Even Better Than the Real Thing?
I’LL kick off this feature by promising one thing…
IN THIS PHOTO: Whitney Houston
it will not feature anything by U2. That is not a disparaging remark against them but a way of explaining the title – I thought it was pretty apt! There have been many features that look at cover versions and the best over time. You might think there is nothing to add to that well-trodden garden but, to me, I felt I had to have my say. I have looked at the best cover versions before but, with new musicians coming through, you get older songs provided new life and sheen. It seems like a rite-of-passage for every new artist to cover at least one song from another artist. Even Bob Dylan started his career by tackling older Blues standards. It is not to say (the artist) has a lack of original material; they have the right to explore another musician’s work and put their stamp on it. Of course, there have been some truly God-awful cover versions that should be consigned to a septic tank of crap for eternity. I shall not name-and-shame those culpable – lest that song riddles my brain like a disease – but wanted to select the five songs that, to me, top the original. That ability to take an established song and reinvent it; that is tough and challenging. When you get it right, as we will see, the effects are truly astounding.
Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah (Grace, 1994); Original by Leonard Cohen (Various Positions, 1984)
It seems rather odd that four-fifths of the artists in my list have a forename that begins with the letter J. I had to start with the best because, for me, it is what a cover version should be. Not only does it sound reborn and improved: it makes you recognise the genius who created it. Hallelujah was never a bad song to begin with. A Leonard Cohen track could never be poor but the issue with Hallelujah was the delivery and composition. The perfect lyrics were provided a rather gravelled, droned vocal and synth.-heavy sound that is definitely something of the 1980s. Maybe it was the best Cohen could do; perhaps the song was never intended to be a huge album standout. Various Positions is renowned for its whole rather than standout tracks. Cohen took, it is said, years to create the song: constantly rewriting and wrestling with the words; revising verses and struggling to put it all together. What you have is a majestic track that looks at sex, religion and… pretty much everything! Jeff Buckley came to the track via an unlikely source: The Velvet Underground’s John Cale. He performed a version of the track closer to Buckley’s version. Upon hearing this, the sadly-departed American would use it as the centrepiece of his masterful lone album, Grace. The track was being worked on in live gigs the years before the album: he was playing it to small crowds and interpreting it in his own way. The version we hear on Grace is a moment of utter transcendence and timeless beauty. Credit to Cohen for providing the words but the emphasis is with Buckley: that sensational, divine vocal performance and beguiling purity. Buckley intended his version to be a celebration of the orgasm – perhaps not what Cohen intended when he wrote it. Like its author’s fastidious perfectionism; Buckley would record various versions, chasing that perfect take – a manlier, rawer version was scrapped but favoured by Buckley in hindsight. Producer Andy Wallace, knowing a version has to go down, compiled a few takes and put them into that performance we hear. Jeff Buckley’s take on Hallelujah has been tackled many times – from talent show rejects to Rufus Wainwright – but none have equalled his spine-tingling, definitive reading.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – All Along the Watchtower (Electric Ladyland, 1968); Original by Bob Dylan (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
You can’t have a list of the best cover versions without mentioning The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s blistering rendition of Bob Dylan’s, All Along the Watchtower. Like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; there is a sense of underwhelming when Dylan performed All Along the Watchtower. Of course, like Cohen, you can never accuse Dylan of half-hearted delivery or an average song. The lyrics and performance are great but perhaps do not leap from the speakers. The John Wesley Harding is one of was the last studio album from Blonde on Blonde – part of that extraordinary period for Dylan. Perhaps not quite as life-changing as Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited – it is an album that stands the test of time and showcases what an enormous talent Dylan is. After the success of 1967’s Are You Experienced; Axis: Bold as Love continued that spirit and highlighted Jimi Hendrix as one of the finest guitarist-songwriters in the world. There must have been something in the air in the 1960s. Not only did Dylan create peerless album after the next: Hendrix was in the middle of a hot streak that would conclude with Electric Ladyland. Coming back to Axis: Bold as Love and its undisputed standout track is Hendrix’s reworking of All Along the Watchtower. A song that, in Dylan’s hands, was a pleasant and passive track is turned into a fire-roaring beast and war: a hellacious exorcism and phantasmagorical orgy of the senses. It is not just Hendrix’s staggering guitar chops that stand in the mind. His vocals are raw and primal; the percussion and bass (Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding respectively) perfectly backed Hendrix and provided the much-needed grit and atmosphere the Dylan original lacked. Put all of this together and you have a song that sounds like a Hendrix original. It is so detached from the Dylan original you’d have a hard time putting them together. Perhaps that is the sign of a great cover: making it your own and difficult to link to its origins. One thing that surprises me is how soon Hendrix’s version followed Dylan’s – there was only a year in it. He must have heard something in the song that spoke to him. Few could have predicted what Jimi Hendrix would do with the track: it remains one of those cover versions impossible to fault. One of the greatest credits is the fact Dylan’s live version of the song is closer to Hendrix’s interpretation than his own (on the album).
Joe Cocker – With a Little Help from My Friends (With a Little Help from My Friends 1969); Original by The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
I apologise this list consists of artists that are no longer with us (in terms of those covering the songs mentioned). It was not my intention, but I guess, it gives you an indication as to the age of the cover. In terms of Joe Cocker, he covered The Beatles’ classic track for his debut album, With a Little Help from My Friends. The Beatles’ version is filled with bonhomie, drug references and a rare Ringo Starr lead vocal. On an album as immense as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it manages to stand out with its uniqueness and humour. It is a feel-good song that makes you smile and sing along. In the same way Hendrix took a Dylan song and transformed it into a rapturous avalanche: Joe Cocker took Lennon and McCartney’s track and created something raw and intoxicating. His debut album took standard from other artists and reinvented them. Not only has Cocker’s version (of the song) scored The Wonder Years – remember that?! – but saw him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Listen to the song and you hear Cocker’s full histrionic range. From the gentle, contemplative start to the explosive, riotous chorus; it is an immense performance that few other artists could manage. In a way, it makes you reimagine the song and see it in a different light. The originally makes you think of the four Beatles larking about and, well, smoking a bit of weed. It is an uplifting song that looks at a particular friendship and bond between four musicians – with a little help from something a little ‘stronger’. Cocker’s version takes the song somewhere new: stretches it and applies it to the whole world. It is an anthem for everyone. You get such a different emotion and feeling from Joe Cocker’s vocal. He turns it into something painful and harrowing at times; it is more desperate, open and revealing than the original. Even this many years down the line, I find myself preferring Cocker’s sublime performance. When I put it up against The Beatles’ take, the two songs sound completely unlike. That is the mark of a great song: you cannot imagine anyone else singing it. The common thread between the first three songs on this list is the stature of the originator. It seems to be the way people can take a song by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and The Beatles and improve on them – that would seem baffling at the time but has proven to be the case. I guess their music has that incredible quality but room for manoeuvre and improvement. Joe Cocker was struck by The Beatles’ With A Little Help from My Friends and saw something in it. What we have is a marvellous song that showed just how powerful and potent a cover song could be.
Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You (The Bodyguard Soundtrack, 1992); Original by Dolly Parton (Jolene, 1974)
I am afraid these last two entries will be filled with poignancy. Aside from it being a rather morbid rundown of musicians; I often think of Whitney Houston and feel sad. She was one of those artists that had immense potential and left us too soon – something we often say about so many musicians. In her case, it is that wondrous voice that, through her career, has managed to inspire a generation of singers. Perhaps she is more influential to female vocalists but I review plenty of chaps who have an essence of Whitney Houston. She has produced so many fantastic performances through her career but none as immediate and timeless as I Will Always Love You. Like Joe Cocker’s take on a Beatles classic; here, Houston takes a wonderful song from (the wonderful) Dolly Parton and takes it through the ceiling. If you have not seen The Bodyguard – not the sort of film I would want to see as a nine-year-old – you would have heard the song. Parton wrote the song for her staggering album, Jolene. As you might have guessed, a certain other standard was penned for that record. I Will Always Love You, as Parton envisaged, is a tender and heartfelt song that very much plays in the Country wheel. The verses are tender and trembling whilst the chorus contains enough passion and devotion to fill the emptiest of hearts. When Houston got hold of it, you hear all of that amplified and multiplied. The chorus is one of the most unforgettable and soulful I have ever heard. It is the sound that launched singers like Adele: she must have heard that song and felt, in some way, it was who she wanted to be. It is the sound of a young woman on her knees in the throes of love and affection. It is hard to explain just how powerful the song is. Even now, I hear – not that I watch it first-hand – talent show winners mimic the song and try to capture the sound/essence of that song – they never get close and far too reliant on ululation. Whitney Houston was that rare singer who could shake the walls but drop you to your knees with beauty and seductive tones. That is a rare gift and one that has compelled modern singers like Adele, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys.
Johnny Cash – Hurt (American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002); Original by Nine Inch Nails (The Downward Spiral, 1994)
I said it would be a poignant collection. In terms of Johnny Cash – no longer with us – and the legacy he leaves; the emotions one hears from his version of Hurt – it provokes tears and reaction from everyone who hears it. It may not be the most original inclusion on a list of cover versions: the reason is because it is a fantastic version. It is one of those covers where a lot of people would have missed the original. Trent Reznor, the band’s lead and songwriter, found himself changing his ways of working as The Downward Spiral’s release date was held back. Reznor was quick to write but it was judged the band should sound different to previous albums, Reznor was learning new techniques and suffered writing block during the recording process. With Interscope hounding for a release date, the album could have been a mess: as it is, it remains one of the band’s biggest statements and a classic fourteen-track album that helped define the 1990s. Hurt, the album’s closer, is interpreted as a suicide note from the protagonist. Maybe it is about general depression but not the kind of song you’d have as the first dance at your wedding. The song received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Song in 1996 but lost out to Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know – gutting, in more than one way! Johnny Cash picked up the song eight years after its original release. American IV: The Man Comes Around was released shortly before Cash’s death, and because of that, carries a lot of weight and sombreness. The collection (of, mainly, covers) is an ailing legend looking back at life and producing his last recordings. Hurt, originally that tortured last-gasp of life, is given a more spiritual and nuanced nature in Cash’s hands. His voice is at its grave and mesmeric best; the song’s video – much-mentioned and startling – is as heartbreaking and affecting as it gets. You listen to the song and realise it no longer belongs to Nine Inch Nails. Reznor himself was so stunned when he heard the version he renounced ownership and realised Johnny Cash owned it. Tears came and emotion struck: few artists can say that when artists choose to cover their songs.
As you can see, there have been some magnificent cover versions over the years. In the last few years, it has become harder to match the best of all time. Maybe there are too many new artists covering songs – making it hard to separate the best from the merely-average. That said, I am hearing a lot of great cover versions that proves there is plenty of talent out there. What I love about a cover version is the fact you can take a song that might not have been heard for a while and bring it into the public forum. If you get it right, it can inspire other musicians to tackle other songs; compel fans to investigate the original artist. It is a forum that will continue and I am intrigued by modern artists and the songs they choose to cover. No matter what your top-five are, there are so many legendary cover versions out there worth time and attention. It makes me wonder, when looking at modern music, if we see a current artist that…
WILL reach those epic heights?