Someone hears a song. They love it so much they have to record it. They hear an opportunity in the melody, the arrangement or the lyrics and voila! The song is reinvented. Recast. Reimagined.
The funny part comes when it bests the original.
One example is the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On, a tidy, two-minute Motown single turned into a blazing, late-sixties epic of romantic torment by the Vanilla Fudge in a way the songwriters probably never could have imagined.
The opposite (and more popular) approach also works; taking a “big” song and stripping it down to its essence: lyrics and melody.
The most-famous cover version might be Whole Lotta Love. Did you know the Led Zeppelin chestnut is a retitled cop of Muddy Waters’ You Need Love?
While the theremin break is all Zeppelin’s, the song that virtually defines heavy metal comes courtesy of Mr. McKinley Morganfield, born in rural Mississippi years before World War I began.
In the weeks I spent compiling these, three things became clear: 1.) There are a couple of inspired Beatles’ covers. 2.) Rod Stewart is my favorite interpreter of other people’s songs. And 3.) No one has successfully covered the Rolling Stones.
It’s hard to hear a Beatles’ cover on its own, since the originals are all but indelible. It’s like watching a remake of your favorite film. You’re constantly comparing the casting, the script and the look to the original.
But Joe Cocker and Spooky Tooth pulled it off.
To a generation of Boomers, Rod Stewart stands as the example of talent tossed away. After a quartet of albums that brilliantly melded folk, soul and buoyant rock, he dissolved into a cartoonish stereotype.
But let’s give the man his due. From the late-sixties through the mid-seventies, there wasn’t a finer interpreter of the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke or the Temptations on the planet.
Finally, I love the Rolling Stones. Few bands sound as singular. And while there are tons of Stones’ covers, none is very memorable. (Cobra Verde’s Play with Fire is probably best.)
Is this proof of their uniqueness, or the ultimate example of fan bias?
That said, here are my ten favorite covers, plus five I felt guilty about leaving off.
1. Piece of My Heart Janis Joplin
Erma Franklin (yes, that Franklin) cut the formidable original. But hearing Joplin lance the boil of her heartbreak on this 1968 edition makes the hair on my arms stand up. Nearly every female singer who has followed is in its debt.
2. Gloria The Shadows of Knight
It takes a fair bit of inspiration to make Van Morrison (who wrote and recorded the original) sound mannered and remote. But for two minutes and thirty-four seconds, this Arlington Heights, IL. garage band did exactly that.
3. House of the Rising Sun The Animals
Like Stagger Lee, this song has a long and storied past. And despite the countless alliterations, there is only one that matters. This simmers like foreplay before finally boiling over in a churchy swell of organ and Eric Burdon’s anguish. Awesome.
4. Respect Aretha Franklin
This song found its center when Franklin recorded it from a woman’s perspective. And it works on both a personal and a societal level. Despite the prodigious talents of the songwriter (Otis Redding), Aretha’s take crackles with a finger-wagging sass the original barely hinted at.
5. With a Little Help from My Friends Joe Cocker
This Beatles song was buried in the middle of Sgt. Pepper, given to Ringo to imbue with his hangdog charm. Cocker recasts it on his debut, turning a modest ode to friendship into a surging, majestic anthem of survival.
6. Nothing Compares 2 U Sinead O’Connor
For a time, Sinead O’Connor could do no wrong. Here, she takes a Prince giveaway and pours herself into the loneliness and hurt of love freshly lost. And the arrangement frames O'Connor's voice to sublime perfection.
7. (I Know) I’m Losing You Rod Stewart
This jewel comes from the Every Picture Tells a Story album, and is a shining example of how Motown can rock. A critic once wrote that Mickey Waller's drumming deserved the Nobel Prize in Physics. He wasn't lying.
8. What Was It You Wanted Willie Nelson
This Dylan tune from 1989’s Oh Mercy is given a haunting, minor key treatment that emphasizes its searching, unsettled lyric. Fred Tackett’s picking on the outro is just a bonus.
9. You Really Got a Hold on Me The Beatles
Among their many talents, the Beatles were pretty fair cover artists. John Lennon takes this 1962 Miracles’ hit and gives it a soulful reading that obliterates the original. Which is something not many people did to Smokey Robinson.
10. Girl from the North Country Secret Machines
This song always seemed more barren and windswept than Dylan presented it on John Wesley Harding. Secret Machines obviously felt the same, issuing this stark, synth-based rendition on their The Road Leads Where It’s Led EP.
Urge for Going -Tom Rush
He Was Really Saying Somethin’ -Bananarama
(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding -Elvis Costello
Baby It’s You -Smith
Superstar -Sonic Youth