I’m an old soul when it comes to cover versions. I believe musicians should first and foremost be judged on their performance and not on the quality of their songwriting. When Jimi Hendrix covered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a couple of days after The Beatles released the album with the same title he was honouring the original, it was the ultimate token of appreciation. A song without a cover version is a virginal song, not fully grown up yet. Besides, covers really cover the full spectrum of musicianship. They are equally appealling to the beginning and the arrived artist, they can demonstrate laziness and inspiration, and they can be used to mock the original and to celebrate it.
This is my top 10 of brilliant cover versions, using two simple rules:
1. The original and the cover version should be known. ‘All along the watchtower’ is a brillant cover, but who actually knows Bob Dylan’s original?
2. Both the orginal and the cover version must be brilliant. Crucify me, but I just don’t think Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’ is as good (and as painful) as the original.
1. (I can’t get no) Satisfaction – original by The Rolling Stones, crazy robotic sci-fi version by Devo.
2. Running up that hill – original by Kate Bush, cover by Placebo. All about love in the original, all about longing for your next shot of heroin in the cover version.
3. Tainted love – original by Gloria Jones, cover version by Coil. Yes, I know Soft Cell scored a massive hit with this song in the 80’s. Just listen (and watch) how Coil deconstructs the original and makes it eerily creepy.
4. The Mercy Seat – original by Nick Cave, cover version by Johnny Cash. Who else than Johnny Cash can convincingly sing about a murderer on death row?
5. ’97 Bonnie & Clyde – original by Eminem, cover version by Tori Amos. The original is scary in its psychopathic abundance, in the cover version Tori Amos deflates the song and plays with the fear of the moment
6. Hey Joe – original by Jimi Hendrix, cover version by Patt Smith. Yes, I know the real original version is by The Leaves (1965), but that version is so different from the one recorded by Jimi hendrix it’s almost a different song. Patti Smith turns it into a poem about Patty Hearst. The gun between her legs…
7. Janitor of lunacy – original by Nico, cover version by X-TG. Nico’s original is insane in a very German way, X-TG’s version just depressing and oddly beautiful.
8. In a manner of speaking – original by Tuxedomoon, cover version by Nouvelle Vague. I love Tuxedomoon. The fact that Nouvelle Vague’s version comes close to the original says it all
9. Repetition – original by David Bowie, cover version by The Au Pairs. I love David Bowie, but this story about domestic abuse needs to be sung by a woman.
10. Take me to the river – original by Al Green, cover version by Talking heads. I knew the exuberant cover from the movie Stop Making Sense, Al Green’s original is more sensual, more for the bedroom than the dancefloor.