Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published January 21st 2019
When cover versions outshine originals
Some time ago I wrote a column about what I consider awesome cover songs, one of my earlier ones here at Weekend Notes. Last week, on the back of this, I received an email:
"I always thought Ram Jam did the first version of Black Betty! Never knew someone else might have got there first!" And this got me thinking…
There are a large number of songs people just don't realise are actually cover versions, that some-one else beat them to the punch. So, this column is not necessarily my favourites, but the ones that surprised me the most. And this list is far from definitive, it's personal.
First, I'd like to point out that I did all the research for this back in 2004-ish, and trawled through my notes to find the bare skeleton of the column. You see, back then I used to run quiz nights as a side line, and one of my more popular rounds was called: 'Name the original artist.' The first time I tried it, I used ten songs, and three (!) it turned out I got wrong! (including 'Hound Dog', mentioned in the cover songs column). So the next quiz night, I did my research properly.
Being a quiz night, the questions started easy and went to impossibly difficult, so only 4 of the songs from that 'round' are here (the last four on the list). And the rest are just songs I since discovered in subsequent research are covers (I liked the round but didn't like using the same questions more than once). Now, I have decided only to include actual releases. Not demos, not the song-writer trying it out live before on-selling it to a different artist, not scratchy home recordings, but actual pressed on vinyl (or burnt onto CD… or downloaded as a FLAC file… who says technology is better?) and released to an unsuspecting public proper recordings.
Now a lot of these videos are not originals, mainly because of their vintage, but you can still hear the songs, thanks to the glory that is You Tube!
I hope this sparks something, because it fascinated me no end!
'I Love Rock'n'Roll' – cover: Joan Jett And The Blackhearts (1981); original: The Arrows (1975)
Before I start, if anyone tells you they thought Britney Spears did the original, hit them with a brick*. Joan Jett took the original and made it her own, sure, but the original has that glam rock sort of appeal that is quite a decent little song in its own right. Would it be remembered today had it not been covered? Only by people like me, I guess. I prefer the remake, though – Joan Jett rocks. *Actual violence not encouraged.
Turning a jaunty little disco-pop song into a synth-pop classic was a good decision for Soft Cell. It suited the music of the time and suited the song as well. The delivery changed, as well – Jones sounded like she was singing a song, Marc Almond sounded like he was feeling the song. So, yes, I prefer the 1980s pop version.
Okay, being a fan of Racey and their 1979 album, this didn't surprise me. But it did my current online friend (who inspired the 1979 songs column), so I decided to include it here. Turning Racey's pop tune into a cheerleader call-out suited Toni's voice really well, and she certainly took ownership of the song. But there is something about the original that sounds a little more impassioned. And so, in this case, the original for me.
The original is almost pseudo-punk in its posturing, with its driving guitars and, really, what are quite dark lyrics. But then Natalie came along and turned it into a pop song, though with a deal of emotion in her voice. I think it's that delivery that made people think she was the original artist. So, a very nice interpretation by Natalie, and I prefer hers (though I think Alex Lahey's version is the best, truth be told).
'Achy Breaky Heart' – cover: Billy Ray Cyrus (1992); original: The Marcy Brothers (1991) (as 'Don't Tell My Heart')
Considered amongst the worst charting songs of all time, Billy Ray Cyrus made line dancing briefly a pop culture 'thing' (not a niche activity which, to be honest, is quite a fun workout) with this song. And 'Weird Al' Yankovic's parody is hilarious. But it's a cover? And, stranger still, it's not significantly different from the original? Wow! Look, the song is not great, but it does not deserve the hatred thrown at it (I even wrote about it back in the 2000s… wonder what happened to that magazine?) and is quite harmless. And certainly not as bad as, say, Britney Spears' version of 'I Love Rock'n'Roll'. But these versions are as good as each other; no preference.
'Gloria' – cover: Laura Branigan (1982); original: Umberto Tozzi (1979) (in Italian)
Yes, Laura is credited with the first English version, but it was still a cover. And, strangely, not significantly different from the Italian-language original. This was Laura's debut song, her career cut too short in 2004. I've already mentioned how much of a fan I am of Laura's, and yet the original still has an appeal all its own. Nope – Laura's is better.
'Hanging On The Telephone' – cover: Blondie (1978); original: The Nerves (1976)
This really surprised me when I found out – one of my friends back in 2011 played me the original, which he had on '45. Blondie were in their punk-pop transition period when they released it, and so their interpretation was different enough from the original to stand out and, of course, now it stands as one of their classic songs. But the original has a little more of the punk aesthetic about it, and sounds rawer, the guitars more to the fore, and I prefer it to Blondie's (still quite good) cover.
'Louie Louie' – cover: The Kingsmen (1963); original: Richard Berry And The Pharaohs (1957)
The original was not the song banned for obscenities, it was the cover, because no-one could understand what was being sung! (Mirrored later by the Australian Crawl version…) The cover is more in the garage rock vein that emerged at this time of the 60s, while the original is definitely a mirror to the rock and roll of its time. It's possible the furore surrounding the Kingsmen version at the time helped propel it to more popular status, or it could have been the timing of its delivery, but, really, I do prefer the original.
'Bette Davis Eyes' – cover: Kim Carnes (1981); original: Jackie DeShannon (1975)
Could you get a more different interpretation?! This one really surprised me. Turning what is a strangely upbeat and happy song into a deep, dark pop-synth classic was a good call (ever been to a Blue Light Disco with this being played? The claps from the audience in time with the music were so loud!) as it not only suited Kim Carnes' gravelly voice, but also the music of the time. The original feels wrong listening to it now, and, yes, I definitely prefer the cover version.
'Wild Thing' – cover: The Troggs (1966); original: The Wild Ones (1965)
This is the song that sparked this whole thing. When I discovered that the Troggs had released a cover version, I was stunned. This would have been back in 2004, so I was really late to the party. I had collected (just as something to do) ten versions of 'Wild Thing' by then, but had no idea of the origins of the song. The Troggs, though, really made the song their own and it's hard to imagine anyone else being considered the originators of the track. And, yes, I do prefer the cover.
I should point out that 'Wild Thing' is one of the few songs I can play on guitar, and my version sounds more like the original than the Troggs' cover.