Okay, I admit - there were some truly abysmal covers in that list. That Sugababes action… yeah, I have to make up for that. So this time, here are some really great covers of genuinely good songs.
Lake Street Dive - "Faith"
George Michael’s biggest hit from his 1987 debut solo album Faith was the titular song, "Faith". With it’s Bo Diddley beat and George in the peak of his post-Wham bad boy image, "Faith" isn’t a song you’d ever forget. It also isn't a song you could do justice to easily - so why try to do it George’s way at all?
I was introduced to the sonic genius of Lake Street Dive by Maria Dahvana Headley, which makes perfect sense - Lake Street Dive do what Maria’s stories do - they take familiar ideas and mess them up in beautiful ways. Their cover of "Faith" is the first I heard of them and it remains my favourite even now. Rachel Price’s vocals are something sublime - they pretty much always are, and Bridget Kearney’s bass playing makes you wonder why more bands don’t use an upright bass the way she does. Here, they take that dirty George Michael roughness and turns it into a sexy sway, a yearning, without at all sounding cheesy or desperate. It’s slick, it’s got heart and soul and it does what I never thought possible - it makes you forget the original.
Also, their cover of The Jackson Five’s "I Want You Back" is crazy sweet, so earnest and just lovely.
Red Hot Chilli Peppers - "Higher Ground"
Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions (1973) is a fantastic album, and not just because it spawned this track. "Higher Ground" was reportedly written in a 3 hour frenzy by Wonder, who of course used his Moog synthesiser to provide the song’s immediately recognisable bass line. The same bass line that Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers thumps out on his guitar in their 1989 cover version. The Peppers’ version is sped up and performed with way more frenzy than Wonder’s was.
While Stevie Wonder had plenty of passion in his version, he never sounded like anything was out of his control. The Peppers are manic - they almost sound as if they’re frenetically trying to keep up with a song that’s got too big for them. Of course, this was the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at a point when rock was about loud guitars and body slamming and head banging. All three of which happen in the vide, of course.
Adele - "If It Hadn’t Been for Love
I admit, I heard Adele’s version of The Steeldrivers' bluegrass number much before I heard the original and yeah, it’s a good cover. Sure, she doesn’t have the country grit the Nashville lot do, but then, who can? Adele, no matter what you think of her music, has a solid set of pipes and knows how to use them. Also, she’s hilarious, and gives full credit to the original band and their song even as she makes this all about herself and her exes.
Tom Jones & The Cardigans - "Burning Down the House"
I never ever thought I’d find anything Tom Jones did so much fun. I don’t know if it’s his hamming it up style-vocals that act as the perfect foil to Nina Persson’s frosty delivery or the fact that somehow they make it sound more contemporary than the Talking Heads now sound... all I do know is that I can sing the Tom Jones version better than I can the David Byrne one, and I’m not even ashamed. It helps that this is just a fantastic song, of course, and the liberal amount of camp fun in the cover just can’t hurt.
10,000 Maniacs - "Because the Night"
Patti Smith & Bruce Springsteen wrote this 1978 song in a way that I can barely call a collaboration but it’s a story I love. Springsteen wrote a little - apparently just the chorus with the words ‘Because the night belongs to lovers’ and abandoned it, not wanting to write another love song. He gave the tape to Patti Smith, who was recording in the neighbouring studio but she forgot about it for a while. Smith was in a long distance relationship at that point and since these were the dark ages before email and texting and whatsapp and cheap phone connections, she and her boyfriend (and future husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of MC5) had a schedule for calling each other on set phone lines. One night Patti picked up the tape Bruce had given her and listened to it while waiting for a phone call that didn't come and wrote the line ‘Love is a ring, the telephone’, ending up with a song that became a major hit for her band.
10,000 Maniacs’ MTV Unplugged version became a love anthem for alt-rock fans everywhere, with Natalie Merchant’s oddly nasal vocals somehow being loved in the same time that grunge bands like Pearl Jam were selling out stadiums. Having said that, this version really is immensely popular and it’s easy to see why - it’s steady and controlled, the rough edges all smoothed out into perfect pop fare and the piano really is just lovely.
And while there is always - always!- room for solid, smooth pop, more worthy here is the Garbage & Screaming Females cover of "Because the Night" (2013). It’s almost the anti-10,000 Maniacs version, in that it’s dirty, a bit messy and angry. There’s a nice angsty guitar solo, slick drums and lots of aggression. Natalie Merchant may have the smooth vocals and the love of all the romantic grunge kids, but Shirley Manson has my angry teen vote any day.
The Black Crowes - "Hard to Handle"
Otis Redding’s 1968 soul number wasn’t even released until after his shockingly premature death and since then has been covered by dozens of acts, including The Grateful Dead, who made it a regular feature of their performances. But The Black Crowes benefitted from it most, when it became their big breakout single from their 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker. I still maintain that they just hadn't managed to write a song as good as Hard to Handle on the entire album - it was a while before they got to Remedy, for example and She Talks to Angels (the other number 1 single from this album) is great but it still doesn’t have the passion of anything Otis wrote.
Where Otis Redding’s version was soulful and beautiful, it was softer and even perhaps meeker than the Crowes’ cover. But let’s not forget that Redding died in a plane crash at age 26 - he was a very young man when he sang the entire repertoire of songs that we know him for today. His musical career, short as it was, had made him wealthy but many people around him insisted that he remained naive. His version of Hard to Handle sounds like he was - it doesn't have any of the push and shove that he Crowes’ version does. The Crowes also just sound like they're having a whole lot more fun on this track, with an entirely aggressive, in your face performance. With loud guitars, because yeah, it was 1991.
Ike & Tina Turner - "Proud Mary"
This is probably the one cover I enjoy most of all. It’s also one of my favourite songs of all time, though I’ll pick the cover over the original until my dying day. Creedence Clearwater Revival first released this in 1969 and their version just fades before Tina’s. She and her then husband the nasty piece of work Ike first covered this in 1970, rearranging the track quite a bit and making it all Tina’s special brand of funk and rock and soul and whatever else Tina Turner wanted to be that day - and we all know she could be many, many things.
Where CCR painstakingly arranged their vocals and engineered their sound for a more gospel feel, Tina Turner just belted out her heart and soul each time she sang this song, whether in the studio or the stage. Her relationship with Ike is well known to have been violent up until their divorce in 1976, years after Ike became an abusive drug addict. I’m never sure how much credit to give Ike for their arrangement of Proud Mary, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the passion, the frenzy and the power that flow through this song all came from Tina herself. They may form a dynamic start together, but it’s all Tina when things get ‘nice and rough’ - she doesn’t need anyone else to help her along the way. Who knows who Proud Mary was, who knows why she kept burning? All that mattered was Tina. And she’s rollin’.
And because I can’t ever get enough of Queen Bey, here’s a great intro she does for Tina’s performance of "Proud Mary", though ultimately, Tina still owns the stage.