Covers are strange beasts. They can either bore us by rehashing the original version of a song in ridiculously exacting fanboy/girl detail, or they can bring something entirely new and different to a song– essentially, breathe new life into a piece of music we thought we knew. Without covers, it’s hard to say where music would be. Covers were absolutely critical to the development of a multitude of now-legendary musical acts. In particular, the early 60s British Invasion scene sprang up from homegrown skiffle and covers of early American rock n’ roll, R&B, and blues songs.
Some songs were covered over and over again– “Louie Louie” (albeit with big variations in lyrics– originally written by Richard Berry in 1955), “Gloria” (originally by Them), “Love in Vain” (one of many now-standard tracks by Robert Johnson), King Bee (originally a Slim Harpo number)– the list is endless, although it varies somewhat across the years. Now a lot of covers are rather predictable. When we know how many years young Eric Clapton spent drooling over Howlin’ Wolf, we aren’t surprised when he does “Killing Floor.” We’re not even surprised when The Sex Pistols do “Substitute.”
But then there are those “what are you thinking?” covers that seem entirely off-the-wall, illogical, and unexpected. And while those covers can be ridiculous trainwrecks, they can also revolutionize the way we think of a song. The list I’ve compiled here is in no way complete– just a small sampling of many decades of unlikely covers
I’ll start off with a whopper.
Sid Vicious- “My Way”
Why it does(n’t) make sense: Nothing I say can possibly say will do justice to how much this doesn’t make sense. It’s bloody Sinatra sung by an ex-Sex Pistol unmusician. The lyrics are different, thankfully (or not thankfully depending on whose side you’re on, because they’re pretty brutal), but that does not change the fact that it is perhaps Sinatra’s most legendary standard. Everyone… Sid Vicious ≠ Frank Sinatra any way you look at it. I’d be glad to go into further detail, but there’s almost too much to say.
Why it works: I wonder. In writing this article, I’m on my ninth play in a row, and I’m still ascertaining that myself. This recording emphasizes something that was very much Punk– despite the sneering and the eighth notes, it’s still “My Way.” I believe that Punk never strayed all that far from its rock n’ roll roots (perhaps someday I’ll post that essay…), and this song is a perfect example of that. When you really look even at the original words, they’re honestly on the smug side, but it took a skinny, homicidal punk to give it some real bite. There is some strange black magic in this track. And Sid actually doesn’t sound half-bad, as Punk vocals go.
Johnny Cash- “Hurt”
Why it does(n’t) make sense: I don’t know about you, but when I think about the archetypical American country singer Johnny Cash, I don’t tend to associate him with a band that is often described “industrial rock.” It seems almost like comparing Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, or any two drastically different kinds of fruit. “So what,” you might say. “The Nine Inch Nails have been dusting off their old country records. People can have very unlikely influences.” Well, that would be one thing, but this is not the Nine Inch Nails covering Johnny Cash– it’s Johnny Cash covering a Nine Inch nails song. What?
Why it works: It’s hard to do wrong by such an incredibly beautiful song with heartbreaking lyrics and delicate, gradually ascending instrumentation. Cash’s seventy-one years gives “Hurt” more gravity than the Nine Inch Nails’ original version– also a beautiful track, but without the deep melancholy of the cover. Cash’s low, aging voice seems all at once out of place and perfect for the song. Since even Trent Reznor himself admits that he felt the notion of Cash covering this song was “gimmicky” before hearing the final result, this is a maximally unlikely cover, but one that will stand the test of time– when Johnny Cash died only months after the track was released, this song and the video made for it (which features footage from all through Cash’s career) have become something of a musical epitaph for him.
If this track didn’t completely gut you, the next one is a little more light-hearted:
The Slits- Heard It Through The Grape Vine
Why it does(n’t) make sense: In a weird way, it almost does. One might not immediately picture a Punk/post-Punk group who boasted being “your number one enemy all for the hell of it” covering a Barrett Strong song popularized by Marvin Gaye. Then again we are talking about The Slits, who even in 1979 played a sort of fusion of punk and dub reggae. However, “Heard It Through the Grapevine” seems like a bit of a stretch even considering.
Why it works: People say that the beat can make a song, and maybe that’s the case for The Slits’ version of this Motown standard. It’s completely infectious, clean, and danceable, punctuated by Viv Albertine’s reggae-influenced guitar relatively low in the mix, and Ari Up, who plays with the melody and phrasing just enough to keep it interesting and make it her own. One of my favorite things about the track is, incidentally, Ari’s accent– a cross between Munich, Germany and London, England, which lends a brand new sensibility to lyrics we all thought we knew.
And if you thought this wouldn’t get any more random…
The Ramones- “7 and 7 Is”
Why it does(n’t) make sense: This song was originally recorded by the L.A. psychedelic band Love fronted by Arthur Lee, a seemingly far cry from leather-jacketed punk godfathers. Then again, the geekiest Ramones fans reading this might know what makes this unlikely cover seem almost plausible: Joey grew up a hippie. Before he found what we now consider protopunk music like Alice Cooper and The Stooges, he loved the psychedelic sounds of California in the late 60s– it’s only natural that on The Ramones’ 1993 Acid Eaters album, which consists entirely of cover songs, some of that sensibility would come through.
Why it works: Although people nowadays tend to think of Love as a pure hippie group, they had a lot more raw garage energy than many people realize. The combination of their raw, high-energy song with an incredibly high-energy band is positively relentless. And technical capability be damned, The Ramones’ “7 and 7 Is” definitely holds up. While the band replaces the dynamic garage-psych sensibility of Love’s original with the ferocious pulse they they were famous for from the mid-70s until their very last show, it keeps the spirit of the original (and yeah, slavishly fanboy-copies a few bits) while still giving it something new.
Lastly, one that might not have crossed your mind:
The Beatles- “Boys”
Why it does(n’t) make sense: In 1960, when The Shirelles recorded the original version of “Boys”, you can bet that they didn’t expect that a group of four white boys from Liverpool would be singing it on Shindig only four years later. Especially not without changing lyrics like “well, I talk about boys, now.” Yeah, the Fab Four tweaked the words a little bit, but the point remains the same– Ringo’s still “talkin’ ’bout boys,” and that might not exactly fly for the kind of audience acts like The Beatles were playing to in the early 1960s.
Why it works: The Beatles were one of the acts that made covers like this okay. They didn’t overplay it, they didn’t underplay it, they didn’t make it any sort of gimmick, they just did it. Paul McCartney even said of their recording, “if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song.” What’s more, it was fun, and it was catchy, and both The Shirelles and The Beatles made it danceable and exciting. The Beatles, would go on to change the entire face of popular music by their introduction of what were considered “girl group harmonies,” and this is a great example of what they did with them. It’s no wonder that for better or for worse as the British Invasion wore on, more and more male groups began to tread on girl-group turf.
Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop” covered by Heart
Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song” covered by The Doors
“Little Drummer Boy” covered by David Bowie and Bing Crosby
The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” covered by Santana