10 Unusual and Surprising Cover Songs

Share This:
Devo Satisfaction

Are We Not Men?

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.

Related: 15 unlikely covers by classic rock artists

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.

  • Sign up for the Best Classic Bands Newsletter

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.

Jim Sullivan
Share This:

19 Comments so far

Jump into a conversation
  1. Nick3
    #1 Nick3 1 June, 2016, 17:18

    Try out Oingo Boingo with their version of The Kinks – You Really Got Me.

    Reply this comment
  2. Roxysiren
    #2 Roxysiren 2 June, 2016, 04:43

    Sorry Jim but Prairie Rose by Roxy Music is not about Jerry Hall. It was written and recorded before she even met Ferry. It was inspired by the old western movies Ferry used to see as a boy, Texas and the “Big Country”.

    Reply this comment
  3. JoanieB
    #3 JoanieB 2 June, 2016, 11:40

    Diamonds And Rust by Judas Priest

    Reply this comment
  4. Vic Garbarini
    #4 Vic Garbarini 23 June, 2016, 18:36

    Very nice grouping by the great Jim Sullivan, I’d add the Sex Pistols searing version of the Monkee’s “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, and Fairport Convention’s (Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, etc) only “hit” , a cover of Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go” from the Basement Tapes, sung in French as “Si du Doir Partir”, featuring a collapsing chair as a “solo.”

    Reply this comment
    • Bill
      Bill 11 April, 2021, 06:26

      Vic! You printed my 1983 Furs’ article in Musician — huge thanks for that. Great to know about the Fairport hit, one cavil — surely the French spelling is “Si Tu Dois Partir.”
      Cheers, Bill Abelson

      Reply this comment
  5. JohnnyCNote
    #5 JohnnyCNote 20 March, 2017, 02:48

    “Ring of Fire” covered by Wall of Voodoo is a great psychedelic interpretation of June Carter’s classic song about her relationship with Johnny Cash. Both the studio and live versions of WOV’s cover are eerily haunting with an extended piece of guitar feedback in the final section of the song…

    Reply this comment
    • Mikey
      Mikey 11 April, 2021, 08:21

      Zappa and his band did an interesting cover of this referencing a hemorrhoid pillow I think. Right up there with whipping floss and Inagada Stravinski.

      Reply this comment
  6. wooly
    #6 wooly 15 May, 2018, 08:01

    What about Vanilla Fudge’s cover of the Supreme’s “You Keep Me Hanging On” https://youtu.be/4omjs9ddJa4

    Reply this comment
  7. Supermanfriday
    #7 Supermanfriday 24 December, 2018, 06:28

    English band cornershop do a beautiful version of Norwegian wood. In i I think Hindu. Also they do Dylans Mighty Quinn.fantastically plus others. Great band.

    Reply this comment
  8. Kikoutofcovers
    #8 Kikoutofcovers 25 December, 2018, 01:46

    Check out the Eagles “Take it to the Limit”, covered by Frank Weber, former brother-in-law and manager to Billy Joel. This is one of the best examples of taking someone elses song and making it your own that I can think of. He also made a bunch of Billy Joel’s money his own. Also, Cake’s cover of “I Will Survive” and White Zombie covering “I’m Your Boogie man”. Honorable mention, Molly Hatchets version of Allman Brothers classic “Dream I’ll never see”. Anything by cover super group, Me First and the Gimme Gimmies and for that matter, lounged up covers by Richard Cheese. Which reminds me of Big Daddy, giving a 50s and 60s twist to much newer songs.

    Reply this comment
  9. EachGenerationHasItsOwnPunks
    #9 EachGenerationHasItsOwnPunks 30 December, 2018, 02:32

    What made Sid’s version of “My Way” so, uhhh, unique was that he didn’t know the actual words to the song. For more calculated punk covers I’d look to The Anti-Nowhere League’s interpretation of Ralph McTell’s “Streets Of London.” The Stranglers did an interesting version of “Walk On By” complete with a Ray Manzarek meets Rod Argent organ solo and Hugh Cornwall sneering, “Aah just go for a stroll in the trees.”

    Reply this comment
  10. Every Generation Has Its Punks
    #10 Every Generation Has Its Punks 30 December, 2018, 17:45

    I credit much of Sid’s punk take on “My Way” as his forgetting all the lyrics save the repeated refrain…Julien Temple is the one who should be credited for the gun.

    It is fitting that punk purveyors would embrace songs of social commentary as the English thrash punk band The Anti-Nowhere League did in its thrash take on Ralph McTell’s poignant “Streets Of London.”

    On the other hand, we have the more recognizable version of Bachrach/David’s “Walk On By” as revamped by The Stranglers. This includes an extended organ solo reminiscent of a mash up between Ray Manzarek and Rod Argent. Hugh Cornwall spits out asides such as, “Aah, why don’t you just take a stroll in the park.”

    Aside from that, one of my favorite unusual covers is Guns N’ Roses’ take on Todd Rundgren’s “Dust In The Wind. I love the irony of Axl singing, “Tell everyone that I am sorry, truly sorry, for all of the things I’ve done…”

    Reply this comment
  11. mack
    #11 mack 3 November, 2019, 08:04

    a friend’s band does a smoking bluegrass cover of Time/Pink Floyd which worked really well. But my favorite is Ferry’s cover of Hard Rain. It’s almost as good as Dylan’s RTR version with Mick Ronson nailing it on his blistering guitar work. One of my all time favorites.

    Reply this comment
  12. Mike Rotch
    #12 Mike Rotch 2 January, 2020, 12:33

    Type O Negative – Cinnamon Girl

    Reply this comment
    #13 KIKOUTOFCOVERS 25 April, 2020, 17:11

    I gotta check that one out. Another Type O Negative, Summer Breeze.
    Also, another Pink Floyd bluegrass cover, Brain Damage by Fayetteville, Arkansas’ Emily Kaitz & Outside The Lines from their album “How High The Dark Side Of The Moon”, probably pretty hard to find.

    Reply this comment
  14. Teddy
    #14 Teddy 9 June, 2020, 16:45

    Scissor Sisters do a groovy, dance version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.

    Reply this comment
  15. MRodifer
    #15 MRodifer 5 November, 2020, 16:23

    For hilarity, seek out Albert y los Trios Paranoias’ version of “Anarchy in the UK”. Slowed down to an elvis-style ballad. A real hoot!

    Reply this comment
  16. Jimi’s Got Swag
    #16 Jimi’s Got Swag 11 April, 2021, 01:46

    How about Jimi’s version of Bob Dylan’s, “All Along the Watchtower”? The only Hendrix song to make it into the Top 100.

    Reply this comment
  17. bewolf5
    #17 bewolf5 12 April, 2021, 09:24

    Love good covers, but two of my favorites didn’t make the list. Certainly noteworthy are Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude”, released in 1969 with Duane Allman on guitar, while The Beatle’s Nov ’68 original was still charting. But my all-time favorite is the Butthole Surfer’s 1999 cover of “Summer In The City”, the #1 hit originally done by the Loving Spoonful in 1966. Great version that respects the original.

    Reply this comment

Your data will be safe!Your e-mail address will not be published. Also other data will not be shared with third person.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.