Thorny subject, cover versions. Many people hate it when someone covers a track by their favourite artist, although they probably have a cover version high up in their top ten favourite tracks.
There are covers that are more highly regarded than the original – ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix is probably better known than the version by its writer, Bob Dylan. There are covers that are completely misjudged – ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Dolly Parton probably falls into this category (although the more I listen to it…). There are covers that are just completely bewildering – Señor Coconut Y Su Conjunto’s cover of ‘Showroom Dummies’ leaves me dumbfounded. And there are covers that leave you asking ‘why, just why?’ – Radiohead covering ‘Nobody Does It Better’ almost certainly falls into that category.
Articles about cover versions, listing the best or worst covers, are pretty common too. (This probably make this column in itself a cover, come to think about it…) In this article what I hope to bring you is some covers that you’ve never heard, covers that add a certain something to the original or are just plain strange – I’ll leave you to decide which category they fall into.
‘Jeepster’ – Altered Images
Originally by: T-Rex
This manages to combine two of my favourite things – T-Rex and Altered Images in one perfectly formed package. The thing about this is that if you didn’t know the original you’d think it was actually an Altered Images song, so well does it fit into their sound. OK so it may be a little more lightweight musically – it has that jangly Altered Images thing going on – but this just has a huge smile factor.
‘Emma’ – Sisters of Mercy
Originally by: Hot Chocolate
The Sisters of Mercy had a bit of thing about covering things you wouldn’t quite expect so I had quite a number shortlisted before settling on this one. You may want to check out their versions of ABBA’s ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme‘ (yes really), ‘Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene‘ (which came very close to being my choice of entry) or The Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter‘. So why did I choose this? Well firstly because I adore the original and secondly because The Sisters bring something else to the song. There’s a darkness there, a sense of desperation in the song’s narrator that isn’t there in the original. This does way more that just interpret the music, it interprets the song’s story. Incidentally plenty of people have covered Sisters of Mercy songs including a R’n’Bed cover of ‘This Corrosion’ by Diane Birch. I’ll leave you to make up your mind about that one.
‘Jerusalem’ – Suzi Pinns (from the film Jubilee)
Originally by: Various
One of two songs from Suzi Pinns on the Jubilee soundtrack (the other being ‘Rule Britannia’), I first heard this on the b-side of ‘Nine To Five’ by the Maneaters – a short lived collaboration between Adam Ant and Toyah (so short lived they only ever managed to produce that one track). Anyway back to the track – I’ve really no idea why I like this interpretation of ‘Jerusalem’ quite so much. It’s certainly not because I like the film – I’ve never actually managed to see it all the way through or it may be something to do with the ‘outrage factor’. If you’ve never heard this before you may be expecting a punk version – all thrashed guitars and shouted vocals – but what you actually get is what sounds like a classically trained voice. So who is Suzi Pinns? Well nobody actually seems to know. In Jubilee these songs are mimed by Jordan but Suzi is not Jordan, at least according to the vast majority of sources I’ve looked at. Ultimately though does this matter? No it doesn’t, just give it go.
‘Creep’ – Scala & Kolacny Brothers
Originally by: Radiohead
So what we have here is a Belgium female choir singing accompanied only by a piano. What that simple statement of fact isn’t going to tell you is that this is quite, quite wonderful, and incredibly moving. The emotion is all in the arrangement, that’s the really clever thing musically. I first heard it playing over the end credits of a French film but it’s been used in lots of other film and TV including The Simpsons and, rather bizarrely, Hollyoaks (although I imagine that they used an edited version). Listen with an open mind and let it draw you in.
‘Tower of Song’ – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Originally by: Leonard Cohen
This is one of two versions of the song on the 1991 tribute album ‘I’m Your Fan’ (see what they did there?). What we have here is a rather ‘out there’ radical reworking of the song assembled from an hour long jam by the band – a fact that seemed to have passed me by when I bought the album when it came out. Why do I like this so much? Probably because it’s one of those times when a song by an artist I love is interpreted by an artist I love in their own way.
‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ – Toots and the Maytals
Originally by: John Denver
Toots and the Maytals bring their own unique take to this American classic – listen out for “Country roads take me home, To the place I belong, West Jamaica, my ol’ momma”. I defy anyone not to smile during this, it’s a lovely thing.
‘Wuthering Heights’ – Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Originally by: Kate Bush
So, I hear you say, I was wondering when he would get to a ‘novelty cover’. Let me say here that I am a huge Kate Bush fan and would be the first to moan about a cover of one of her songs that wasn’t a ‘loving tribute’. I’m also a big fan of the UOoGB, their stuff makes me smile and that’s no bad thing at all. Look it’s just fun and entertaining. Jazz hands anyone?
‘Sweet Jane’ – The Cowboy Junkies
Originally by: Lou Reed
There was time when a copy of the ‘Trinity Sessions’ by The Cowboy Junkies was a must-have, and this was by far the stand-out track. So what grabs me about this version? I guess it’s the vocals you have to strain to hear (actually the sound levels on the recording were low in general, I recall that my Walkman didn’t actually go loud enough to block out background noise), and the country tinged arrangement for a start.
‘Please Don’t Touch’ – Headgirl
Originally by: Johnny Kidd & The Pirates
This cover from the ‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ EP by Motorhead and Girlschool combined is a classic. What’s to like? Let’s start with the packaging – I have the rather lovely 10” heavyweight vinyl version – the idea of Motorhead and Girlschool as gangsters just works. Musically this is perfectly… how shall we put it … shambolic with some rather fab lead guitar from Fast Eddie and Kelly Johnson. And for those of us who saw the performances on TOTP, we got the thrill of Phil Taylor dancing as he didn’t play drums on the track (he couldn’t by the way, he was recovering from breaking his neck). Play very loud!
‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ – Cloud Rat
Originally by: Neil Young
Hmmm, quite how do I describe this. Inspired? Terrifying? Terrifyingly inspired? Just listen.
‘Cold Turkey’ – Godfathers
Originally by: John Lennon
The Godfathers turn this track into a full on rock song. There’s some quite frankly gorgeous guitar on this. I actually prefer this to the original, if I’m honest.
‘Livin La Vida Loca’ – The Toy Dolls
Originally by: Ricky Martin
When I first heard this I fell off my seat laughing. Quite quite brilliant. That is all.
‘Viva Las Vegas’ – Dead Kennedys
Originally by: Elvis Presley
This could almost be their tribute to Elvis, it has something of the original while having an edge of humour and the Dead Kennedys’ almost art-punk thing going on.
‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ – The Bangles
Originally by: Simon and Garfunkel
The Bangles bring a New Paisley Underground sound (that’s Psych 80s style to you) to this Simon and Garfunkel song. It’s all stomping guitar and harmonies. The Bangles were fond of covers having covered songs by Prince – ‘Manic Monday’ – Katrina and the Waves – ‘Going Down to Liverpool’ – and The Velvet Underground – I’ll Be Your Mirror’ – amongst others. It’s great pop music. Nothing more nothing less.
‘My Favourite Things’ – John Coltrane
Originally by: Julie Andrews
Only someone like John Coltrane could turn this family favourite into something that sends goosebumps up your spine. Mesmerising. I could say more but I want you to click the YouTube video below and listen immediately.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – The Muppets’ Dr Teeth and Co, Polka Playboys and Hayseed Dixie
Originally by: Queen
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ turned 40 this year and I just had to include a cover in this column. I couldn’t decide which of these I liked better so I thought why not go for all three. The Muppet’s version is just hilarious; the Polka Playboys’ (a Finnish street band in a VW Polo) version is actually quite moving and Hayseed Dixie’s bluegrass version definitely works.
There are lots and lots of covers of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ out there, some of which are … shall we say … embarrassing. Let’s just draw a veil over Beyoncé’s version shall we, and I’d personally like to have Kanye’s version at Glastonbury bleached from my brain – but nontheless linked in case you do want to check these out. Not that I’d recommend it.
‘Glorybox’ – John Martyn
Originally by: Portishead
So those of you that have read my column about perfect music will know that the original is my all time favourite track. I found this quite by accident to be honest – sometimes the YouTube related video feature is your friend! However to be honest I can’t say that I like the Faith No More cover of ‘Glorybox’ that much. However John Martyn brings us a blues tinged version that is honestly quite brilliant, it’s just a slab of loveliness.
Finally I’m going to sneak in an ‘inspired by’.
‘The Lay of the Surfers’ – Robert Calvert
Inspired by: Surf music
This comes from ‘Lucky Leif and the Longships’ an album released in 1975. It is a concept album dealing with how American culture might have been different had the Vikings managed to colonise the continent. The album is a tour through various styles of American music (‘The Lay Of The Surfers’ is a Beach Boys parody), filled with references to modern American culture and ancient Norse myths and legends. This track is just hilarious. Look out for “I guess you could call us Barbarians, Barbarians Bar Bar Barbarians”.
So that’s it. And btw in my research for this column (Did you think I could pull all this stuff out of my head?) I used a great website to fact check – called The Covers Project. This site lists bands alphabetically and then lists songs they covered and who covered their songs. You can also search by song title and it’ll give you a list of all the artists that covered that song. There’s quite frankly hours of fun to be had.