When is a cover song better than the original? Is it flattery or just a cheap rip-off? Please Kill Me explores 12 cover songs that are better than you may expect
Between 1988 and 1997, Rhino Records released four album collections called Golden Throats that contained bizarre cover versions of familiar songs (e.g., William Shatner beaming down on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Sebastian Cabot exploring “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and Sen. Sam Ervin investigating “Bridge Over Troubled Water”). While these discs were mildly diverting and amusing, they had no staying power. Indeed, they should have been titled Golden Throw Outs because they were just kitsch. The musical highway is littered with such stuff, some of which actually became hits (think Mrs. Miller “Downtown”) (no, on second thought, don’t go there).
However, a plethora of rock & roll platters has been produced over the past half century that contain unexpectedly great cover versions of songs made famous by others. We’re not talking about contributions to “tribute albums,” most of which do contain some great covers. That’s too easy, like shooting Phish in a barrel. We’re talking about tracks that were included on a regular album or single releases. Consider this annotated list just a sampling of such fare.
“Scarborough Fair” / “Richard Cory” – The Coolies
The Coolies were an Atlanta-based band who developed a following by punking up (or pumping up) more lightweight fare. Best known for their outrageous and funny cover of Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby,” they really kicked it into gear with their covers of Simon & Garfunkel songs. Their first album, dig..?, contained nine S & G covers, plus the Anka tune. The best of the S & G covers, in my view, were “Scarborough Fair” (released as a single) and “Richard Cory” because the band reinvented the songs in the manner of Devo’s assault on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
Here’s “Richard Cory”, which appeared on the DB Records compilation Squares Blot Out the Sun:
“Leaving On a Jet Plane” – J. Mascis & The Fog
Mascis does an unexpectedly nice solo acoustic rendition of The Smiths’ “Boy With the Thorn In His Side” on his 1996 Martin & Me solo album, but this version of a lightweight folk tune—written by John Denver, and a #1 Top 40 hit by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969—includes his post-Dinosaur Jr. band and appears as a bonus track on their More Light album. The double-tracked lead guitar really propels the song like (yes) a jet plane.
“My Little Red Book” – Love
The opening track of Love’s debut album, this song was the closest thing they ever had to a hit single. It was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the 1965 film What’s New Pussycat?, and was recorded for that soundtrack by Manfred Mann. The following year, Love released their own version as a single. Arthur Lee sang it like he owned it. Here’s the single version, being lip-synched by Love on American Bandstand. It’s worth watching through to the end to see just how surly Arthur Lee could be to the host.
“New York, New York” – Cat Power (Chan Marshall)
On her 2008 Jukebox album, Marshall had her way with a number of other songwriters’ tunes, including Bob Dylan (“I Believe in You”), Joni Mitchell (“Blue”) and Hank Williams (“Ramblin’ (Wo)Man”). None of them bear much resemblance to the originals (which is intended as a compliment). However, it’s the opening track, a 2-minute mauling of that schlocky Kander & Ebb war horse “New York,” that won my heart. I play it over and over and over again, to ward off any taint of the Rat Pack and Vegas. That’s the great Spooner Oldham on sultry-sounding piano.
“The Dolphins” – Tim Buckley
The great Fred Neil was a songwriter’s songwriter, and this was arguably his signature song. Neil never made it as a performer and only came to wider recognition when his “Everybody’s Talkin’” was used in the soundtrack for Midnight Cowboy and became a hit for Harry Nilsson in 1969. But “The Dolphins” was near and dear to Neil, as he spent the last three decades of his life in the Florida Keys working with the Dolphin Project. Somehow, Tim Buckley—he of the magically flexible tenor—made it one of his own signature concert tunes. Buckley’s version was titled simply “Dolphins” and appeared on the Sefronia album (1974). Here’s a version he did for the British show The Old Grey Whistle Test with a band while promoting the Sefronia album.
“The End” – Nico
I saw her perform this song, Jim Morrison’s oedipal fantasy, on her harmonium in a Washington, D.C. club and it did, indeed, seem like the end. It was chilling, magical and hypnotizing all at the same time. This appeared on her own 1974 album, called The End…, produced by John Cale. Here is Nico performing it live in Tokyo in April 1986:
“Goin’ Back” – Nils Lofgren
Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the singles version of this song released by The Byrds is arguably the best known (the rift created by it being included on The Notorious Byrd Brothers album, and not Crosby’s “Triad” contributed to the latter’s decision to leave the band) alongside Dusty Springfield’s version (#10 on the UK charts). However, the underrated Lofgren, on his masterful 1975 debut solo album, outdoes them all with his version.
“This Magic Moment” – Lou Reed
Though featured on a tribute album to Doc Pomus, this version was used in the David Lynch movie Lost Highway. Reed built one of his finest albums, Magic & Loss, around the agonizing death of his friend, and early songwriting mentor, Doc Pomus. Pomus wrote this song with Mort Shuman and it was a hit for The Drifters in 1960 and for Jay and the Americans in 1968. Suffice it to say, Reed’s version is a bit more raw and revealing than these two.
“Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” / “Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart” – Terry Reid
The baby-faced folk-rocker sounded, in 1968 when he did this song on his debut album Bang, Bang You’re Terry Reid, like he was gargling razor blades. The song, written by Sonny Bono, was responsible for making Sonny & Cher a household name. Terry Reid was never a household name, but his version has aged far better:
A close second is Reid’s cover of “Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart,” a hit single for Gene Pitney in 1967 and again (with Marc Almond) in 1988. The song, contained on Reid’s second album, can’t be easy to sing, because it’s structurally complex, with many changes. Pitney does it well, but Reid sings it as though his entire soul is at stake.
“California Dreaming” – American Music Club
The perfect song for this band to cover, as a hidden track on their San Francisco album (1994). A perfectly straight version, beautifully sung by Mark Eitzel. The song was written by John Phillips, who also wrote the other California youth anthem, “San Francisco (Flowers in Your Hair)” which was recorded by Scott McKenzie and gave the mainstream media the justification for declaring a “Summer of Love.” American Music Club’s version is here:
We welcome any further suggestions in the comments section below!