While others may find them hollow, disappointing, mercenary, and entirely ‘missing the magic of the original’, I have to confess, I am a HUGE fan of the cover version. I can’t even tell you when this obsession started – it must have been somewhere between ploughing into the darkest depths of free Mojo compilation CDs featuring reworkings and indulging in the poppy sheen of Radio One’s Live Lounge. Sometimes, I just sit there, typing various song titles into Spotify, just seeing what turns up. My finest (or worst…who knows) hour was finding a cover of ‘How Soon is Now?’ by…..t.A.t.u. Remember them? All school girl uniforms, Soviet angst, and snogging in the rain. Covering The Smiths. Don’t lie – you’re already Googling it, aren’t you?
That, for me, epitomised the sheer heady, guilty joy of the cover. Seeing the unlikeliest of candidates tackle an old favourite on paper, and being utterly unable to imagine how it’ll hang together. Those tantalising opening chords when you sit, transfixed, open-mouthed. Will it be good? Will it be…better? Is it sped up, slowed down? Syncopated? Totally bloody awful?
I suppose I love a good cover version because it allows you that rare feeling of falling in love with something twice, in completely different ways. The songs will remain two separate entities, but you may come to love each equally. I fall in love with songs quickly and easily, and out of love just as fast. One too many replays, and those magical cadences are lost to you forever, and suddenly it’s all just noise. The cover version lets you recapture that first tingling feeling.
I thought I’d guide you through the maze of covers with a pick of some of my absolute favourites. I’ve avoided the obvious – everyone knows that Johnny Cash covering ‘Hurt’ was a seminal moment, for Christsakes. You will also find no mention of that cultural wrecking ball, Glee. What they did to the Human League, I can never forgive. What do you think? What are some of your favourites? Have I made some glaring omissions? Drop me a comment, whydoncha?
- Sex Bomb – The Easy Virtue Orchestra. From the film ‘Easy Virtue’ a song that had seemed so sleazy when sung by Tom Jones it actually caused me to turn off the tv in embarrassment becomes tongue in cheek (rather than tongue in…other places) through the cut glass vocals of Andy Caine. Far more thrilling than the original.
- Dandy in the Underworld – Adam & The Ants. Originally performed by T.Rex. Ostensibly, the only difference at first is between Adam Ant’s more confident vocal and Bolan’s enchantingly quavery tenor; and the tempo. The true genius appears later on – where T.Rex ‘shoo be doo’ their way around this alleged underworld, Mr Ant shoehorns in a recognisable riff, restoring the ‘dandy’ of the title. Both worth a listen.
- Independent Woman – Elbow. Originally performed by Destiny’s Child. Recorded for the aforementioned Radio 1 Live Lounge, this is deadpan to the point of disinterest. The Northern drawl on ‘throw your hands up at me’ never fails to draw a smile, and the pre-chorus ‘girl, I didn’t know you could get down like that’ gives me an irrepressible image of a man in a flat cap in a pub, watching some underdressed, inebriated Northern lass throw herself about.
- The Model – Seu Jorge. Originally performed by Kraftwerk. Brazilian Jorge is no stranger to covers, having been responsible for the excellent ‘Life Aquatic’ soundtrack, comprised totally of Bowie covers. Here, the cold electro/synth beats of the original are replaced with warm, sprawling guitars. Detached, clinical pop becomes sexier and slightly dirtier, too, while still somehow maintaining a mild chill.
- Only Love Can Break Your Heart – St Etienne. Originally performed by Neil Young. A slightly dirge-y yet pop-py piece of fluff is reimagined via a Balearic dancefloor. The soulful crooning of Moira Lambert combines with a bassline dub, creating a totally distinct sound from the original.
- Come as You Are – Little Roy. Originally performed by Nirvana. Timings are totally skewed on this one. With a recording career spanning from the late sixties to the present, Little Roy is a Jamaican reggae artist. He’s just released an album of Nirvana covers, including this. Gone completely is the grunge core of the original, replaced with smooth, sliding funk and splurging sax. A must hear.
- Rock El Casbah – Rachid Taha. Originally performed by The Clash. Algerian singer Taha grabs this classic with both hands, rolling his ‘r’s’ and generally giving the listener a thoroughly enjoyable aural experience.
- White Wedding/Rebel Yell medley – The New Morty Show. Originally performed by Billy Idol. A perfect example of turning the original completely on its head, to great success. The New Morty Show lobotomise the punk out, condensing the two songs and piping them full of big band enthusiasm and swinging beats, with the occasional delve into a samba. Like Benny Goodman woke up in 1977.
- Jealous Guy – Roxy Music. Originally performed by John Lennon. Controversial, this one. With a total of 92 cover versions recorded, the simple elegance of the song and the disconcerting honesty of the lyrics have been tackled by everyone from Elliott Smith to Belinda Carlisle. I don’t know how to defend myself on this one. Perhaps Lennon’s is just a little too painful to hear.
- La Vie en Rose – Grace Jones. Originally performed by Edith Piaf. Long gone are Edith’s pining, dreamy vocals. Here instead are the pulsing disco beats. Grace’s stylised, throaty tones don’t kick in for almost two minutes. Ever the diva, she just loves to keep you waiting, patiently anticipating. See also the faintly terrifying ‘Demolition Man’.
- Can’t Get used to Losing You – The Beat/The English Beat. Originally performed by Andy Williams. Williams’ original was a perfect slice of 1960s easy listening Americana, complete with swooning, cooing female backing singers and plucking strings. 20 years later, in 1983, The Beat pulled in sax, ska and reggae to transform the track.
- Oops I did it again – Richard Thompson. Originally performed by Britney Spears. What could be more contrasting than a blonde pop princess in a school uniform, and Mr Thompson, bearded, folky, and full of irony. The thrusting, pouting and moaning from Britney gives way to a cool, considered and also oddly passive-aggressive version.
- Don’t Leave Me This Way – Communards. Originally performed by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. What can I add? Everyone knows this. Pure disco camp: soaring vocals and wailing with despair, just listen and join in the chorus.
- Working Class Hero – Marianne Faithfull. Originally performed by John Lennon. The year was 1979. At the beginning of the decade, the sweet-faced Faithfull had parted ways from Mick Jagger. Homeless, addicted to heroin and anorexic, the intervening years were to alter Faithfull’s voice forever. The album from which this is taken, ‘Broken English’, revealed the damage – cracked and exhausted sounding, Faithfull herself sounded broken. Putting the full force of that voice behind a song like this added a whole new dimension.
- Smells like teen spirit – Tori Amos. Originally performed by Nirvana. Brooding, moody, vaguely menacing at times. Sweeping pianos make it a ballad, Amos’s voice makes it haunting.
- Putting on the Ritz – Taco. Originally written by Irving Berlin. What’s my most common complaint in life? That there just aren’t enough Indonesian/Dutch/German performers covering 30s standards. Thank God for Taco, then. Strange and sibilant, just wait till his breathy incitements to ‘move to the rhythm’ before the honky tonk piano kicks in. You’ll feel like you need a cold shower.
- Ring of Fire – Grace Jones. Originally performed by Johnny Cash. Simply put, utterly bizarre, and a tiny bit demonic. It sounds like our Gracie kinda loves those flames.
- This is not a love song – Nouvelle Vague. Originally performed by Public Image Limited. The original is almost unbearably pounding, replete with sumptuously wailing yet bored 80s vocals. When you fancy a break, turn to cover lovers Nouvelle Vague. A chilled, husky experience. Just listen to how she pronounces ‘enterprise’. Saucy and brilliant.
- Please don’t stop the music – The Bird and the Bee. Originally performed by Rihanna. Much in the same vein as Nouvelle Vague, all the swagger and insistence of the original has been distorted and slowed by indie duo The Bird and the Bee. Jazzy and naked, perfect for the tail end of a party when you’ve thrown the windows open to let cold night air in, and the crowds are shuffling home.
- And an honourable mention for an original that few people know is just that – original: Tainted Love – Gloria Jones. Made famous by Soft Cell. Soft Cell made it so much their own that I’d never heard the original version until last week. It’s a full bodied tour de force that deserves more of a public airing.
So there we go! Maybe you’ll feel inspired to listen to a few covers. Or possibly even make your own?