Have you ever heard Chris Cornell's cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"? How about Marilyn Manson's version of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams"? No? What about Naked Eyes doing Dionne Warwick's "Always Something There to Remind Me"? Well, those are some of my favorite covers of all time, great examples of how artists reinterpreted an old song, simultaneously honoring the original while creating something new. Indeed, Cracked's Robert Brockway, author of RX, did a whole column about covers that surpassed the original. (Thanks, Robert, for introducing me to Shatner's "Common People," and please eat hot death for what you said about Nirvana improving upon Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World").
I'm sorry, Brock. As the only two Cracked columnists who can grow a beard, we shouldn't fight.
But there are also covers that are mad celebrations of mediocrity -- covers that add absolutely nothing new and are successes merely for the artists' ability to ape everything that was good about the originals. Here are five covers, competently played, but with shockingly little imagination. Not awful, painful covers like Ellie Goulding doing Elton John's "Your Song," but covers so devoid of imagination, you wonder why they even bothered.
The year was 1973. The band was Michigan's Brownsville Station. The song was "Smokin' in the Boys Room." That's right, Brownsville Station. Not Foghat or Grand Funk Railroad. Brownsville Station. And they wrote an anthem for teenage derelicts everywhere. Finally, a song that spoke to all the high school delinquents who said, "Screw you, old man. You're not stopping me from my constitutional right to get lung cancer near fecal matter!"
"Smokin' in the Boys Room" reached No. 3 on Billboard:
Flash forward 12 years. Every teenager who loved that song is now pushing 30. Some of them are dead, having been beaten to death outside of pool halls after gambling incidents. Others died in factory mishaps during spot-welding accidents. And some moved on with their lives and said things like "Wow, I used to like that song." The point being, in 1985, there was a whole new group of classic rock teenagers who were all about sticking it to their crusty old principal. That's where Motley Crue came in. Finally, a song that was perfectly suited to Vince Neil's ability to not being able to write lyrics or sing many notes! It was all right there. Motley Crue released their version (and by "version" I mean pretty much the exact same thing played in the exact same way) and got a top 40 hit out of it.
Things were tough for the Guess Who. They were from Canada, so right there, they were starting with one foot in the hole. Then they had just an awful name, considering that one of the biggest bands in rock history was already called the Who. Notwithstanding these setbacks, they established a decent chart presence in the early '70s with "These Eyes," "No Sugar Tonight" and "American Woman." Although the latter song is sorta lacking a bridge or chorus or more than five lyrics, it's still a rock classic.
In 2000, Lenny Kravitz had a brilliant idea. After over 10 years of writing songs that sounded like diluted ripoffs of the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, Lenny finally realized that he could just cover other people's material. Even better, he could do it in such an unimaginative and uninspired fashion that no one would be able to accuse him of having any creativity whatsoever. Re-imagining? That's for losers. Why not employ all the creativity of a New Jersey wedding band and secure yourself a hit?
Hey, do you know the Byrds? "Before my time, old man," you say. "Me too," I reply, considering that I'm not 60. Then I continue, because I hate you and I'm not done shaming you, "I didn't know there was a statute of limitations on knowledge. When are they gonna finally start burning all the books released more than 20 years ago?" Ooh, feel that, Internet? Yes, it's called shame. I know that concept is also before your time, but it has a purpose.
In any event, the Byrds were an important '60s rock band, and if you've ever seen a movie about the '60s, you've no doubt heard their songs in the soundtrack. Songs like "Eight Miles High," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" and "My Back Pages" are all synonymous with montages of Lennon sunglasses, peace signs and soldiers going off to 'Nam. The Byrds were no strangers to covers. Some of their biggest hits (like two of the songs above) were covers of Bob Dylan songs, but they brought out a melodic sophistication only hinted at in the originals. One of their bigger hits of original material, however, was 1965's "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better." Take a listen, won't you?
Now jump ahead 20 years. Rock and roll superstar and Byrds fan Tom Petty decides to cover a Byrds song for his wildly successful Full Moon Fever album. "Before my time, old man." Shut your whore mouth, Internet. I swear, I'm going to murder you. I don't care if it's before your time. You know this album, and if you don't, you should. It's one of the best-selling albums ever, it was produced and co-written by Jeff Lynne and there is no way you've made it through malls or Supercuts or life without hearing "Free Fallin'." Seriously. Shut up.
In any event, I'd have to imagine that covering a song by a band known for masterful covers would be daunting. How to reinvent the song? Well, if you're Tom Petty, the solution is to redo the song in what might be the most faithful cover ever recorded. It's super hard to tell them apart. I shouldn't be too hard on Tom, considering that I'm guessing he did this to earn some more publishing royalties for one of his biggest influences, and because he's fucking Tom Petty, but it has to be on this list because I can't think of another cover that is harder to distinguish from the original.
If you'd sat me down in a room last year and told me that I was going to write about Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" two times in 2012, I would have said ... well, wait a second. Are you hot? If you're hot, I probably would have said, "Hey, baby, we're in a room and I'm already sitting, if you know what I mean." Then I would have offered up my lap like a big papa bear waiting for you to sashay your way over in nothing but clear heels and a bikini with a Betty Page leopard print. But that's really not the point, and I wish you wouldn't distract me with your wanton sexuality while I'm trying to deliver journalistic excellence in list form so you can amaze and delight your friends with bite-sized insights and factoids that you won't bother to credit me with, or, worse yet, will mistakenly attribute to Ian Fortey.
In any event, in 1974, Harry Chapin wrote the ultimate song about absentee dads. Morons think it's a Cat Stevens song because the word "cat" is in it and because Cat Stevens had a song called "Father and Son." It's not. Similarly, Madonna didn't write "Lady Madonna" by the Beatles and Suzanne Vega didn't write Pat Benatar's "Hell Is for Children," even though she also has a song about child abuse, called "Luka." Anyway, here it is:
In 1992, California's Ugly Kid Joe was knee-deep in not being very talented and not having hit records. The solution to the problem was obvious: do a cover. But what if some of their signature, completely not interesting sound were to infect the Chapin classic, making it less appealing to people who had ears? Problem solved. Don't change a thing.
For the number one spot, I'm switching the order, presenting the cover first. Are you one of the close to 9 million people who have listened to Pink's new hit on YouTube? I have to admit, it's pretty damn catchy, and the video is pretty great. Somehow, Pink has managed to stay relevant and popular for over a decade even though she has a merely adequate voice, has a very limited writing ability and is not the sexiest thing ever to set foot onstage. I've become kind of fascinated with her lately. Somehow, in this age of diminished expectations, just not sucking has become a virtue. She hasn't thrown her career away with tantrums or drug abuse, and she hasn't repeated herself over and over until she's worn out her welcome.
Her fans will say that her staying power is due to the fact that "she doesn't give a shit," and I'm sure that's part of the appeal, but how many badass rocker girls have affected that persona and quickly gone away, or worse yet, married the lead singer of Nickelback? I'm guessing Pink's secret is her sensibility. Years ago, she had the good sense to hook up with Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes fame, who wrote a bunch of her songs. And in the case of her latest hit, she picked some strong material:
Now, I wasn't under the illusion that Pink wrote "Try," but I was a little surprised to find out that it was a cover. "Try" was released on an EP by the band GoNorthToGoSouth and was written by Michael "busbee" Busbee. What did surprise me, however, was that the production of the original sounds almost identical, even down to the ethereal piano opening.
Unlike the other songs on this list, however, this cover doesn't piss me off. Although busbee has released material on his own and with his band, he's more of a behind-the-scenes guy, working with people ranging from Justin Timberlake to Liz Phair. So when he releases music, it seems mostly designed for the purposes of being heard by industry people. More-established acts covering his material is the best thing that can happen to him financially. And as opposed to the other songs, where a new hit came from banking on a once popular song that people had forgotten, here, Pink had the good sense to recognize the commercial potential of a largely unknown song. And busbee got to see his music presented to a large audience with almost no change in arrangement. Indeed, Pink was so faithful that, just like busbee, she also can't vocally nail the high end that the song is dying for in the final chorus.
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