Monday, November 22, 2004
50 Best Cover Songs
In the late 1980s, there was a band with the astute name of Pop Will Eat Itself. As the number of TV talent shows expands, it does sometimes seem as if there are no more old songs left to sing – or massacre, in the case of most contestants. But this year has also seen a surge in rather brilliant cover versions – reworkings of songs which have displayed the wit and originality that can shine a new light on a classic track.
To celebrate the renaissance of this pop tradition, our team of music writers have chosen their 50 best cover versions of all time. To qualify, a song had to be well established by one artist, then given a new lease of life by another. It was a tough list to make - and we did it our way. We hope you enjoy it."
They did it their way
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They did it their way (Filed: 20/11/2004)
The Telegraph's music critics select the 50 best cover versions ever recorded:
50 Don't Leave Me This Way - The Communards, 1986
orig. Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, 1975
It was camp enough to begin with, but Jimi Somerville and Sarah Jane Morris's triumphant falsetto-basso profundo duet on this cover of the 1975 disco classic takes the phrase "row of tents" and flings it in the air like a glittery handbag on an underlit dancefloor. One suspects that the singers swapped voices for a laugh. Key moment: The final, monumental "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah BABY!" just before the last chorus.
49 Going Back to My Roots - Richie Havens, 1980
orig. Lamont Dozier, 1977
Woodstock star Havens caused barely a ripple in 1980 with his impassioned rendition of a song first recorded by Lamont Dozier. But eight years on, it was rediscovered, becoming an arms-in-the air anthem to a million British ravers. As the battered Havens larynx pours out Dozier's vision of the things that really count in life, the goosebumps take over. Key moment: a truly storming piano intro.
48 Step On - Happy Mondays, 1991
orig. John Kongos, 1971
The Manchester baggy anthem, driven by a trademark acid house piano riff, is a hugely inventive remake of He's Gonna Step on You Again by long-forgotten South African singer-songwriter Kongos. Shaun Ryder added his own inimitable lyrical touch, contributing a new saying to the British pop lexicon with his opening declaration: "You're twisting my melons, man!" Key Moment: When it all breaks down to reverb-drenched female backing vocals singing the spookily threatening chorus line.
47 Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) - The Wedding Present, 1990
orig. Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, 1975
John Peel indie favourites the Weddoes gave Harley's classic the angry makeover its sardonic lyric was crying out for. Gone were the acoustic thrummings and sunny Ooooh-la-la-la backing vocals, replaced by thrashing electric guitars over blistering drums, seemingly at twice the original's speed. Key moment: The 15-second mid-song pause, silent except for a wavering note of guitar feedback. Then Dave Gedge's Yorkshire growl returns: "There ain't no more, you've taken everything."
46 The Robots - Señor Coconut & His Orchestra, 2000
Orig. Kraftwerk, 1978
German musician Uwe Schmidt found a little cha-cha-cha in his waters when he moved to Chile, and felt moved to recreate the clinical oeuvre of Kraftwerk with the magical addition of Latin swing. This is the highlight of his wonderful experiment, a sashaying, hip-clicking antidote to the Düsseldorf automatons' metronomic precision. Key Moment: The horn flourish and celebratory "Olé!" before the vocals kick in.
45 Rock el Casbah - Rachid Taha, 2004
orig. The Clash, 1982
Franco-Algerian bad boy Taha idolises Joe Strummer, but sensing something patronising in the original, he recorded this storming Arabic version of the Clash warhorse. Lutes and strings twang and swoop against a thundering rhythm track and exultant chorus. But it's the guttural attack of Taha's vocal that makes your hair prickle – a technique he learnt from records of old and obscure Algerian singers. Key Moment: The plaintive desert flute that kicks it all off.
44 Oops I Did it Again - Richard Thompson, 2003
orig. Britney Spears, 2000
The sparky old folk-rocker toured with a self-explanatory show (and recorded a live album) called 1,000 Years of Popular Music. This was one of his examples of 20th-century songwriting, and in his hands – acoustic guitar, percussion, lots of echo on the voice – Britney's song actually becomes quite scary. Key moment: He tries to get the audience to sing along. Mostly, they laugh.
43 Jolene - One Dove, 1993
orig. Dolly Parton, 1974
To make this song – so completely associated with Dolly herself – their own was no mean feat for Glaswegian trio One Dove, but they pulled it off with style. Dub reggae bass and echo effects, a glistening electronic production and Dot Alison's vulnerable vocal made for another melancholy rave-era classic. Key moment: When the squiggly noises of the intro give way to that bassline.
42 David Bowie - It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City, 1975
Orig. Bruce Springsteen, 1973
The Boss's gruff tale from urban bohemia is recast as an overblown disco classic by a deranged-sounding Thin White Duke in this priceless 1975 cover, in which Bowie succumbs to vocal hysteria over a backing of crunchy rock guitar and silly strings. Four minutes of inspired madness. Key moment: The Dame finds notes he never knew existed to squeal "Don't that man look pretty!"
41 Hazy Shade of Winter - The Bangles, 1987
orig. Simon & Garfunkel, 1966
Who knew that Paul Simon could write a great heavy metal riff? The circling, folky-psychedelic guitar part of the original, turbocharged by legendary producer Rick Rubin for the Less Than Zero soundtrack, rocks hard here. The all-girl Bangles' slick vocal harmonies turn it into a faultless piece of '80s power pop. Key moment: That riff.
40 I Fought the Law - The Clash, 1979
Orig. The Crickets, 1959
In its original version by the Crickets (post-Buddy Holly), it could have been about returning library books late. Merging punk-rock passion with rock and roll swagger, the Clash make it sound like the wailing of ragged outlaws on the run from a chain gang. Key moment: With its thundering tom tom-driven opening, combined with Mick Jones's ripping two-note guitar lead, the record kicks off like a jail break in progress.
39 Ms Jackson - The Vines, 2002
orig. Outkast, 2000
The Australian band took one vaguely insincere hip-hop apology (inspired by Andre 3000's break-up with Erykah Badu) and turned it into an epic lament for love turned sour. Sampled drum beats, a baleful piano motif and Craig Nicholl's icy vocals build into crashing walls of psychedelic sound. Key moment: The layered, echoing cries de coeur of the bridge: "You can plan a pretty picnic but you can't predict the weather."
Nina Simone: covering Jeff Walker at number 10
38 Wichita Lineman - Dennis Brown, 1970
orig. Glen Campbell, 1968
Boy of 15 from Kingston, Jamaica takes on Glen Campbell's lament of a world-weary telephone repairman in the American Midwest? It sounds hare-brained, but the result is haunting. Destined to be a reggae great, the adolescent Brown sings with a choirboy purity that should be incongruous but instead underlines the song's timeless, otherworldly quality. Key moment: The crystal clarity of the opening – "I am a lineman for the county."
37 Heartbreak Hotel - John Cale, 1975
orig. Elvis Presley, 1956
As darkly humorous as anything he did with the Velvets, Cale's homage to Elvis took the blue mood of the rockabilly original and painted it black. The screaming gothic synthesizers, cello-like guitars and funereal pace obscured the fact that Cale's expiring vocal was actually following the melody note-for-note. Key moment: That weird squeaking over the house-of-horror riff at the start.
36 Dear Prudence - Siouxsie & the Banshees, 1983
orig. The Beatles, 1968
Much misunderstood at the time, the Banshees' take on punk was about individuality through experimentation – arty, but with a pop sensibility. Little wonder, then, that they should cover a Beatles song from the White Album, or that it should become their biggest hit. It seemed made for them. Key moment: The mesmerising "look around-around" coda; punk turns into psychedelia.
35 Gloria - Patti Smith, 1975
orig. Them, 1965
Patti Smith's first single was a piano-accompanied meditation on Hey Joe. For her debut album, Horses, she enlisted a full rock band, but, on Gloria, its opening track, the same spirit of poetic licence ran free, as Smith turned Van Morrison's libido-driven beat tune into a hymn of self-determining spirituality. Key moment: The opening line, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" – So, not just about getting laid, then.
34 Fell In Love With A Boy - Joss Stone, 2003
orig. the White Stripes, 2001
The big surprise, and best track, on Stone's soul pastiche debut album was a remake of the White Stripes' Fell in Love With a Girl. As great covers can, her smokily jazzed-up vocal discovered unimagined melodic depth in Jack White's scuffed garage lurve song, and rendered it pretty well unrecognisable. Key moment: The suavely saucy pay-off at the end of the first verse: "Sarah says it's cool, she don't consider it cheatin'."
33 Money (That's What I Want) - The Flying Lizards, 1980
orig. The Beatles, 1963 (after barrett strong, 1959)
David Cunningham and some pals from Brixton bashed on a drum, added some electronic peeps and cheesy backing vocals, and stormed the charts with this avant-garde, lo-fi take on the bluesy Beatles number. Deborah Evans speaks the lyrics deadpan, in the style of an upper-class English dominatrix. Key moment: The way Evans sounds as if she's going to come to your house, whip in hand, and retrieve the cash personally.
32 Chimes of Freedom - Youssou N'dour, 1994
orig. Bob Dylan, 1964
The Senegalese singer encountered Dylan's apocalyptic vision of liberty when it became the anthem of 1988's Amnesty Tour with Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel. Feeling that poor English had prevented him doing the song justice, he produced this epic Wolof language version six years later. Key moment: Intoned over cataclysmic ritual percussion, the French chorus makes this a startling example of cultural appropriation in reverse.
31 Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word - Mary J Blige, 2004
orig. Elton John, 1976
If the new Bridget Jones film takes this poignant reading of Elton John's 1976 hit to a wider audience, it may not have been a waste of time. Stripped of accompaniment, Blige's raw vocal manages to sound at once vulnerable, resigned and iron-willed. Where Elton was merely a bit gloomy, Mary uncovers a world of sublime melancholia. Key moment: Her gentle, barely audible "hmmms" and "aahs" between lines.
30 I'm A Believer - Robert Wyatt, 1974
orig. The Monkees, 1966 (written by Neil Diamond)
The Monkees: reimagined by Robert Wyatt and thousands of Sunderland supporters
The Monkees might claim this as the perfect three-minute pop song, but it took Robert Wyatt's plaintive voice and radical transformations of the music to make you really believe in the lyric. Repeating piano chords, bass, drums and violin power it all along. Key moment: The final choruses, where Wyatt's vocals, perhaps intensified by his recent accident and confinement to a wheelchair, are simply heart-rending.
29 Black Steel - Tricky, 1995
orig. Public Enemy, 1988
Tricky claimed that Public Enemy's Chuck D was "my Shakespeare". His tribute replaced the low-end, funky militancy of the hip-hop original with a hyper-agitated mesh of distorted electronica, asthmatic growls and, most daringly, the mellifluous Martina Topley-Bird on lead vocals. Key moment: When Tricky incants "Now you switch on, you switch off" in his Bristol burr and mutates the grammar of rap into a new, entirely English register.
28 Jealous Guy - Roxy Music, 1981
Orig. John Lennon, 1971
Recorded as a tribute to John Lennon after his murder in December 1980, the former Beatle's paean to self-obsession gave Roxy Music their only UK number one single. In the process, they transformed an exquisite but lovelessly produced miniature into a full-blown, six-minute smoocher, while perfectly preserving its intimacy. Key moment: When the mild-mannered solo guitar cedes to a gleaming, sensuous sax.
27 Summertime Blues - The Who, 1968
orig. Eddie Cochran, 1958
More than any of their '60s peers, the Who represented the same young, working-class male disaffection as their '50s American rock and roll forebears. This cover, then (on their hard-rocking Live at Leeds album) is mightily appropriate. Townshend's crashing power chords and Daltrey's libidinous howls add up to pure aggro: the giddy, bracing sound of trouble brewing. Key moment: the first guitar "KLANGGGG" sets the pulse racing splendidly.
26 I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself - The White Stripes, 2003
orig. Dusty Springfield, 1964
Garage rock's first couple are strong on covers, on a mission to keep songwriting traditions from throughout the last century alive. Indeed, the days when everyone had a crack at a Bacharach/David tune are long gone. Their treatment of this one, originally a number three hit for Dusty Springfield, is breathtaking in its emotional intensity. Key moment: The crashing chords, into "Like a summer rose, needs the sun and rain."
25 Wonderwall - Ryan Adams, 2004
orig. Oasis, 1995
With gently picked acoustic guitar and ambient atmospherics, Adams recreates the Britpop anthem as an intimate blues. Oasis delivered it as a declaration; for Adams, it's a heartbreaking plea. Noel Gallagher was so impressed, he now performs Adams's version of his own song in concert. Key moment: The broken-down emotion Adams conjures singing: "Maybe, you're gonna be the one that saves me…"
24 Why Can't We Live Together - Sade, 1985
orig. Timmy Thomas, 1972
At the height of '80s greed and Cold War angst, the young Anglo-Nigerian Sade Adu insinuated into the wine bars of the world this lush, plaintive call for peace, love and understanding. The final track on her huge-selling Diamond Life album, it introduced Timmy Thomas's hit to a whole new generation. It may lack the Hammond organ funk of the original, but her voice never sounded stronger. Key moment: The outro, "Gotta live, gotta live."
23 Caravan of Love - Housemartins, 1986
orig. Isley Jasper Isley, 1985
Hull's finest nabbed their only number one single, at Christmas, with this ingenious a cappella reworking of Ernie and Marvin Isley (and cousin Chris Jasper)'s Christian rallying call. With the bass vocal beating out the "bom bom boms" against a shimmering choral waterfall of "aaaaahs", a defiant Paul Heaton pleads for the world to join in love and peace. And at Christmas, what better message is there? Key moment: "I'm your brother, don't you know?"
22 (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction - Devo, 1978
Rolling Stones, 1965
Who'd have thought that five boiler-suited geeks with flowerpots on their heads could tackle such a monolithic '60s hit and triumph? Somehow these Darwin-opposing robo-punkers twisted Mick Jagger's disaffection for modern consumerism into their own future-retro logic, and the whole Rolling Stones rebel ruckus into an irresistibly funky techno-pop masterpiece. Key moment: Singer Mark Mothersbaugh's seemingly endless "baby-baby" repetition, like a malfunctioning robot.
21 Only Love Can Break Your Heart - St Etienne, 1990
orig. Neil Young, 1970
Acid house was not all about euphoria. The Balearic scene emerging from Ibiza had a penchant for melancholia amid the hedonism, and this record fitted right in the middle of that. Moira Lambert's plaintive indie-style vocal rides a loping hip-hop beat with shimmering synths, giving Neil Young's lost, wistful mood a modernist twist. Key moment: Grown men crying on the dancefloor.
20 Police and Thieves - The Clash, 1977
orig. Junior Murvin, 1976
At a time when British reggae comprised polite but dull attempts at authenticity, the Clash's stripped-back, garage rock approach came as a glorious revelation. While the ethereal falsetto of the original sounded incongruous on lines about "guns and ammunition", Strummer's gleefully thuggish tones take us straight to an inner city that feels all too real. Key moment: the DM-clad spring in the bass line's step.
19 Sweet Jane - Cowboy Junkies, 1988
orig. Velvet Underground, 1970
Spare, evocative remake of the Velvet Underground's 1970 original. Much moodier and less grungy, it is Margo Timmins' almost whispered vocals, recorded in a church, which reignite Lou Reed's seedy, downtown anthem. The pacing and phrasing are perfect. Key moment: Timmins's longing, languorous bridge: "Heavenly wine and roses seem to whisper to me when you smile."
18 Just Can't Get Enough - Nouvelle Vague, 2004
Orig: Depeche Mode, 1981
Terrific though it is, Depeche Mode's original Just Can't Get Enough can at times evoke stumbling around a suburban nightclub while cradling a warm shandy. Enter Gallic musos Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, whose sublime bossa-nova reworking, with Rio-born singer Eloisia, whisks one instead straight to the sands of Ipanema, c1965. (Try their Nouvelle Vague album if this sounds your tasse de thé.) Key moment: The glorious pronunciation of, "All the fing ya do ta me, an everyfing ya say…"
17 Mad World - Gary Jules, 2003
Orig. Tears For Fears, 1982
Apparently possessing nothing more than a piano and a voice not unlike Michael Stipe's, unknown singer-songwriter Gary Jules ran away with last year's Christmas number one spot via his haunting and devastatingly simple rendition of Tears for Fears' plinky-plonky electro plodder from 1982. A great example of less equalling more. Key moment: The little wobble in Jules's voice when he first sings "I find it kinda sad."
16 Billie Jean - Shinehead, 1984
orig. Michael Jackson, 1982
Two years after Michael Jackson's global hit came this eerie, dead-slow reworking from Shinehead, aka New York dancehall reggae MC Carl Aiken. Rough & Rugged was the name of the brilliant debut album it appeared on, and that sums it up perfectly, as Aiken's falsetto floats above a vast echo-chamber of dub and stabbed piano chords. Key moment: The whistled "Oo-wee-oo-wee-oo" from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that opens the song.
15 Wild Horses - The Flying Burrito Bros, 1971
orig. The Rolling Stones, 1970
Country-rock visionary Gram Parsons was on course to self-destruct long before he recorded this exquisitely world-weary version of the Stones ballad. The sincerity and aching fragility of his delivery show up the hamminess of the original to startling effect. Key moment: "Let's do some living, after we'll die" had the feeling of lived reality – within three years Parson was indeed dead.
14 Rocket Man - Kate Bush, 1991
orig. Elton John, 1970
Elton John's lament to the loneliness of space travel (or cocaine addiction, depending on your age group) was vacuous tinny pop until Kate Bush's keening cadences gave it the poignancy it deserved. Her little-girl-lost voice and the bittersweet sound of Uilleann pipes add startling beauty, and a thrilling chill to the Martian air. Key moment: The breathy, pained gasp of "Oh" before the chorus line "No no no I'm a rocket man."
13 My Favourite Things - John Coltrane, 1960
orig. Rodgers and Hammerstein (The Sound of Music), 1959
Cool adventurous jazz was probably the furthest thing from the mind of audiences for The Sound of Music. John Coltrane got hold of this hit song, though, and by adding subtly oriental harmonies and choosing the soprano saxophone as the melody instrument, he was able to create a contemporary jazz masterpiece. Key moment: the first time you recognise the tune, as the sax gleefully skips around the waltz-like rhythms.
The Pet Shop Boys: You Were Always on My Mind comes in at number two
12 One - Johnny Cash, 2002
orig. U2, 1991
Producer Rick Rubin had rescued Cash's career with the American Recordings series of albums, and on Vol 3 Cash had truly hit his stride, especially on this towering acoustic version of the U2 song. There's a lifetime of difference between the two renditions: Bono strains and screeches, Cash just reaches down into his soul. Key moment: Cash sings: "You say love is a temple." There's an organ playing. Spines tingle.
11 Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow - Roberta Flack, 1971
orig. Shirelles, 1960
This Carole King-penned narrative of a woman's questioning of a lover's blithe sweet nothings was sad and beautiful enough in the Shirelles' Spector-produced version. Slowed down to a drifting lament and sung in Roberta Flack's velvet voice, it becomes almost unbearably lovely. Love and loss, trust and betrayal, innocence and experience are blended into a heartbreaking small-hours classic. Key moment: "Tonight the light of love is in your eyes": so slow, but so perfectly sung.
10 Mr Bojangles - Nina Simone, 1971
orig. Jerry Jeff Walker, 1967
Much recorded, often trampled underfoot (hang your head in shame, Bob Dylan, Lulu and Robbie Williams), this strange Jerry Jeff Walker ballad about an itinerant dancer was made famous by Sammy Davis Jnr as a theatrical showstopper. The inimitable Nina Simone gets to the lonely heart of the tale, in an ethereal, understated, drifting, low-key version. Key moment: The whole song. Simone's almost casual delivery de-dramatises the narrative yet ensures the inherent emotion resonates all the louder.
9 Comfortably Numb - Scissor Sisters, 2004
Orig. Pink Floyd, 1979
Only divine inspiration could explain how, or why, New York's bendiest band came to pop Pink Floyd's balloon of pretension by re-recording their most horribly self-regarding song in the style of the Saturday Night Fever-era Bee Gees. At once cold, sexy and relentlessly danceable, it far outshines the original in both concept and execution. Key moment: The flurry of electronic handclaps after the line "You may feel a little sick."
8 Twist and Shout - The Beatles, 1963
Orig. the Isley Brothers, 1960
The Beatles recorded their version in a single take for their debut album Please Please Me – and the world changed. John Lennon's lead vocal sounds as raw and urgent as a live concert, aeons away from the bland, computerised studio sound of today. Key moment: John's barked "Shake it up baby" after Paul and George's aaahs in the middle.
7 Mr Tambourine Man - The Byrds, 1965
orig. Bob Dylan, 1964
Folk and rock were inconceivable bedfellows, respectively too earnest and too thrill-driven to contemplate each other's existence, until these Californian Beatles obsessives fused the two musics in one exquisite, harmony-loaded Bob Dylan cover. The lyrics reflected how Dylan, tiring of polemic, was now consumed by the seduction of pure music. The Byrds completed that transition for him in none-more-beautiful sound, and went to number one. Key moment: That guitar-chiming intro.
6 Tainted Love - Soft Cell, 1981
orig. Gloria Jones, 1964
With Marc Almond's heroically overwrought vocal adding a deliciously deviant twist to Dave Ball's slinky synth-pop backing track, this straight-ahead '60s soul stomper (originally performed by Gloria Jones – later mother of Marc Bolan's son, Rolan) was somehow transformed into the mystical bridge between Northern soul and acid house. Key moment: The syncopated handclap/keyboard lurch combo which launched a million dancefloor forays.
5 Respect - Aretha Franklin, 1967
orig. Otis Redding, 1965
Soul queen Aretha took Redding's original and turned it into a kind of proto-girl power anthem. Redding sang: "All I'm asking is for a little respect when I come home." Franklin changed the "I" to "you", added the r-e-s-p-e-c-t bit, and made the song her own. Key moment: "Sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me."
4 Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley, 1993
orig. Leonard Cohen, 1984
If Leonard Cohen has a fault, it's a weakness for ponderous, synth-heavy arrangements, and nowhere was this more so than on his original version of this lyrically magnificent song. Then Jeff Buckley got hold of it, stripped it down, and sang it in his exquisitely pure chorister's voice. Definitive. Key moment: The serene, sustained falsetto note towards the end.
3 My Way - Sid Vicious, 1979
orig. Frank Sinatra, 1969 (after Paul Anka, 1969)
He knifed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death and died soon afterwards from an overdose of heroin supplied by his own mother. But Sid Vicious should also be remembered for this riotous version of the song made famous by Sinatra, recorded with the rump of the Sex Pistols following Johnny Rotten's departure. The Pistols rock like demons, and Vicious snarls and sneers his way through the song's valedictory lyric with twisted glee. It's mad, hilarious, and thrilling. Key moment: Vicious sings the first verse in tones of mock-seriousness (inserting obscenities along the way); then the guitars and drums kick in.
2 You Were Always on My Mind - Pet Shop Boys, 1987
orig. Elvis Presley, 1972 (after brenda lee, 1971)
The Boys, on career best form, elevated Elvis's tender elegy – written by Willie Nelson – into a monumental explosion of high pop camp. Chris Lowe conjures an electronic symphony of rumbling drums, swelling strings and glittering synths to underpin Neil Tennant's crystalline vocals. "I'm sorry I treated you wrong," mourned Elvis. "You'd be a fool to lose me, cad though I am," seems to be Tennant's message. Key moment: the stabbing trumpet sample, introduced before the song kicks in: Da! Da-da-da-da-da. Da!
And the greatest cover ever...
1 All Along the Watchtower - Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968
orig. Bob Dylan, 1967
The greatest cover version of all-time: Hendrix doing a Dylan song
Hendrix's version of a so-so track from Dylan's John Wesley Harding album completely outgunned the original. A light, scampering ballad re-emerged as a mini-epic of foreboding with Hendrix's heavy three-chord intro hanging like a thundercloud and Dylan's lyrics sounding an ominous epitaph for the 1960s. Key moment: The last words – "And the wind began to howl" - before the closing guitar storm.
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