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Cover Songs Almost As Good As the Originals (And Sometimes Better)

March 28th, 2008 - 10:02 am

The birth of rock and the rise of the singer-songwriter meant the death of the standard. Gone are the days when a songwriter would write a melody, a lyricist would add the words, and singers would interpret them. Those were great times, but can you name even one song from the last 40 years that’s become a standard? OK, maybe you can name one or two. But take away Burt Bacharach tunes and I bet you can’t name even one.

Instead, today we have cover songs. And they mostly suck. Here are a few that don’t.

“Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix (1967), covered by Sting (1987). There are few things more pointless than re-doing a song the the same way the original artist did it. “Little Wing” was, and is, one of the great blues-rock love songs of all time. (Jimi’s guitar rocks, but the lyric is just plain pretty: When I’m sad she comes to me/With a thousand smiles she gives to me free.) Sting took “Little Wing” and turned it into a alt-jazz-pop thing. His reed-thin voice could never compete with Jimi’s soulful howls, so Sting didn’t even try. Instead, he made the song his own — and I spent my freshman year at Mizzou wearing out the cassette.

“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus (1979), covered by Nouvelle Vague (2006). This song gave birth to Goth, the milestone for the white & black & purple corseted set. Clocking in at almost ten minutes, it’s dark and twisted and rough. Then along came Nouvelle Vague. If you’ve never heard of these guys, you should. NV is that most evil of creations — the cover band. But they’re too much fun to resist. “Nouvelle Vague” is Portuguese for “New Wave,” and the band hails from Brazil. Their gimmick? They take new wave and alternative tunes from the ’70s and ’80s, and re-do them bossa nova style. So instead of Bauhaus’s industrial guitars, you get something like Stan Getz on acid. Highly recommended.

“Kiss” by Prince (1986), covered by Tom Jones & The Art Of Noise (1988). The original is funk taken down to its barest essentials. The cover is totally over-the-top Tom Jones, plus those weird guys who did that 1986 cover of “The Peter Gunn Theme.” How can you not love that?

“On Broadway” by The Drifters (1963[?]), covered by George Benson (1976). This is one of those cases where the cover is actually better than the original. Maybe not coincidentally, the Benson performance is one of the best live recordings of all time. Listen to him scat. Hear his guitar. This is how composing team Leiber & Stoller must have wanted their song to be played. “On Broadway” is very close to being a modern standard.

Another rare instance of the cover being better than the original — “For Once In My Life.” A Ron Miller song, the first version I can find was recorded by Tony Bennett in 1950. Sinatra tried it out three years later, but it pretty much languished for the next 15 years. Then Stevie Wonder sang it, and “For Once In My Life” became a modern classic. The lyric is selfishly and unashamedly joyous, as is Wonder’s harmonica. Since Stevie’s version, almost everybody with a microphone has a taken a turn. Maybe this one belongs on a list of best-ever standards — but I’m putting here because I want to. Also, “FOIML” is the second-best song you can possibly cover. The best? We’ll get to that in a moment.

A special mention needs to go out to Chaka Khan. Only she could take one of Prince’s worst, most pedestrian early songs (“I Feel For You”), and turn it into a soul classic. Listen to the lousy original (1978), quietly, and then crank up Chaka’s 1984 cover.

Two special categories. The first is The Worst Song to Cover of All Time. And that goes to “Yesterday” by The Beatles. This also happens to be the most-recorded song ever written. Just stop it already.

Finally, the Best Song to Cover of All Time. There’s only one possible choice here: “Spooky” by The Classics IV (1968). The original is a classic rock staple. Then Atlanta Rhythm Section (1976) turned it into the best-ever example of ’70s southern boogie. Actress/singer Christy Baron did “Spooky” as a lounge tune in 2000. In a live KBCO performance from 2001, Joan Osborne flipped the lyric around, stripped down the sound, and “Spooky” became a lesbian folk anthem. A year later, Daniel Ash partially re-flipped the lyric, pumped up the bass, and gave us an electronica tribute to a bonkers bisexual babe and her beaten-down beau. The song has been done — and done well — by everybody from Lydia Lunch to Cal Tjader. If you’ve got a band, do yourself (and the rest of us) a favor, and do a kick-ass cover of “Spooky.”

UPDATE: How could I have left out Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” (1989)? Maybe the best phone sex song ever, I think Cash was being a little coy when he said, “I don’t know what this song was supposed to be about orginally…” He found it spiritual, instead. Both versions belong in your library.

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