme against a celebratory arrangement, Aretha Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby” is downright chirpy. The original song, found on The Beatles 1966 album Revolver, is about a lonely old spinster – the titular Eleanor Rigby – who “picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been”. This is a person who has missed the happiness in life enjoyed by others, left behind to live only off the remnants of what others have enjoyed, lonely, isolated, and ultimately doomed. Yet, Aretha’s Eleanor has the funk, pushed along by pulsing basslines, push-me-pull-you vocal exchanges, bold hornshots, and a tempo that just won’t quit.

Found on her Live at the Filmore West album released in 1971, the live version is my absolute favourite take on the song just because it’s so incongruous. When listening to it, I often wonder what she was thinking when she arranged it. Maybe, she wanted to reveal that Eleanor Rigby had a richer inner life that no one knew about, and that when she was “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door”, it was the face of someone who was not lonely, but content in being alone.

Come Together – Ike & Tina Turner

Ike & Tina Turner Proud MaryJohn Lennon allegedly wrote “Come Together” initially for a political campaign anthem for LSD guru Timothy Leary. While nothing came of Lennon’s involvement in the campaign, or indeed of Leary’s political career, the song was the lead track off of the Beatles final album Abbey Road. What doesn’t come off quite as clearly in that version is the double entendre in the phrase come together, which it surely does in Ike & Tina’s version. This 1971 cover version is simply dripping with coital sweat, a fully loaded sexual explosion of throaty vocals, stabbing guitar lines, and a rhythm section that goes like a train. As such, this version makes the song into something entirely new, less a series of absurdist images, and more about sheer physicality which makes the words secondary to what lies underneath.

Ike and Tina’s version of the song can be found on for their Proud Mary compilation. They would make a number of cover versions of popular rock songs, which in many ways brought them full circle having inspired many of the artists who would write those songs, including the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart, both of which Tina Turner would tour with in the ensuing years after her partnership with Ike ended.

For No One – Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris Pieces of SkyThis version of the song from Emmylou’s 1975 album Pieces of the Sky endures because I think this tune was always meant to be a country song, specifically a hurtin’ song. Everything about the way it’s arranged here – the spare instrumentation, the slow tempo, and Emmylou’s own plaintive delivery – is entirely true to the material, which is documents the feelings of sadness that go along with one person of two who has fallen out of love. Where Aretha re-invents Eleanor Rigby, Emmylou drills to the emotional centre of a song that is ultimately about helplessness. The clip here is a later take on the tune, yet the approach remains the same.

It is amazing to me that the same guy who wrote the patronizing lyrics to “We Can Work It Out”, also wrote this tune, with lyrics that are about respecting someone’s space, about letting go. McCartney was 24 when this song was recorded, which probably worked against him. Yet, the song he came up with works across the board, particularly as a country song sung by the best in her field.

Anytime At All – Nils Lofgren

Nils Lofgren Night Fades Away By the early 80s, the era of a possible Beatles reunion was crushed. Yet, it was also a time when the songs the group recorded were being looked at again as being examples of great songwriting beyond the era to which they had been attached. In 1981 on his Night Fades Away album, Nils Lofgren took an unassuming album track (found on the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night), and made it into a stadium anthem. The pure joie de vive of his version reveals it to be a mark of the time in which it was written. But, it also captures the feeling that the innocence of young love is ultimately pretty timeless.

After you’ve worked with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen which Lofgren had, I guess the next logical step is to try the Beatles out. This song would remain to be a concert favourite. What I love about it is that Lofgren’s fondness for the Beatles, for Lennon, and for this song, just burns through. It’s infectious.

Blackbird – Dionne Farris

Dionne Farris Wild Seed Wild FlowerPaul McCartney’s “Blackbird”, orginally recorded for the band’s self-titled album (otherwise known as “The White Album”) has been interpreted in a political way before of course. Nina Simone recorded it, and the implications are pretty undeniable as a statement about equality and dignity for the black community in America. I have no idea whether or not Dionne Farris meant this to be a political statement or not when she recorded it for her Wild Seed — Wild Flower album in 1994 (I suspect she did, given other political content on the album). But for my money, this is a shining jewel of a version which made me wonder whatever happened to Dionne Farris, frankly, until I found the Dionne Farris MySpace page.

Where very few takes on this song (if any) can touch the original, I marvel at this, a solid R&B version with a bit of an acoustic blues flavour that keeps this from being the overproduced mess that has plagued (and plagues even today) other examples of the genre. The clip here is a live version which turns the song into a bit of a singalong. But the album version is a stark voice and guitar arrangement that is entirely different from McCartney’s own similar building blocks for his original recording.

Across The Universe – Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple Across the UniverseFiona Apple’s take on this song originally found on 1970’s Let It Be was featured in the closing credits of the film Pleasantville, the story of two modern-day teens who are thrust into the black & white world (in all senses of the term) of a 1950s TV show universe. The teens introduce new ideas into the minds of those who live in that world, revealing new possibilities to them. And the inhabitants cease to be characters in a TV show, and are transformed into real people. Fiona Apple’s take on Lennon’s song (written in India in 1968 while studying TM) about the complexities of love and the mystical nature of universal connection is the perfect, perfect, addition to the themes of the movie. This is not even mentioning Apple’s languid, dreamy delivery, which fits the song like a velvet glove.

The lines which are repeated in the song are all the more powerful given their cinematic context – “Nothing’s gonna change my world”. Apple’s version reveals that one’s world is changing all the time, that we’re all dependent on each other, moving as we are from one moment to the next. As a result, this song is given new life for me.


When people tell me they don’t like the Beatles, I just don’t believe them. To me it’s like saying “I don’t like kissing”. The very statement is preposterous, to the point where I think that there must be something wrong with someone who would say something like that. I have perspective of course. I know that those are just my perceptions. Yet one thing remains which is hard to deny, whether you like the Beatles or not. Beatles songs are universal, and wonderfully open to interpretation. They’re like Shakespeare that way.

Here you’ve seen 10 examples. I could have talked about a number of others, including Earth Wind and Fire’s joyous “Got To Get You Into My Life”, or the Breeders’ ferocious “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, or even Elton John’s Lennon-abetted version of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. All different, all wonderful. Saying the Beatles is your favourite band may be unoriginal. But the choice is pretty clear, leading as it does to great music of all kinds.

10 Love Songs Without Cheese

CupidLove; exciting and new, a many splendoured thing, a battlefield. It’s been described in song in many ways, and yet the fascination we have about it, surrounding it, still doesn’t seem to get old. People have written countless songs about the mysteries of love, from the ooey-gooey feelings which are often associated with it, to the struggles which are necessary to keep it alive. Chances are, a love song is being written right now, as you read this, by someone. I like to think that means it’s a pretty important aspect of human existence. As such, here are 10 love songs – these ones without what I call cheese. No Ladies in Red, or Feelings to be found here, I’m afraid.

There is more to these particular 10 songs than the gushy feelings of being in love, and all of the maudlin statements which often come out of songs like that. These 10 have some of those sentiments. But they also reveal that love is often as complicated as it is joyous. They show that love is not just a natural high – it is often a force which challenges our preconceptions, calls us to overcome the prejudices of others, and is ultimately transformative. To me, the best love songs are the ones that depict some kind of struggle, that the shape of love is undetermined, demanding that lovers rise to the occasion which it brings. In short, these are 10 songs which point out that love is not for wimps.

Too Young – Nat King Cole

Nat King ColeGenerally speaking, I’m not much of a crooner sort of guy. But Nat King Cole goes beyond his genre for me (as does Tony Bennett…). There is something deeply emotional in his voice, effortless, and full of conviction without being over the top. ‘Too Young’ is one of my favourites of his, a song about young people who are wise beyond their years, even if those around them can’t see it. This kind of love between young people is often dismissed by those who are older, and jaded. But this tune is about how love can be beyond the boundries of age, that its presence in people’s lives is all down to how aware they are of it, and what they do with the choices they make everyday under its influence – a love ‘to last, though years may go’. In this song, the bonds between love and faith in it, and in each other, are inextricable.

Somewhere – Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim

Somewhere West Side StoryThe musical West Side Story is about divisions and prejudices, with love being the ultimate overthrowing force of both. In the story, a Caucasian guy falls in love with a Hispanic girl, the sister of a rival gang-member who is leading an effort to push into the gang territory of her lover’s friends. Their love is forbidden – this is a modern day Romeo and Juliet tale, basically. The ‘somewhere’ spoken of is just a fantasy in this story, the place where the two star-crossed lovers can live and love together, and explore what love means as a couple without the added problems of other people’s perceptions of it. This kind of love demands even more commitment, because it is unsupported by everyone other than by the two who share it.

The song and its themes have a wider meaning outside of the context of the story. At the end of the 50s and early 60s when the song was making an impact both on stage and on screen in Robert Wise’s movie version, there were all kinds of divisions along racial lines, and interracial relationships were rare, and frowned upon when they were seen. And even in this modern age, the right to love those of the same sex is frowned upon by many, with same sex couples only now gaining traction as being seen as legitimate in the legal, as well as the cultural sense. The ‘somewhere’ spoken of in the song is becoming less of a fantasy, and is hopefully within sight for couples who, at one time, had to keep their love a secret.

I’m A Believer – The Monkees

One of my favourite kinds of love songs are the ones where the narrator is not a dashing figure of romance, or an insightful sensitive type. I like the ones where the narrator is a bit of a clod when it comes to love, one who easily misjudges what it means, and what it can mean as a transformative force in life. This may be because I’m a clod myself! Ultimately, I love stories about being surprised by love, by realizing that it is accessible even if it had always seemed far away, and meant for others ‘but not for me‘.

There are many to choose from here, but I like “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees (actually written by Neil Diamond), because it’s a jubilant conversion story, a waking up to the fact that love is within reach and always had been, even to those who were previously burned, or chronically pessimistic. It also has a ring of innocence to it as well, like the narrator is starting entirely from scratch.

Oh, and I love Mike Nesmith’s guitar on this song too. And that circus-organ that Peter Tork plays. You doubt that the guys actually played on their own record? What kind of believer are you? Oh, all right. How about Mickey Dolenz’ vocal, then? Say what you want, but I think he was great on those original Monkees tunes. Still not a believer? Check out his performance on this lesser-known Monkees song, ‘Goin’ Down’.

‘I’m a Believer’ was covered more recently by Smashmouth and was featured in the animated movie Shrek.

We’ve Only Just Begun – The Carpenters

The CarpentersStay with me, people. I know I said no cheese, and I’ve kept my promise. I know that the Carpenters are looked upon by many as being bland and sentimental. But this song is enormous; not just because Karen Carpenter’s voice is effortless and soaring, but because it’s believable, man. And this song is also not a soppy, sentimental mess that many other songs written in this genre are (I’m looking at you, Air Supply…). This is a song about working, about ‘talking it over’. Basically, this is about building something together, not admiring love as a polished jewel for as long a time as it takes to notice the flaws. And yet, it’s still a powerful song on an emotional level.

I know some out there may still identify this one with the waiting room at the dentist. But, listen to the lyrics, hear those horn shots, the ah-ah backing vocals. And Karen plays the drums, man! This is practically a power-pop song, people! Whatever it is, it’s one of my favourite love songs, because it is a clear manifesto of what love should be – working toward a future with another person, knowing that the path is not yet cut, and moving ahead anyway.

Every Little Thing She Does is Magic – the Police

The Police Ghost in the MachineAnother type of love song I like is the kind which comes from a writer not generally known to lack confidence, but is one which reveals how humble love can make anyone. Let’s face it; Sting is no shrinking violet. He’s a well-read, urbane, blonde Adonis with a bass guitar, a sex symbol, and with an arrogant streak which is (purportedly) about a mile wide. But in this song, he’s as weak as a kitten, a guy fumbling for words, a fellow who loses his nerve when it counts. Is this the Sting we know and love? Yes. It was about Trudie Styler, who must have made him feel a little bit outside of himself at the time, freeing him up to write from the standpoint of his inner nerd.

The song was recorded for the 1981 album Ghost in the Machine, actually coming out of a pretty tense session. The song was recorded by Sting with a keyboardist, which the guys tried to do reproduce without much success when Sting brought the demo to the session. So, they ended up building a new track around the demo, specifically around the piano and synth lines which have become its trademark. It’s always been one of my favourite songs by a favourite band. It reminds me of my wife actually, since in the seventh grade when this came out, I resolved to call her up a thousand times a day to ask her if she’d marry me in some old fashioned way. It took about 20 more years, but I finally got there.

Message to My Girl – Split Enz

Split Enz Conflicting EmotionsThis is another one of those songs which shows love in three dimensions. This song is as much about doubt and fear as it is about dedication and trust. The narrator is someone who knows what love can be, and wants to get serious about it with an acknowledgment of past weakness and loss of resolve. I love that – there is no triumphalism here. This is about risk, about pushing through the noise that keeps one from revealing oneself to someone else. This is where many of us aspire to be, not just because we want to plumb the depths of love and all of its joys, but because we aspire to the courage it takes to get there.

The song was originally featured on the latter-day Split Enz album, 1983’s Conflicting Emotions, when the band had shifted leadership from Tim Finn (who embarked on his solo career) to his younger brother Neil Finn, who would go on to write a number of love songs in this tradition, first with Crowded House, to his own solo career, and then back with Crowded House where he still performs the song regularly. I saw him do a solo version of this when I saw Crowded House last year. It had actually been the first time I’d heard it, not being familiar with the Split Enz version. It became an instant favourite.

In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel

Peter GabrielA lot of people associate this song with the 1989 movie …Say Anything, with John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler holding his boom box aloft to remind his former love of the joys they once shared. But this song isn’t one about mourning a lost love. It’s about the effort to keep love kindled. There are a lot of mystical images in this song. But there’s also the line I get so tired working so hard for our survival/ I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive. This is a really down to earth idea, that love is not just about ‘the light, the heat’, but is also about the mundane, day to day aspects of life which wear one down, and those other details to which we must be attentive in order to keep love alive. In this, love is a very practical consideration.

Peter Gabriel has the advantage of having that sandpapery, soulful voice which lends a lot of credence to nearly everything he sings. But in this, there is another level of greatness. He sounds a bit lost in this, as if everything he’s singing seems to be coming to him in a moment of desperation, like he’s working out the magnitude of the love he’s got and is struggling to keep in focus. There is a real tension there that, for me, comes about as close as one gets to how love in moments like this really feels like; frightening, overwhelming, and absolutely essential, all in one powerful irradiating burst.

Calico Skies – Paul McCartney

Paul and Linda McCartneyAnd here is the McCartney song. This was inevitable on this blog. You knew that. But, thankfully for you, I skipped ‘Silly Love Songs’, ‘My Love’, and any of those other more predictable McCartney tracks in favour of 1997’s ‘Calico Skies’, from the album Flaming Pie. For me, this is one of his best songs he’s written, including the ones written when in the Beatles. I love the English folk influences, which are not entirely unlike those which informed earlier songs like ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’. And his voice sounds downright boyish in this tune, as if the love that he is speaking about is coming from a place that had always been waiting for it.

This song frames the idea that love is bigger than we are, that we are drawn to it as if we have no choice in the matter. And yet there is the line always looking for ways to love you/never failing to fight at your side. So, this song is not about passivity either. In the midst of our expectations of the soppy McCartney love song, there’s a lot of imagery about fighting in here: crazy soldiers never having to be called to handle the weapons of war we despise. This is a fight, but in the context of love, in the context of a choice between two dedicated lovers. This song to me stands as a testament to his love and marriage to Linda McCartney, who died the next year of breast cancer. I imagine that the idea of fighting next to the one you love takes on a different meaning in these circumstances.

Whatever It Takes – Ron Sexsmith

Ron SexsmithThe thing about love is that it doesn’t always pan out the first, second, or third time you try and grab it. There is just no guarantee, other than at some point everyone is going to get hurt by someone else. In this song, taken from the 2004 album Retriever, Sexsmith places this in the context of trying again, and not being held back by past hurts and by the fear of things one can’t control. As such, this is not just a love song so much as a pep talk, a game plan with which to start a successful relationship with someone who has as much, or more, baggage than we do.

Musically, Ron is channelling Bill Withers here, a songwriter who has also demonstrated that he knows a thing or two about writing eloquent love songs without dismissing the darker side of it – ‘Lean on Me’ anyone? ‘Just the Two of Us’? Overall, both writers have their feet firmly planted on the ground when it comes to love. It’s risky, and can be merciless. But in this song, fear never gets in the way of the work of it, and the ultimate joy of it.

It’s Only Time – Magnetic Fields

Magnetic FieldsOften love songs are thought of as kind of wimpy. That sentiment, especially from a man, is a kind of weakness. But, to me this song ‘It’s Only Time’, taken from the 2004 album by Magnetic Fields, i, is about unshakable resolve. It’s about defiance, and firmly-rooted faith and conviction in one’s own dedication to what is most important. What, I ask, is tougher than that? This song is about how love can change your point of view, that the strength one finds in love is often enough to to make circumstances irrelevant; what could stop this beating heart/once it’s made a vow? Here, immovable, immutable love is just a given.

In this song, the love being sung about is of the transcendental kind. A lot of songs have been written trying to capture this idea, and many have been successful. But this one smashes it out of the park for me in a way that few others do. This is a song of naked vulnerability, yet one of immense strength too. Stephin Merritt is one of the best songwriters who ever lived on the basis of this song alone.

If you’re interested in more love songs by Magnetic Fields, you might want to investigate their triple album 69 Love Songs, which explores a number of genres and points of view on the subject of love.


So, love; wonderful, challenging, terrifying, and up for nomination for ultimate meaning of life all in one. Of course there are scads of songs about it in every tradition and genre. Artists tend to tackle the big stuff, because they know that the average person is searching to find some insight on it. And perhaps a lot of songwriters, poets, playwrites, or whoever, haven’t a single insight that sheds any more light on the subject than we could sort out for ourselves. But, thrashing about and being clumsy is sometimes as telling as being insightful and eloquent. Sometimes knowing that we’re all in the same boat when it comes to love is enough comfort to keep us forging ahead with the business of keeping love in our own lives. And this, to me, is always easiest when I have a tune I can whistle. How about you?