Cover versions of favourite songs can be an abomination to the original artist that in some cases you’ll wake up in a rage. However there are some artists that have bucked this trend and in some cases surprised people that they did not write it in the first place.
All along the watchtower by Jimi Hendrix (originally by Bob Dylan)
Let’s face it when you hear ‘All along the watchtower,’ you instantly associate the song with Jimi Hendrix. From the opening riff as Jimi sings ‘there must be somewhere out of here…’ you are dragged into the raw energy of the track as the loud guitar and vocals strike a chord.
Of course Bob Dylan wrote the song and although his version isn’t bad, Jimi’s sounds like the finished article. Maybe it was Jimi’s superior guitar playing but either way he caught the spirit of the song that it sounds more Hendrix than Dylan.
Hurt by Johnny Cash (originally by Nine Inch Nails)
From the sombre opening of Johnny Cash’s ‘hurt,’ you can already sense the pain and emotion as Cash suddenly spills forth his soul. Every note and solemn word by Johnny Cash is a confession of his darkest thoughts and regret. When Cash sings ‘the needle tears a hole,’ you can literally feel that tight sting as the needle penetrates your skin.
Maybe it’s the grave voice of Cash and the way the music builds up slowly as you feel the uncomfortable baring of a person’s feelings until it suddenly bursts forth with the piano’s note every blow that he feels right to the end.
Trent Reznor who originally wrote the song stated his opinion on Cash’s version ‘I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. ( I felt like) I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.’
When the Levee breaks by Led Zeppelin (original version Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie)
This was originally an old blues classic released in 1929 by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in response to the Great Mississippi flood of 1927.
Led Zeppelin who were no strangers to adapting or covering old blues songs decided to do their own on take this classic.
Everything from Plant’s vocals, the harmonica and the guitar solos all add to the ingredients of making this an awesome song. However the vital element is John Bonham’s drumming which is the spine and driving point of this track. At times you can feel yourself drudging through a flooded town.
Apparently Jimmy Page had been working on a riff and had placed Bonham’s drums at the stairwell at Headley Grange, and recorded it using two microphones at the top, which gave it that distinctive but slightly muffled sound.
Needless to say Led Zeppelin’s innovative take on ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ ensured that it became a rediscovered classic and took the original song to another level.
By the way for those interested here is the original version.
The man who sold the world by Nirvana (originally by David Bowie)
Back in the days when MTV was an actual music channel they had a series called unplugged. The idea being that a band would be stripped to its bare essentials and play songs acoustically. Nirvana were invited on to the show in November 1993 and gave one of the most memorable and seminal performances in the history of the programme.
One of the standout songs was Nirvana’s version of David Bowie’s ‘the man who sold the world.’ From the instant opening chords it caught the sombre mood which was emphasised by Kurt Cobain’s vocals. Like all good music it took hold of your emotions as you could feel the melancholy of the song.
In some ways the Nirvana version made it seem more alive than David Bowie’s own take of his song. No mean feat incidentally but ‘the man who sold the world,’ sounds as though it was made for Nirvana.
With a little help from my friends by Joe Cocker (originally by the Beatles)
There are not many artists out there who have managed to do a decent cover of a Beatles song never mind make it their own. Joe Cocker though managed to take an okay song and make it even better.
In essence, Cocker put more meat on ‘a little help from my friends,’ by giving it a more Gospel, Soul sound to his version. As soon as you hear the slow instrumental you are aware that this is going to be unique.
There is more power and emotion from Joe Cocker’s voice with the backing gospel vocals giving a superior sound to the Beatles original song. Jimmy Page incidentally also had a hand with this version by playing guitar as did Procol Harum’s B.J. Wilson on drums.
Once again it is an example of a powerful song that clutches your heart as soon as you hear the opening lines.
Only love can break your heart by St Etienne (originally by Neil Young)
This choice might be heresy for some die-hard Neil Young fans but nevertheless I still think it’s a fantastic cover. Don’t get me wrong I love Neil Young’s song but St Etienne have at least made the effort of trying to do something distinctive with it rather than just copy it.
Whereas Neil Young’s original song is folksy there is a European chic feel to the St. Etienne version. Furthermore Moira Lambert’s haunting vocals gives it a nice twist as she reminisces about a past love. Added to which the house style influence and the mournful playing of the keyboard gives it a touch of past regrets and makes the St. Etienne version is unique in itself.