5 Cover Songs That Deserve More Praise Than The Original
Remember how I wrote that thing last week, and you were all really nice to me? I sincerely appreciate it. Now let's restore some balance to this relationship.
Cover songs are a contentious thing. Kind of like when the cartoons from your childhood get remade into terrible movies. The only difference being that, on occasion, people who complain about a song being turned into something terrible have a good point, whereas those cartoons have always been dumb, but we were too young and naive to realize it.
Songs tend to age a little better than animated shows about action figures, though, so in a lot of cases, remaking them seems completely unnecessary. If you can't do it better, why do it at all? Well, sometimes those covers are better, for a whole host of reasons. We talk about a few cover songs that outdid the originals on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by my Cracked coworkers Alex Schmidt and Randall Maynard. That's also what I'm talking about in this column today. Who would have seen that coming?
If this premise seems oddly familiar, that's because it was already written once by my friend, coworker, and favorite science fiction writer, Robert Brockway. In his version, he made it a point to not be especially negative or derogatory toward the original versions of the songs. He explained that it's not that the cover versions are better; it's just that they have some intangible quality that makes them sound more appropriate in the hands of another performer. If you've read literally anything I've ever written, you know this is going to be a challenge for me. I'm kind of an asshole. Nevertheless, let's get to it!
Ryan Adams, "Wonderwall" (Oasis Cover)
See, this isn't that bad so far, is it? Unless you're me or one of approximately 12 other people in the United States, you don't give a shit about Oasis anyway. What do you care if some Internet writer implies that another artist has assumed custody of their most famous song?
Also, I accept that almost none of that applies if you live in England, where Oasis was a dream that lived on well into the 2000s. They were huge before "Wonderwall" over there, if you can imagine such a thing.
Now, please remember that I'm definitely not saying this is a bad song. It's a great song! It's not my favo(u)rite Oasis song (that would be "Slide Away," in case you're wondering, which you're not), but it's great nonetheless. It even has the distinction of being one of those rare tunes that people are sometimes accused of stealing from Oasis. In fact I'm certain it's the only song anyone ever steals from Oasis, seeing as how every other Oasis song sounds exactly like a song someone else wrote in the '60s.
As great as the original version of "Wonderwall" may be, Liam Gallagher isn't the best at conveying the emotion behind a song, even though he's a perfectly decent singer. Unless it's outright anger or anything else that might warrant the use of the word "coont," he's never gone out of his way to sound like anything more than Liam Gallagher singing lyrics written by his brother. While that's exploited and used to great effect on a lot of their better songs, it just makes "Wonderwall" sound needlessly ambiguous. Is he happy? Is he sad? Did the girl screw him over? Did he screw her over? What the motherfuck is a "Wonderwall" anyway?
It's a George Harrison album!
With the exception of that last one, the Ryan Adams version answers all of those questions. He's sad, he's fucked up, he's in need of saving ... it's all really clear from the moment the song starts. Sure, the lyrics mostly still make zero sense, but at least the clues we have to work with this time around are a bit more definitive.
I'm not the only one who thinks it's an improvement on the original. Noel Gallagher, who actually wrote "Wonderwall," told Spin Magazine that he's always felt the original was "too fast or too slow" and that Adams is "the only person who got that song right." He even took to performing a stripped-down version of the song in concert that he acknowledged was based heavily on the cover.
Okay, now everyone go back to not caring about Oasis! We have a slightly more controversial pick to discuss.
Alex Chilton, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (Rolling Stones Cover)
Easy! Take it easy! I know this is upsetting. The Rolling Stones are one of the most beloved bands in the history of the world, and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is one of their most enduring songs. It's been covered countless times. There are movies named in its honor. It is classic. It is timeless.
It is also the product of sheer coincidence. As legend has it, the title came about when Mick Jagger was startled by the sound of a gardener walking outside past a window. He asked Keith what the ruckus was all about and was told, presumably in an almost indecipherable mumble, "Oh, that's Jack -- Jumpin' Jack."
So, that's stupid. I mean, it's a cute story, but the rest, apparently, is just that the lyrics "evolved from there." At certain points, Mick Jagger has hinted that the song is about "coming out of all that acid stuff." In other words, no one has any fucking clue.
"Who's asking questions and what for????"
That's fine, though! Sometimes that's all great songs are -- just words and music that sound good together for no discernible reason and with no clear message or intent. Like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, for example. The lyrics are gibberish and the title only happened because Kurt Cobain mistook the name of a deodorant brand as something profound. But since it has the word "teen" in its name and the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic makes it sound kind of angst-y, it became the national anthem for mopey motherfuckers the world over.
Again, that's fine. When you leave a song so open for interpretation, you run the risk of people taking it in directions you never intended. I'm sure your hippy parents ascribed some kind of bigger meaning to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at the time of its release, just as I am sure that they forgot all about what that meaning might have been the second they abandoned their dreams and ideals in favor of earning enough money to buy you an Atari, you spoiled, 30-something jerk.
What all that means, though, is that we get to interpret songs like "Jumpin' Jack Flash" however the hell we want. Call me crazy, but something about the song -- perhaps the fact that it's sung completely in first person -- makes it feel like a guy telling us his story. He shares a name with the song, after all.
When I listen to the Rolling Stones version, as fantastic as it is, I can't see that guy. I can't picture what he looks like in my head. Yes, it sounds like he had it rough at some point, but that song is also upbeat as all get out. There's a piano and backing vocals and it all sounds like a hell of a lot of fun, but when I picture what's happening in my head, all I see is Mick Jagger singing in front of his band.
The Alex Chilton version, on the other hand, sounds way more like a dude sharing his backstory. It's stripped down. It sounds dark. It sounds confessional. I can see the subject of that song in my head, and he's not wagging his finger like a schoolmarm or grinding against the leather-draped skeleton of Keith Richards while wearing velvet pants. He's seen some shit. He's tough. He's a character. He's probably wearing an Army jacket. He'll stab you in a bar fight.
He's Jumpin' Jack Flash. Whatever the fuck that means.
Drive-By Truckers, "Strutter" (Kiss Cover)
Okay, I know I'm supposed to not disparage the original versions of these songs, but that's a commitment I'm not going to be able to keep in this case. I've always been of the opinion that any Kiss cover begins with someone asking, "Hey, what would happen if we took a Kiss song and made it good?"
I honestly could've put any cover of any Kiss song here. I picked this one because I like the band who covered it a whole lot. But it really doesn't matter. Has Nickelback ever covered a Kiss song? If so, I like the Nickelback version way better.
It's not that I think Kiss is a bad band; it's more that I barely think of them as a band at all. Every time I hear a good Kiss song, I'm kind of bummed it's a Kiss song. I daydream about what it would sound like in the hands of a band that cared about what their music sounds like. That's why there are so many great Kiss covers in this world. As long as your entire band doesn't suffer a stroke mid-song, you'll probably do a better job than Kiss.
Again, this pick mostly amounts to me choosing my favorite from a wide variety of possibilities. I picked this one because the Drive-By Truckers are one of my favorite bands. Now, you'll note that, for the most part, their version of "Strutter" doesn't vary too wildly from the Kiss version. That's the thing about Kiss covers: They almost never stray from the basic sound and structure of the original song. You don't have to reinvent the wheel to make a great Kiss cover -- you just have to play that song without being Kiss.
That holds up with any number of famous examples. Take the Replacements cover ...
... of the Kiss classic "Black Diamond" ...
... for example. Again, not a whole lot different than the Kiss version. It's just better by virtue of not being a Kiss song.
And don't even get me started on the Megadeth cover of "Strange Ways."
So great. The Kiss version, on the other hand ...
... sounds corny as shit. A lot of Kiss songs do. Most Kiss songs. It's hard to hear their music without thinking about it all as one decades-long commercial for various Kiss-related merchandise and memorabilia. Everything they do is covered in a layer of grossness that comes with knowing that, at the end of the day, all they really care about is your money.
Sure, that's true of damn near every band these days, but at least those bands are way less honest about it. It's those lies that make their versions of Kiss songs so much better.
A Group Called Smith, "Baby, It's You" (Shirelles Cover)
The Shirelles' version of "Baby, It's You" suffers in part from simply being a product of its time. It was released in 1961, a time when almost every song, no matter the subject matter, would be overdubbed with barbershop quartets and backup singers harmonizing on all manner of bop-shooby-doo-wop type of shit. It could be a song about someone dying in a car crash, and it wouldn't matter -- at some point, four dads were going to pop in and do some backup crooning. Or at the very least, there were going to be an unreasonable number of "sha-la-la-las" thrown around.
That's what happens on "Baby It's You" by the Shirelles. It's an otherwise great song mired in a bunch of useless backup vocals that just take attention away from its spirit. It's like being in a room where you know everyone's sad, but they're trying really hard to hide it.
You might know it better as a Beatles song, which was recorded when they were mostly a band of R&B-ballad-covering pussies ...
... so it's still kind of corny and awful.
This song has been recorded by dozens of artists, but it only took three before someone did it the justice it so rightly deserved. A Group Called Smith recorded their version of "Baby, It's You" in 1969. We as a country had more than worked the "sha-la-la-la-las" out of our system by that point. Their version is dark. It's intense. You can feel the longing that the lyrics are trying to convey.
This version of the song actually hit #5 on the Billboard charts at the time of its release, but I won't pretend to be cool enough to have heard it or been familiar with it before anyone else my age. Like everyone else, I first heard it in Quentin Tarantino's half of the Grindhouse double feature, Death Proof.
No, it's not the scene where Vanessa Ferlito gives Kurt Russell a lap dance, in case that has any bearing on whether or not you actually watch the video. Feel free to just trust me when I say the song was in that movie.
Nirvana, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" (Leadbelly Cover)
Callback alert! In his version of this column, Brockway discussed the Nirvana cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," which was recorded for their famous appearance on MTV Unplugged. I'm on board with that. I'd go so far as to say every cover from that performance (there were a lot) was at least somewhat of an improvement over the original.
For me, none stands out more than their take on Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?". Yes, I understand that challenging such an iconic summer jam from your childhood won't sit well with some people, but please, just hear me out.
Did you get the joke in that last sentence? No? Well, that's because it wasn't that great of a joke. It was mostly just me being sarcastic about the fact that the version of this song that Nirvana covered was recorded and released in the 1940s. That almost makes including it here cheating. The Leadbelly version, while it does have a kind of haunting quality to it, sounds like it was recorded by placing a boombox 25-30 feet away from a dude singing on his porch. For a lot of people under the age of, say, 70 or so, that's a dealbreaker in terms of entertainment quality.
Not only does Nirvana have modern instrumentation and recording techniques on their side, but the circumstances that were unfolding around the band, especially Kurt Cobain, gives their version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" an air of (absurdly unfortunate) appropriateness that the Leadbelly version lacks. This is a song about a guy committing unspeakable acts of violence, up to and including suicide, because of an unfaithful woman. If that Montage Of Heck HBO documentary is to be believed, Kurt Cobain was very much that guy.
Of course, with that being a project overseen mostly by Courtney Love, that "if" is a gigantic one.
By a show of hands, who here probably had their spouse murdered?
At least one person who was familiar with the situation has called bullshit on her version of events, and there are just as many documentaries that theorize she had him killed as there are ones that take the suicide angle.
Still, no matter the details, this is a man who would face a violent death a few short months later making his last public recording, and it's a song about dying a violent death. That's heavy.
Beyond that, it's just a really great performance. Cobain famously refrained from screaming (a trademark of his "singing" style) for the entirety of that show, only to unleash it all at the very end of this song. Powerful stuff. It was the perfect end to a great career.
Well, I mean, it could have been better, obviously, but you get what I mean.
Adam is on Twitter, you should follow him there @adamtodbrown.
For more from Adam, check out 6 Reasons Fear Of Abandonment Will Ruin Your Life and 5 Ways Your Life Changes When You're (Voluntarily) Homeless.