Cover songs: The death and taxes of pop music. They’ve been with us always, and are even more prevalent in this age of TV’s The Voice and its ilk, making a properly sung cover the culmination of TV/pop music success. Add to that the spreading tide of tribute bands, devoting careers to recreating a favorite band’s repertoire.
I think most of us have a love/hate/oh-not-again relationship with covers. Some are just plainly overdone. I love Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and agree that Jeff Buckley makes it soar to new heights, but I really don’t want to hear every singer on the planet do his or her take. Leave well enough alone.
The best covers are when artists put their own stamp on a song by someone else. As I initially approached this story, it was about covers with a twist that were quasi-perverted, shocking or flat-out weird (but wonderful). But that opened the door to too much novelty. So I shifted course toward songs that might have some oddball elements but really reinvented the song or made you hear it in an altered state. Beyond amusing. And certainly beyond faithful to the original.
10) “My Way” (Frank Sinatra) by Sid Vicious
Vicious’ trashy and thoroughly debauched version – which is to say, spot on for punk rock circa late-‘70s – makes sort of the same claim as did Sinatra (“I did it my way!”). But the thing Sid claims are not the same as Frank (“You c*nt, I’m not a queer”) and Frank never kvetched about having “f*ck-all else to do.” Nor did Frank mime shooting up heroin or sing “I shot it up” or pull out a gun and mow down his audience during a video of the song. Sid of course can’t really sing and mostly warbles off key, but I love the way the orchestral opening segues into the Pistols-esque chunka-chunka rock with “Regrets, I’ve had a few …”
I asked the song’s writer, Paul Anka, about Sid’s version. “Once I settled down and investigated it,” he said, “I could see the guy was sincere. He was doing things his way. I don’t think it was an out-and-out trash at all.”
9) “With a Little Help From My Friends” (The Beatles) by Joe Cocker
The breezy, hum-able Ringo song on Sgt. Pepper’s got the full-bore, gritty white soul treatment from Cocker, whose specialty was indeed doing that with other people’s songs. You listen to Ringo and go: “Yeah, friends are good to have”; you listen to Cocker and go: “Friends are necessary. I could not get by without them.” And, yeah, the version done at Woodstock, linked below, is the best.
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8) “Doesn’t Make It Alright” (The Specials) by Stiff Little Fingers
The Specials’ ska-rock song came out at the end of 1979 and Stiff Little Fingers released their take in 1980 – one of the quickest cover song turnarounds of its time. “It struck me as the most powerful song, the way they had in their set, live,” says SLF’s Jake Burns of the anti-racist anthem. When I heard the album, I was kind of disappointed in the production of it. I thought they’d thrown the song away. I felt the song deserved more power, it deserved more anger, more in-your-faceness, where the energy and the message [merge] – young black and white guys standing together on stage.” I’m with Jake all the way.
7) “Jealous Guy” (John Lennon) by Roxy Music
I may not like thinking about Jerry Hall when I hear Roxy Music’s “Prairie Rose,” but I know that her romance with Roxy singer Bryan Ferry is in the backstory. Yoko Ono’s presence in Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” is more in the foreground. Although this doesn’t actually name her, she’s clearly all over it. This version of the song de-Yoko-fies it, taking on more sweep, power and – importantly – universality when Bryan Ferry inhabits the role and Roxy sweetly soars. Ferry makes this confessional sentiment – who hasn’t felt it? – much more open to all, and the band soars in the graceful, gliding way at which they’ve long excelled.
6) “Money (That’s What I Want)” (The Beatles/Barrett Strong) by the Flying Lizards
Motown’s Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford wrote it, Barrett Strong had the first hit with it, but most of us know the Beatles manic version, which I’ve long considered the perfect counterbalance to, say, “All You Need Is Love.” The Flying Lizards did a Devo with this, cutting the song up into minimalist parts – tinker toy synth, thin melody line, big percussive wallop and singer Deborah Evans-Strickland speaking the vocals. Her tone was of total detachment from any emotion and yet expressed a keen desire for that long green.
5) “The Sound of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel) by Disturbed
My favorite recent cover. “Hello darkness, my old friend/I’ve come to talk with you again.” What a way to start a song! That’s how Paul Simon kicked off this sad anthem of alienation, written back in 1964. And it’s how Disturbed singer David Draiman begins this version – just voice and piano – but then the acoustic guitar comes in and the strings. It grows, it growls and it takes on an angry, menacing hard-rock rumbling quality as Draiman hits the “Hear my words, that they might reach you …” and the kettle drum is pounding. The explosion comes when Draiman gets to “And the people bow and pray to the neon god they made.” Chills. Seriously. Simon posted his respect for their take online.
4) “Comfortably Numb” (Pink Floyd) by the Bad Plus
It’s one of the Floyd’s best, most wrenching songs (that Gilmour guitar solo!), but it’s also specific to the character Pink in “The Wall,” and indirectly to one-time fallen leader Syd Barrett (as is so much of Floyd’s music). The modern jazz trio, the Bad Plus (with guest vocalist Wendy Lewis) injects dissonance and disruption, a rippling piano line and, most importantly, separates the two characters’ voices in a way Floyd doesn’t. There’s the stricken one whose hands feel like balloons and can only hear his friends voice “coming through in waves” and the friend, trying in vain to reach the far-gone friend. The Bad Plus take it into a level of inexplicable sadness and futility. (This one hit me personally, as it seemed to mirror the relationship my mother and I had as she went through post-stroke late-stage dementia.)
3) “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails) by Johnny Cash
Recorded in 2002 near the end of his career (and ultimately his life), this is just heart-breaking. In the 2003 video we see young Johnny Cash in action, juxtaposed with old and ill Johnny singing and plucking this out on guitar and piano. Trent Reznor, who wrote the song for his band Nine Inch Nails, was amazed at what Cash (and producer Rick Rubin) did, transmogrifying his industrial rock throbber to the country-folk idiom “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel,” sings Cash at the start, wondering later, “What have I become my friend/Everyone I know goes away in the end.” And in the video, his deceased wife June Carter. Serious lump-in-the-throat time.
2) “A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall” (Bob Dylan) by Bryan Ferry
Ferry’s early solo work (and Roxy Music side projects) was all about reinvention – from “Sympathy for the Devil” to “It’s My Party” – but my favorite is this jaunty re-envisioning of Dylan’s vivid and descriptive song about ordinary people awaiting the “hard rain” of (nuclear?) war with the “pellets of poison are flooding their waters.” The lines tumble out, a la Dylan, all the adjectives and the numbers. The female chorus sweeps in behind Ferry, echoes his “hard” exclamation with their own. Does Ferry camp it up? Maybe a little. Make light of it? No. He gives it a cinematic quality. An ocean wave precedes Ferry singing that he heard “the roar of the wave that can drown the whole world” and there are whispers and (evil) laughs when Ferry gets to hearing those things. I talked to Ferry about doing Dylan. “I just think the songs are so strong they can be done in many different ways,” he said.
1) “Satisfaction” (The Rolling Stones) by Devo
Mick Jagger might have been singing about not being satisfied, but the song was all cocky exuberance personified – you knew Mick would come back and get that woman on a losing streak. Devo grabbed “Satisfaction” from the Stones, stripped out the bravado, upped the irony and angst and, with its jerky robotic rhythms, turned it into a punk era hit. Talk about redefining.
I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.