Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s a song you hated until you heard it covered?
Many fans of Counting Crows love the band’s musical ability to tap into raw emotions, thanks to the poignant vocals of lead singer Adam Duritz. It’s also why I love their cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” over any other version, including the original.
To be honest, I never hated the original, but it was an indistinctive tune that never stayed with me, instead drifting off to the never-never land of lost songs in my head. Hearing the Counting Crows cover for the first time triggered in me a strong sense of déjà vu. It wasn’t until later, when I heard the original again, that I got the shock of realizing that they were the same song.
Musically, they are very different. The Psychedelic Furs’ version hums along with ‘80s synthesizer production, while the Counting Crows’ version is stripped down to a lonely guitar. But the main contrast is the emotional resonance. Where Richard Butler’s vocals on the original are more even-keeled, Adam Duritz’s unsettled vocals make “The Ghost In You” melancholic and visceral. Through the stripped-down sound and Adam’s distinctive singing, the Counting Crows tapped into the raw emotion of the song.
My favorite covers are the ones that reveal something in a song. The Psychedelic Furs wrote it, and there are quite a few other covers of it – but none reveal more heart and emotion of this “Ghost” than the Counting Crows’ timeless cover.
Depeche Mode’s hit “Personal Jesus” has annoyed me since I was a kid. When the rest of the high schoolers line-danced to the song at the school dance, I cringed. When Cleveland’s alternative rock station, 107.9 The End, tried to maintain their “indie” cred by playing it between the new Rage Against the Machine and White Zombie, I changed the channel. I’ve never been a fan of synthpop in general or Depeche Mode in particular, and so it was that the biggest hit in the genre got under my skin like a batch of maggots.
Enter Johnny Cash. Cash’s American IV was my introduction to the American Recordings series, and “Personal Jesus” was for me the high point of the album. The acoustic bassline (played by Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante) surprised me first; who knew that gem was buried in the original? I immediately found a guitar and learned the riff and played it ad nauseum. Cash’s classic voice, the plinking piano and the groaning slide guitars in the background turned a boring song into a blues-infused winner. At least now when Depeche Mode’s version plays at a wedding I don’t bolt from the building like it’s on fire. I quickly and calmly move toward the exit.
Please allow me to introduce myself; I’m about to drop some blasphemy.
Guns N’ Roses‘ version of “Sympathy for the Devil” beats the hell out of the original by the Rolling Stones.
On the whole, I’ll pick the Stones over GN’R every single time because they’re a better band. After all, Keith Richards is some sort of immortal demigod that neither nature nor science can destroy, and you’d be hard pressed to find a man cooler than Charlie Watts. But in the case of “Sympathy for the Devil”? My sympathies lie with the caterwauling ginger farmboy instead of the pillow-lipped Brit.
For the uninitiated, “Sympathy” is an acid-tipped history trip that starts with Judas and his thirty pieces of silver and slithers all the way to the Kennedy assassinations. It is a look at the decline of civilization through the eyes of a sadistic narcissist who takes an almost paternal pride in the evil that men do over the aeons. Afro-Brazilian samba rhythms hypnotize hips and seduce the listener into shimmying their shoulders and gleefully singing along to lyrics about the stink of bodies at the Blitz and the bloodshed during the Russian Revolution.
It’s a dark and fucked-up song to begin with, and who better to cover it than a band who rewrote the book on what it means to be fucked up?
Featured on the soundtrack to Interview with a Vampire, Guns N’ Roses cover of “Sympathy” is faster and more percussive. The hooting in the original sounds like a chorus of owls, but in the cover, it’s a taunting cacophony of descending madness. It’s brash, mean, and almost Droog-ian in its revelry of chaos. It is, as lead guitarist Slash so aptly put it, “the sound of the band breaking up.”
The Rolling Stones might have performed at their Satantic Majesty’s request, with Mick Jagger serving as Lucifer’s consigliore and retelling what was whispered into his ear – but when Axl Rose sings this song, you start to wonder if maybe you’re getting your information directly from the source.
I don’t hate a lot of songs (Men Without Hats, I’m looking at you!), but the list of songs that I have grown weary of is exhausting. How can anyone still pump their fist at Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”? After the royal baby, aren’t there even more reasons then ever to hate the Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes”? And I’m pretty sure it goes without saying that there’s a special place in hell for wedding songs.
Edward Joseph Mahoney, who put his *cough*successful*cough* career aside to go on to greater fame as a Geico salesman, has had his share of ear worms, perhaps none greater than “Baby Hold On.” It’s certainly is not the most complex of songs (rhyme scheme: A/A/A/A), nor does it have Shakespearean wordsmithing (“Oh, oh — rich man, poor man. It doesn’t mean all that much”). However, I’m sure it got some people laid in the ’70s. Which, I hate to say it, means that some of you were probably conceived to this song.
Dave Grohl performed the over-the-top cover above with help from fellow Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn many years ago. Grohl vociferously mocks Eddie Money’s song by chewing gum the whole time, while simultaneously blowing it out of the water. Come to think of it, a few of you may have gotten laid to this cover around the year 2000. Which, I hate to say it, means that some of you may have conceived a child to this song. If so, it’s probably time to sit down and have “that talk” with your kid to break the cycle. If you need any advice, I’m here to help.
When I was a kid growing up in the late nineties, the Rolling Stones were always referenced as some rebellious sex-and-drugs-and-rock-n-roll gods, but I had trouble seeing or believing it. To me, it seemed like they were dinosaurs of the past; some geriatric rockers who occasionally toured the world or licensed their songs to commercials so they could collect a big fat paycheck.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was the flagship anthem for the Rolling Stones, but every time I heard that memorable Keith Richards fuzzbox riff at the beginning of the song, it seemed more to me of an alarm or siren to the dreadful feelings that I would inevitably feel listening to this song (this may be in part due to Britney Spears covering the song at the 2000 VMA’s). While I would later come to appreciate the Rolling Stones and their back catalog (with the help of Wes Anderson’s movie soundtracks), I just had difficulty believing they even had an ounce of rebelliousness left in their own old bones.
However when I first heard the Devo version, I was so surprised that a cover song could sound so markedly different. Somehow these nerdy guys from Akron, OH were able to make a song that previously sounded tame and mild to my ears feel much more exciting and substantial. The transformation of the original song and its traditional guitar riffs and vocals into a much more angular and robotic sound seemed rebellious and daring to me. You know what else was rock and roll? The fact that Devo performed the cover on SNL only a week after the Rolling Stones themselves had played on the show.
Sometimes context and state of mind are everything. Growing up as a young rock and/or roll fan, I hated country music. Sure, this came with a healthy dose of denial (“Act Naturally” isn’t country, it’s rockabilly!), but “hate” is definitely the right word to describe how I felt. No song symbolized, to me, the genre better than George Jones’ “You’re Still On My Mind.” Slow, clip-clopping beat, lazy pedal steel guitar and lyrics about drinking – how more stereotypically country can you get?
The late ’90s found me living a long way from home, in Melbourne, Australia. While I was enjoying life down under, I suffered from a good deal of homesickness as well. Shortly before I had left Canada, a friend had turned me on to Wilco’s Being There, and I was devouring anything and everything to do with the band. A Rolling Stone article mentioned their love of the Byrds‘ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and I grabbed the album with no idea of the road it would bring me down.
Walking away from the record store, I slipped the CD into my Discman (remember those?) and was immediately put off by the prominent twang of a pedal steel guitar. Ugh, this is country, I thought. I persisted, given that I had bought the damn thing already. Partway through the album, there was that song. “You’re Still On My Mind” was even twangier and more, well, country than the original. Something about it grabbed me, though. Maybe it was Gram Parsons’ plaintive drawl, or maybe I was just ready to hear a little bit of North America while so far away from home. Soon, I sought out the original and the doors were blasted open, not only to a new song or new artist, but an entire genre.
You can’t deny that Karen Carpenter had a beautiful voice; my wife says it may be her favorite, because of its purity. Objectively, you can appreciate the quality of the Carpenters’ craft. But appreciate doesn’t necessarily equal like. To the contrary; to me, the Carpenters will always be associated with dull, middle-of-the-road ’70s pop. It really doesn’t matter which of their many hits come to mind; one mention, and my eyes automatically roll.
One year I bought my wife, half as a joke, a copy of If I Were a Carpenter, a 1994 tribute album containing Carpenters covers by mostly indie and post-punk artists, including Matthew Sweet, Cracker, the Cranberries, and Grant Lee Buffalo. It is actually pretty good, and in many cases the transformations made the songs listenable.
But for me, the best cover on the album is Shonen Knife’s “Top of the World.” Shonen Knife was a band of three young Japanese women who were not particularly good musicians, but who had a zest and innocence that was incredibly charming. Their garagey, goofy version of the song, sung in virtually indecipherable English, is the exact opposite of the pristine, awful original. And while I would still choose a sharp poker in my eye over having to listen to the Carpenters’ version, I actually can’t get enough of Shonen Knife’s cover.
I had a lot of good answers to this question, but I had to rule most of them out. I love Self’s cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes,” but the original’s more a guilty pleasure than a song I hate. And what Mark Lizotte does to “I Write the Songs” merits a Congressional Medal of Honor, but I could never gin up any real hatred for Barry Manilow’s take.
By contrast, I actively loathed “Sunshine” by Jonathan Edwards. To me, it was a bunch of hippie platitudes about how the Man can’t bust our lifestyle and I won’t always be bummin’ like I am now, expressed in a wimpy yet self-righteous don’t-faze-me-bro fashion.
Paul Westerberg had no such problems with the song. This is a guy who happily covered Kiss’s “Black Diamond” and the DeFranco Family’s “Heartbeat (It’s a Lovebeat)” with the Replacements, who defended the virtues of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” in Rolling Stone without a hint of irony, who knew there was no fool’s gold in rock ‘n roll. He took “Sunshine,” rocked it up, threw in a key change (if it’s stupid but it works, it ain’t stupid), threw it away on the soundtrack to Friends (hence the laughter at the start of this), and permanently changed the way I think about the song. Really. The original isn’t that bad…
One of the first CDs I ever bought was a cheap compilation called “Millennium ’80s New Wave Dance Party”; to this day, I have a fondness for synth-y, hook-y trash from that beleaguered musical decade. While I love upbeat ’80s music, though, the slower “Lite FM” cheeze always grated on me. Perfect example: Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” If someone had forced me to sit and pay attention, I might have grudgingly admitted there was a catchy pop song in there, but amidst the synthesized steel drums (why would you synthesize what is already such a terrible instrument??) I just couldn’t bear the sound. Anything that makes Hall & Oates sound aggro by comparison is just too schlocky even for me.
Then I saw a video of Detroit duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. covering the song in Indianapolis in 2011. From their name, you know Jr. Jr. are down with dumb jokes (and willing to get sued over them), and all their goofy unselfconscious fun comes out in this cover. There’s a bubble machine, there’s a sax solo, there are amateurish dance steps, and there’s a room full of sweaty hipsters going absolutely ape over the most uncool song this side of Phil Collins. With the original relegated to cut-out bin relic, thank goodness Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. came along to save this song from itself.
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