Sixteen Song Covers and Their Originals
Which is more impressive: a cover song which turns an average original into a masterpiece, or one that further refines an already masterful original? Both feats require serious musical genius. In the first case, the musician is doing more with less and demonstrates that even songs you find wanting might still contain the ingredients needed for a masterpiece, such as the lyrics. The second feat shows that greatness has no limits and the work of experts may be great, but not necessarily the greatest forever. ‘Average’ and ‘great’ are subjective opinions, but they are still very real opinions that we all feel in different ways when listening to music.
Does the order in which you listen to song covers and their originals have a correlative effect on your preference? The answer in my case is more than I thought. In my list, most of my favourite song versions are the ones I heard first, but this was not the deciding factor. A few of the songs listed as favourites below I only knew existed after I had heard the more famous version.
Cover versions and their originals are tributes to each other. The cover artist has to be inspired by the original in any case. A successful cover version also means free advertising for the original, plus royalties. Just as importantly, the cover artist must always have permission from the original artist to use their work, which is not always the case. The songs of master lyricists, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen often make just as intriguing reading as a poem, but for many like myself, a couple of their own songs could never have reached their great musical potential without the covers.
Here is my list of covers and original versions going head-to-head, in ascending order of preference. My favourite version of each song is stated first in each case. Like any preference, musical taste can change over time and sometimes presents itself as an ‘acquired taste’, where you have to make several efforts to discover a song’s greatness.
16. With a Little Help from My Friends, Joe Cocker (Original by The Beatles)
At once communal and personal, this is a song of reassurance. Lead vocals were assigned to Ringo Starr, whose slightly flat delivery gave the song an appealing sing-along, if cheesy, quality. A year later, Sheffield-born singer, Joe Cocker, known for his gritty voice and spasmodic body movements, surged the song to UK Number One in December 1968. This was in large part due to Cocker’s conversion of the song into a soul anthem. Paul McCartney followed up with the commendation “I was eternally grateful to him”.
15. Dazed and Confused, Led Zeppelin (Original by Jake Holmes)
Largely unknown to fans of this psychedelic classic, American Jake Holmes wrote Dazed and Confused in 1967 as part of his debut solo album. Ever since Jimmy Page first released his cover version with his first band, The Yardbirds, he was rightfully plagued by lawsuits of copyright infringement as a result of not listing Jake Holmes as the original songwriter. However, when he recorded the song with his next band, Led Zeppelin, for their debut album, credit was finally given to Holmes. Led Zeppelin amplified the disturbing acoustic riffs from Holmes’ folk genre into a true rock classic.
14. Me and Bobby McGee, Kris Kristofferson (Cover by Janis Joplin)
Janis Joplin’s cover was much more commercially successful than its original version. Joplin converted the acoustic original from a nostalgic western, bluesy elegy for a friend into a piano-led love song; the wistful harmonica replaced by an organ harping away. Joplin definitely had a stronger voice than Kristofferson, but perhaps that steals part of the limelight from Bobby McGee, the true subject of the song.
13. Heartbeats, Jose Gonzalez (Original by The Knife)
Maybe it is part of their style, but to me, the screechy vocals of The Knife sound all over the place. Gonzalez’s acoustic interpretation and softly-spoken voice make the perfect backdrop to Sony Bravia’s famous TV commercial where a quarter of a million coloured bouncy balls are thrown down a San Francisco street to showcase high definition technology.
12. Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Lorde (Original by Tears for Fears)
The original version by Tears for Fears is dominated by a background synthesiser. It has chilled verses which you could happily imagine driving to, but also a chorus which is much more disco-themed. Lorde’s cover is a dark, foreboding interpretation that won huge fame by featuring in Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s E3 trailer in 2014. The short cinematic follows an eagle flying over the Parisian people before they storm the Bastille with the help of assassins. Lorde’s cover captures the revolutionary mood of the French civil war so well.
11. Not Fade Away, Buddy Holly (Cover by The Rolling Stones)
The bare bones style of this original showcases the famous ‘Bo Diddley Beat’ using just a guitar and pauses for jazzy vocals. Covered by The Rolling Stones as their first US single in 1964, the faster tempo, maracas and harmonica sound invigorating, but may be a bit too hectic and rushed for some. Like so many talented artists, Holly died very young at age 22. However, of all the more likely causes such as alcohol or drug abuse, he died in a plane crash while on tour. Luckily for us, his music has stopped him from fading away completely.
10. Personal Jesus, Johnny Cash (Original by Depeche Mode)
The original 1989 hit by Depeche Mode is shamelessly proud of its funky electronic vibe inherited from the 80s. The vocals are more like haunting chants than technically gifted singing. Cash turns it into a bouncy, acoustic, spiritual hymn, proudly showcasing his Christian faith and acting as a missionary when he tells us “I’ll make you a believer”.
9. Heroes, David Bowie (Cover by Peter Gabriel)
This was originally a 1977 collaboration between Brian Eno and David Bowie which was inspired after Bowie saw his producer embracing his girlfriend by the Berlin Wall. In 2010, Peter Gabriel featured the song as the opener to his cover album, Scratch My Back. Gabriel’s numerous live renditions of Heroes sounds even more beautiful than the studio recording. The glam rock that we are all familiar with in Bowie’s original is surely timeless, yet it misses something vital to Gabriel’s great version, namely crescendo. Starting off with just quiet violins, a plucking cello and whispered vocals by Gabriel, the volume and tempo pick up gradually to the climactic chorus to great effect. On the news of Bowie’s death last year, the official Twitter account for the German Foreign Office stated “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the wall” in tribute to his influential 1987 anti-Wall concert in Berlin.
8. Woodstock, Joni Mitchell (Cover by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
With just a Wurlitzer electric piano, her unique folksy vocals and a backing choir, Joni Mitchell describes a music festival using extensive biblical imagery. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young covered the song the year it was released and while the catchy rock cover rightfully brought it huge fame, I would argue that the original captures more of the flavour of the peace-searching counter-culture of the 60s.
7. Mad World, Gary Jules (Original by Tears for Fears)
Gary Jules’ version of this electropop song was Christmas Number 1 in 2003, following its poignant use as part of the soundtrack for the film, Donnie Darko. While the original has that typical 80s futuristic high-tempo electric vibe, Jules slows down everything and uses just a piano and a mellotron imitating a cello to accompany his voice. For me, the result is more haunting and meditative than Tears for Fears’ original.
6. Proud Mary, Creedence Clearwater Revival (Cover by Tina Turner)
Released towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1969 and featured in many Hollywood depictions of it, most famously, Forrest Gump, the relaxed lyric from Proud Mary “rollin’ on the river” also conjures up distressing images of that 20-year conflict. Known for their political protest songs, Creedence’s original is simplified into a sped-up, fun dance song by Tina Turner, which just makes me think of Sister Act. Not that this is bad. I loved that film as a kid. It just loses a lot of nuance from the original.
5. Wonderwall, Ryan Adams (Original by Oasis)
This is the only listing where the cover and original are practically tied in my view. The cello and drums of Oasis’ 1995 original are missing in Adams’ cover, but along with a careful rearrangement of notes in the singing and a calmer guitar riff, all of this somehow conveys much more emotion than the original. Speaking to NME in 2002, the original songwriter, Noel Gallagher, stressed just how much personal meaning a cover version can unlock for the songwriter; “I never got my head round this song until I went to see Ryan Adams play.”
4. Lake of Fire, Nirvana (Original by The Meat Puppets)
Recorded live on MTV Unplugged a year before his death at just 27, Kurt Cobain and the rest of his grunge band really owned this song. When I say “owned”, I mean it. Nirvana did not just copy the original’s lyrics and guitar tabs. They took both of these great elements from The Meat Puppets and extended the track by a whole minute, using this extra time to produce a unique improvisational jamming session, especially at the start. This is missing in the original. It has since been one of Nirvana’s most popular tracks, despite not being the original producer. Krist Novoselic’s noodling guitar solos and Cobain’s screechy, but fine-tuned voice make the original sound somewhat out of key for many.
3. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley (Original by Leonard Cohen)
Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah first appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions and is his best-known song. Covered over 300 times, the most-acclaimed cover of the song was recorded by Jeff Buckley for his 1994 album, Grace, released three years before his death. Cohen’s original can sound like spoken verse at times, but his wonderful gravelly voice is supported by a choir and a full band, with lively solos from a Hammond organ. In contrast, Buckley’s studio cover is beautifully denuded, featuring just a reverb-drenched guitar and his prayer-like voice. I have never heard such a delicate high note held for so long and as breathtakingly as Buckley’s at the end of his studio version. It really is a tribute to both his and Cohen’s musical genius, especially now we live in a world where both are no longer with us.
2. Hurt, Nine Inch Nails (Cover by Johnny Cash)
I heard Cash’s cover of Hurt long before Nine Inch Nails’ original, which was released as part of their 1994 album, The Downward Spiral. Whereas Cash sings it as an old man’s confessional, Trent Reznor’s original was composed as a drug-disturbed thirty-year-old searching for sanity. When I realised Nine Inch Nails performed the song first and I listened to it, I was not an instant fan, unlike with Cash’s version. Maybe it was because of the jarring minor chords used by Reznor throughout the song, which Cash mitigated. After a few more chances, Reznor’s mixture of strained loud and whisper-quiet vocals and the haunting ‘twang’ of the chorus eventually made me love the original even more than the cover. The jarring notes capture Reznor’s dysphoria so well. Reznor, like anyone asked to have a song of theirs covered by Cash, was flattered but unsure if it would work. He summed Cash’s cover up perfectly when he said, “It is different, but every bit as pure”. Reznor has since gone on to fuse his mesmerising vocals with experimental electronic genres, as showcased in his 2012 score for the video game, Call of Duty Black Ops 2 and the 2016 global warming documentary, Before the Flood.
1. All Along the Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix (Original by Bob Dylan)
As the keynote song on Bob Dylan’s 1967 comeback album, John Wesley Harding, All Along the Watchtower marked Dylan’s return to the recording studio after a long period recovering from a serious motorcycle accident. In every song there was a sense of impending disaster. A year later, Jimi Hendrix turned the song into a full-blown apocalypse and included it on his seminal Electric Ladyland album. Seen as the most famous version of the song by many, it certainly showcases the technical genius of Hendrix, particularly his infamous electric guitar solos and his soulful vocals. Whereas Hendrix keeps both his guitar and vocals at the forefront, Dylan’s uniquely expressive voice gets rather drowned out from all the loud instruments. In 1995, while being interviewed by the Florida Sun Sentinel, Dylan paid the ultimate tribute to Hendrix’s achievement; “He probably improved on it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
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