Musical Explorations: A Dozen Covers Better Than The Originals

Mark Wieder, bassist (Seething Brunswicks and many others), charter member Musical Explorers
(June 2016)
The point of covering someone else's tune is to do something different with it. I mean, if you're gonna cover it like the original then why bother, right? You're either gonna end up with "it's not as good as the original" or "why bother, let's just go with the original version".

A shift occurred in popular music with the record-buying public when Elvis Presley hit the scene. Previously folks would go to a record store and say "I want " and buy a copy of that song by whoever the store had in stock. Didn't matter as much who was performing, the emphasis was on the music. Singers and groups got to be well known, but still the emphasis on the record-buying public was music-based. You just didn't go into a record store and ask "what's new from ?", you had a tune in your head and you might ask "what else is like that?"

That changed with Elvis. Now folks started coming into record stores saying "I want *by Elvis Presley*". It was no longer enough to have Jailhouse Rock covered by , you had to have the Real Thing. And that started a shift in buying dynamics, which translated to a shift in marketing dynamics ("Elvis!" was now the selling point, not "Love Me Tender"). Record companies started advertising, and record stores started selling, based on personalities.

Another shift occurred with the melding of the creators of the music and the performers. Traditionally these two roles were separate, e.g. the Gershwin brothers wrote lots of tunes that were performed by other people. The creators typically sold the rights to the music and made a living that way, the performers would record the music the writers wrote, and get paid per session. Royalties were rarely assigned to either composers or performers, but the two roles were quite distinct.

But over time, and only slightly later than the shift from tune to personality, performers started creating their own music and the singer-songwriter genre gradually became the dominant paradigm in popular music. Bob Dylan may be one of the most visible aspects of this dynamic: when Blowin in the Wind hit the charts by Peter, Paul and Mary, the distinction between their smooth harmonies and easy-on-the-ears vocal style and Dylan's grating solo recording caused controversy. Sort of the difference between a comfortable chair and a rough wood park bench. And the difference was the focus on content over deliverability. This helped pave the way for artists who stepped outside the normal limits of acceptability.

The Sinatras were also very prominent in the sea change. Frank Sinatra made his name as a singer of other people's songs. His unique phrasing made for an instantly recognizable style, and still the music was the driver in the marketplace. Into the sixties, though, songs started becoming associated with particular singers (hard to imagine anyone else doing Strangers In The Night), and when his daughter Nancy came on the scene with The Boots Are Made For Walking, it was impossible to separate the singer from the song.

And then there are also other reasons for covering a tune. Duke Ellington kept reworking his compositions even after they were already recorded, because he wrote pieces specifically for his band to play, and as band members changed he would restructure things to have a different feel for different players. Or he'd want to try a different mood for a tune the band was already playing, just to experiment with it and see what it sounded like. Constant reinvention was one of the hallmarks of Duke's band.

This subjective list, for the most part, stays within the singer-songwriter realm, and is focused on complete rethinking of a song's style and impact. And in no way disrespects the original versions of the songs here. But if you're gonna remake something, you want to do it in a big way, you want to own the material, to do all you can to make your version come to mind when someone thinks of the song, and these do.

1.Mott The Hoople - At The Crossroads

Mott The Hoople - At The Crossroadson YouTube

Original by the Sir Douglas Quintet on YouTube (YouTube disabled embedding for this song)

Look, I love the original (take a listen if you don't already know it), and I've never been that much of a Mott the Hoople fan, but they throw some energy into this cover (1969) that makes it their own. If I didn't know better, I'd swear they wrote this themselves. This is Mott the Hoople, one of the quintessential proto-metal glam bands (Mick Ronson, their lead guitarist, left Mott to join David Bowie's band) playing a country song, of all things, and they rock it to pieces while staying true to the original feeling.

2. Jimi Hendrix - All Along The Watchtower

Jimi Hendrix - All Along The Watchtower on YouTube

Honorable Mention: Barbara Keith on YouTube

(The original by Bob Dylan is not available on YouTube in the USA)

Granted, I've never really understood what this song was about. If anything. But that goes for a lot of Dylan songs for me, especially post Nashville Skyline - can't figure out why he bothered writing/recording them. And Jimi Hendrix covered other Dylan tunes before, but his Like a Rolling Stone cover doesn't really do anything for me in terms of doing something new.

And Jimi Hendrix has a completely different take on this tune. I still don't know what it's about, but it no longer matters - now it's a vehicle for Jimi's voice and guitar and that's all that matters any more.

I'd give Barbara Keith's version higher marks, because she takes a bit of a different direction, but it fades at the end in a way that makes me think that things fell apart in the studio recording and they faded it to sweep the errors under the rug.

3. Dixie Chicks - Landslide

Dixie Chicks - Landslide on YouTube

Original by Fleetwood Mac on YouTube

Not gonna mention Stevie Nicks here. The vocal harmonies and the instrumental breaks are what make this cover for me. Gorgeous remake. Plus Natalie Maines sings this with an intensity and authenticity that is convincing. It really makes me believe that she has internalized this song, while I've always thought that Fleetwood Mac just treated this a another pretty tune to take to the bank.

4. Talking Heads - Take Me To The River

Talking Heads - Take Me To The River on YouTube from the Stop Making Sense movie

Talking Heads - Take Me To The River, Live in Rome 1980

Original - Al Green on YouTube

This one's a tough call. Normally I'm in the "Al Green can do no wrong" camp, and I particularly remember him holding the crowd in the palm of his hand at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival some years ago, but check out the Talking Heads remaking this tune in the "Stop Making Sense" movie. If you can keep your body still while this is going on around you, there's something seriously wrong with you. Or check out Adrien Belew's guitar work in the stunning live footage from the 1980 Rome tour.

5.Otis Redding - Try a Little Tenderness

Otis Redding - Try a Little Tenderness on YouTube

Original - Bing Crosby on YouTube

So the way I heard this story, Otis Redding didn't want to record this song. Otis revered Sam Cooke, and didn't think he could do justice to the tune that Sam Cooke had covered so nicely. But the Stax folks insisted that he try it, and so he tried to mess up the recording by throwing in some Na-na-nas in the break. Otis couldn't mess anything up, even when he was trying his hardest. As to how Sam Cooke came around to the tune after thirty years, I don't have a clue.

6.Cassandra Wilson - Last Train To Clarksville

Cassandra Wilson - Last Train To Clarksville on YouTube

Original - The Monkees on YouTube

I could have picked any of a dozen tunes that Wilson has covered. I picked this one because, well, covering The Monkees just seemed to come out of the blue. Did not see this coming. And somehow she manages to evoke a dark breathy sensuality out of a throwaway Boyce and Hart pop tune.

7. Amy Winehouse - Valerie

Amy Winehouse - Valerie on YouTube

Original - Zutons on YouTube

Face it - if Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse hadn't gotten hold of this tune it would have faded into obscurity as Yet Another Catchy Tune from a yawnable one-hit wonder.. But anything Mark Ronson touches turns to gold, so there you go.

8. Cowboy Junkies - Sweet Jane

Cowboy Junkies - Sweet Jane on YouTube

Original - Velvet Underground on YouTube

Yeah, I know... the Velvet Underground are gods, don't rock the boat, and Lou Reed himself even covered the tune when he was in one of his pissed-off moods after Berlin tanked, but wow! Here's how to remake a tune and own it. Margo Timmons has a way of wrapping herself around a tune, and after hearing her inimitable phrasing I have trouble hearing anyone else covering this one.

9. Linda Ronstadt - I'll Be Your Baby Tonight

Linda Ronstadt - I'll Be Your Baby Tonight on YouTube

Original - Bob Dylan on YouTube

Kicks the vibe down a notch, kicks the sex up a notch, and the lyrics come to life. It's torchy in almost a Julie London bedroomy sort of way.

10. UB40 - Red, Red Wine

UB40 - Red, Red Wine on YouTube

Original - Neil Diamond on YouTube

Reimagining the original hit twenty years later through a Jamaican lens. Don't know who had the great idea to try this, but it's a perfect fit, right down to the breakdown. Apparently UB40 hadn't even heard Neil Diamond's original version, but only the cover by Tony Tribe. Note: the Neil Diamond version linked here is the original single version, before the record company added a choir without Diamond's permission.

11. Righteous Brothers - Unchained Melody

Righteous Brothers - Unchained Melody on YouTube

Original - Al Hibbler on YouTube

Putting some punch into a sweet song. Sure, this was slightly before the singer-songwriter era, but even so it took some imagination to take a minor hit from ten years before and crank it up to the best thing the Righteous Brothers ever did. Bobby Hatfield makes hitting those incredible high notes effortless.

12. Credence Clearwater Revival - Suzy Q

Credence Clearwater Revival - Suzy Q on YouTube

Original - Dale Hawkins on YouTube

Talk about guitar hooks! [Editors note: That's a very young James Burton playing lead guitar on the Dale Hawkins recording] Not exactly reimagined, but intensified up the wazoo. By this time, songs on albums were no longer limited to the three-minute playing time of 45s, so CCR had room to stretch out. And they took good advantage of that in the studio, laying down licks that would have damned a short pop tune recording. The mixed-down single edit of CCR's version still comes in at four and a half minutes, but luckily vinyl technology had advanced to the state where that was still within reason.

Extra credit (because it's not strictly in the pop category): Herbie Hancock - Watermelon Man

Herbie Hancock - Watermelon Man on YouTube

Original - Mongo Santamaria on YouTube

Yes, I know Herbie Hancock also recorded this earlier on his first album as leader, but he revisited the tune in 1973 with his newly-formed Headhunters group, and the result is six and a half minutes of funk, layering in the sounds before ever getting to the tune itself. The original ostinato is backpedalled behind the synth and horn punctuations, and the tune is recognizable yet still a new creation. [Editors note: The Mongo Santamaria version is considered to be one of the first Boogaloo (Latin-Soul-Jazz) songs.]

Extra credit bonus points:

Rolf Harris - Stairway to Heaven on YouTube

Original - Led Zeppelin on YouTube

What can I say? The pride of Bassendean, wobble-board, trembler and all. This was originally done for an eclectic Australian collection of down-under groups covering the tune, called Stairways To Heaven. And who could be more Aussie than Rolf Harris, sport?

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