Transformative cover songs

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One thing that my partner and I disagree on is cover songs. As often as not, her first exposure to an old song I love is through a cover version made popular much later. Again, as often as not, I find the cover version to be lacking any transformative soul. Often I find them to be desecrating a great old song.

I don’t know how many times we’ve started listening to a song, and she’s said, “I know this song. Sarah Brightman sings it!”

To which my invariable response has been, “Maybe she does, but she didn’t sing it first, and she certainly didn’t write it. How about we enjoy the original singer-songwriter?”

Another example of this is Peter Frampton’s Baby I Love Your Way. The original live recording is to my ears almost perfect, whereas she prefers a cover with a female lead vocal that mixes lyrics from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird (“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”). I suppose mixing two songs should get points for transformation, but it just sounds so corporate, so focus-group driven.

It’s not that I’m against covering other artists’ material. It’s just that I’ve always felt that if you can’t do some creative interpretation of the material, what are you really bringing to it other than fan service or a cheap attempt at fame?

It’s not that I’m against covering other artists’ material. It’s just that I’ve always felt that if you can’t do some creative interpretation of the material, what are you really bringing to it other than fan service or a cheap attempt at fame? My friend’s blues band used to do a kick ass reggae version of Mustang Sally. Tom Jones joined The Art of Noise to make a dance version of Prince’s Kiss. They found something new to bring forward.

So anyway, there are some great, transformative cover versions out there, and I thought I’d mention some of them here.

One way to transform a song is to take a heavy prog rock song and re-imagine it as an acoustic song. Jacob Moon did that brilliantly with Rush’s Subdivisions.

Another way to make your mark on a cover song is by switching the genre radically, as PostModern Jukebox did with Radiohead’s Creep, turning it into a 1950s nightclub torch song.

One very unusual cover is Peponi by the Piano Guys and Alex Boye. Filtering Coldplay’s Paradise through another language and alternative musical influences made an interesting (and at the time, viral) hit.

While Manfred Mann’s cover of Ian Thomas’ The Runner is an incredible uptempo version, the original isn’t really well-known enough to make this list. But Mann’s cover of Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light certainly fits. Although I have to admit that whenever I sing along (usually in the car) I still sing Springsteen’s original lyrics (“Cut loose like a deuce” not “revved up like a deuce.”)

Another song that came to life as a cover version was Like a Hurricane a Neil Young song that Roxy Music often performed live, both de-cluttering it and giving it a sonic fulfilment.

Probably the ultimate example of a fan service cover is Heart’s version of Stairway to Heaven performed at the Kennedy Center in honour of and in front of Led Zeppelin. It’s amazing, it’s over the top, and it’s perfect for what it is. It's easily the next best thing to seeing Led Zep do it themselves.

Let’s end this odd jaunt through memory lane with a bit of trivia. Tommy James and the Shondells had a number of minor hits that became much bigger hits when covered by others - Billy Idol broke big with Mony Mony, Tiffany had possibly her biggest hit with I Think We’re Alone Now, and Joan Jett had a minor hit with her version of Crimson and Clover. Here’s the trivia - Billy idol’s Mony Mony got knocked off the Billboard Pop #1 position by Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now. A Tommy James cover usurped A Tommy James cover. I hope he made a lot of money off those royalties.

So what cover do you think is better than the original (or brings something new to it)?