Cover, n., also cover version, a recording of a song by a singer, instrumentalist, or group other than the original performer or composer.
Here's what serves as a Christmas Card from TOP this year. As usual, we'll be off for the next several days—see you back here on the 27th or so. To tide you over, here's my take on ten great cover songs.
1. Jimi Hendrix, "All Along the Watchtower." Written and first performed by Bob Dylan. Dylan has always been covered extensively (as a joke, I once put together a mixed CD of the entirety of "Blood on the Tracks," all in cover versions)—but never more effectively than here. Hendrix boldly transforms the original, making it violent, caustic, and dark—and, oddly perhaps, more tuneful than Dylan's flatter, plainer, folkier version. As with all the songs on this list, the cover definitely takes on a life of its own, eclipsing and surpassing the original.
2. John Coltrane, "My Favorite Things." A show tune written in 1959 by Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein for their musical The Sound of Music, it was first performed by Mary Martin on Broadway, although most people nowadays are more familiar with Julie Andrews' version from the movie. Early on, it received this towering cover by the then-35-year-old Coltrane during his transition from bebop to free jazz. The scintillating soprano sax of this thirteen-minute-plus jazz opus, delicate yet dazzling, captivated audiences from the start, and the album of the same name, then and now, is one of Coltrane's most popular.
3. Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit." A great if deeply disturbing song and one to which the sweetly mournful, ever-blue chanteuse was always fiercely loyal, making various sacrifices throughout her career on its behalf. It was written by a Jewish schoolteacher and prolific songwriter named Abel Meeropol (writing as Lewis Allan), who with his wife later adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their executions. It was originally published as a poem. There's been lingering confusion over the claim in Holiday's autobiography that she helped write the music, but the autobiography was ghostwritten (when asked about it, Billie said "I ain't never read that book"), and the song had already gained notoriety around New York City when she first recorded it in 1939. To get us briefly back on topic, the song was most probably inspired by a photograph, taken by Lawrence Beitler.
4. The Beatles (John Lennon), "Twist and Shout." First recorded by an obscure band called the Top Notes, Bert Berns' song had already been covered, and charted, by the Isley Brothers (guided by Berns, who didn't care for what the Top Notes had done to it) when it appeared on the Beatles' First album, Please Please Me. Covered innumerable times since, and made into a concert staple by the Who (not to mention being lip-synched and danced to by a cast of hundreds in the comedy classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off), no one's ever matched the wholehearted ebullience of Lennon's superb rock and roll vocal—done in a single take when he had a bad cold, no less. Lennon said later it took his voice weeks to recover.
John Coltrane at about the time he recorded "My Favorite Things"
fifty years or so ago. (That's no soprano sax, though.)
5. Frank Sinatra, "New York, New York." The closer you live to New York City, the more you will have heard this one. It was written by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), and first performed for the 1977 Martin Scorcese film of the same name by Liza Minelli. Sinatra performed it a year later and recorded it a year after that, and, well, owned it—and has owned it ever since. A bit of trivia: The Yankees used to play Sinatra's version after a win and Minelli's after a loss, until Minelli issued the team an ultimatum: they had to play her recording after wins sometimes, too, or she wouldn't allow them to play it at all. As a consequence, the Yankees now use Sinatra's version exclusively, win or lose.
6. Johnny Cash, "Hurt," the Nine Inch Nails song written by Trent Reznor. A stripped, emotionally raw intergenerational swan song recorded by the artistically courageous country veteran only shortly before his death. This was the unlikeliest of covers; it's not only that nobody (including Reznor) expected it to work, it's that nobody expected it at all. The original doesn't seem like a song that's begging for a cover by any means. But Cash's radically different perspective on the song and his simple declamatory delivery of the lyrics transforms its meaning and makes it into an elegy of the heart's longing, reminding us all too poignantly that death is a deep loss for the departed as well. The video is especially touching.
7. Sinéad O'Connor, "Nothing Compares 2 U." Some songs seem written just to await their cosmically designated cover artist. The original, written by the prolific artist known at that time as Prince for a now-obscure band he produced called The Family, never made much of a splash. But in the hands of the mercurial, conflicted, and talented Irish singer it became an international sensation at the end of the '80s, vaulting to Number One in multiple countries across the world. (I have to be honest and admit that along with the rest of the world, I was, um, influenced by that incredible music video—they were a big thing at the time. She really sells the emotions, and Sinéad was one good-looking human being 21 years and four kids ago. A must-see if you never have. Song needs a better ending, though.)
8. Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Little Wing." First recorded by the Jimi Hendrix Experience on Axis: Bold as Love. Normally I'm not much on flashy white blues guitarists, especially since Jimi gave them all the idea that they don't need vocalists even though they can't sing themselves (appropriate in Jimi's case, but a really woeful concept when it came to, say, Roy Buchanan). But good art convinces, and Stevie Ray's incredible version of "Little Wing" from his posthumous 1991 album The Sky is Crying is like a Beethoven piano sonata of the electric guitar. You can hear the tube amp humming away as Vaughan sweeps us all along on the virtuoso electric guitar performance to end all virtuoso electric guitar performances.
9. Janis Joplin, "Me and Bobby McGee," written and first performed by Kris Kristofferson. Greatest of the white rhythm-and-blues singers, the doomed and tragic Joplin was not much of an original writer but could sing to virtually any mood. She seemed to inhabit the songs she sang. In Kristofferson's beautiful road anthem she seems both optimistic and resigned, satisfied and regretful. Sad Janis left too little behind, once she'd flamed out on her own last trip.
Johnny Cash, from the "Hurt" video.
10. Tricky, "Black Steel." Sometimes things that just shouldn't work, do—like this '90s English trip-hop cover of Public Enemy's rap "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." Tricky (Adrian Thaws) made his inexperienced girlfriend Martina Topley-Bird virtually improvise her singing cold. Mid-song, she surreally intones, "I am a black man and I could never be a veteran." Ohhh-kay. Co-producer Mark Saunders said the floor of the studio was littered with vinyl to sample; it took the irate label (Island) months to identify all the sources and clear all the rights. "Black Steel" should be played to the point of distortion in the car on a city commute to fully bond with the hallucinatory vocals floating atop the crashing, chaotic beat.
• • •
And as an honorable mention, an instant comedy classic: Jimmy Fallon, doing his impersonation of Neil Young, joined onstage mid-song to dramatic effect by the Boss, cover the teenybopper hit "Whip My Hair," which (I had to go look this up) is a highly produced bubblegum-hop video by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett's 10-year-old child Willow. When grizzled old Springsteen in the fake beard growls "whip your hair" in the call-and-respond break, I thought I was gonna lose it. Very funny.
ADDENDUM: I probably shouldn't have written this today. Ever since I finished I've been listening to more covers, checking out comments' suggestions, thinking of things I didn't think of when I was coming up with the list.
Here's one you really should check out: M. Ward's cover of Daniel Johnston's "The Story of an Artist" from The Late Great Daniel Johnston / Discovered Covered, a compilation of Daniel Johnston covers by various currently well known groups and individual artists. I couldn't find it on iTunes, but it's on eMusic. You probably need to know about the severely mentally ill singer/songwriter (who, again, is no relation, except possibly ancestrally) to fully appreciate the cover, but if you don't know about him you'll be fascinated finding out. The documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston is on iTunes—and from Netflix, but not "on demand" (i.e., streaming). But, man, if there was ever a theme song for the lives of most artists, this is it.
Special mention, too, to a performance Oren Grad turned me on to a few years ago, and that I've mentioned before on the site—the a cappella group Transit doing a not quite a cappella rendition of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" (arranged by Joseph Bates). It's on iTunes, but it's hard to find—it only appears on an a cappella compilation called "Sing Three: Mélange à Trois." I've since learned that "Hide and Seek" is something of a holy grail for a cappella groups, and for good reason—it seems like it was tailor-made for them. If you haven't heard Transit's performance already, seek it out.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jez: "Nice list, and as a bit of a cover-song afficionado, allow me to add my top ten...
1) Otis Redding, Satisfaction. According to them, the version the Stones do live these days is, basically, a cover of the Otis version.
2) Wild Billy Childish And The Buff Medways, Fire. Curmudgeonly old Brit garage-punks tear through the Hendrix classic.
3) The Ramones, I Don't Wanna Grow Up. Not many people realise this is a Tom Waits tune.
4) Tom Waits, The Return Of Jackie And Judy. Where Tom Waits returns the favour and covers The Ramones.
5) The Dirtbombs, No Expectations. For the uninitiated, The Dirtbombs do covers. A lot. Like a whole album—Ultraglide In Black—of rockin' soul covers. But this one—a Stones cover—mixes it up a bit with Sympathy For The Devil's 'woo-woos' and Hey Jude's 'nananananas' added at the end. Shouldn't work, but does.
6) Thane Russal & Three, Security. Obscure '60s uptempo mod version of an Otis Redding track.
7) The 101'ers, Gloria. Joe Strummer's pre-Clash outfit give the Them song the live once-over.
8) Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer, Redemption Song. They've both covered this separately as well as a duo. This version can bring a tear if the time is right. RIP, Johnny and Joe.
9) Solomon Burke, Diamond In Your Mind. Another Tom Waits cover that the late, great Burke makes his own.
10) Merry Clayton, Gimme Shelter. Clayton did the backing vox on the original and quite possibly gives it more on her own version.
Featured Comment by Mani Sitaraman: "I used to strongly feel that Siouxsie and the Banshees' cover of the Beatles' 'Dear Prudence' was sheer genius, but 25 odd years later I'm not so sure. The original holds up really well now.
"Many covers are unique and are easily 'co-equal' to the originals but few definitely surpass the originals. After all, their intrinsic superiority is why the originals do get covered.
"In that sense, Joe Cocker's many covers all measure up to the originals, but even his most famous covers, 'With a Little Help From My Friends' or Traffic's 'Feelin' Alright,' original interpretations and strong performances though they are, don't really eclipse Ringo's version or Dave Mason's—they stand side-by-side with the originals.
"I do think there is a limited parallel to celebrity portraiture here. The originals are the celebrities, and the covers are the portraits, and in both photography and music the familiarity of the original boosts the impact of the portrait or cover so inextricably that it's really hard to judge the cover against the original.
"There are exceptions of course, IMHO, and Mike's list is a very well considered list compared to many of our humble suggestions. Sinéad O'Connor is phenomenal in her cover of Prince's 'Nothing Compare 2 U,' and the song stands on its own even if you have never heard the original.
"I don't think I feel the same way about the Rolling Stones' Chuck Berry covers (though their live versions on 'Get Yer Ya Ya's Out' are very good indeed). You still need the original somewhere in the back of your head to make them stand out."
Mike replies: I like your idea about good covers being "co-equal" to the originals...I have to say I've felt that way about some of the covers people have been mentioning in the comments and to me privately.
It's curious how our current conceptions of songs differ so radically from the early days of recording. I've just been reading about this in Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll. He says that in the early days of records, recordings of songs weren't exclusive to one label or artist—a newly popular song might be recorded by several labels and several bands or singers at once. The structure of commerce at that point had been in the sale of sheet music, which people used in order to play the songs themselves, and this was still an important source of revenue. So the last thing record producers wanted to encourage was the idea that a particular recording or a particular singer was in any way distinctive—the important thing was the song, not the performance or the performers. The money was made when the sheet music was purchased. If people came to the store to buy a record of a newly popular song, and the store was out of one label's record, the customer would simply buy another label's record of the same song. They were considered interchangeable. It took a little while for the idea to take hold that one recording might be better than another—or that "art" rather than just documentary might be contained in the recording.