For one reason or another, cover songs tend to catch a bad rap. Even when our favorite artists record a cover, our interest usually lasts all of two or three listens before we are ready to move on to something else, something original. In this age of “green” living, why are we so put off by the idea of recycling a song? Perhaps, over the years, we have been lured to and held hostage in far too many garages and basements and forced to listen to our friends’ high school bands-complete with the lead guitarist’s eight-year-old kid sister on drums-try and fail miserably at harnessing the power of “Smoke on the Water”. (I’m still haunted to this day by an evening spent listening to a particularly terrible tribute trio of female classmates of mine who billed themselves as Nerve Anna; I walked out during “Rape Me”, feeling both an uneasiness at having a girl I took physics with screaming that phrase at me and also a strong sense of irony because I was inarguably the one who had been violated.) Or maybe it’s just that for every cover song that holds up and warrants our admiration, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, that have stolen several minutes of our lives.
Despite the cover song’s negative associations, rock and roll has greatly benefitted from and was largely built upon the practice of borrowing material and recording alternative versions. As a result, the rock and roll canon is absolutely loaded with cover songs. Case in point, Rolling Stone‘s infamous countdown of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time features 13 songs in its top 100 that had been previously recorded by other artists. Without these classic re-recordings, and others included here on our list, our world would be a much poorer place. And that’s what this list is all about. (You won’t find that killer version of “Free Bird” you heard back in the summer of 1984 in Key West on open-mic night in that dive bar at that time in your life when you were wearing headbands, dabbling in glassblowing, and carrying a pocket-size copy of the Kama Sutra around. So don’t get worked up when you don’t find it here.) These are the very best of the redos-songs that reached their true potential on the second, or even seventh, go around. Consequence of Sound gives you our top ten cover songs of all time.
10. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Higher Ground” (Original Recording by Stevie Wonder)
Stevie Wonder is a difficult (damn near impossible) act to follow. Wonder, who began as a child prodigy for Motown, has done more for funk music than just about anyone this side of James Brown and George Clinton, so maybe it’s fitting that the band that had the collective balls (not to mention tube socks) to cover “Higher Ground” was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have acted as the unofficial caretakers of funk rock for nearly three decades. Anthony Kiedis & Co. remain fairly true to Wonder’s rollicking version but amplify the proceedings with bouncing guitars, banging drums, and the track’s signature group choruses. Is some of the political and spiritual message lost in this remake? Maybe. But it just rocks too hard to worry about. An’ Stevie knows that, uh, no-body’s gonna bring me down.
9. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (Original Recording by Nine Inch Nails)
I wonder if Trent Reznor somehow knew he was working on a Johnny Cash song when he wrote and recorded “Hurt” for his own masterpiece, The Downward Spiral. Regardless, Reznor openly admits that the song doesn’t really belong to him anymore. Under the careful guidance of legendary producer Rick Rubin, Cash resurrected his career late in life with a series of unlikely cover songs, none more surprising then this reworking of Nine Inch Nails. On “Hurt”, Cash manages to take a song about youth’s isolation and despair and transform it into a personal confession of an old soul who is not long for this world. The song carries the most emotional weight when coupled with director Mark Romanek’s dark and affecting music video, which was shot in the ailing star’s Tennessee home. In the video, Cash’s frailty is both visible and audible, as his hands and vocal chords tremble; his regret becomes palpable. The listener/viewer feels like he or she can reach out and touch both life and death at the same time. “Hurt”, strange as it may seem, could very well become The Man in Black’s most enduring legacy.
8. Elvis Costello and the Attractions – “(What’s So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (Original Recording by Nick Lowe as a member of Brinsley Schwarz)
Elvis Costello’s penchant for writing biting and scathing songs with a poison-tipped pen made him a unique brand of songwriter when he emerged in the late seventies, but the song that will most likely go down as his finest came from a different pen all together. UK new wave icon and Costello’s long-time producer Nick Lowe allowed Costello to have a go at Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and included the version as a b-side on his own single, “American Squirm”. Costello’s b-side cover ended up becoming the hit, and the song has belonged to Elvis ever since. “(What’s So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” features the glowing guitar, the driving drums, and that smart ass sneer that came to define Costello on his classic records. This song is three and a half minutes of the blistering best that new wave/pub rock has to offer, and there’s nothing funny bout that.
7. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah” (Original Recording by Leonard Cohen)
Jeff Buckley, like so many great artists, was taken away much too soon. Less than three years after the release of what would be his only proper studio album, Grace, Buckley drowned in a tragic swimming accident. While fans will never know what this talented, young man might have gone on to create, we are left with one masterpiece that hints at what would have been a remarkable future. Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of the great vocal performances of the last 20 years. Accompanied by only a simple guitar part, all the power of this song comes directly from Buckley. His voice whispers and soars, and the listener can hear him strain and struggle for every note as he nears each chorus. It’s so rare when a singer can create that sort of tension-that feeling that something significant hangs in the balance-in something as unassuming as a song.
6. Jimi Hendrix – “Hey Joe” (Original Recording by Billy Roberts)
Did you know that “Hey Joe” isn’t a Jimi Hendrix original? I confess that for years I simply assumed that Hendrix was the sole genius behind this tale of infidelity, murder, and flight. But all writing credits and registered copyrights aside, I think it’s fair to say that “Hey Joe” has become a de facto Hendrix song. “Hey Joe” was the first single ever released by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and it holds the ineffaceable distinction of having been the final song played at Woodstock. And it also isn’t the greatest cover song Hendrix ever recorded. How’s that for foreshadowing?
5. The Animals – “House of the Rising Sun” (Traditional)
Part of the mysterious quality of “House of the Rising Sun” stems from the fact that artists and musicologists alike can’t quite agree on where or how this song originated. The Animals began playing it as their set closer while on tour with Chuck Berry in 1964. The song proved so popular that the band went into the studio to capture it once and for all on record. After only one take, the band had the version that would become arguably the world’s first folk-rock song. I don’t mind admitting that this song has always creeped me out. Eric Burdon’s howling vocals suggest a man possessed by some demonic force, and the backdrop of Alan Price’s hypnotic organ playing completes the chilling effect. Never has pop music better captured the vibe of a soul being tormented and haunted by past transgressions. The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” is one of the building blocks of rock as we know it.
4. Joe Cocker – “With a Little Help from My Friends” (Original Recording by The Beatles)
I used to tune into reruns of The Wonder Years each afternoon to hear the theme song’s abridged version of Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends”. (Okay. I also wanted to know if there was any veracity to the rumors that Paul Pfeiffer actually grew up to become Marilyn Manson.) Cocker’s energetic (bordering on spasmodic) rendition of the Fab Four’s more subdued version is one of the touchstones of rock and roll. A large part of the appeal is that the song is really a performance piece-a theatrical stage for Joe Cocker to do whatever it is that Joe Cocker does. Watching Cocker perform “With a Little Help from My Friends” is almost a rite of passage for music fans. He staggers about stage, throwing wild fits and unleashing some of the most primitive sounds the human body has ever produced…and somehow it just works. ( For a comedic take on Cocker’s unique stage mannerisms, track down a clip of John Belushi’s hilarious and spot-on imitation performed on Saturday Night Live.)
3. The Beatles – “Twist and Shout” (Original Recording by the Top Notes)
Long before a lip syncing Ferris Bueller was a twinkle in John Hughes’s eye, “Twist and Shout” was making young people, well, twist and shout, as “Beatlemania” swept across America. “Twist and Shout” was the very last song recorded during the Please Please Me sessions. Producer George Martin saved the song for last due to the vocal strain it put on an ill John Lennon. The band was only afforded one take before Lennon’s voice gave out, and the resulting recording holds an indelible place in rock and roll history. Lennon’s raw and ragged vocals set a precedent for what rock and roll singing could be. The perfect voice hitting all the right notes was no longer the priority. Hell, you could scream, wail, and shout if you wanted to…and John did just that.