Even better than the real thing? The good, bad and ugly of cover versions...
Ryan Adams's version of '1989' by Taylor Swift has been met with critical acclaim. But what's the point in covers, and are they ever better than the original
Published 30/09/2015 | 07:00
The music world has been all a-fluster since Ryan Adams released his own version of Taylor Swift's 1989 album last week. In case you haven't heard any of it, Adams has basically made the album that Swift would've made if it was still the 1970s and her name was Bruce Springsteen.
The release has spawned much discussion - does Adams find depth in the songs that Swift wasn't able to transmit? Is the positive critical response to Adams's release a case of sexism, or indie-rock snobbishness over pop? But more fundamentally, it begs the question - cover versions, what's the bleedin' point?
This is a difficult one to answer, as people do covers for different reasons. But the fact that it's a lot easier to pick a list of covers you hate than covers you like illustrates that it's a risky business - for example, think Rod Stewart sucking all the humanity out of Tom Waits's Downtown Train and replacing it with perfunctory keyboard flourishes. But sometimes it works, and when it does the results can be glorious. Here are 10 of the best:
Satisfaction - Devo (Rolling Stones)
If the Rolling Stones were the quintessential rock band, Devo were the epitome of all things nerdy and weird. Devo stripped out the signature riff and replaced it with a twitchy, jerky, yet funky mesh of guitar lines that seem more in tune with the song's theme about not being able to pull girls.
Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh told of going to the Rolling Stones' New York office to ask for permission: "Mick Jagger came in and he just kind of looked at us. We put the record on the turntable, and after about 30 seconds, he jumps up and starts dancing around to it. Then he said to us, 'That's my favourite version of this song!' To us, even that he was in the same room was pretty overwhelming."
Common People - William Shatner (Pulp)
Common People was a big hit for Pulp in 1995, telling the story of singer Jarvis Cocker's experience with a college girlfriend from a rich family who wanted to slum it for a while (rumoured to be former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis's wife, but I digress). Nine years later, Captain Kirk himself recorded a hilariously over-the-top version in which he ham-acts his way through the lyric sheet, before stepping back to leave the higher parts to Joe Jackson and, ludicrously, a choir of children.
But somehow, with Shatner clearly aware of how ridiculous the whole thing is, he manages to communicate the message of the song - the fury and frustration of living in poverty - in a way Cocker and Pulp were too busy sucking in their cheeks to really pull off.
My Favourite Things - John Coltrane (from The Sound of Music)
It takes not one but two bona fide genii to take a song from a twee musical and turn it into a blissful jazz epic that turns itself inside out and outside in again over almost 14 minutes without ever breaking its spell. With apologies to the pianist and bassist, the genii were saxophone legend John Coltrane, who weaves infinite melodies around the central phrase, and drummer Elvin Jones, who just makes the whole thing levitate. The Sound of Music it ain't.
Hurt - Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails)
I challenge you to get through the video for this song without getting a lump in your throat, if not breaking down and blubbing like a baby chopping onions. In his twilight years, Cash made a flawless series of covers collections with producer Rick Rubin, the American albums, and amid very rich pickings, his cover of Hurt stands out.
Cash's version is that of a man close to death, looking back at his life, his regrets, his successes, his failures - and it becomes a meditation on the human condition and the ravages of time. In comparison, with respect to NIN's Trent Reznor, the original sounds like a pouty teenage goth wallowing in their own misery because they ran out of eyeliner.
Heart of Gold - Boney M (Neil Young)
Some covers work because they inject something into a song that was missing. Others work because the covering artist does terrible things to the song, and when it's still enjoyable it makes you realise what a bloody good song the original was. The latter is the case with Boney M's take on Heart of Gold. The best way to describe what they did to it is to say 'they Boney-M'ed it'. Okay, they put in some natty vocal harmonies and a gave it a light disco chug.
In fact, some coder genius should create an app for songwriters, so that when writing a song and wondering if the melody or chord changes are good enough, that can stick it through the Boney-M-ifier and hear what it'd sound like by the band responsible for Brown Girl in the Ring. If it's still alright, you know you've written a damn good song.
Whiskey in the Jar - Thin Lizzy (Traditional)
In 1972, Thin Lizzy took a traditional song that The Dubliners had released five years earlier and really hit the sweet spot in terms of both respecting the song and putting a new rock slant on it. The only down side of this was Metallica heard the Thin Lizzy version and covered it themselves. The results, predictably enough, would make the ears wince on everyone but the most devoted metallers.
The Pogues - Dirty Old Town (Ewan McColl)
This song has been recorded more than a dozen times by artists as diverse as The Dubliners, Rod Stewart, Townes Van Zandt and The Specials, but The Pogues made this song their own to such an extent that most casual listeners think it was written by them about Dublin. In fact, it was written about Manchester by Kirsty McColl's father Ewan in 1949. But if I was from the capital I'd be offended that everyone assumes: 'Dirty...old...' must be about Dublin.
The Clash/Dead Kennedys - I Fought the Law (The Bobby Fuller Four)
First done by not-so-popular beat combo The Bobby Fuller Four in 1965, the Clash cranked it up about six notches with their raw punk energy. But a nod must also go to San Francisco's Dead Kennedys, whose version changed it to: "I fought the law and I won", in satirical reference to a local politician who murdered two people (including gay activist Harvey Milk) but got off with a light sentence because he said he'd eaten too many Twinkies.
Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
Originally released by Cohen in 1984 and ignored, arguably the best version of this song was by John Cale. But Cale's version inspired Jeff Buckley to record an atmospheric and emotional version of it on his 1994 album Grace. Buckley's death by drowning three years later magnified the emotional power of his version and it was released as a single 10 years later.
Killdozer - I Am, I Said (Neil Diamond)
Neil Diamond's bombastic, introspective mini-epic about how lonely it is at the top has the ridiculous chorus: "I am I said, to no one there. And no one heard at all, not even the chair." And it was nominated for a Grammy in 1971. Along came Wisconsin sludge rock band Killdozer in 1987 with a hilarious version that sounds like a hungover Oscar the Grouch on vocals backed by a band of elderly Hells Angels.
When good songs go bad: covers that should be ashamed to show their face
1 Fairytale of New York - Ronan Keating and Moya Brennan (The Pogues and Kirsty McColl)
It's easy to forget about this monstrosity, indeed many people's brains will have suppressed the memories to protect them from the trauma. What made the former singers with Boyzone and Clannad think they could take one of the most-loved Christmas songs of all time and improve on it? Let's just say that if Shane McGowan was dead, he'd be turning in his grave.
2 Wild Horses - Susan Boyle (Rolling Stones)
Fair play to Susan Boyle and all that, but in 2009 the former X Factor star made the Stones classic sound like it was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elaine Paige rather than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. As one headline screamed at the time: 'Please, wild horses, drag Susan Boyle away!'
3 Perfect Day - BBC Children In Need Charity Single (Lou Reed)
This had a fairly decent line-up of people who should've known better, including David Bowie, Shane McGowan, Emmylou Harris, and Lou Reed himself, but also the likes of Boyzone (hi Ronan!), Bono (naturally) and Heather Small from M People (sorry, who?). The ugliness of this 1997 version comes primarily in that charity-single-relay-singing-style where they all get to sing half a line so they can cram as many 'slebs' in as possible. But also it was just played to death. The only consolation was the dark irony of a Children In Need single being an ode to heroin.
4 You Shook Me All Night Long - Celine Dion and Anastacia (AC/DC)
Mere words can't convey the awfulness on display here, but we'll just have to try... Imagine the sounds made by two pterodactyls as they ate your family in front of you, backed by a session band of dead-eyed zombies. Now add the image of a crazed Celine Dion playing air guitar in the video, and throwing in asides like "Awww shake me girlfren'" between the blood-curdling squawks. The horror.