May 012018
 

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

hey joe

If great songs are romantic flings—seizing you by the ears and locking you in a passionate, three-minute embrace before they leave you breathless and aching for more—there’s precious few that compare with the record-buying public’s three-year infatuation with the song “Hey, Joe.”

Hundreds of renditions have been recorded, several making the charts. But none proved more lasting than a version committed to wax in late 1966, the debut 7” by a young guitarist you may have heard of. We’ll get to his story in a moment, but first the phenomenon of multiple concurrent covers demands a little exploration.

For a brief and puzzling moment in the late 1960s, it seemed as if every rock band on the planet was obligated to cover “Hey Joe.” But covering another band’s recent hit was common practice then. In the days before radio stations were enfolded into national conglomerates, many songs were regional hits before making it on the national charts. Figuring that a small hit in one area could become a larger one elsewhere, bands often copied newly-popular songs in a race to score the best-selling version. For instance, although The Kingsmens’ “Louie, Louie” was likely the fourth version of the song to be released, it’s the one we all know.

“Hey Joe” proved particularly well suited to catch this wave in the late 1960s. Its lyrics seemed emblematic of a very specific moment in America: the chipper, peachy-keen 1950s dissolving into something altogether darker. If the thread of violence woven deep into the nation’s very DNA was by then relegated to hokey Westerns—Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel—in the following years it would explode out of televisions and onto the streets: John F. Kennedy shot down next to his beautiful wife; the pitched battles of the civil rights movement in Selma, Oxford, Watts and elsewhere demanding white peoples’ uncomfortable attention; and behind it all the looming specter of Vietnam.

So while “Hey Joe” was on its face a story about infidelity and vengeance, its frankness and its unwillingness to pass judgement on its titular antihero made for a gripping, and oddly timely listen. Or, at least, it did until Cher covered it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again…

A Deep Song with Shallow Roots

Many listeners—even many of the artists who covered it—believed “Hey, Joe” to be a traditional song. But its roots were a good deal more current. Though it leans on other works for inspiration, “Hey Joe” was copyrighted in 1962 by Billy Roberts, a South Carolinian singer-songwriter who spent most of his career based in San Francisco.

Roberts didn’t have to look hard to find musical inspiration. His onetime girlfriend Niela Miller’s 1955 song “Baby, Please Don’t Go to Town” – from the sound of it recorded on a tape deck exhibiting extreme wow and flutter – anticipates the progression of “Hey Joe,” built around the circle of fifths. Sharp-eyed readers will, in fact, note the comment left by one “Niela Miller” below the YouTube video: “Thanks for recognizing my song as the original impetus for Hey Joe (stolen from me by Billy Roberts, an old boyfriend).”

Interestingly, Roberts never recorded “Hey, Joe” himself. For the song to make the leap to vinyl, it first had to percolate from the folk to the rock scenes. And apparently, the catalyst for this was none other than David Crosby. (Yes, that David Crosby.) He was likely introduced to it by his friend Chester Powers, a singer-songwriter who would go by a number of pseudonyms, most notably “Dino Valenti,” before ending up in Quicksilver Messenger Service. Powers was in turn a friend of Billy Roberts, and at times Valenti/Powers has been listed, erroneously, as an author of “Hey Joe.” Whatever its source, Crosby was taken by the song and insisted his then up-and-coming folk-rock band the Byrds add it to their set. They cranked the tempo to a near-frantic pace, injecting a jolt of urgency to match the grim subject matter.

One supposes the Byrds’ live version was more inspiring than the one they recorded, belatedly, for their 1966 album Fifth Dimension. Either way, once the band was playing it out, it was only a matter of time before a veritable Who’s Who of compelling LA bands took it on as their own: Love, the Music Machine, the Surfaris and the Standells, to name just a few. But it was little-known garage punkers the Leaves who beat them all to the punch, recording (and then rerecording) the song a total of three times before they hit pay dirt.

Supposedly connected with local label Mira by none other than Pat Boone, the Leaves laid down a raw, amped-up and altogether fierce version of the song to little notice in late 1965. For reasons that remain unclear, the band were unhappy with the sound and rerecorded a slightly clearer version in early 1966. It too went nowhere.

By this time, original lead guitarist Bill Rinehart had left the band. He was replaced by Bob Arlin, who came equipped with the essential weapon in any self-respecting garage band’s arsenal: A fuzztone pedal. Rerecording “Hey, Joe” yet again—and adding an altogether superfluous bridge for good measure—this version was the ticket, Arlin’s snarling licks fairly leaping out of the speakers to seize the attention of sullen proto-punks everywhere.

With that third version peaking at #31 on the Billboard chart, the unstoppable virus that was “Hey Joe” was now unleashed on the world, though the extent of its reach wasn’t yet clear.

If you’ve read this far, you’re likely wondering when we’re going to get back to that hot young guitarist referenced a few hundred words ago. Were this a perfect world, we’d send you on your way by telling you that a young man born Johnny Allen Hendrix, but soon going by a different—make that several different names—heard the Leaves’ version of “Hey, Joe,” decided to cover it, and we could all call it a day. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it went down.

A Song Launches an Artist, and the Artist Repays the Favor

The inspiration for Hendrix’s version also came from the coffeehouse folk scene, but on the other side of the country. In mid-1966, hanging out in New York City and contemplating ditching his grueling and unremunerative gig as bassist for the Animals for a managerial role, Chas Chandler was spending time at Cafe Wha?, a venue and general nexus of the Greenwich Village scene. Impressed by local songwriter Tim Rose’s back-to-basics folk take on “Hey, Joe,” Chandler was intrigued by the notion of finding a rock musician to cover the song. As it turned out, that person was very close at hand: Another performer at the café, one Jimmy James, backed by his band the Blue Flames, was already working up his own version.

Chandler was sold. Convincing James—of course, better known as Jimi—into joining him in England, he put together a new band, the Experience, and bankrolled a recording date that December. Released in February 1967, “Hey, Joe” (b/w “Stone Free”) climbed to #6 in the UK, the start to Hendrix’s truly meteoric rise, and equally swift and tragic end. Curiously, the Experience’s version failed to chart in the United States, but that would be rectified soon enough.

Though it was by some counts the eighth version of “Hey Joe” to reach vinyl, Hendrix’s was the definitive one. His voice—never his primary instrument—is compelling here, by turns resigned, menacing, and defiant. And while his guitar sound had not yet found its full expression—the cascading waves of feedback and the pummeling impact of 100-Watt Marshall amplifiers overdriven to the “stun” setting—his virtuosity was already inarguable. And let’s not forget the contribution of his band, in particular drummer Mitch Mitchell, an expressive powerhouse who melded the finesse of jazz and the raw power of hard rock like no one before or since.

For better or worse, the song’s success unleashed an even greater deluge of covers. Soon, artists as diverse as Wilson Pickett and the aforementioned Cher would be releasing their own versions of the song. Pickett’s version, which reached #29 on the US R&B charts and #16 in the UK, gives the song real gravitas thanks to his incomparably passionate voice and some crack session players, including Duane Allman. Cher’s version, which reached #94 in the US, features none of these things, though as a consolation she did get Duane’s brother Gregg, at least temporarily.

And then, just as quickly as it had gripped the public consciousness, “Hey, Joe” faded with the page turn of the ‘60s into the ‘70s. Although it was still covered later—and no less than Led Zeppelin and the Who would include the song in live sets—the sun had largely set on the era when artists would cover hits in the hopes of scoring bigger hits.

And in a sense, “Hey, Joe” had already served its purpose. Whether amped-up and kinetic like the Leaves’ version or dark and mournful like Hendrix’s, vignettes of murderous rage and a remorseless killer’s defiance stood in stark contrast with the cutesy girl-meets-boy staples of ‘60s radio. Even if its lyrics were in no sense political, the song reflected the somber reality of a country and a world seemingly fracturing in two; it’s a characteristic that made it seem essential at the time, but can make many of its renditions sound a bit naive and dated today.

Appropriately, its swan song would coincide with the symbolic end of its era. On August 18, 1969, as the harsh sunlight of a Monday morning illumined a trash-strewn field in New York State, only a dwindling crowd of stragglers remained to hear Jimi Hendrix play “Hey, Joe,” the last song performed at Woodstock.

We’ve written previously about the link between the ‘60s pseudo-punkers the Standells and early New Wave synth-pop band Soft Cell through songwriter Ed Cobb. Strangely enough, it turns out the two bands shared something else: They both covered “Hey, Joe.”

Want to know more about covers of Jimi Hendrix songs? Check our archives, naturally – including the story behind another Henrdix cover, “All Along the Watchtower.”

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