20 great cover versions
1. Associates – “Gloomy Sunday”
Infamous Hungarian suicide song, rumoured to be responsible for claiming the life of many a vulnerable soul. The best known version was sung by Billie Holiday in 1941. While Holiday’s version is a sedate and stripped down funereal downer, Associates have transformed it into an urgent wail of romantic anguish with a high camp cabaret dramatic flair. Billy MacKenzie certainly keeps the elegant soul of the earlier version though, his four octave vocal like a deep resonating peal of despair, and with Rankine’s trademark aqueous guitar tone adding a glamourous murky shine, it’s not a bad song to bow out to. Honourable mentions to their superb rendition of “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross and Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging”.
2. Butthole Surfers – “American Woman”
Typical of the Buttholes, their re-working of The Guess Who’s perennial rock anthem is steeped in experimental weirdness. The original song is deconstructed almost to the point of being unrecognisable, beginning with an industrial dance drum sequence and later on adding the distorted squealing vocal of Gibby Haynes. Appeared on 1986’s off-kilter classic Rembrandt Pussyhorse.
3. The Clash – “Police and Thieves”
The Clash turn Junior Murvin’s reggae classic into a punk anthem, with Murvin’s falsetto getting a makeover in the form of Joe Strummer’s passionate abrasive growl. Still relevant as ever.
4. The Fall – Mr. Pharmacist
Originally by American garage rockers The Other Half, The Fall’s version features the same dirty guitar riffing, but the song’s slow grinding repetition sits perfectly among the rest of the Smith/Fall oeuvre, and in many ways it has become their signature tune, now as much theirs as the 60’s San Francisco psychedelic rockers who performed it first. With honourable mentions to their renditions of “Lost In Music” by Sister Sledge and The Move’s “I can Hear The Grass Grow”, as well as some pretty fabulous Monks covers.
5. Bauhaus – “Telegram Sam”
Bauhaus inject attitude into Marc Bolan’s whimsical wordplay and laidback hippie pop, turning it into a strutting monster of a tune that could probably smash it’s way through any building, Godzilla style. Energetic, thrashing, volatile, and exciting – in my opinion, way better than the original…
6. Jimi Hendrix – “All Along the Watchtower”
Hendrix’s Bob Dylan cover is still an absolute thrill and a pleasure to listen to, an exemplary demonstration of Jimi’s sensationally powerful guitar skills. His axe reaches high keening notes like
a wailing storm during it’s blistering climactic ascencion which few thought possible beforehand (and has probably never been heard since). Speaks like a biblical command to the music fan’s innate urge to crank the volume high. The archetypal cover version, no list is complete without it!
7. The Dickies – “Paranoid”
Sabbath on speed. The Dickies have always been great at ripping through a good tune at rapid fire pace so that it hits you like a hail of bullets (penis puppet accessory optional).
8. Nirvana – “The Man Who Sold The World”
Bit of an obvious choice, but they really made it their own. Where Bowie’s is embellished with Cuban guiro percussion, funky Arabian guitar flourishes and general spacey-ness, Kurt’s is stripped down, sombre and quietly affecting.
9. Demented Are Go – “Crazy Horses”
Riotous, off the wall psychobilly version of The Osmonds ’72 hit. Rambunctious, irreverent and unlikely!
10. Dum Dum Girls – “Baby Don’t Go”
LA indie pop girl band re-do Sonny and Cher, slowing things down with ethereal echo-soaked guitar plucking and making it a sad and beautiful ghostly ballad.
11. The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Surfin’ USA”
The Beach Boys are buried alive in a sludge-feast of anarchic noise, slowly drowning like a prehistoric creature thrashing for it’s life in a tar pit. The sounds of breaking glass and a hysterical
gospel preacher trying to save our souls adds to the chaos.
12. Scott Walker – “Next”
Cult crooner Walker is known for his many Jacques Brel cover versions, most popular being “Next” (as heard on 1968’s Scott 2), a dark-hued comedy describing the horror of a virgin soldier’s
impersonal assembly-line screw at a mobile army whorehouse. Honourable mentions to “My Death” and Tim Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy”.
13. Patti Smith – “My Generation”
Much more fiery and believable than The Who original, Smith is like an incendiary messenger, bristling with anger and conviction. One of the definitive statements of youthful rebellion in rock and
14. Joey Ramone – “What A Wonderful World”
Joey Ramone, the sweetest guy in punk. The 6’6″ sallow cheeked singer, with his overgrown, shaggy hair and omnipresent granny sunglasses, recorded this song after his lymphoma diagnosis, knowing
full well he probably only had months to live. What’s more, he titled the album “Don’t Worry About Me”. Like Poly Styrene who died of breast cancer in April 2011, he displayed incredible bravery
and fought his illness with unimaginable grace. The album’s “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)” is particularly heartbreaking for friends and fans, with verses about being stuck in a hospital bed and a devastatingly honest refrain of, “I want my life/It really sucks”. We miss you, Joey.
15. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “By the Time I Get To Phoenix”
Written by platinum selling American songwriter Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell, Cave’s version is much more painful, his voice adding to the wracked emotional intensity of the lyrics.
Cave’s covers album Kicking Against the Pricks is uniformly brilliant, more than competently tackling classics by The Vevet Underground, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, among others.
16. The Birthday Party – “Cat Man”
Were they the coolest band ever? The gangly and tortured Nick Cave with his ferociously back-combed “psycho mullet” hair style, the enigmatic stone-faced bass player Tracy Pew, attired like a bad ass cowboy from hell, Rowland S. Howard with his uniquely sinister spindly guitar playing…We all knew Gene Vincent’s back catalogue was sexy but who would have thought it could sound so creepy as well?
17. The Stranglers – “Walk On By”
The Stranglers version of a Bacharach/David number written for Dionne Warwick. Growling, dirty bass lurching drunkenly through the track, snarling vocals and psychedelic Hammond organ solos, everything we love about The Stranglers!
18. Red House Painters – “Shock Me”
Mark Kozelek is a master of the cover version – through him this sleazy groove by Kiss transcends it’s cock rock origins and, in Kozelek’s melancholic yearning voice, somehow acquires a strange romantic poignancy. Kozelek performs this same magic with an entire album of Bon Scott era AC/DC covers. Be quietly stunned and moved by Ace Frehley’s words!
19. The Slits – “Heard It Through the Grapevine”
The Slits DIY ethic paid off big time, extracting groovy reggae dub rhythms out of the Marvin Gaye classic, their jerky guitar technique and Ari Up’s husky, sneery and sexy voice still sounding incredibly fresh to this very day. The catchy, tribal sound and sparse production really puts Ari’s vocal front and center in a stunning way that makes the listener’s hair stand on end while simultaneously tapping their foot.
20. The Flying Lizards – “Money”
You have to love David Cunningham’s oddball arty version of Barrett Strong’s “Money”. A cold and clanging mechanical rhythm beats over Deborah Evans-Stickland’s detached robotic vocals, appropriately icy since it was recorded in a meat fridge in Brixton! Sadly now mainly remembered as one hit wonders, The Flying Lizards brand of wacky experimental pop was innovative and brilliant.
Tried to limit it to 20, so other things I’ll mention quickly for next time (basically I did all these and then thought of loads more that I maybe should have included instead!):
Forest Swords – “If Your Girl”
The Saints – “River Deep Mountain High”
The Soft Boys – “Vegetable Man”
Blondie – “Hanging On the Telephone”
The Human League – “Rock ‘n’ Roll/Nightclubbing”
Johnny Cash – “Hurt”
The Controllers – “Jezebel”
Cat Power – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
Leatherface – “Message In a Bottle”
Magazine – “I Love You Big Dummy”
Wayne County & The Electric Chairs – “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)”