Cover Girl

I don’t actually agree with a lot of the Telegraph’s 50 best cover versions ever recorded, but it’s inspired me to chase some leads down all the same. I have high hopes for Johnny Cash doing One, and don’t quite know what to expect for The Bangles doing Hazy Shade Of Winter. While I’m trying to find those, here are my random thoughts about some cover versions I like and some cover versions I don’t. I see them as falling into three main categories, namely:

Paying Homage:
Indie bands like covering classic indie songs because it gives both the band and pretentious wankers like me in the audience the opportunity to show how we’re, like, totally in touch with Where It All Started by cheering in recognition and conspicuously mouthing all the lyrics. The problem is that unless you’re actually able to do something interesting with the song, there is no fucking point. Grandaddy’s cover of Pavement’s Here is a case in point, as is Death Cab For Cutie’s attempt at Bjork’s All Is Full Of Love. Neil Young gets covered a lot, but while I like the idea of Emmylou Harris doing Wrecking Ball and the Pixies doing Winterlong, the covers don’t sound like much more than people singing very pretty songs very prettily. The most successful one I can think of in this category (although I’d love to be told about anything I’ve missed) is Nirvana doing Lake Of Fire. There’s something about Kurt Cobain’s guttural “Where do bad folks go when they DIEEEEEEE” and “Don’t see ’em again till the fourth of Ju-LAAAAIIIII” which suits the song better than the pleasant harmonies of the Meat Puppets’ original.

This is the cover version where the artist says “I’m totally secure with my existing amount of cred, so I’m gonna sing something incredibly uncool now because I’m subversive that way.” I have to admit that I never find it that hard to enjoy ironic cover versions, because quite often I love the original song too. Travis did Hit Me Baby One More Time as a staple in their live shows at some point, but I prefer Richard Thompson’s Oops I Did It Again because his voice is so much more authoritative than Fran Healy’s and he puts in all these great acoustic guitar solos. My favourite ironic cover of the past year has been Ben Gibbard’s cover of Complicated. Ben Gibbard’s voice gets on my nerves sometimes, but here its winsome, almost overly-earnest quality sounds absolutely perfect. Also, the idea of him singing “Trying to be cool, you look like a fool to me” to a room full of trucker-capped, thrift-store-T-shirted, vintage-Converse-sneakered indie clones amuses me.

Complete Re-Imagining (but in a good, non-Planet-Of-The-Apes-2001 way):
How can Tricky’s Black Steel only be 29 in the Telegraph list? I’m too lousy at writing about music to think up a new way of describing how and why I love this song, but I stand by every word of my past gushing. The Slits’ post-punk I Heard It Through The Grapevine kills me every time with its crazy vibrato on the high notes, and every note of The Darkness’s Street Spirit is basically a crazily vibrating high note. If you haven’t heard Christopher O’Riley’s piano adaptations of Radiohead songs, Fake Plastic Trees is a great place to start. (And Jamie Fucking Cullum’s attempt at High And Dry, now advertised every five minutes on Singapore TV, makes me want to stuff his grand piano up his arse.) Will Young doing Hey Ya and Nick Cave doing Disco 2000 may seem like they should be in the Ironic category, but I’ve decided they belong here because both these covers actually make you realize how melancholy the original party classic songs actually are. You haven’t heard pathetic pleading until Nick Cave’s begging “What do you do on a Sunday, baby? Would you like to come and meet me, maybe? You can even bring your baby…”


  1. i really like nirvana’s cover of lake of fire, only one of the two covers you mentioned that i’ve heard before. where do you hear all these? does it actually involve me getting out of my house?

  2. Actually, this is the first time I’ve read a Michelle music thing and have heard of more than half of the things you’re talking about. Though in that I include the Darkness, Will Young and Travis, so perhaps there’s no reason to be proud….

  3. Also, I’m guessing you left out Fun Fun Fun by Status Quo purely because it included the Beach Boys; the Quo missing the point of a cover version entirely.

  4. I don’t really enjoy cover versions of songs much unless they’re funny.

    The Blues Brothers have some classics. I can’t remember the name of the track but the one that goes “You know it’s hard.. to be a wo-man” and the accompanying dance always makes me laugh so much I can’t breathe.

  5. pharaon: If music geekery involved leaving the house, I’d still be listening to Colour Me Badd. Your best bet for finding these is your friendly intercontinental file-sharing service. I did actually have a look to see if I could find any of these on the web, but none turned up apart from the Grandaddy one. Alternatively, if you have a webmail account which will take mp3-size attachments, I can send some of them to you. :)

    Matt: I haven’t heard the Status Quo cover of Fun Fun Fun! (Adding to list.) And why would I leave out something because it involved the Beach Boys?

    Tamara: WHERE DO I FIND THIS LEMAR COVER??!! Love for Lemar should not be kept secret!

  6. Hello Michelle,

    This is Gitta, I stumbled upon your blog by chance and realise you’re prb the right person to ask this..sorry about being completely random. Do you know where I can get a cheap imitation of the Carbolic Smokeball poster in London, am here now on a 4-week internship with Baker. That question prob sounds terribly geeky, but I don’t care, I want that poster! :)



    PS: Do you want me to bring back anything for you from here? The usual request (read: mainly Gail) is Marks and Sparks brownie bits.

  7. I meant it should be excluded by virtue of it not being a cover version, because it featured the original band. For example, if The Beatles were to cover Yellow Submarine by The Beatles… If you find it and enjoy it, please don’t blame me! And thanks for the pointer towards the list – I’ll be hunting MP3s for some time.

  8. i do have a gmail account (pharaon@g…

    but it’s ok if it’s troublesome. i need to learn the ways of torrents. :/

  9. Trying to find covers of songs on a file sharing network is a nightmare. Someone needs to do a “Best Cover Album in the World… Ever!”.

    That I’d download for sure.

  10. Without even looking at that article, I’d already figured “Respect” and “All Along the Watchtower” and “Tainted Love” would be all in there… but I’d say Marvin Gaye doing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, while rarely thought of as a cover, should be somewhere inside.

    Good covers I’ve enjoyed this year: Ben Folds doing the Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman”, Jimmy Eat World’s version of “Firestarter”, and Beck’s version of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime”…

  11. Also, you should just buy the Cash albums. Cash doing “One”, “Personal Jesus”, and “Hurt” are just breathtaking virtuoso performances.

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