The first time I recall hearing an artist doing a “cover” of another artist’s song was in 1968 when Jose Feliciano did his Flamenco-guitar arrangement of The Doors’ iconic 1967 rock hit “Light My Fire.” I recoiled in horror. “Oh my God, what was he thinking? This is awful!” I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to attempt such a radical reworking of a brilliant recording.
Back in those days, I used to be disgusted by any cover versions. To my purist way of thinking, the original recording of a song was always going to be superior to any version that came after it. More to the point, I reasoned, why would artists want to re-record someone else’s song? Why not instead offer their own original composition (if they were capable), or the work of another songwriter that hadn’t yet been recorded? To me, it seemed unnecessary, or lazy, or exploitative, for an artist to ride on someone else’s success by “covering” the established tune.
I don’t feel that way anymore. Not by a long shot. I’ve come to love hearing other artists reinterpret well-known songs, assuming they’re not exact replicas of the original recordings. It’s often very refreshing, even exhilarating, to hear a familiar melody and lyric re-imagined by an artist doing it his or her own way, with a different arrangement, tempo, instrumental bias or vocal approach.
I started softening my rigid view on covers in the early ’90s when I heard two mostly satisfying collections of covers highlighting the work of two major artists. Both opened my eyes considerably to how effective another artist’s sensitive reworking of my cherished favorites could be (at least some of the time):
“Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin” (1991)
Sixteen of this awesome songwriting duo’s impressive repertoire are covered by major artists of the ’80s and early ’90s, and the result is largely a success. Bruce Hornsby’s “Madman Across the Water,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Sacrifice,” Phil Collins’ “Burn Down the Mission” and Eric Clapton’s “Border Song” are the best of the bunch, while Tina Turner’s “The Bitch is Back,” The Who’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and Hall & Oates’ “Philadelphia Freedom” are perfectly matched between artist and song selection.
“Common Thread: The Songs of The Eagles” (1993)
The Eagles began as a foursome with three members having deep country roots (Glenn Frey preferred rock and R&B from his Detroit upbringing), so their early repertoire is dominated by country rock material, and their later LPs included at a couple of country-ish tunes among the more rock-oriented stuff. It was a great idea, therefore, to ask country music artists to record their own versions of a baker’s dozen Eagles songs, and wow, what a fine job they did. Check out Suzy Bogguss’s “Take It to the Limit” or Alan Jackson’s “Tequila Sunrise” or Trisha Yearwood’s “New Kid in Town” — I submit they’re stronger than the originals.
Recently, I’ve noticed quite a few more collections of new cover versions of songs by classic rock artists. The quality, as you might expect, is all over the map. Some covers are appalling failures; others are so-so experiments; and a few are truly outstanding renditions that redefine the song and make you almost forget the original.
Part of the reason for the quantity of covers lately, I think, is because of an eagerness to appreciate the work of classic rock songwriters who are reaching their twilight years. Artists like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Jackson Browne and Peter Gabriel have been the subject of “tribute” collections, on which multiple bands offer their takes on the work of these recognized elder statesmen of rock:
“Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan” (2012)
Conceived as a fundraiser for Amnesty International, this monumental 4-CD project compiles more than 80 different Dylan tunes as rendered by 80 different artists of wildly varying levels of fame. Some of these are definitely not to my liking (Kris Kristofferson’s “Quinn the Eskimo,” My Chemical Romance’s “Desolation Row,” Michael Franti’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”), while others are every bit as good as or better than Dylan’s originals, to my ears (Diana Krall’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” Sting’s “Girl From the North Country,” Seal and Jeff Beck’s “Like a Rolling Stone”). Overall, I give it two thumbs up; there’s definitely more good stuff than bad here for you to investigate.
“The Art of McCartney” (2014)
This 2-CD collection of 35 McCartney songs from his solo and Beatles years is beautifully produced, with a diverse group of artists involved (Barry Gibb, Def Leppard, Corinne Bailey Rae, Steve Miller, Dr. John, The Cure). One too many of these covers are merely faithful duplicates of McCartney’s versions — Heart’s “Band on the Run,” Billy Joel’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Brian Wilson’s “Wanderlust” — but there are many startlingly good renditions here as well (Willie Nelson’s “Yesterday,” Paul Rodgers’ “Let Me Roll It,” Smokey Robinson’s “So Bad”). The package includes a great DVD of the making of these recordings that’s well worth your time.
“Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne” (2014)
Browne was (and is) a songwriter held in such high esteem that dozens of fine artists lined up for the chance to take a crack at recording one of the 25 songs in this collection. Don Henley, Bruce Hornsby, Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin and Lucinda Williams contribute their remarkable alternate visions of “These Days,” “I’m Alive,” “Fountain of Sorrow,” “Rosie,” “Call It a Loan” and “The Pretender,” respectively…and that’s just a sample. The only complaint I have here is that they stopped at 25, thereby omitting some other choice Browne tunes.
“Scratch My Back/And I’ll Scratch Yours” (2010/2013)
Always thinking outside the box, Peter Gabriel came up with a creative concept that takes the area of cover versions a step further. First, he sifted through many dozens of cherished songs to identify the dozen he most wanted to record himself (David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”), and released them on a compilation called “Scratch My Back.” Then he asked the composers of those tracks to reciprocate by recording one of his songs, which came together as “And I’ll Scratch Yours” three years later. Simon does “Biko,” Newman handles “Big Time,” and newer bands like Arcade Fire and Bon Iver also take a stab at Gabriel tunes. You can now get both collections on a double CD re-issue.
Gabriel, in the liner notes to this project, explained his purpose: “Songwriting is what drew me into music. The craft and the process of putting together a good song seemed both exciting and magical. For a long time, though, I have wanted to record some of my favorite songs by others, focusing more on being an interpreter than the creator of the song. But it’s also a real treat for me to sit back and hear my songs sung by some of my favorite artists.”
Since 1991, organizations like MusiCares have honored major musicians of the era with concert extravaganzas celebrating their artistry. Major artists like Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennett, and most recently, Tom Petty have watched as talented contemporaries took the stage to play cover versions of iconic songs from the honoree’s repertoire. DVDs and CDs of these live performances are available on a limited basis but are well worth seeking out.
Similarly, there are instances when artists have convened to pay tribute to a major rock music figure who has recently passed away. The best of these is the extraordinary “Concert for George,” a 2002 event in London when Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Jeff Lynne, Ringo Starr, Ravi Shankar, Tom Petty, Billy Preston and many others met to perform the songs (Beatles tunes and solo stuff) of George Harrison, who had died the previous year. There are so many strong covers here (“Old Brown Shoe” with Gary Brooker, Petty’s “Taxman,” Ringo’s “Photograph”) but the versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something” featuring Clapton and McCartney are by themselves well worth the price of admission.
Collections of cover versions are showing up in ever-broadening configurations. MOJO, a slick British monthly magazine devoted largely to classic rock, includes CDs with each issue, and occasionally they are celebrations of specific albums, as reimagined by a dozen or more different British artists (famous and not). The Beatles “Let It Be” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” are among the LPs given this treatment.
Other artists, even those who are accomplished songwriters in their own right, have released entire albums of nothing but covers:
“Listening Booth: 1970,” Marc Cohn (2010)
Cohn, known best for 1991’s “Walking in Memphis,” did a fabulous job of gathering some of the great tracks from a pivotal year in his formative years and recording a dozen very credible covers, most notably The Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown,” Badfinger’s “No Matter What” and the Box Tops/Joe Cocker classic “The Letter.”
“Medusa” (1995) and “Nostlgia” (2014), Annie Lennox
Lennox has released not one but two collections of covers. “Medusa” is the stronger of the two, with incredibly vibrant renditions of beauties like Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You” and The Clash’s “Train in Vain.” The more recent “Nostalgia” reaches further back for Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind,” Jay Hawkins'”I Put a Spell on You” and Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” all of which rival the originals. (With her voice, she could nail a cover of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and still blow you away.)
The great James Taylor confessed that he hit a major writer’s block in the 2000s, and decided to bide his time by releasing two LPs of covers entitled simply “Covers” (2008) and “Other Covers” (2009). It’s definitely a treat to hear him successfully tackle wonderful songs like “On Broadway” and “Wichita Lineman” and rockers like “Summertime Blues” and “I’m a Road Runner” (and even more of a treat that he rediscovered his muse and wrote excellent songs on his 2015 LP, “Before This World”).
Three different movies over the years have corresponding soundtrack albums full of cover versions of Beatles songs. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is a 1978 box office disaster that nonetheless has a few fairly decent reinterpretations of Fab Four classics (Aerosmith’s “Come Together” and Billy Preston’s “Get Back” come to mind). The Sean Penn tearjerker “I Am Sam” sensitively uses Beatles songs throughout to help move the plot, and the covers on the soundtrack are, in some cases, superb: Sarah MacLachlan’s “Blackbird,” Eddie Vetter’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” Aimee Mann’s “Two of Us” and Ben Folds’ “Golden Slumbers.” The 2007 film “Across the Universe” mostly uses British actor/singer Jim Sturgess to sing the Beatles tunes, but don’t miss the cover by Bono and The Edge doing “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” over the final credits.
Of course, there are dozens, probably hundreds of great cover songs tucked quietly onto artists’ albums of otherwise original material. The most famous examples are probably Jimi Hendrix’s anarchic version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Ike and Tina Turner’s rousing rendition of Creedence’s “Proud Mary” and Joe Cocker’s Woodstock moment, “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
I’ll conclude this column with a random sampling of 15 covers I strongly recommend you check out. I’ve focused on covers of songs you will likely already know. Hope you enjoy your listening search!
And by the way, I LOVE Feliciano’s “Light My Fire.” So smooth…
I hope that “covers” it. (Groan…)
The Sundays, “Wild Horses” (1992) — original by The Rolling Stones, 1971
Simply Red, “The Air That I Breathe” (1998) — original by The Hollies, 1974
Lissie, “Go Your Own Way” (2013) — original by Fleetwood Mac, 1977
Bonnie Raitt, “Right Down the Line” (2012) — original by Gerry Rafferty, 1978
Kenny Rankin, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (1976) — original by The Beatles, 1968
The Civil Wars, “Billie Jean” (2011) — original by Michael Jackson, 1983
Counting Crows, “Big Yellow Taxi” (2002) — original by Joni Mitchell, 1970
Carlos Santana, “Riders on the Storm” (2010) — original by The Doors, 1971
Haley Reinhart, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (2016) — original by Elvis Presley, 1963
Eric Clapton, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1992) — original by Bob Dylan, 1963
10,000 Maniacs/Michael Stipe, “To Sir With Love” (1993) — original by Lulu, 1967
Aaron Krause/Liza Anne, “Every Breath You Take” (2013) — original by The Police, 1983
James McCartney, “Old Man” (2011) — original by Neil Young, 1972
Bryan Ferry, “I Put a Spell on You” (1993) — original by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, 1958
Keb’ Mo’, “Get Together” (2004) — original by The Youngbloods, 1969
and a bonus track!
Emily Hackett & Megan Davies, “Royals” (2014) — original by Lorde, 2013