Somewhere or other there is a book of unwritten rules. In amongst the first pages there would be a list of songs that just shouldn’t be covered. When you hear the latest chanteuse of the pop charts carving up a classic song like a turkey at a Yuletide table a little piece of your soul withers away.
Obviously, that doesn’t stop Messrs Cowell and co in X-Factor serving up million-pound karaoke every autumn, in the hope of producing a new chanteuse/chanteur in time for the Christmas carving.
For this reason, perhaps the cover version has lost some of its currency in recent times, and those aspiring to artistic merit might be inclined to steer clear of the cover. Even the humble karoake machine makes potential cover stars of us all, regardless how badly we sing.
There are lots of decent cover versions but not many brilliant ones. For me, a cover version is done well when it sticks to the original while imprinting the band’s unique sound or personality onto it. Not many bands have enough originality or uniqueness to their sound or their personality to make a cover version truly transcend the original. It’s no cake walk even for those whose star burns brightly.
So here are my 10 favourite covers and a link or post to the original version too. These are in no particular order:
1. Addicted To Love – Ciccone Youth
Sonic Youth’s side project Ciccone Youth is a masterclass in post-modern irony, long before the term got hijacked into popular culture and became shorthand for dressing really badly. The ‘Youth were in the achingly cool ascendency and both The Robert Palmer classic and Madonna’s ‘Get Into The Groove’ were covered in ridiculously cheeky but brilliant fashion. Addicted To love gets it for me though, because not only was this version apparently recorded in a Karaoke booth, but also Kim Gordon in the video makes the quintessential anti-pop star. As for Robert Palmer ‘Simply Irresistible‘ is easily he best tune, (and what a bassline) even if he does look like an Estate Agent in the video.
2. I heard It Through The Grapevine – The Slits
Everyone loves a bit of Marv, don’t they? But it takes proverbial cojones to go and cover one of his classics. Below is an acapella version of Marv doing his thing. Without any tune or backing vocals it really emphasizes what an amazing voice Marvin Gaye had. Awesome. The Slits version is what makes a great cover – it’s totally out of context and a totally different take on the same tune while keeping the basic architecture of the song. The live version here is good but doesn’t do it the same justice as the recorded version.
3. Head on – Pixies
I love Pixies and Jesus and Mary Chain. Probably the first bands that I liked from the indie scene and who subsequently shaped my music taste over the course of my life. A brilliant miserablist song that’s given the punk rock firecracker treatment by Pixies. I absolutely love both versions of this song. Mary Chain video has William Reid wearing a Love t-shirt, which makes it even cooler.
4.He Did It – The Detroit Cobras
The Detroit Cobras first two albums of 50’s and 60’s covers were brilliant. Life, Love and Leaving from 2001 also has one of the coolest album images (above). It was a tough call between this tune and ‘Shout Bama Lama’, an Otis Redding cover from the same album. It takes the original classic and produces the fuck out of the Phil Spector produced Ronettes tune.
5. Jailhouse Rock – Dean Carter
This is just utterly mental. It’s like Elvis was locked away in a cupboard with a portable 4-track recorder, a couple of hookers, a case of Kentucky’s finest and a hearty helping of amphetamines and told to rip one of his song’s a new posterior. An immense cover version of an immense tune.
6. Needles and Pins – The Ramones
The original, by Jackie De Shannon is a very good song – quite different from The Searchers version which wrongly accredited with being the original, and better. It has way more guts, sex and soul than The Searchers cover of it. The Ramones version, is well, just The Ramones really. Oddly fantastic.
7. Happiness Is a Warm Gun – The Breeders
The Breeders have a done a few covers, and I’d say their best effort was covering ‘The Freed Pig’ by Sebadoh, but this is probably the most interesting. Happiness Is a Warm Gun is a good song and a fairly safe choice given that it’s not a Beatles ‘biggie’, but with reality television contests now ruling the ratings and the charts, there clearly is no such thing as sacred.
8. 100,000 Fireflies – Superchunk
Again, two bands that I love, but for me this song is as much a Superchunk song as it is a Magnetic Fields song. Instrumental Music 1991-1995 was an album I listened to a lot of when I was studying in Spain, a time I also happened to hear The Magnetic Fields for the first time. The Superchunk version might be something of a heresy to some MF fans, but Electric guitars replace eukuleles but on this version conveying the beauty and heartbreak of Merritt’s words with a light dusting of angst.
9.Hanging On The Telephone – Blondie
Not a huge difference between the cover and the original but The Nerves can’t really compete with Debbie Harry’s class and sex appeal combined with the geek-cool of the other members of Blondie. The original is a great song in its own way. ‘The Tide is High’ is another worthy cover version by Blondie too but not as good as this.
10. She’s a Model – Big Black
Steve Albini is a genius. What else is there to say? As close you can get to the original using metal guitars. Retains all the shadows and coldness of the original.
11. Lonesome Town – The Cramps
A lovely song in its own right, Lux Interior and Poison Ivy make this a lovely, sad, ghoulishly rockabilly-tastic 3 minutes of sweet, sweet heartache. Superb. Better than ‘Surfin’ Bird’? Only just. Better than their version of ‘Psychotic Reaction’? That’s a tough one. Way better than their version of The Sonics’ Stychnine though.
12. Destination Venus – Man…or Astroman?
I was torn between Screeching Weasel’s version of Teenage Head’s ‘Ain’t Got No Sense‘ and Man…or Astroman?’s version of either ‘Manta Ray’ by Pixies, or their cover of a Rezillo’s song. It had to be ‘Destination Venus’ because MOA take a pretty rubbish song and make it excellent. Man…or Astroman? completely own this song, and the live version even has some comical between-song banter thrown in for extra bonus points.
What do you think? Are there other covers worth mentioning – covers that not only do a song justice, but become in someway better than the original? Let me know!