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 your favorite cover of your favorite song?
Don Henley said that “Hotel California” is about the “journey from innocence to experience.” For me, it’s a song that has followed me throughout my whole life. With memories both vivid and vague, I can recall my brother playing it for me on vinyl; listening to it with my parents in the car; and slow dancing to it at my eighth-grade graduation dance. Even during times in my life when I convinced myself that I hated the Eagles and all that they stood for, deep down I always really liked the song. Although the fact it’s heavily overplayed has diminished the tune’s greatness over time, I still get chills whenever the I hear the night man’s immortal words “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave!”
If the Eagles’ “Hotel California” is one of my all-time favorite songs, then the Reggae Cowboys’ 1996 cover is easily one of my favorite covers. I discovered it while working as a music critic for my college newspaper in the ‘90s. The group’s debut album Tell the Truth was languishing in the bin where the editor tossed all the CDs nobody wanted to review. On the album, the band fuses the music and sounds of gunslinging Western T.V. shows and movies with reggae beats. A true thinking man’s record, it includes politically charged lyrics about the black cowboys’ forgotten role in the Old West.
The album closes with “Hotel California.” The track is ideal for a cross-genre reggae cover since guitarist and co-writer Don Felder’s original title for the song was “Mexican Reggae.” With the tune, the Reggae Cowboys keep a consistent keyboard-driven reggae grove. Lead singer Bird “Stone Ranger” Bellony delivers the lyrics as if he’s rocking a dance hall. To conclude the song, the group even blasts some guitar fireworks on par with Felder and Joe Walsh’s duet from the original. On its own, the song is a fabulous cover, but it also serves as a great final track to the album. By urging you to reconsider the Western mythology that defines so much of American imagination, the Reggae Cowboys remind you that once something is learned there is no “passage back” to the place you were before.
It’s been said that Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” – a meditation on the difficulty of feeling human in face of the post-industrialized world and a story that’s been discussed in probably more English classes in teensploitation dramas than any other – is only a tragedy because Gregor Samsa never realizes that cockroaches can fly.
Perhaps because it comes at the tail end of a century that was, if we’re being honest, orders of magnitude more dehumanizing than Kafka anticipated, Radiohead’s “Let Down” recasts its tale of metamorphosis in ways that lose even the last vestiges of the natural world that manifest as Samsa’s bug-like body. Someone – probably Thom Yorke, though it’s a second-person pronoun by the end of the song – is once again “crushed like a bug,” but this time the speaker desires to “one day” to “grow wings” that are both “hysterical and useless” and the product of a “chemical reaction” that feels more like an airborne toxic event resulting from corporate malfeasance than an author’s existential dread made metaphor. It’s hardly surprising that the most famous band to be primarily interested in cataloguing ways in which we have been separated from people and ourselves by the technologies, habits, and social customs of modernity and post-modernity, would turn their attention to Kafka; however, this song doesn’t feature the bleeps and blips that accompany the band’s later works about alienation. The melody weaves around four notes or so like waves, growing more and more insistent until dissipating into a muddled outro that, against all expectations, fails to end the song and becomes downright beautiful as, with overdubbed falsetto versions of himself, Thom sings about “full collapse” and we get a genuinely human crescendo that triumphs by fully giving way to the dread. Many, many Radiohead songs are more popular and enduring, but this is the one that has made me feel Damned Big Things more often than I can count.
Toots and The Maytals‘ version – off of a you’ve-got-to-be-joking Easy Star All-Stars song-for-song Reggae treatment of OK Computer – is not just a cover of my favorite song, but a magnificent reclamation of humanity in its own right. Its humanity is less sober than the opulence of depression that redeems the original; this time, it’s a melody that swaggers and stumbles and Toots’s voice that seizes on the “one day” part of the promise in such a defiant way that suggests he absolutely plans on using the wings to fly. Both versions feature underrated technical work throughout and vocal performances hard to imagine from anyone else. The idea for the cover may have had more to do with filling out the roster for a cash-grabbing album than an inspired bit of interpretation regarding a post-modern song that is already interpreting a modernist bit of fiction, but holy crap it works. By positioning our character as fully alive from the jump while negotiating an alienation that, because of the tradition of Reggae as protest music, sounds like humans oppressing humans, the song makes the post-post-modern move of reminding us that the struggle to feel human existed for much of the world long before Kafka or Yorke arrived on the scene.
When I was in high school, the Velvet Underground were my band, the one I discovered on my own and tried to share with as many people as I could. Of all their songs, my favorite was the version of “What Goes On” from the 1969 Live With Lou Reed album. As the song settles into extended-jam mode, wave after wave of melodic noise keeps cascading over the listener, propelled by Reed’s sensational rhythm guitar and underpinned by Maureen Tucker’s persistent boom boom boom PAH boom boom boom PAH, I always have the same thought: I want this to go on forever. In the years that followed, other artists have risen and fallen in my estimation, but no song will ever take the place of those nine glorious minutes.
The Feelies were a band I discovered in college (though not until after they’d played a gig there, much to my later chagrin). How did I come to love them? Well, it helped that they were often compared to the Velvet Underground, and it helped further that they did a cover of “What Goes On” that I really liked. Starting the song with a guitar solo was a great touch; we hit the ground running, and the spare briskness ensures that we’re not about to quit – until we do, stopping dead right where the VU were just getting warmed up. It’s not a transcendent cover, but it feels good, and it makes me think of how good the original makes me feel.
For years now, balladeers from Norah Jones to Diana Krall have known that, to find a little-known weeper to emote the hell out of, all you have to do is dust off Tom Waits’ back catalog. So color me shocked that Waits’ most beautiful song of all (I stand by that statement) has not inspired a raft of torchy covers. True, “Never Let Go” never appeared on a proper album; Tom recorded it for the forgotten 1993 film American Heart, then included it on his 2006 odds-and-sods collection Orphans. Maybe Barbra Streisand never dug into the B-sides.
So, sadly, this song’s cover pool sits pretty shallow. The other of note is Belgian finger-picker Pascal Fricke’s beautiful instrumental, but I’ll pick this live version by Jeff Bridges, of all people. How did Bridges, of all people, know the song? He was the star of that forgotten 1993 film! There’s a proper live-album version with better sound quality, but personally I prefer this fan video where you can watch the Dude croon it out. One day, I hope, we’ll have enough selection for a Five Good Covers of this song. Until then, this will do nicely.
Favorite is such a subjective conceit, a fleeting idea then professed as fact until, and they always do, another thought comes along. So for this I thought, I really really thought, that my answer was “Hey Joe.” OK, I have done a piece on the song already and so has Seth, but I swore I could still find love in the old warhorse. That is until a googly by way of, of all people, venerable tenor sax jazz giant, Charles Lloyd. Him I like, but not as much as i love Lucinda Williams, especially if Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, doyens respectively of electric guitar and electric pedal steel guitar, are in the loop. They have a new collective album together that includes an exquisite version of another (I know, I know) Jimi Hendrix song, “Angel.” Which isn’t my version choice, or even my song, but it set me thinking just what a corker of a composer James Marshall Hendrix actually was. Mainly characterized by the slew of cover versions, most of them (gulp) better than the original. This is my toppermost of the poppermost, a slow burner that has you, had me, wondering just what was this damn song I know, the melody playing initially just shy of obvious, flirting with memory. And then, bang, it’s there. “Little Wing.” Terrific. The chords shifting just so and never more seductively than in the hands of consummate Canadian jazz orchestrator, Gil Evans. He certainly liked this song a lot; it features on several of his recordings, and also crops up as an unlikely collaboration with Sting. I have to fess up I don’t even know where this particular version originated first, that is apart from here , being neither as long or as short as the other versions, 10 minutes being about right. Listen.
The question “what’s your favorite song/artist/cover?” is, to me, unanswerable. I feel that most of us who write for a music blog should be unable to pick a single favorite—I know I am. Sure, I probably have a list of favorites, but to choose just one? I’d rather not. But I’m also a loyal Cover Me staffer, and this is our assignment, so here goes.
Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” is definitely on my list of favorite songs. I like the song, and I like its message. Written about Gabriel’s leaving Genesis, it’s about the need to break free in order to reach your ultimate goals. Trust me, I’ve been in a rut, part of the scenery, caught in the machinery, and my heart has gone boom, boom boom, which may be why the song has spoken to me over the years.
I’ve heard a few covers of the song, and most of them have left me flat (the best version I’m familiar with is still Gabriel’s live version from the 1983 Plays Live collection), but Sarah McLachlan’s version is pretty good. Recorded live from a show in Vancouver very early in her career, it was released in 1989 as the B-side to a single from her first album. I’ve read that McLachlan was influenced by Gabriel, so the fact that she performed this cover isn’t a surprise.
The version showcases McLachlan’s beautiful voice, although there are some 1980s-era vocal tics that are a little annoying. That a cover by a then-21-year-old music industry neophyte lacks the gravitas of the original, by a 27-year-old veteran frontman of a popular band, is not surprising, but reading McLachlan’s bio, it is not hard to see why she found the song compelling. McLachlan’s parents would not let her sign a recording contract until she finished high school and a year of college in Nova Scotia, immediately after which she moved 2,700 miles away to Vancouver and recorded her first album. The message of “Solsbury Hill,” that you need to let go of your past to reach your future, must have been something that resonated with McLachlan at that time in her life.
Dire Straits is a band that conveys a feeling of your best friend sitting next to you in your living room giving you life advice in song form. Whether it’s storytelling or telling it like it is, they don’t pull any punches. It’s that kind of frank and open nature that makes their songs appealing to me. “Romeo and Juliet” is a very raw, honest song about love lost, and I think it’s one of Dire Straits’ best.
(Perhaps it’s an MTV generation syndrome, but many of my favorite songs have a cinematic moment attached to them, and “Romeo and Juliet” is no exception. Every time I hear that song, I think of the sweet moment in Empire Records when Mark spots a cute girl dancing to a song and tries to get her attention. Watch it here.)
When I came across The Killers’ cover of “Romeo and Juliet” on their album Sawdust, I instantly fell in love. In terms of musicality, The Killers kept the cover in the same vein as the original with bright guitar work, sweet fills by the piano and simple rock drums. It’s Flowers’ perfect storytelling voice that suits this love / loss song so well, which leads me back to that band in the living room. Some bands float above it all… untouchable and mythic. Both Dire Straits and The Killers feel so present-so down to earth. I love both versions of “Romeo and Juliet” for this reason.
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