Covers better than the original – Discuss

There are lots of posts on here about cover versions.  Whether you are of the “it’s just bastardising a perfectly good piece of music” school or persuaded by the “all art is derivative and is there for others to build and improve on” argument, there’s no avoiding them.  Musicians are positively encouraged to perform their own versions of other artists songs.

There are the covers that have become so embedded in the listener psyche it has almost been forgotten they are covers (think Sinead O’Connor’s version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U), there are those you hear and wonder why the band or artist thought it was a good idea to cover that track, they bring nothing new to the table, in fact they spoil the original (my opinion, but think Metallica’s cover of Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey in the Jar – why???).

There are the covers that are clever and polar opposite to the original and offer an alternative sound (try Daughter’s cover of Daft Punk’s Get Luck or Lissie’s version of Kid Cuddy’s Pursuit of Happiness).  There are the covers that are different enough and executed brilliantly in their own right to stand up to the original and be just as good (Tricky’s cover of Public Enemy).  And then, dear reader, there are those covers that raise the song to another level becoming better than the original.  I’m thinking of the Johnny Cash cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails or Jimi Hendrix’ version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.  I love these two songs much more than their originals – in fact I never even listen to the originals because both these artists made these songs their own.

The other day I was listening to Bowie’s Station to Station.  The last track is the much covered Johnny Mathis song Wild is the Wind.   In fact I actually thought this was a Nina Simone track because she did a couple of versions of it; I stand corrected by Wiki.  In a step that may well annoy some of you jazz lovers out there I will admit to disliking every version I’ve heard of this song but Bowie’s.  I love it.  I mean, really adore it.  I love the guitars, I love the slightly bossa-nova beat.  His voice is so heartfelt and aching.  There’s a real honesty and desperation about his delivery.  So much better than the original.  It’s not the only Bowie cover I think is better than the original either…I’ll let you try to guess the other.

But this got me thinking, like these things always do – which other covers are better than the original?  Obviously, as is the case with most stuff related to music, this is an opinion thing, but I’d like to know your thoughts.

Yet again ‘Spillers I come to you to fill in the gaps in my musical knowledge. What can you tell me about all this and who else should I be tracking down?


56 thoughts on “Covers better than the original – Discuss

  1. Haha. You are starting a fire…. Will be really interesting to see the posts. Tempted to go with Clapton’s After Midnight but I will start with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cover of J J Cale’s They Call Me The Breeze.

  2. Oh don’t start me!!

    Listen to Modest Mouse’s fairly spiky original of Ocean Breathes Salty. It’s . . . unmemorable.

    But then try Mark Kozelek’s cover, and marvel as he brings out all of the emotional heft that was in those lyrics all along.

    I could play this game all weekend.

  3. The ultimate “better than the original” cover version is the Hendrix version of All Along The Watchtower but you have alluded to that in your original post.

    In fact, Dylan is a happy hunting ground for this subject, with his music being the source for some excellent covers, many of them by The Byrds, Mr Tambourine Man being a personal favourite. The Byrds are also responsible for a brilliant cover of Goin’ Back, which was originally intended, I think for Goldie and the Gingerbreads but was recorded by Dusty Springfield. In fact, it is fair to say that there are no bad versions of Goin’ Back at all.

    One of the greatest songs in the King Crimson canon is Starless, which has been covered wonderfully by The Unthanks but it isn’t better than the original, just different.

    Another great cover is on Spirit of '76 by Spirit. It is the opening track America, The Beautiful/The Times They Are A-Changing.

    There are loads more. I could go on and on for ages, but I’ll just finish with two covers by Johnny Winter. The first is a cover of Little Richard’s Slippin’ and Slidin’ and the second is his brilliantly unhinged Highway 61 Revisited.

      • Of course, it is surely a truth universally acknowledged that both the CSN&Y and Matthews Southern Comfort versions of Woodstock are better than Joni’s original.

        • Actually I nearly chose the CSN&Y version of Woodstock to put in the main post – totally right. Don’t know the other, will seek it out.

          • Totally agree on Woodstock by CSNY. A listed it for Community. Btw check out Peter’s write up on Hurt. He does Song of the day at the Song Bar. Some of them are first class.

    • The Byrds’ take on My Back Pages is better than Dylan’s too IMHO. Just gorgeous.

      Thanks to the much-missed May1366, I’m rather partial to Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon’s take on Mr Tambourine Man.

      Hello, by the way!

    • Johnny Winter’s cover of Jumping Jack Flash is brilliant – can be viewed on YouTube as part of The Old Grey Whistle Test. The live TV version is almost better than the albumn version.

  4. A fine topic for discussion; often I don’t take the time to know the background to a song, who does?
    I hear it, quite often the first 20 – 30 seconds is enough to tell whether I like it or not, more than likely I don’t know the title; it’s either track 3 if in the car or nameless tune by “x” band if the earphones are in.
    So if I don’t know the name of the song then it’s more than probable that I won’t know who wrote it or even if it is that particular band / musician’s own composition or a cover.
    There are many songs I listen to time and again, one could even say they were favourites but I don’t know whether the artist singing the version I like is the writer of the lyrics, composer of the tune or simply reworking the original version by some ‘unknown’.
    First up a tune where I thought this version was the original: Personal Jesus – go on you can all laugh but I really thought Marilyn Manson’s was the original; it wasn’t until I did a bit of research after hearing Cash’s version that I found it wasn’t.
    In that short playlist are the 1989 version by Depeche Mode; The Man in Black’s and Marilyn Manson. Which do you think is best? Me, still the Manson version.
    Now to a tune that I know is a cover but there’s no doubt in my mind that the Scottish lilt, the orchestra or perhaps the feminine vocals that really does add something to Amy MacDonald’s Dancing in the Dark
    One more that will have some people crying heretic! Whilst I knew it was a cover I still feel that Scissor Sister’s version of Comfortably Numb has something, it might not be better but it’s very good IMHO.
    I could go on, in fact I had been preparing a post on this very subject so let the debate commence.

    • I’m with you – I often have no clue about the heritage of a track.
      I was listening to the Cash version of Personal Jesus earlier today. I prefer it’s pared down style to the other two versions you’ve posted. The Amy MacDonald is definitely lovely with the orchestral arrangement. The Scissor Sisters track is almost unrecognisable as the Pink Floyd original and that makes it interesting. It’s definitely their sound though…

  5. Two sets of “compare and contrast”:

    Firstly, Easy Money.
    Rickie Lee Jones’ original has a great coquettish vocal, but possibly a too simple musical arrangement.

    Lowell George’s cover brings a suitably brassy, slightly sleazy mood to the tale.
    I think the song needed the extra shot.

  6. One for the rock fans.

    Many would say that Cameo’s Word Up! is untouchable.

    I probably would have agreed until Scottish rockers Gun unleashed it on us as a gig encore. Both times I was there, the place went absolutely mental. So they recorded it for their next album. I’m not saying it’s “better”, but I turn this version up WAY louder in the car.

      • Oh yeah. Sorry. They’re auto-loading whilst I do this from my phone. I’ll stop til I’m on the PC later and can do the less cumbersome thing. Cheers.

      • There’s a free App for that:

        – Download the App
        – Copy your YouTube link
        – Open Copy App
        – Click on title of link you just copied to get to edit mode (you’ll see a pencil)
        – Open the menu above the pencil (3 line icon)
        – Select “format & copy”
        – Select “link in HTML” (hit the back arrow on top left, then the clipboard icon if you want to check your work)
        – Paste your link into the ‘Spill as normal

        Should be able to paste multiple links, but that’s enough for now.

    • Did you see the Talk Talk 10 of the best over on the Mothership? Wasn’t on the main page for long, but JAP came out of hiding.

  7. Of course, if I’m going to be pedantic (which I am), then Whiskey In the Jar doesn’t really have an “original version” since it was quite an old song even when Thin Lizzy recorded the thing. Again, it depends on what you consider to be “the same song” as each version over the years (centuries really) is slightly different to an earlier version, often which a name-change thrown in.

    I’m sure most people realise that I regard Katzenjammer’s version of Land of Confusion as infinitely superior to the Genesis original which strikes me as rather leaden and pedestrian. I prefer their version of London Calling too but that may be blasphemy.
    I’ve also argued on R/R that Eva Cassidy’s recording of Over the Rainbow is better than Judy Garland’s original but that was heavily disputed.
    A friend of mine always insisted that the Fine Young Cannibals’ version of Ever fallen In Love was miles better than The Buzzcocks’ one. Critics tended to disagree. I liked both versions.
    I definitely think that Nancy Sinatra improved on Morrissey’s Let Me Kiss You just by being Nancy Sinatra but he sang on it too and the arrangement is much the same.

    In some ways, my favourite cover version is one which alters the tune, the tempo, the arrangement and the words (which are no longer in Russian). Moddi’s cover of Pussy Riot’s A Punk Prayer is almost a new song. It’s also one I have listened to many more times than i have the original, powerful and politically important though it was.

    • Pendantry is good, especially when you are right! You make a good point about Whiskey in the Jar, it was chosen in haste because I’d just been reminded of the dreadful Metallica version. Going to have to look up the Katzenjammer songs you refer to when I have a moment. Really interesting version of the Pussy Riot song. I like it a lot. Thanks Sev.

  8. Apart from Beatles songs, the Grateful Dead generally produced covers that were at least as good as the original: Morning Dew, El Paso, Me & My Uncle, Not Fade Away, Big River, Sing Me Back Home, Big Boss Man, Sittin’ On Top Of The World….. And, it could be argued, they covered their own songs every concert.

  9. I would say from my point of view that the idea of a definitive, or better, cover is actually a bit of a contradiction in jazz; a large proportion of the music consists of reinterpretations of things others have done but there is, in my opinion, rarely a single “outstanding” version. For most of the Great American Songbook tunes there are a number of equally great and contrasting versions; equally so with instrumental originals.
    Celebrated cover versions such as John Coltrane’s My favourite things have been done completely differently by other artists, who have produced works of equal beauty. Youn Sun Nah’s solo performance with Kalimba an example.
    A work like Eddie Harris’ Freedom Jazz Dance has been covered often and nearly always brilliantly, but the original still has a relaxed charm none of the other versions achieve.

    My personal favourite live cover was an encore, an extended, trance-like performance of Björk’s Hyperballad by Marcin Wasilewski Trio, very different to the tranquil MWT studio version. This one got into a monster groove and it was simply ecstatic, I’d love to hear them do that again. But here again, I still love the orginal.

  10. Neil Finn’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is better than the original, IMHO:
    But The Civil Wars’ version tops it:
    And I love the Ukelele Orchestra’s version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:
    And The Cuban Brothers’ version of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”: (not better, but lends a certain je ne sais quoi)

  11. 1) Futureheads’ cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”

    2) Patti Smith’s cover of Them’s “Gloria”

    3) Sex Pistol’s cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun” ( a bit of fuckology !)

    4) Slade’s cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”

    5) Superchunk’s cover of Sebadoh’s “Brand New Love”

  12. Can you improve on one of the greatest songs ever?

    Especially hard if three-quarters of the original band are in the audience but yes I think you can by adding a female vocal, oh and a small orchestra and then a backing choir and then you get one of the most gorgeous powerful renditions of Stairway to Heaven that even brings a tear to Bobby’s eye:

    Heart – Stairway to Heaven

  13. I’ve always loved Johnny Cash’s takes on Highway Patrolman (Springsteen) and I See A Darkness (Bonnie Prince Billy) more than the originals. But that might just be cos I heard them first.

  14. I can sort of hear that Bowie’s version is “better” (more dynamic, propulsive etc) but I love Billy Mackenzie’s spare, bleak torch-song take on Wild Is The Wind.

  15. With this kind of thread, as on RR, any claim to be “the winner”, “the best”, etc., etc., just winds me up, as music [and the appreciation of] is just SO subjective. But it’s hard to resist the hyperbole when I’m a Merseyside Red, born in 1964, and talking about a cover of a Rodgers & Hammerstein showtune.
    Gerry & The Pacemakers – You’ll Never Walk Alone

  16. Oh and seeing as it’s always officially been my favourite record of all time, I’d have to say that Tracey Ullman’s They Don’t Know is better than Kirsty MacColl’s. Even though I know that’s not strictly true.

  17. Some of the others I have not mentioned – in no particular order:
    * Roy Buchanan – Green Onions
    * Joan Baez – One Too Many Mornings
    * Toots Mayall – Country Roads
    * Ramsey Lewis Trio – The In Crowd
    * Susan Tedeschi – Angel From Montgomery
    * Chicken Shack – Rather Be Blind

    …. And it goes on and on…

  18. Two of my absolute faves from recent years, if not surpassing the originals (and this may be contentious), are just as good:

    William Shatner (with Joe Jackson and Ben Folds) – Common People (Pulp)

    The Divine Comedy – No-one Knows (by QotSA)

    Both bring something different, particularly the Divine Comedy song, but as heretical as it sounds, the fury of Shatner’s delivery in Common People, really gets to the heart of the song. You think it may start off as a tongue-in-cheeck version (he couldn’t really do a passable version of this classic could he?) but he totally nails it.

    • The William Shatner is hilarious. No One Knows is one of my favourite QotSA song – I’ve just looked up a live version of The Divine Comedy doing it – Neil Hannon is a very funny guy and his voice actually really suits this song. I like the orchestral arrangement. However, I can’t say it’s better than the original…

  19. Late to this, but I don’t think anyone’s mentioned The Four Tops’ version of Walk Away Renee, released a year after the Left Banke’s original.

    Only Love Can Break Your Heart. St Etienne > Neil Young.

    I’ve only heard Odyssey’s “If You’re Looking For A Way Out” once or twice, but the Tindersticks cover is one of my all-time favourites.

    • With you on the St Etienne, in fact I wish I’d thought of it when I wrote this. Been listening to a lot of Tindersticks lately – I love his voice and their version is def better than Odyssey.

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