Original cover songs?
There are two kinds of cover songs.
In the summertime in the office plaza where I work, there’s a company that throws an annual bash for its staff.
It always looks pretty sweet. There’s beer and soda nestled in tubs of crushed ice under the hot beautiful sun, and there are two long rows of glorious food. You can smell the burgers, and almost taste the luscious salt of the potato chips, and everyone’s kind of lit. So it looks fun.
But it sounds like hell. There’s always some anemic cover band doing trite renditions of Beatles songs and hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Now I totally get nostalgia for classic hits.
But when you have some soulless interpretation done by dudes taking their staleness seriously seriously, I cringe. It embarrasses me. I hightail it past the bandstand, wishing it wasn’t horrifically shitty to cover my ears or throw tomatoes.
Those are bad cover songs.
Original cover songs are a different beast. They’re the ones that are played by talented musicians who take the songs in a new direction that’s super original.
Here are a few.
Cigarettes After Sex: Keep on Loving You (REO Speedwagon)
I never liked the original much. REO Speedwagon was always cheesy to me. (Though I have a fond memory of drinking an Oreo Speedwagon at TGI Friday’s once as a child. I think I liked it so much because a) it was a shake with cookies in it and b) I was proud that I recognized the name as a pun.)
What makes this an original cover is that it’s really nothing like the original-original. It’s moody and atmospheric. It sounds more like Low and Mazzy Star than REO Speedwagon. At the same time, the sound is completely unique to Cigarettes After Sex. For one, the vocalist sings like a chick. But he’s actually a dude, with a throaty voice like a sultry chanteuse. I find it fascinating to enjoy familiar lyrics and rhythms in this entirely new way. It’s like they took seeds from a spindly tree and grew an oak.
Here’s REO Speedwagon’s original.
The Black Angels: I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges)
This is where The Black Angels take a song that fucking rocks and fucking rock it. Like they do. What I find original here is the understatement. The restraint. It’s not constrained, but it’s kind of chilled out. While fucking rocking, as I mentioned.
One of the commenters on this video calls this restraint “hipster disinterest,” which is a phenomenon that I agree certainly exists. But not here. I think this is “we’re stoned, it’s the end of the night, but we’re fucking bringing it.” Christian Bland is milking the hell out of those screaming pedal sounds. And there are, I believe, at least four percussionists at work, including the kickass chick drummer. (See 5:15.) What a spirit of union and harmony. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Here’s The Stooges’ stupendous original.
The Concretes: Miss You (The Rolling Stones)
This one combines moodiness with understatement. It says “I drink alone,” but not in a George Thorogood way. In an aching lovesick way.
Here’s The Rolling Stones’ original. And my favorite special disco version. Plus this seductive edit.
Spacemen 3: Rollercoaster (13th Floor Elevators)
There are a million versions of this cover from S3’s studio albums and their live recordings. They are all spectacular. This one is especially thick with delicious distortion.
Here’s the 13th Floor Elevators’ original. The footage of exotic dancers Janik and Arnaut is also astounding.
Cat Power: Werewolf (Michael Hurley)
Back to moody. The first time I heard this sultry tune was in Almodovar’s Broken Embraces. It was like a siren song.
Here’s Michael Hurley’s splendid original.
Espers: Black Is the Color (Nina Simone)
I got super into Michael Hurley after hearing that Cat Power cover. From there, I ran into Espers, who covered Michael Hurley’s Blue Mountain [Espers | Hurley] on The Weed Tree, their album of mostly covers.
On that album is a glorious version of Blue Oyster Cult’s Flaming Telepaths, as well as this stunning rendition of Nina Simone’s Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair. Meg Baird’s voice is glorious, and they seriously play this violin as if it were my heart. I used to sing this song to my cat The Captain, who had black hair.
Here’s Nina Simone’s original (which the Espers cover sounds nothing like).
Darkside: Planet Caravan (Black Sabbath)
I’m a big fan of the Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington duo. They do these understated tunes of sweet, teasing funk with awesome beats like Heart, A1, and Paper Trails, and then they tuck in this Black Sabbath cover. Instrumentally it’s vastly different from the source material, but it evokes a similar mood.
Here’s the Black Sabbath …. I think I’m gonna call it a masterpiece.
His Name Is Alive: Man on the Silver Mountain (Rainbow)
Speaking of Black Sabbath, I remember playing this song early one morning in the prep kitchen at the Big Boy I worked at, and this awesome metalhead named Tom was like “What’s this church music? This is a Dio song!”
It’s one of those covers that essentially just borrows the lyrics of an existing song, and almost completely rearranges the music.
The HNIA album this is from, Home Is in Your Head, isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s ethereal, sure, and it is weird as fuck. I later had a friend who saw it in a record shop filed under Christian music. But to me there are few albums more gothy. This album was strange, wonderful, and one of the most formative in my adolescence.
Note: If you’re interested in the album as I knew it in 1992, you need the Home Is in Your Head LP as well as The Dirt Eaters EP. They were released together in the US, and flow as a pair like a river.
Here’s the Rainbow original.
Radiohead and Sparklehorse: Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
I’m not a huge Radiohead fan. I like some of the songs of theirs that I’ve heard. Most of the others I think are wanky. But this cover of Wish You Were Here I think is lovely. It’s different, especially with the piano, but it captures the melancholy of one of my favorite songs.
Here’s the Pink Floyd original. I’ve always loved how it builds.
Galaxie 500: Ceremony (Joy Division/New Order)
A lot of YouTube comments are either trollish or stupid, but I think there’s something to this one:
“I like this version. It sounds exactly like being some kids from some lame American town that listen to Joy Division. It is an emotional snapshot of those kids just fucking around, living, and not being very depressed right now because the sun is shining and it’s summer.”
I don’t think Galaxie 500 were from a lame town, but I know what the guy means, and I agree with the emotional snapshot.
Plus the musicianship in this is solid.
Here’s the Joy Division original and the glorious New Order version.
Debussy: Gymnopedie No. 3 (Satie)
Eight years after Erik Satie published his trio of bittersweet Gymnopedies for the piano, Debussy covered Nos. 1 and 3 with full orchestrations of astounding beauty. According to Wikipedia, “By the end of 1896, Satie’s popularity and financial situation were ebbing. Claude Debussy, whose popularity was rising at the time, helped draw public attention to the work of his friend.”
That’s so nice!
I love both versions, but the wind instrument in this one draws you in like warm water. And the strings are a heart-rich melancholy.
Here’s Daniel Varsano playing Satie’s soothing, strange, pensive piano original.
Also I just came across this clarinet and harp rendition of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1. I also like this extra peaceful version of No. 1 from the Kompakt label.
Slowdive: Some Velvet Morning (Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra)
Such a sumptuous bassline to this version. The approach is the same as the Lee and Nancy psychedelic duet: call and response. But Slowdive bring their shoegaze wall of sound.
Here’s the Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra original.
In searching for the Slowdive cover, I came across this, which is an interesting site: SecondHandSongs.
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What are your favorite covers?
Image: Abbey Road, found here. I superimposed the dudes from this fine video onto it.