Mar 16, 2010

Cover Songs that are as Good as or Better than the Original Versions

I gritted my teeth this morning and listened to about 30 seconds of Uncle Kracker butchering Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" before deciding that turning off my radio was better than listening to an aural abomination of this magnitude (yes, I know that the then 63-year-old Gray had a cameo in the song, but this cover is still awful).

I decided to spend some time focusing on the metaphorical glass being half-full: that is, to think of cover songs that matched or exceeded the original versions in quality.

Listed below are some of my favorite cover songs and the reasons why I think they stand out as exemplary covers. Feel free to chime in with your votes for excellent covers or to dispute my choices. You can also offer examples of really lousy covers for consideration, as I plan to do a followup to this post with the world's worst covers.

  • The Who, "Summertime Blues" (originally recorded by Eddie Cochran). The original version is catchy and melodic, and I still crank Eddie Cochran on the rare occasion that I hear his version on the radio. The Who, however, elevate this song to a completely different universe, and the Live at Leeds version would blow holes in your speakers even without Townshend's Marshall stacks.

  • Elvis Costello, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?" (originally recorded by Nick Lowe and Brinsley Schwarz). The music in original song is not all that different from Elvis Costello's version, but the difference between the laid-back, wry vocals of Nick Lowe and the impassioned ferocity of an angry Elvis Costello is like that between Donovan and Howlin' Wolf. I still get goosebumps when I hear Elvis blast out the final chorus.

  • Jimi Hendrix, "All Along The Watchtower" (originally recorded by Bob Dylan). Admittedly I was about 30 years old before I listened to the Dylan version, so my assessment should be viewed within this context. Still, the version by Hendrix borders on the mystical, given the fact that Jimi was light years ahead of his contemporaries in technique and sound.

  • The Byrds, "Mr. Tambourine Man" (originally recorded by Bob Dylan). Once again Dylan gets the short end of the musical stick, and his understated, almost scornful rendition of the song falls short of the soaring majesty of the lead vocals of Roger McGuinn and those astonishingly beautiful Byrds harmonies.

  • Muse, "House of the Rising Sun" (a traditional folk song made famous by The Animals). I have to admit I was dubious about this cover, as vintage Eric Burdon makes for powerful music, but the Muse version of the song is creepy, bombastic, and surprisingly effective in its raw gut-level emotions.

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival, "I Put a Spell on You" (originally recorded by Screamin' Jay Hawkins). The version by Screamin' Jay Hawkins is quite influential in its horror-show-meets-rock-and-roll ethos, and no doubt future theatrical fright-rockers like Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne owe a debt of gratitude to Jay. CCR's version, though, strips away the campy ghoulishness in favor of a gut-wrenching performance that sounds like a demented stalker, and in this way it might be more frightening than the original. Besides, John Fogerty's blistering, soulful guitar solos far outpace the rather workmanlike musicianship of the original.

  • Led Zeppelin, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" (traditional folk song originally recorded by Joan Baez). Yes, Joan Baez is a folk legend, and her version of the song has a certain beauty of its own, but the desperate pathos created by Robert Plant's vocals separates the two songs. Add to this Jimmy Page's blend of acoustic and electric guitar work and you wind up with a version far superior to the original.

  • Rage Against The Machine, "Kick Out the Jams" (originally recorded by the MC5). There is probably one band on the entire planet with the moxie and attitude who could do justice to the epic MC5 signature song, and luckily for us RATM was up to the task. Like the original, the Rage version is best experienced live, as in this YouTube clip of RATM covering the "Kick Out the Jams."

  • Talking Heads, "Take Me To The River" (originally recorded by Al Green). Now, don't get me wrong: I am a huge Al Green fan, and the Reverend Al's soulful tenor can make even ho-hum songs come alive. Yet David Byrne and the Talking Heads created a cover version that sounds equally endearing and psychotic, and they turned this tune into one of their own signature songs.

    Anonymous said...

    What about Van Halen and "Oh Pretty Woman?"

    historymike said...

    Dear Anonymous:

    Please, please, please tell me that you think in a perfect world Van Halen would never have been hatched, and that the Roy Orbison version of "Oh Pretty Woman" is infinitely better than the musical abortion foisted off by Messrs. Roth and Van Halen.

    Mad Jack said...

    Here's the link: Dobie Gray, Drift Away

    Muse absolutely butchers House of the Rising Sun; Duran Duran doesn't know how to play it, but that doesn't stop them. Try this version by Sinead O'Conner if you want an alternative to The Animals.

    Mad Jack said...

    What about Van Halen and "Oh Pretty Woman?"

    What about a chimpanzee, a hammer and a 55 gallon drum?

    historymike said...


    I have been addicted to Muse since first hearing "Knights of Cydonia" jump out of my car stereo speakers a couple of years ago. Here is a link to the video for "Knights of Cydonia" to give you a sense of what Muse is capable of creating.

    Thomas said...

    Van Halen also did an awesome cover on "California Girls" lol

    momopin said...

    The "Pretty Woman" I envision when subjected to Van Halen's decidedly sub-par cover is not at all pretty- more of a burned-out hair metal groupie turned raspy-voiced bar skank. Just sayin'.

    On the subject of good covers, however, I definitely recommend the Decemberists' cover of "Wuthering Heights," originally recorded by lit-rock queen Kate Bush. I do love the Kate Bush version, but Colin Meloy's vocals are haunting and give it a rather spine-tingling twist.

    Molly said...

    I like Van Halen's cover of Dancing in the Street, maybe for the memories.
    Love Smashing Pumpkins doing Landslide.
    I got You Babe makes a great reggae song, UB-40.
    also deserves a mention, maybe not better than Dylan but he definitely did the song justice: Eddie Vedder's live version of Masters of War.

    Remains to be seen but I'll put in an early vote for the "bad idea" category for Mary J Blige covering Stairway to Heaven, uh?

    David said...

    I completely agree with you on the CCR cover. The guitar solo sounds like he's wrapping the guitar around a tree. The ghoulish, whining sound of the guitar is awesome. I recently heard a cover of The Doors song "People are Strange." Not sure what band it was. I'm not sure how I feel about it.

    Anonymous said...

    I prefer the Blue Cheer's version of 'Summertime Blues'. Also Joe Cocker's version of 'With a Little Help from My Friends' should rate a mention.

    dw said...

    Some favorites: The Band's cover of Dylan's, "When I Paint My Masterpiece"; Nirvana doing "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"; Soggy Bottom Boys version of "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow"; the cover of the Jagger/Richards' song "Wild Horses," on the Old & In the Way album (Garcia, Grisman, Rowan, Clements, et. al.) --

    john said...

    nice sharing

    Middle Aged Woman said...

    Van Halen's okay (Hot for Teacher!), but they are no Roy Orbison. And the T-Heads version from Stop Making Sense is even better than the studio version. Byrne can always find another level.

    Paul Swendson said...

    Here's a few that come to mind: Creedence: "Midnight Special." Allman Brothers: "One Way Out, Statesboro Blues, Stormy Monday." Stevie Ray Vaughn: "Little Wing." Susan Tedeschi: "Angel from Montgomery." Adrienne Young: "Brokedown Palace." Bruce Springsteen: "I Ain't Got No Home." Eric Clapton: "I'm Tore Down."

    Michael Robinson said...

    Johnny Cash does a great cover of U2's One. The Cowboy Junkie version of One is good too. Elvis Costello's cover of Aimee Mann's 'At the Other End of the Telescope' is terrific - but since he co-wrote the song with Mann in the 80s, he's actually covering himself. Cat Power sings New York, New York as if Sinatra mainlined heroin and moved to the Village. Inspired.

    Jason said...

    Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Hands down the best cover ever, especially if you've seen the video. I like his "Personal Jesus," but it's no "Hurt."

    Marilyn Manson's cover of "Personal Jesus" and "Tainted Love" aren't quite as good as the originals, but they're interesting nevertheless.

    And for obscurity, I recommend Eddie from Ohio's cover of Manhattan Transfer's "Operator."

    Quim said...

    I recently did a search on covers of "I Put a Spell on You". yow. It's estimated Screamin Jay Hawkins has about 56 kids. I think there's a version of "Spell" for each & every one of 'em.

    Don said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    microdot said...

    I couldn't resist posting here...I have been off line for a week and not truly reconnected yet...a stone barn wall collapsed on my phone line!

    For some reason, early Animals and Eric Burden have been covered extensively by Algerian Rai musicians..I have a killer Rai Techno version of "Don't Let me Be Misunderstood"
    I currently am a big fan of the French Artist, Ben l'Oncle Soul...this guy has charisma in heroic proportions and he just covered the Gnarls Barkley English Soul song, Crazy. He redefines it and it comes across more like a Wilson Pickett 60's Memphis Soul Classic.
    Regarding The Who's Summertime Blues, it would never have existed if a certain Lysergic drenched "loudest band in the world" Blue Cheer hadn't delivered their reductive neanderthal bashing of it in 1968.
    I cannot tell uou how much I agree with the comments about Van Halen's cover of Pretty Woman...
    All covers of Orbison pale to the original. The best covers only manage to be a homage. The Van Halen cover is a curiosity at best.

    If you heard Dylan performing Watchtower during the 80's, you would realize that he was really influenced by the Hendrix version.

    The first really ground breaking, intellectually brave and totally successful reworking of Dylan by Hendrix, of course, was Like A Rolling Stone....
    His performance in the Monterey Festicval film is heroic!

    If you ever have a chance, check out Bryan Ferrys' Dylanesque.
    An album of Dylan reworked and reinterpreted by a master.