10 Covers

June 3, 2008 | 5 Comments

A good cover version can bring out the best bits in an already great song and, as with One by Johnny Cash, can polish them like diamonds. Or it can make you rediscover a lost classic as happened for me with the Ataris’ version of Boys of Summer. Some covers are so unique that they verge away from mimicry and morph into original versions themselves — prime example I’m Not Like Everybody Else by Jimmy and the Boys, but seek out Rock On by The Smashing Pumpkins for extra weirdness. A bit of novelty always helps I find; bands covering music that is so far removed from their normal repertoire makes for smashing contrasts — step forward Rammstein with their version of Kraftwerk’s Das Modell. But I guess above all, for a cover to be any good the artist should make it his own.

This is an entirely subjective list based only on what’s in my music collection. I’m aware that The Wedding Present covered Steve Harley’s Come Up and See Me and that, according to my mate Steve, it is blinding . . . sadly though I just don’t have the track. Honourable mentions must go to Nazareth’s This Flight Tonight, Morrisey’s That’s Entertainment, The Lemonheads with Mrs Robinson, The Wondermints’ Knowing Me Knowing You and that karaoke classic Live and Let Die by Guns N’ Roses. Also some of you may chastise me for not including Sheryl Crow’s version of Sweet Child O’ Mine . . . I would suggest in this case you seek medical help.

1. One, Johnny Cash


This is that rare thing: a cover which so superior to the original that it totally eclipses it. I don’t know many who’ve heard Cash’s version of this U2 classic who would consider going back to the big sound of the ‘Other Dubliners’. Stripped down to its bare bones, Cash digs out this great song from U2’s operatics uncovering it for the aching lament it longs to be. With his grumbling accoustic guitar and the Man in Black’s great voice — given extra gravel and gravitas by his proximity to the next life, a fact which I think he was only too aware of — this is a masterclass.

2. I’m Not Like Everybody Else, Jimmy and the Boys

As with many covers, you hear the copy before the original. I’d been enjoying this piece of arcane Aussie rock n’ roll for some months before I realised it was a cover. I sought out the original and was stunned, the Kink’s B-side is a good ol’ tale of defiance told with the band’s usual jangly strong melodies. Australian 70s punk band Jimmy and Boys however, turn this bouncing baby into a freakish monster. Menacing is the best way to describe it and it’s all down to the singer’s warped voice. Whereas Ray Davies sang with slight tweeness about giving two fingers to conformity you get the impression that Ignatious Jones (see pic) isn’t just about not conforming — he’s gonna smash up every system of belief we hold dear and deliver the world to some post-nuclear hellhole. The surprise here is that musically you get a very listenable rock n’ roll number with tinkling piano and jazzy overtones . . . and check out the sax solo too, awesome.


One thing to note, Jimmy and the Boys are possibly the hardest band I’ve ever found to Google. There seems to be little information available on them. I’ve been to Oz many times and have sought in vain for any albums in the second hand record shops. I did find out however, that lead singer Ignatius Jones is now a well-respected artistic director. I suppose if your stage act 30 years ago consisted of extra close contact with a kitchen-sink plunger then you may well have good reasons for wanting to forget your time in a band renowned for “violent” and “disgusting” stage acts. If you want this track then seek out the novelty compilation album by Aussie-criminal-turned-celeb Mike Chopper Read: ‘Chopper. Every Day Above Ground is a Good Day’.

3. Hurt, Johnny Cash

If this list included the power of video then surely Hurt would take the number #1 spot. Cash’s hunched figure and cleated face echoing his own battle against life’s demons match Trent Reznor’s lyrics perfectly. As it is, the audio is power enough. The effort Cash is putting into this song is tangible — every muscle and sinew seems to strain as if he just had to create one last time before his spent body gave up and spewed out 71 years of accumulated toxins in one almighty purification process. And when you think about it, that’s one of this song’s main themes.

4. Das Modell, Rammstein

Heavy duty ear-shredding rock applied to dainty electronica has been done a few times but rarely with so much panache. In Germany Duesseldorf has a reputation for arrogance and high-falutin ways (could there be a more high-falutin band than Kraftwerk?) while Berlin seems to revel in its monicker of Germany’s building site. All nicely mirrored here as the Berliners dump one helluva load of grimy metal all over their Westphalian cousins then seem to march off into the distance wiping dirt on their shirts . . . job done.

5. Boys of Summer, The Ataris

A straightforward rock version of a rock song. This is an example of a cover that never strays too far from the path but remains powerful nevertheless. The sparkling guitars that open the track and heavy drumming seem to give this Don Henley classic a nitro-boost. If I were a DJ at a club and someone asked me for Boys of Summer I’d play ’em this and watch the floor fill up. Check out also the wonderful solo and subtle lyric alteration at 2:58: “I saw a Black Flag sticker on a cadillac”. A cheeky change which dates the original but tells you everything you need to know about what the song means to the Indiana punkers.

6. Daydream Believer, Shonen Knife

If you like hearing hopelessly catchy Monkees songs covered by 2 Japanese girls with heavy accents then this is your stop. Bear with me — it’s not as weird as it sounds. The Osaka punkettes turn up the fuzz and holler out a fine piece of kitsch. Yes it’s a novelty but that’s no reason to dislike this fun bundle. This is 2:52 mins of joy which manages to make the original even more of a bubblegum pop classic than it so already was. I reckon the original band members would love this.

7. Desperado, The Langley Schools Music Project

You’re either going to love this or hate it. Nothing splits opinion more than this bunch of Canadian kids who, coaxed into a gymnasium back in the 70s, belted out choral versions of popular classics of the time. Rediscovered a few years ago their music was a minor hit. If I recall correctly, even Bowie sang their praises. This track happens to feature a soloist: I’d say she’s about 12 or 13-years-old and the imperfections and missed notes add to the undoubted charm of a young girl singing this very adult plaintive lament. A moving version of an already moving song.

8. Hounds of Love, The Futureheads

Top marks to this British inde band for originality here. The chanted opening is particularly striking; you’re either gonna flick the sound off or listen intently to see where they go with it. I remember the first time I heard it. I just couldn’t make out what was happening — but stick with it . . . when the chords crash in it’s resolved nicely and the rest of the ride manages to turn what to me was always a sedate lullaby into a fists-in-the-air sing-a-long festival classic. Top prize for best use of a Sunderland accent in a Kate Bush song must also be awarded.


9. Björk, Ruby Ruby

A tough call this one. Donald Fagen’s cover of this song is pretty cool too. In fact this song has been covered a zillion times and although Wiki claims it was first done by The Drifters I reckon it’s the Dion version everyone is referring to. For once Bjork’s annoying vocal ticks seem to fit and the jazz-influenced swing-style is a nice alternative take.

10. Diamonds and Rust, Judas Priest

As usual with Judas Priest they sound so much better live than in the studio. I first heard this on the Unleashed in the East album where the stage setting lets the twin guitarists really grind out the killer opening. Halford’s voice suits the tone of the song perfectly. Mrs Baez can be pleased with the respect shown.


5 Comments so far

  1. Sharkers on June 4, 2008 1:22 pm

    Covers, unlike their original’s, are horribly subjective. Unlike the original you have something to compare it too and hence
    they are the cause of countless arguments down the pubs. No other type of song can evoke such disdain when it is bad or such

    glee when you find someone else likes it as much as you do.

    My top ten covers in no particular order are below. To balance the scale, my opinion of the cover then never should have been

    made goes to Scissor Sisters’ version of ‘Comfortable Numb’.

    1. I Will Survive – Cake

    Let’s face, there’s no point doing a cover if you are just going to sound like the original. From the opening chords, that
    have their trademark slightly distorted strumming – like he is playing a guitar he picked up at a car boot sale – to John
    McCrea’s laconic voice, you know you are in for something different. It couldn’t sound futher from Gloria Gaynor’s classic
    student sing-along turned Gay anthem. It breaks all the rules yet somehow it all just works and sounds brilliant.

    2. Every Day is Just Like Sunday – Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs)

    Whether this was done with 10,000 Maniacs or on her own, I’m not sure. Natalie’s angelic voice perfectly juxtaposes the
    depressing imagery of the a bleak Northern town that Morrissey portrays. Whereas Morrissey’s gift was his first-generation

    ironic Irish humor in the face of any adversary, Natalie’s is her voice which injects hope into this bleak seaside town.

    Maybe it’s not so grim ‘up North after all.

    3. Wild Horses – The Sundays

    I really like the way Mick Jagger and Keith Richards writes songs, but I’m not a huge fan of his voice. The Sundays covered
    it in their amicable style and it became one of those songs that I have always liked but never knew. Since listening to the

    cover I have actually started to appreciate the original more, great praise indeed for a cover.

    4. Mrs Robinson – The Lemonheads

    I would consider Paul Simon to be one of the best singer/songwriters around, and during his Simon/Garfunkel years he did
    turned out a plethora of great songs. Mrs Robinson is good, but he’s done much better. Which is why it was so great to see

    the Lemonheads take it, rock it up and produce a truly great song that was always on the play list at my student union.

    5. Love Spite Love

    Another Smith’s Cover. Morrissey’s lyrics always speak to me, sometimes in whispers, sometimes in shouts. No one can ever
    equal Morrissey, so his covers are more a ‘Thank You..I know that everyone must feel the way I feel sometimes, but it’s

    always good to hear it firsthand’. It doesn’t deviate much from the original but why I like it, is that Richard Butler’s

    unique voice (of the disbanded Psychedelic Furs) fits it perfectly and the tempo has been increased slightly. All this makes

    it more accessible to an audience who would otherwise run a mile from a Smiths track.

    6. Won’t Back Down – Jonny Cash

    I learned this from my guitar teacher. Being a big Tom Petty fan I just enjoyed hearing his song sung in a completely

    differnt laid back southern style that is Jonnny Cash.

    7. Boys of Summer – The Ataris

    I think Paul said it all, great cover, would be top of my list at any Bar-b.

    8. Sweet Child of Mine – Sheryl Crow

    What can I say, I like Sheryl Crow covers, both this a Cat Steven’s ‘First cut is the Deepest’. It just goes to prove how
    controversial covers are. Why I like it..Well, a few reasons. Firstly, the original was the first single from Appetite.. so

    had so much air-time I went off it, it is also no where near the best song on the album, not when you have the likes of Night

    Train, Mr Brownstone, My Michelle..Oh the whole album is brilliant, but this is the most accessible, hence why it was a

    single and not my favorite. OK, that’s about the original, when it comes to the cover I like the guitar strum, it’s nice and

    simple and quite catchy and a nice song to play on a summer’s day when you are drinking on the lawn.

    9. True Colors – Eva Cassidy

    Cyndi Lauper is an underrated artist, unjustly called a 2 hit wonder (the other being Time after Time). In reality her only
    mistake was being born in the mid 50’s, which unfortunately meant she started getting good in the early 80’s. This
    molded her style as a mix of Madonna and a Goth. I have always felt that her songs would have suited a simple acoustic
    arrangement more and Eva Cassidy’s cover confirms it. Sung in this style, with Eva’s amazing voice, makes me want to believe

    in human nature again. Eva’s rendition makes this song, but lets not forget it was Cyndi who wrote it.

    10. Come Up and See Me – Wedding Present

    My good mate Tony introduced me to this cover. It’s almost impossible to get hold of and he only has it on 12inch vinyl.
    Great cover that is full of energy, it fact it was our ‘going out’ song for years, the song you ‘leave the house to’ on a
    Saturday night and it sets the mood for the whole night. If I ever find it on mp3 I will put it on loop so my neighbors can

    enjoy it while I am out.

  2. pcoletti on June 5, 2008 1:40 am

    Wild Horses by The Sundays . . I like the sound of that. Gram Parsons did a great cover of this song too . . in fact, I barely know the original not being a major Stones fan.

    Had no idea Cash covered Petty . . .great tip.

    I like how you included Sheryl Crow just to annoy me . . . ha ha

  3. Barnaby Smith on June 11, 2008 9:51 am

    This debate must be prefaced by a couple of rules. Firstly, cover versions must be recorded versions of songs. That is, laid down in the studio, taken seriously, thought out. That rules out whenever a band bowls back on to the stage for an encore to stagger through some ballady dirge that ‘meant a lot to me as a young man’. Secondly, covers must be of songs written/recorded in the 20th century. The reasoning behind this proviso is that on the folk scene, for example, artists today still make a living from playing and reinterpreting songs that are hundreds of years old. We’d be here all night, and with a fairly one-dimensional list, if we allowed this. That said, my winner has pretty a damn long stretch between original and cover…

    The White Stripes – ‘Death Letter’
    Son House’s most famous, show-stealing composition was also covered by The Grateful Dead and John Mellencamp, but neither come close to the satanic orgasm Jack White wreaks with his version of the song, that House wrote in the 30s. With his slide, White makes bastardly difficult blues seem effortless and like House, made the song a centrepiece of the White Stripes’s live show. His own songwriting is flawless, yet in this cover White encapsulates everything that makes him unique: the prickly vocals, the technical ability and punk distortion. And Meg’s terrible drumming is mighty fine too.


    Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris – ‘Love Hurts’
    When Gram Parsons teamed up with Harris to tour in the early 70s, followed by his albums GP and Grievous Angel, his design was to mimic his heroes Tammy Wynette and George Jones. In Harris he found not only the perfect angelic voice to complement his increasingly cracked vocals, but a sober influence for him generally. Sadly it didn’t do him much good…. Anyway, this version of Boudleaux Bryant’s fairly innocuous song first recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960, defines the beautiful pain that was the result of Parsons and Harris singing together. Also covered by Cher. Ignore that one.


    Rufus Wainwright – ‘One Man Guy’
    Loudon Wainwright’s ode to misanthropic solitude took on an altogether different complexion when his flamboyantly homosexual son gave the song a makeover on his 2001 album Poses. With a much stronger voice than dad, Rufus invested most bile in the line ‘Yeah its sort of lonely / Yeah its kind of sick’ in a very deliberate statement, aimed at the song’s composer and his early attitude to the whole Rufus-being-gay thing. Other Rufus covers include a reasonable go at ‘Across The Universe’ and, bizarrely, Rod Stewart’s ‘Instant Pleasure’, but this remains his most satisfying moment with another’s material.


    Elliott Smith – ‘Trouble’
    Elliott Smith, to his endless credit, made a point of not including cover versions on any of his studio albums. However, on stage and on b-sides, film soundtracks and the like, he would go nuts. Beatles covers were his favourite, but this obscure renewal of a song Cat Stevens won’t be remembered for, is a revelation. Smith brings his plaintive, vocal-centric tragedy to an existing pretty tune, and coaxes out of it all the manic despair of his early albums.


    The Band – ‘I Shall Be Released’
    The spectre of Bob Dylan hands heavy over this discussion, what with his early homages to Woody Guthrie as well as his own songs made into 60s hits by the likes of The Byrds and Manfred Mann, among others. But Robbie Robertson’s Canadian crew, once Dylan’s backing band of course, hit the nail on the head when they laid this down for Music From Big Pink. Added instrumentation and typically soulful production fleshed Dylan’s natural austerity into a quite stunningly sad paean to freedom. Also good is George Harrison’s version of ‘If Not For You’.


    Jeff Buckley – ‘Hallelujah’
    Somewhere in the Amazon, or perhaps in some nomadic community in the Sahara, there lives a human being who has not covered this song. The reason for such an unrelenting barrage of versions is the fact that anyone with half an ear can hear that Leonard Cohen came up with a quite extraordinary marriage of words and melody, yet was blighted by Cohen’s 80s production standards, which frankly, sucked. Buckley’s version remains the seminal one, from which others (Kathryn Williams, Rufus Wainwright, John Cale, hundreds more) have taken their cue. One of three cover versions on Grace, his reconstruction of the song to fit his own vocal depth defined his talents to many.


    This Mortal Coil – ‘Song To The Siren’
    Speaking of Buckleys, here is one of Tim’s. Many people will have you think that This Mortal Coil’s version of his 1968 classic improves upon the original. They are wrong. What the song does do, however, is offer an example of a 60s song being recorded with all the hellish production and engineering of the 80s, and coming out the other side unscathed. On its own this song was very nice, but when played over THAT scene in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, it becomes a cover version worthy of this list.


    Vetiver – ‘Hurry On Sundown’
    Ok so hardly a legendary cover, and its only just been released on Vetiver’s Thing of the Past album, but they have taken arguably the only acceptable song of Hawkwind’s and given it their acoustic folk-rock stomp treatment. Harmonicas, beards, summery optimism, nothing more to see here.

    No clip

    Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – ‘Woodstock’
    Joni Mitchell was watching Woodstock on television in a hotel room with David Geffen when she felt moved to write this song. CSNY’s version pips the Matthew’s Southern Comfort effort if just because if offered the familiar sound of a Stephen Still-Neil Young guitar duel. The other thing about it is that Mitchell’s original is mournful, a elegy to the doomed ideals of that generation, yet in their relative lack of political insight, CSNY managed to inject an urgent optimism into it. And that is kind of nice.


    The Beach Boys – ‘I Was Made To Love Her’
    You won’t find anyone willing to forsake the Stevie Wonder original, but when The Beach Boys stuck this on their 1968 Wild Honey album they found a speck of gold amid the growing amount of ego and money oriented poo surrounding the Wilson brothers. This version is a bit slower, and stripped of the Motown-y nuances of the original, and like the rest of The Beach Boys’ stuff in this period benefits from the fact that everything could easily fall apart any second.

    No clip

    A quick word on the worst. Ryan Adams’s cover of ‘Wonderwall’ was horrible, why he felt the need to do that is a mystery. But thankfully he made up for it with his recent version of Alice In Chains’ ‘Down In A Hole’, so that’s ok then. Also not too keen on Nina Simone and what she inflicted upon ‘Here Comes The Sun’.

  4. Jonny E on June 20, 2008 9:30 am

    Looks like my original comment didn’t show up – how disappointing. Anyway from memory (and without the youtube links this time) and in no particular order…
    Kirsty MacColl – Days
    Urge Overkill – Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon (awesome in Pulp Fiction)
    Kurt Cobain/Nirvana – The Man Who Fell To Earth (I think this was done on an MTV Unplugged Session)
    Pet Shop Boys – Girls & Boys (read an interview with Damon Albarn where he said it sounded so good it was like Blur actually covered the Pet Shop Boys with this song)
    Almost anything from Mark Ronson – Version, but I went with three stand-outs for me anyway:
    Oh My God
    Stop Me (more Smiths goodness with it tapering off into You Keep Me Hanging On, I think)
    Sleeper – Atomic (on the Trainspotting soundtrack)

    A few quirky ones to finish:
    Oasis – Heroes (turns an earnest Bowie song into a glorious Brit-Pop song)
    Mike Flowers Pops – Wonderwall (turns an Oasis anthem into something rather silly… do you see what I’ve done there?)
    Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit (grunge anthem as lounge ballad?)

    Not strictly a cover but:
    Fat Boy Slim – Brimful of Asha (such an improvement on the original…)

  5. pcoletti on June 20, 2008 9:59 am

    Urge Overkill . . . that is a good, good choice. I actually have the album with that song on it on vinyl . . it’s a blood red-coloured disc which looks amazing. Can’t recall the album name but there’s some great tracks on it. I also recall seeing them perform it live on some UK terrestrial show (maybe TOTP2) some years ago. Whatever happened to them?

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