We live in a world of remakes. All of our favorite movies and TV shows as kids are being remade, usually with horrifying results. This is a recycled society. Anything is fair game for the maw of Hollywood to chew up and swallow before tickling its throat with a feather in the bathroom of a WeHo diner and vomiting it back up. I mean, really, who does she think she’s kidding? We all know she does it. Bitch.
Oh. Sorry. What was I talking about?
Music, however, has been one arena where covers are not only accepted by fans, but often welcomed. Since the dawn of recorded music, we’ve been thrilled when our favorite artist tackles a song we loved from years before. Hell, I’m sure this goes back even further, with Hesiod clapping along to that new rendition of “Song of Gilgamesh” all the kids were humming.
Often, though, covers lead to abominations. Anyone remember Madonna’s version of “American Pie?” Let me refresh your memory:
But usually, even when we love a cover, it rarely comes close to the original.
With a few exceptions, that is.
So here are five cover songs that take the original out back and sock it around a while.
5. CROSSROADS by Cream
Robert Johnson is an undeniable fixture in the Pantheon of musical gods. He inspired everyone from Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. In fact, without Robert Johnson, there would be no rock ‘n’ roll.
Most people today are more familiar with the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads than with his actual music. While historians have pegged that legend as originating with blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (no relation), it’s easy to understand how it got entwined with ol’ Robert. Not only did he appear out of nowhere with a new sound that would change the course of music, but his song about the deal at the crossroads (originally called “Crossroads Blues”) cemented his association with the legend. Here’s his version:
In 1968, British rock group Cream, under the guidance of Eric Clapton, recorded a version at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Cream’s version took the foundation of Johnson’s song and built on it, bringing the raw energy thundering into the latter half of the 20th century. This version has since been named #3 on Rolling Stones’ Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time list #10 on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos. Check it out:
4. ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER by Jimi Hendrix
Its use in “Watchmen” aside, this song has become one of Hendrix’s most famous. It expertly showcases both his talent at the guitar and his raw yet smooth vocals. Ask anyone to name a Hendrix song and, chances are, they’ll name this one.
But most people don’t realize that it’s a cover.
As with all of the songs on this list, the original was performed by a damned good and incredibly influential artist. In fact, this was a Bob Dylan ditty. Which makes perfect sense when you listen to the lyrics, as they play out like a medieval ballad and are perfect for a folk song. Yet, in Hendrix’s hands, the song’s creepy, almost apocalyptic language is enhanced.
There have been several other covers, but most stink. Whether it’s Dave Mathews or Eddie Vedder, none of them have come close to capturing the energy that Hendrix did.
And here’s Hendrix:
3. THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT by Frank Sinatra
In the 1936 film “Swing Time,” Fred Astaire sings this song to Ginger Rogers. It made an instant impression and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year.
Inevitably, a number of covers followed: Tony Bennet, Perry Como, the Coasters, Bing Crosby, and Billie Holiday. But, while all great, none managed to exceed the original.
At least, that is, until Ol’ Blue Eyes stepped in.
While there are a number of Sinatra songs that could fit this list, I think this one captures why Frank was… well, Frank, better than the rest. That smooth yet unpolished voice. That swagger. The way you can hear him winking as he sings. This is vintage Frank.
(If you’re curious, the other Frank cover I almost chose was his version of Liza Minelli’s “New York, New York.”)
Here’s Fred Astaire:
Here’s the Chairman of the Board:
2. HURT by Johnny Cash
There’s been some debate on this one recently but, as great as the Trent Reznor version is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Johnny cash version. And I’m sure Reznor would agree.
This song can (and I think, should) be looked at as a monologue. It’s a man talking about the horrendous choices he’s made and how he can’t help but bring pain and misery to others and, by extension, to himself. In Reznor’s original, it’s a typical goth/industrial-esque ballad. Good, but wouldn’t otherwise stand out from the rest of his work.
But the Man in Black brings a resonance to the song, a feeling that this is an old man at the end of his life who’s looking back on all of the horrid things he’s done and wishing he could take them back. But he can’t. It’s too late. With Cash’s version, you can hear the ache in his voice, the longing, the hurt. Looking at the song as a monologue, Reznor wrote a haunting and beautiful piece – but it needed the right actor to bring it fully to life. Johnny Cash was that actor.
Here’s the original:
And here’s Johnny Cash:
1. WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS by Joe Cocker
I’m sure I’ll get some flack from some Beatle’s fans over this one but, sorry, the Joe Cocker version strangles the original with one hand while downing a fifth of whiskey.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote a great little bar song. Their version is a sing-songy piano tune that you can imagine being belted out in a pub on New Year’s while friends slip their arms around one another and remark how good the beer is.
Joe Cocker’s version ratchets all of that up 1000% percent. His is the song sung ten years later by the grizzled barfly who’s been in and out of rehab and would have ended up dead if it weren’t for his friends. The primitive quality in Cocker’s voice, along with the complexity and epic power of the arrangement, made this a hit at Woodstock. Although you probably know it best from the opening credits to “The Wonder Years.”
Here’s The Beatles:
Well, there you go. Agree? Disagree? What are your favorite (or most hated) covers?
Brad C. Hodson is a writer living in Los Angeles. His new novel, DARLING, is available from Bad Moon Books. Check out the Bibliography page to see where you can read his short fiction or watch some films he’s written.