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 didn’t know was a cover song?
Thirty years ago there was an earwig song that dominated the airwaves. It was everywhere: radio, television, bars, and dance clubs. That song was “Red Red Wine” by the English multicultural and reggae-influenced band UB40. Bolstered by heavy video rotation on MTV, in its heyday, the song was inescapable. Everyone was suddenly interested in the band: “What does UB40 mean?” “It’s the UK Unemployment Benefit form 40, of course!” Though my learning the meaning of the band’s name appropriately impressed my friends, what I didn’t realize was that the song was actually written and recorded by Neil Diamond circa 1967, followed by a great original reggae cover version from Tony Tribe in 1969. Obviously, UB40 was much more influenced by Tony Tribe’s version, but the Diamond man gets credit for the original. Enjoy the progression from somber singer song writer ballad to reggae dance tune!
I can remember the first time I heard a very few songs, but most songs just feel like they have always been a part of my consciousness, especially songs that came out before I was an active music listener. I couldn’t tell you when the first time I heard the mariachi horns and powerful message of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” In fact, I can’t even come up with a scenario that would explain when and where I first heard it.
Johnny Cash — and country music in general — wasn’t something that was big in my house. My parents, who grew up in Brooklyn, liked doo-wop and Sinatra-type music, and I moved from Top-40 to album rock before heading off to college just as punk and new wave were taking over. Which, in a sort of backwards way, led me back to roots music through people like Dave Edmunds, and ultimately to Americana by regular listening to WFUV. I do know that I started listening to the Carter Family by investigating Uncle Tupelo covers. As for Cash, I was certainly aware of “A Boy Named Sue” and probably “Folsom Prison Blues” as a kid, but my introduction to “Ring of Fire” is definitely hazy. I certainly understood that it was about the intensity of falling in love, and at some point I know that I understood that it was about Cash’s affair with June Carter. (I may have picked up this knowledge from the Joaquin Phoenix/Reese Witherspoon movie – but then again, maybe not.)
It struck me as odd that Cash would have sung this song, co-written by his then-mistress and future wife, when it would have been more natural for June to have sung it herself. Then I found out that the song was originally recorded by June’s sister Anita Carter as “(Love’s) Ring of Fire.” The official story was that June Carter, possibly influenced by something she saw in one of her uncle A.P. Carter’s poetry books or by a poem by Bob Johnston, wrote the song about falling in love with Cash. However, Cash’s former wife Vivian has written that Cash himself wrote the song, “pilled up and drunk” about “a certain private female body part” and gave Carter writing credit because she needed the money.
Either way, Cash claimed that after hearing Anita Carter’s version, he had a dream where he heard the song accompanied by Mexican horns. He told Anita that if her song wasn’t a big hit in a few months, he was going to record it himself. And so he did, with the horns, and Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters (including both June and Anita) singing harmony.
Ask anybody who was an indie kid in the ’90s for their top 10 dance floor fillers from the decade and “Step On” by the Happy Mondays will inevitably be on their list. As soon as that acid-house piano opens the song, you can feel the smile spread across your face.
But I, like many others, wasn’t aware for a long time that one of Manchester’s finest bands did not pen their most recognized tune. For me, it wasn’t until I got a Nuggets-style compilation of lost garage rock classics and saw the title “He’s Gonna Step On You Again” under the name of John Kongos that I thought, wait a minute, that couldn’t be… could it? The song started off with an unfamiliar loop, almost unheard of for a band from 1971 (the Guinness Book of Records claim it is the first record to ever use a sample), but as soon as we get about 10 seconds in there’s that famous, instantly recognizable riff.
The Mondays had originally planned to contribute “Step On” to the compilation Rubáiyát, an album of covers recorded to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the legendary record label Elektra. However, realizing they had a hit on their hands, they recorded another Kongos song for it, “Tokoloshe Man,” and kept “Step On” for themselves. It ended up a smart move, as it went on to be their biggest-selling single.
As someone who loves cover versions and finding the sample sources of rap records, I felt a buzz upon finding the original; you feel (naively) like you’re one of only a few who know this secret version of the song. And I’ve got to admit it does feel great to introduce others to these songs, ensuring the original artists get the praise they deserve.
In college my friend Mike, who has long since fertilized Elysian Fields, turned me onto a crazy rock band and its psychedelic self-titled album, 1986’s Camper Van Beethoven. The album was a bizarre mishmash of genres with the occasional brilliant pop song. The CD, released as a longer format option to vinyl records back in the day, appended their EP Vampire Can Mating Oven to the end.
A mini-pop masterpiece, VCMO ended with the song “Photograph,” which fit perfectly into the type of pop hooks CVB has been known to sink into its listeners. It wasn’t until a bored day a little while later, looking at the liner notes, that I saw the writing credit after the song, and realized it was written by Ringo Starr.
I am not sure why I had never heard the original first (it was a #1 hit in the US), but then again, who knew Mr. Starkey has 16 solo albums? The least popular Beatle, Starr doesn’t get much love even from Beatles fans. But George Harrison co-wrote “Photograph,” and it’s as close to a Beatles song that you’re going to get post-break-up. I’m not so enamored with the original, which seems to languish after the shorter and faster cover I heard first, but here it is.
High school was the perfect time for me to discover the Cramps, and their 1984 compilation album Bad Music for Bad People was an always-reliable standby when I wanted to listen to something I knew I would enjoy. Had an awesome T-shirt with that cover design, even. (You can now hear the whole album on YouTube.) As the years went by, I came to learn that more than half of the record consisted of cover songs. This was a stunner; all the songs sounded so far-out and psycho that it was hard to believe some of them were a product of other minds.
One I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-A-Cover was “Love Me.” The original version was done by Marty Lott, a.k.a. The Phantom, and if anything, it’s more psychotic than the Cramps’ cover, more frantic, over and done with much faster. I can only imagine how this must have turned heads when it was turned loose in 1960, two years after it was recorded – and yes, “turned loose” is a far more accurate description than “released.” Turns out that Pat Boone was partially responsible for its uncaging (learn more about that here), and that’s enough for me to give him a pass on the rest of his career.
There’s nothing better than discovering new music. There is a thrill I get from it that is hard to put into words. It’s part of the reason I have spent almost five years working through Tom Moon’s 1000 Recordings to Hear Before you Die and still love finding something new in there. For this feature, I was going to write about how I learned my favorite song from one of my favorite bands is a cover of a band I thought I despised, but there was a surprise waiting for me.
The Black Keys’ early work is gritty garage blues that sparked my interest in going back to hear the delta blues artists of the ‘20s and ‘30s, which in turn got me into the 1000 Recordings. One of the entries in the book is Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. It’s one of the only entries I had to circle back to because I couldn’t stomach it the first time. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a couple years ago that “Grown So Ugly,” my favorite Black Keys’ song, was a cover of Captain Beefheart, and that the Captain Beefheart version was actually pretty darn good!
The double twist: as I was writing this article, I learned that Captain Beefheart actually covered little-known Louisiana blues artist Robert Pete Williams, and that Williams’ version is even more killer and raw than either of the others. And now I’m off to find out more about Robert Pete Williams, because there’s nothing better than discovering new music.
Growing up, I always found “Hound Dog” to be the quintessential Elvis Presley song. Hearing the song immediately evokes snarling rebellion and images of the King shaking his forbidden hips on TV. I even played “Hound Dog” at summer rock camp in middle school, still thinking it was an Elvis original.
It took visiting Sun Studios and Graceland to learn that “Hound Dog” was not actually written for Elvis. I discovered that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote it for blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1952. Unfortunately, Big Mama Thornton didn’t reap the benefits of “Hound Dog” like Elvis did. Needless to say, I felt like a huge phony after that. My idea of the quintessential Elvis song suddenly felt wrong.
Hearing Big Mama Thornton’s original version blew me away. Her down and dirty voice locks the song into a bluesy groove that’s quite different from Elvis’ upbeat rock and roll. The original “Hound Dog” blows Elvis out of the water any day.
“Young Man Blues” illustrates the Who in all of their live glory. As remarkable as their studio albums were – Tommy and Who’s Next, in particular – it was on stage that the full power of the Who was unleashed. For decades, Live at Leeds was, and may still be, the best example of the Who live and in their prime, and “Young Man Blues” became my favorite track from the album. Roger Daltrey takes the simple, brief lyric and milks it for all it’s worth. John Entwistle, always still as a statue, plays his bass with remarkable dexterity, while Keith Moon, known for his excess, is relatively restrained here. Pete Townshend, while a monster of a player, rarely took lead guitar solos; he does here. There is more exploration in his playing than in most other Who songs, including later, live versions of this one.
Years later, I happened to hear a Mose Allison record with “Young Man Blues.” What was Mose doing playing a Who song? Of course, it turns out, Mose Allison wrote the song. His original recording is typical Mose Allison, wry and punctuated with jazzy piano licks, but it does not compare to his best material. The record clocks in at a mere minute and a half. The two versions of the song are not dissimilar at the beginning, but about the time Allison’s version is over, the Who are just getting warmed up. They kick into four more minutes of high powered rock and roll, meant to be played loud. With no disrespect to Mose Allison, “Young Man Blues” is still the Who’s song. They took what sounds like an offhand sketch of a song by a white jazz/blues pianist from Mississippi, and they turned it into a blues rock tour de force.
In high school, I had electronic dance parties in my parents’ unfinished basement. Despite the nature of the music, my friends and I would not be rolling on molly, but would just be dancing to a lot of weird trance and electronic music. We would plug our first generation iPods into the sound system, play the “Numa Numa” song, and sweat up a storm with ridiculous dance moves.
One of my friends was scrolling through my playlist when he saw “Comfortably Numb.” “This isn’t techno,” he said.
I laughed. Poor Mike had never heard Scissor Sisters. This song was a JAM, man. I told him who it was and he laughed and simply stated, “Oh, I thought it was the original by Pink Floyd.”
My world shattered for a moment. I have always been a person who prides themselves on their musical knowledge – how could I let something so huge get past me? I knew who Pink Floyd was, and I think I even made out with my high school boyfriend while listening to Dark Side of the Moon. I completely played it off, acting like I knew exactly what my friend was talking about.
Scissor Sisters’ take on “Comfortably Numb” is radically different from the original track off of The Wall. It is a disco-infused, falsetto-laden dance track. Scissor Sisters lead singer Jake Shears has said he has been singing this song for the “latter half of his life,” insinuating that it has a deep meaning to him. His dance version of the song angered some Floyd fans; some feel that the disco group has completely disregarded the meaning of the original. However, it can’t be denied that there is still a deep rooted pain in Shears’ version, maybe more related to closeting his sexuality at a younger age as opposed to numbing himself with drugs.
The Electric Light Orchestra was a group that sold 50 million records. I’m not sure Brave Saint Saturn ever sold 50 records, period. Needless to say, their “Here Is the News” won’t be making any of those 100-songs-you-didn’t-know-were-covers lists – I was probably the only person ever to hear this and not know was a cover. But as a high school freshman deep into Christian-ish ska band Five Iron Frenzy, I was introduced with this song to the BSS side project, an electro-proggy trio that mostly sung songs about rocketships and meteors and such.
They opened an album with “Here Is the News” and as a song about a bold adventurer tragically dying in space, it seemed so perfectly in their wheelhouse – all BSS’s songs were basically about a bold adventurer tragically dying in space – I never imagined it wasn’t original. I don’t remember how I first found out either, but I wish I never had. While both versions are unbelievably cheesy, BSS’s cover makes the cheese an asset – just witness the overdramatic Dylan Thomas intro – while ELO’s just gives me a headache.
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments, or e-mail it to covermefeature01(at)gmail(dot)com.