Sometimes, a songwriter is unlucky enough (or lucky enough, depending on how they see it) for their song to be picked up by another artist and for it to become a smash hit as a cover version. Sure, the artist probably earns wads of cash in the process. However even someone as famous and well established as Paul Simon admitted that, as he once saw his estranged musical partner Art Garfunkel singing Sound of Silence to rapturous applause, he thought “that’s my song, man.”
Covers can be a source of frustration or viewed as an homage to the original artist – Dolly Parton does not begrudge Whitney Houston for her incredibly popular rendition of I Will Always Love You, saying “it’s her song now.” Oasis frequently covered The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus and only once attracted the ire of George Harrison (who said Liam Gallagher’s yobbish behaviour made him looked like he had “missed the bus” compared to the rest of the band. Liam responded by calling Harrison “a nipple.”) Paul McCartney and Noel Gallagher have appeared on multiple records together. But what makes a cover better than the original? Is it a meticulously crafted remake of the original or a completely new take on recording? Here’s my top 5 picks for those covers that just about exceed the brilliance of the original.
- Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
I never much cared for Jeff Buckley until my flatmate and I sat down to listen to a multi-disc vinyl recording of him playing live at Sin-e café in New York in 1993. Buckley had a fantastic talent with the guitar and was easily able to make a cover sound his own. The tragic story of his 1997 death whilst waiting for his band to join him to record a new album makes all his existing records that bit more special.
His ethereal version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a bittersweet masterpiece of a recording that expertly delivers the spirit of Cohen’s composition. The quiet nature of the song makes it perfect for emotional scenes in movies and TV, for which it is constantly used. The reason I’ve placed it as just slightly better than Cohen’s original is the position it’s occupied since Buckley’s death, a great gift for generations to come.
2. Oasis – Heroes
Ok, ok, ok. Yes, I concede that Oasis are not as genre-defining and influential as David Bowie was. But they are a lot better than people give them credit for. As the principal songwriter in Oasis, Noel Gallagher took the heroes of his generation (like the Beatles, Bowie, The Who, The Stones) and made them accessible for the next 25 years’ worth of indie fans. Sure, allegations are constantly levelled at him that his music is a bit derivative, but all music is at the end of the day.
Noel Gallagher’s 1997 cover of Bowie’s Heroes just edges the original for the optimism the shouted vocals inspire and driving, thumping beat generated by drummer Alan White and Oasis’ signature wall-of-sound production techniques. One of the highlights from their cocaine fuelled Be Here Now era.
3. Amy Winehouse – Valerie
This cover is another that sounds that bit more special when you consider that the soulful voice behind it is no longer with us. Her tragic death to alcohol poisoning in 2011 cut short the career of one of the most influential and tuneful soul voices of the early 21st century. She was hounded by the media in the midst of personal issues throughout her life and still managed to produce art that fans and critics lapped up.
Her cover of Liverpool group The Zutons’ Valerie is the soundtrack to many formative moments in the lives of late 90s and early 2000s babies. It was (and is) a great, well crafted piece of pop music that substitutes the raspy, distorted guitars of the original for a horn section and an R&B drum feel. It’s no surprise how well people remember it.
4. Jimi Hendrix – All Along The Watchtower
We will probably never see another guitarist as seminal as Hendrix. Legend has it he was able to shred a guitar from the first time he picked one up (which probably isn’t true, but it’s a nice notion.) From his incredible performance at Woodstock to his famous cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band performed with Beatles in the audience just hours after the song was released, plenty of rock’s most important moments have featured Hendrix at the epicentre.
His cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower completely changes the feel of the song, with even Dylan himself saying he was “blown away.” The screaming guitars hugely increase the rock and roll feel without taking away from that signature Dylan lyricism. This guy was on another level. Since Hendrix’s death, Bob Dylan incorporated more elements of the cover version into his performances as a tribute.
5. Ray Charles – Yesterday
The Beatles’ Yesterday is one of the most recorded songs of all time. It is probably accurate to tout it as one of the best songs of all time full stop. And of course, anything popular is accompanied by a sea of cheesy, poor covers. Even an electric version by the Beatles themselves exists as a bootleg and just sounds… wrong.
The grandest version of Yesterday that exists is that by one of the Beatles’ heroes, Ray Charles (of Hit The Road, Jack fame.) An incredibly soulful vocal enhances the emotion of the song even beyond McCartney’s and the orchestral overlay is used to greater effect than on the original record. If you haven’t heard the cover, grab yourself a copy. Even the most ardent Beatlemaniac would struggle to challenge how good Ray’s version is.