Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thirteen Greatest Cover Songs

This list of great cover tunes is slightly different than the rest, in that there are some caveats, pro bonos, adeste fideles, quid pro quos and other foreboding latinate terms used to assure it meets the rigid standards I set for this particular exercise in musical disquisition. In any case, here are the commandments:

1) Though shalt not list cover tunes grave-robbed from old blues musicians or revised from traditional songs. I really love Led Zeppelin's reworking of When The Levee Breaks, but who the hell has ever heard the original by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie from 1929? Likewise, I could argue the merits of The House of the Rising Sun as covered by The Animals or Frijid Pink, but one would need to be a musicologist on the level of Alan Lomax to track down the original. I could say that the cover of Matty Groves by Fairport Convention is the best of all time, but who was around in the 1600's to hear it first sung?

2) Thou shalt only compare covers to original songs written by a well-known band or artist. The original song must have been a hit in its own right or on a comparatively well-known album and then covered by someone else. So I won't be discussing Manfred Mann's monster hit Blinded by the Light in relation to the original Bruce Springsteen composition penned for Greetings from Ashbury Park, N.J., because poor Bruce only sold a grand total of 25,000 albums in 1973, or Soft Cell's wonderfully warped Tainted Love which appeared originally as a B-side on a single by Gloria Jones in 1964. Exactly -- Gloria who? Likewise, the cover tune has to be a hit or on a well-known album and not one of the myriad number of awkward revisions found on tribute albums or extraneous filler added to live recordings.

3) Thou shalt be technologically savvy. This is the internet, after all, so both the cover tune and the original must be available on youtube in order to discuss the relative merits of each song from a comparative standpoint.

4) Thou shalt only include songs that are deemed favorably in our eyes. I have to like the songs if I am to write about them. This is my blog, after all, so I admittedly chose songs I enjoy. This flies in the face of the usual modus operandi of more famous critics who give their reviews the veneer of objectivity as a mere pretense for being subjective as hell and pushing their cynical agendas under the aegis of fair-minded and open critique. Subterfuging wankers!

So, without further digressions, preambles or modifications, here now, for your edification, are the Thirteen Greatest Cover Songs in Rock and Roll...

ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER by Jimi Hendrix (first appeared on Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding)

Jimi Hendrix version
Bob Dylan version

-- There have been thousands of covers of Bob Dylan songs, many of them very commendable, but Hendrix's take on 'All Along the Watchtower' is, without equivocation, the greatest cover tune ever recorded. Argue amongst yourselves if you wish, but I am incontrovertibly convinced of the fact. Bob Dylan should have sent Hendrix a thank you note and a dozen roses. Maybe even gave him a head job. The single, peerless sustained guitar note at the end of 'Watchtower' ranks right up there with the ending piano note of the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life' as far as...ummm...notable notes.

BLACK MAGIC WOMAN by Santana (first appeared as a single by Fleetwood Mac)

Santana version
Fleetwood Mac version

-- 'Black Magic Woman' is a superb cover of the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac song, but I still like the original blues version. What is that you say? 'Black Magic Woman' was a Fleetwood Mac song? Yes, my dears, a long, long time ago, before Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, Fleetwood Mac was one of the best British blues bands of the 60's era. Unfortunately, Peter Green cared more for his drugs than his music, you know the rest of the story. In any case, Santana's version of 'Black Magic Woman' is actually a double cover. If you listen to the instrumental outro (a jam entitled 'Gypsy Queen') you will definitely hear direct lifts of several musical sequences from Hendrix's 'Third Stone from the Sun'. Carlos Santana es el bandido de música.

THE LETTER by Joe Cocker (first appeared as a single by The Boxtops)

Joe Cocker version
The Boxtops version

-- Joe Cocker is on this list twice. In fact, Cocker has made a career of stealing great songs from fine artists and reworking the tunes until they are so totally his own that it becomes difficult to listen to the original. I could have easily added Cocker's versions of 'Delta Lady' (Leon Russell) and 'Feelin' Alright' (Traffic) to this list of superlative covers. But let's take 'The Letter' as a prime example of Cocker's one upsmanship: once upon a time there was a band named The Boxtops who had a number one hit with 'The Letter' in 1967. Then Cocker got his hands on it. No one heard of the Boxtops ever again.

TWIST AND SHOUT by The Beatles (first appeared as a single by The Isley Brothers)

The Beatles version
The Isley Brothers version

-- We've all heard the tale of the legendary Beatle studio session where the song 'Twist and Shout' was recorded. They had been jamming for nearly 12 hours and John Lennon was so hoarse from a cold that he could barely speak. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Lennon belted, shrieked and coerced his voice to finish the song. They got it in two takes.

SWEET JANE by Cowboy Junkies (first appeared on Velvet Underground's Loaded)

Cowboy Junkies version
Velvet Underground version

--I was never a Lou Reed fan. Or Andy Warhol for that matter. I guess you have to live in New York or be a clove cigarette-smoking twat to appreciate them. Be that as it may, if you listen to the original version, you'll find Reed so desperately trying to sound like Bob Dylan that it becomes annoying. The Cowboy Junkies offer a completely different take on the song, and Junkie lead singer Margo Timmins is certainly a lot easier on the eyes than Lou Reed. And she can actually sing, unlike Reed, who obviously went to the Leonard Cohen School of Monotone Sing-Speak. Mott the Hoople does a commendable but more textbook rendition of 'Sweet Jane' on 'All the Young Dudes'.

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER by Talking Heads (first appeared on Al Green's Al Green Explores Your Mind)

Talking Heads version
Al Green Version

-- You've got to love Al Green. The man has more soul in his little finger than the entire College of Cardinals in the Vatican. But the Talking Heads updated Green's 'Take Me to the River', complete with submarine synth sounds and David Byrne's quirky vocals, and delivered one of the more memorable tunes of 1979.

WITHOUT YOU by Harry Nilsson (first appeared on Badfinger's No Dice)

Harry Nilsson version
Badfinger version

-- I've always liked the band Badfinger, particularly their singles 'Day After Day' and 'Come and Get It' and 'No Matter What'. Unfortunately, they signed with Apple Records and became indelibly labeled as 'Beatle-Clones'. The song 'Without You' was fairly forgettable as recorded by Badfinger, but became a thing of awesome beauty in the hands of Harry Nilsson. Nilsson's sublime version of the song is perhaps one of the ten best love songs ever recorded.

ME AND BOBBY MCGEE by Janis Joplin (first appeared on Roger Miller's Roger Miller 1970)

Janis Joplin version
Roger Miller version

-- Kris Kristofferson wrote the song and Roger Miller recorded it first. It became a hit for Miller in 1969/70, reaching #12 in the U.S. charts. Listening to Miller singing it now, it sounds like a hokum-hick country parody. Janis Joplin's version encapsulates the hippy/gypsy wanderlust of the 60's and the heartache that Joplin wore on her sleeve and carried in her voice. Simply stunning.

I KNOW I'M LOSING YOU by Rod Stewart (first appeared as a single by The Temptations)

Rod Stewart version
Temptations version

-- I like The Temptations, and I like their version of 'I know I'm Losing You', but Rod Stewart -- together with the entire Faces line-up (Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones) backing him -- delivers a tour de force of white soul (I know that sounds silly but work with me here). Eventually, Stewart became a strutting disco-rooster caricature of himself, but this song on his fine first album 'Every Picture Tells a Story' was the best solo work Rod has ever done.

LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER by David Bowie (first appeared as a single by The Rolling Stones)

David Bowie version
Rolling Stones version

-- I don't really care for the Stones early stuff, and I really dislike their later stuff. The only Stones studio albums I feel are truly great are 'Let It Bleed', 'Sticky Fingers' and 'Exile on Main Street'. The Stones as a group were literally spent by the time they released the abysmal 'Goat's Head Soup' in 1973, but then along comes David Bowie's 'Aladdin Sane' album with a rave-up rendition of 'Let's Spend the Night Together' in the same year. Complete with crazy piano runs, the slashing guitar of Mick Ronson and the coked-up vocals of Bowie, this version of 'Let's Spend the Night' is the Rolling Stones at 78 rpm, with Bowie outdoing the Stones and even outpunking punk.

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS by Joe Cocker (first appeared on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

Joe Cocker version
The Beatles version

-- Cocker's version of this song is magnificent and it is one of the few instances in the storied history of rock 'n' roll where an artist actually stole a song from the Beatles. Sorry John, Paul, George and Ringo, but you got owned.

BLACKBIRD by Crosby, Stills and Nash (first appeared on The Beatles' White Album)

CSN version
The Beatles version

-- Not a case where CSN plays a better version of McCartney's beautiful 'Blackbird', it is just different. But it is different enough, particularly with CSN's soaring harmonies, that it stands on its own as a great cover with a reverance for the original material.

LITTLE WING by Derek and the Dominos (first appeared on Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love)

Derek and the Dominos' version
Jimi Hendrix version

-- As with CSN's version of 'Blackbird', Eric Clapton and Duane Allman do not offer a better rendition of Hendrix's great 'Little Wing'; rather, they reverently rework it and offer it in a different, more dramatic context. The interplay between Clapton and Allman is flawless and moving and the flourishing guitar intro is very memorable and grand. Stevie Ray Vaughan also does a notable instrumental version of 'Little Wing' on the album 'The Sky is Crying'.

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