5 Cover Songs That Stole the Show from the Originals
Let's play a game, where all of the rules are subjective and everybody hates each other by the time it's over.No, not Monopoly: I'm talking about the Stolen Cover Songs Game. The point is to think of a cover song that just completely stole the show from the original artist, not necessarily because of its quality, or arrangement, or performance, but because the cover has an intangible something that more fully embodies what the song should have been. To see if you're on the right track, just pick a cover song and look up its YouTube video: Do the comments consist solely of arguments about which is the better version, interspersed with the most hateful, vitriolic bile human beings have ever spewed at one other? If so, congratulations! You're on the right track.
"Common People": Ben Folds and William Shatner Stole It From Pulp
The original version by British rock band Pulp is catchy, biting and satirical, but it's also kind of hiply aloof. And it really shouldn't be. The soft, airy instrumentals and Cocker's soothing, effete vocals still make the song seem like a condemnation, sure; but it's a half-hearted, almost fond one. That's not in line with the soul of the piece: "Common People" is about lower class rage at the poverty-tourism of hip young rich kids, and yet the wry, clever delivery and synth-pop sensibilities make the original come off more like a pretentious hipster damning the new scenesters who just don't know that Dante's is so over now, rather than the jaded diatribe of a working stiff finally sticking one to a rich girl.
I know this is going to sound ridiculous, impossible, and insane -- this sounds like somebody accidentally transcribed a drunken bet on the back of a sheet of Mad Libs and the ink bled through -- but Ben Folds and William Shatner made a fantastic album together, called Has Been. It's a bizarre orgy of conflicting priorities, equal parts beat poetry, punk rock and midlife crisis. And there is a fucking amazing cover of "Common People" on there. William Shatner delivers the vocals in every way Cocker didn't: He's artless, forthright and furious. The cover is all driving guitars and Cockney screaming while Shatner whiskey-slurs a devastating tirade to an inappropriately young girl whom he wants to bang almost as much as he wants to murder and leave in a river.
You play Pulp's version of "Common People" for that rich girl who keeps coming to your punk house, and she'll take it as kind of a backhanded compliment. She'll think it's cool "that you thought of her at all, you know?" Play Shatner's version for her, and she'll kick you in the nuts and run sobbing back out to her Jetta.
They always have Jettas.
"No One's Gonna Love You": Cee Lo Green Stole It From Band of Horses
I don't want to talk smack about any band; that's not what this game is about. These cover songs aren't objectively better than the originals, and the artists are not superior musicians for having stolen them. It's all just a matter of finding the secret intent in a piece and who can best bring it out.
But that being said: Fuck Band of Horses.
To me, their music sounds like anemic, lifeless heroin wraiths who wake sporadically to strum a guitar for 30 seconds before falling back into a nod. I've never actually made it all the way through this song; I always switch it off after a minute because it's like listening to Paul Simon doing ads for The Gap.
Remember the '80s? The best parts of that decade, admittedly scattered few and far between the neon plastic skateboards and cocaine hair, were the moments when we realized, as a culture, that it was OK to be earnest. To just believe in a thing wholly, without reserve, and put everything you have into it. Steve Perry may have looked like somebody molested a Pee Wee hockey game, got it pregnant and inexplicably decided to keep the baby, but he sung the holy shit out of whatever he performed, and that was kind of awesome.
That's what's happening in this cover: It's so shamelessly, cheesily, ridiculously overdramatic that it circumnavigates all the way around Lame and lands back on the border of Amazing. Cee Lo absolutely killed this song, and I don't mean that in the sense that he "nailed it." No, he somehow reached into the air and wrapped his hands around the intangible concept of "song" and strangled until it stopped kicking.
"The Man Who Sold the World": Nirvana Stole It From David Bowie
Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" is like literally everything else Bowie does -- from albums to bowel movements -- equal parts technically impressive and strangely magical. Musically, it's a warped space calypso where somebody has the balls to use a guiro -- a motherfuckin' guiro! -- and actually pulls it off. Lyrically, it's a vignette about a man meeting either his future self or some kind of pod person and trying to reconcile the man he's become with the man he is. Or else it's about aliens. That's always a safe Bowie-bet: If you don't understand something, aliens did it.
Possibly because they were on alien drugs.
Oh, god, unclench. I can feel your sphincters tightening with indignant rage through the Internet. It's practically audible. Gross.
But remember: This isn't necessarily "cover songs that did it better than the original" or "cover bands that were better performers." This is just "covers that more fully embody the spirit of the song." In this case, it's not that Nirvana did a better job than Bowie at ... well, at pretty much anything in their lives. Nirvana had a huge impact on my teenage years, and I still like them to this day, but they're no Bowie, because ain't nobody is no motherfucking Bowie. You play the Goblin King, you stay the Goblin King. Nobody can step to that.But you have to admit that Kurt Cobain's sulking, weary acoustic performance of "Man who Sold The World" more perfectly embodied the apathetic, depressed and beaten soul of the piece. It was a song about being a sell-out; about this crushed, jaded man-thing who's probably going to throw himself down that stairway when he reaches the top. Bowie's version has a weird but ultimately refined, very British kind of sadness to it. When the song finished, you got the feeling Bowie was going to shed one single, repressed tear into his goblet of Rare Tibetan Eagle Wine. In Nirvana's version, it sounds like bookies are taking odds on which verse suicide is going to knock Cobain out during -- and Kurt's up there trying to throw the fight.
Besides, if the contest is all about embodying the soul of the song -- and the soul of this song is disillusionment, self-hatred and despair -- maybe you should just cede this one to the guy who actually committed suicide and go back to dick-painting supermodels with goldleaf, David Bowie.
"Try a Little Tenderness": Otis Redding Stole It From White People
There were several versions of "Try a Little Tenderness," dating all the way back to the early 1930s. Here's Ray Noble and his Orchestra, performing what sounds like theme music for sad, old-timey hobos to shuffle on down the road to:
Here's a Bing Crosby version from a few years later, most appropriate for cartoon blue jays to listen to while they help Cinderella get ready for the big ball. Later covers would also be performed by Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra and even Rod Stewart. In short, the whitest white people possible have sang this song for nearly a century.
And now for something completely different ...
Holy shit. Turns out "Try a Little Tenderness" was a lot like a Kardashian: It's only really happy with some black in it. It makes complete sense that Otis Redding would steal this song from generations of white people before him. The piece is about a poverty-stricken woman, and the only way to console her is through boning. That is not White Guy problem solving. Our pallid wangs only cause trouble. We whip 'em out and it warrants trials, injunctions and search warrants. No, boner-based healing is the exclusive realm of the black man. Which is why it took Otis Redding to truly understand this song, and he understood it so hard that it walked funny for days.
"Hurt": Johnny Cash Stole It From NiN
Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" was a song about the disillusionment, pain and depression of addiction. As little as I personally cared for or understood Mr. Reznor's music, you have to recognize and concede authenticity when you hear it. And "Hurt" was definitely authentic. It might have been a little trite and overwrought in places, but it was an accurate and unflinching document of serious, deep psychological pain ... that skinny white boys could fuck to. No matter what I'm about to say, Trent Reznor, you need to know that we all really, really appreciated that, man.
Ultimately, "Hurt" was about the fragile psychological state of Trent Reznor -- and wow, it probably did not help matters at all when Johnny Cash roared up on a Harley, stole that manifesto of emotional agony right out of his shaking, bleeding hands, then threw a whiskey bottle at the wall and fell asleep on top of his girlfriend. Yes, you still gave birth to that song, Trent, and we all know it wouldn't exist without you, but it very clearly loves Johnny so, so much more now. Cash's cover was a testament to a lifetime of hard living and regret, from the lips of a man who's lost nearly everything he's ever loved and is now facing down death himself. No matter how real you think shit got in your 20s, your goth/industrial problems are just never going to compare to the lifelong issues of Liquor: The Cowboy. Cash had about five decades of pain on Reznor when he first performed "Hurt"; you're just not fighting in same weight class.
It's tragic, really: You raised that music up as best you could, Trent, and sure you had your problems, but you tried your best and you really loved it. Then mom's cool new boyfriend came along with his speedboat and an autographed picture of that time he met Dolph Lundgren at the driving range and shit, man, you never stood a chance.
If you find that your neurotically chewed, black-painted fingernails are just dancing across the keyboard with rage right now, you should know this is the one entry that cannot be contested. In the words of Mr. Reznor himself:
Game. Set. Cash.
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