Cover me, I’m going in
A couple weeks ago here at The Typescript we had a bit of contentious debate over the definitive version of “Sweet Jane” (Matthew is going to editorialize here. I will merely say that he’s entitled to his opinion, regardless of how incorrect it may be. [Eds. note: Karl is so delusional in his thinking, he needs to be sent for re-education]). That got me thinking, as I often do, about covers.
I think my obsession with cover songs started when I first heard the actual Tommy James and the Shondells recording of “Crimson and Clover.” I was a kid, MTV was the new rage, and Joan Jett’s version was in relatively heavy rotation. But I was also blessed with my dad’s record collection, which spanned everything from Cheap Thrills to Screaming for Vengeance. Listening to the chiming, psychedelic Shondells it struck me just how much better the Blackhearts did it. Like, ridiculously better, even though it’s done pretty straight. A few years later I was treated to how much worse Tiffany made “I Think We’re Alone Now” (oh god, the horror…). That dichotomy of make it amazing / make it suck engendered a fascination with what an artist does with material that isn’t theirs, how recycling music changes it, how a new recording can bring something to a generation that would have missed it. I would have found Tommy James on my own, given the resources and inclinations I had. But Tiffany – in all her soul-destroying existential terror – brought my whole generation to him, even if for just a spin or two.
So what, then, makes a truly great or truly bad cover? That’s a delicate thing, and it splits a lot of hairs. For example, let’s look at two versions of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”. Faith No More tucked a cover towards the back of The Real Thing. It’s a good performance, technically fantastic, well engineered and mixed. But it’s exactly the Sabbath version – exactly – just with Mike Patton singing and a better drum mix (Mike Bordin went on to drum for Ozzy for a reason). It’s… meh? Cake did their version maybe ten years later. “War Pigs,” note for note, all the intensity and energy of it, but it’s a Cake song. It’s brilliant because it has the form of the original but with all the angles that make (made, let’s be real) Cake a great band. But a single misstep – tweaking it just too far – and it would have been a Tiffany-level mess. Listen to both:
Is either one of those bad? No. But only one of them is good, though not for lack of trying. And that’s the crux; a lot of bands do really terrible covers while trying very hard not to. A lot of bands make truly perfect covers as toss offs, despite having godawful catalogs. And a lot of those shitty covers have a … je ne sai quoi to them. Like the contestants in the world’s ugliest dog contest.
But I could go on forever. Here’s a selection of covers that I’ve found memorable, good, bad, and just…. strange.
These are good covers, the ones that make it onto my playlists on the regular.
The Bangles – ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ (original by Simon & Garfunkel)
#2 cover song of all time. This version simply blows the doors off of Simon & Garfunkel. Vicki Peterson rips the riff into the stratosphere, the shimmery spacey bridge, that fucking cowbell. This is what you’re blasting at 2AM when you’re coked-out drag racing on Sunset Strip. Art Garfunkel couldn’t hope to be this cool if he were actually the fire-guitar guy from Fury Road.
Placebo – Running Up That Hill (original by Kate Bush)
Don’t get me wrong, I love, LOVE Kate Bush, but Placebo stretch this song so thin, so fragile, and so paranoid that it seeps into you like that horrible feeling when you wake up and start to realize you have no idea where you are. The tautness of Brian Molko’s voice is delicious.
Alkaline Trio – Metro (original by Berlin)
OK, I’ll get some shit for this one. But seriously, as good as Berlin were Terri Nunn’s schtick in the early, super-New Wave days was classic 80s detachment. This version puts meat on its bones and you can hear that Matt Skiba actually means it. Alkaline just rock this thing the fuck out.
The Donnas – Safety Dance, Strutter, Living After Midnight, Keep On Loving You, probably a fuckton more they did live somewhere (originals by Men Without Hats, KISS, Judas Priest, REO Speedwagon, whoever the fuck else they covered)
The Donnas were the greatest cover band of the millennium era, maybe all time. Alison Roberts distilled every ounce of cock-rock guitar swagger that once lived in Ace, Keef, Joe Perry, and Lita Ford into a 5’3” Les Paul-wielding juggernaut. If you seriously think any of these songs are better in the original I’m just never going to talk to you. They also did a good cover of “Dancing With Myself”, but I ain’t fucking with Steve Stevens.
Dubious Ranger – True Faith (original by New Order)
You can tell a great song by how it handles being stripped down. By that metric, this version proves that “True Faith” is one of the greatest songs ever written.
(I also couldn’t find it streaming anywhere; Dubious Ranger broke up quite a while ago now and they’re just about internet ephemera at this point – like, the company that had acquired their catalog went out of business. I tried to email the main member’s new act, King Baldwin, and immediately got back a hacked account spam email. The EP this track was on they gave away for free, which is how I have it, so hopefully they’re cool with my sharing. So, if you happen to be Alexander Eccles and don’t want this here please let us know.)
Reel Big Fish – Kiss Me Deadly (original by Lita Ford)
The ska cover is its own genre, and this is the ska cover to rule them all. Huge, absurd, laughing at itself the whole time. Getting a horn line to sound badder than Lita is a trick in and of itself.
Angus & Julia Stone – Tubthumping (original by Chumbawumba)
I originally was going to file this under “weird”, because it sure as hell is, but the slow vaudeville beat and complete serious delivery make it just amazing. Hats off to the Stone siblings, this is an incredibly difficult song to make enjoyable.
These are bad covers. I mostly like them because they are objectively bad.
KISS – And Then She Kissed Me (original by The Crystals)
KISS are a divisive band. They’re awesome. They’re terrible. Often simultaneously. Gene Simmons is one of the worst piece of shit douchebags in the industry. But I’ll always be grateful to Paul Stanley for this unmitigated masterpiece of the train wreck bad cover.
The Replacements – Like a Rolling Pin (original by Bob Dylan)
Oh god, Bob Stinson should never have been allowed to sing. This is the essence of your townie bar cover band, why they suck, and why you love them.
Circle Jerks – I Wanna Destroy You (original by The Soft Boys)
This isn’t even close to the Soft Boys’ original. It isn’t really all that different from the original (sloppier, but really the same). But the backing vocals are by Debbie Gibson – yeah, Debbie Gibson – and her singing with Circle Jerks just makes this one of the best things to ever fucking happen.
These are… covers. They’re just odd, which makes them fascinating.
The Cardigans – Iron Man (original by Black Sabbath)
People really, really love to cover Sabbath. Mellow, shuffle-beat jazz-pop is one of the strangest variations I’ve come across yet.
Nine Inch Nails – Get Down, Make Love (original by Queen)
First, it takes real stones to cover Queen. It takes even more to cover, arguably, one of Queen’s strangest and most awkward songs. But to turn it into this bizarre amalgamation of burble synth, off kilter samples, and distorted vocal takes…. well, it takes something.
Erasure – Voulez Vous (original by ABBA)
So, Erasure did an entire EP of ABBA covers. I get why. But, um, Erasure did an entire EP of ABBA covers.
And of course, the best for last. Still, after all these years, my favorite cover.
(I’m going to throw this on here as a bonus. As a cover it’s meh at best, but everyone should see Prince absolutely destroy all these fuckers then drop the mic.)