Nov 012013

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

“Sweet Jane” is a great song. Released on 1970’s Loaded, the Velvet Underground’s last studio album featuring Lou Reed, it immediately became a staple of FM radio, despite its odd and provocative lyrics, unusual structure, and unconventional sound, and it continues to get airplay to this day. What’s the appeal? Part of it, of course, is the riff (which apparently includes a “secret chord”), part of it is the indescribable cool of Reed’s delivery, and part of it is that magic that makes some songs great and others not so much. According to Rolling Stone, it is the 335th greatest song of all time, which is curiously specific. And now, in honor of Reed’s passing earlier this week at the age of 71, the time has come to write about it here on Cover Me.

It should come as no surprise that “Sweet Jane” is also an oft-covered song – any bar band could play those three chords, and most of them did and do. Probably the most famous version was released by the Cowboy Junkies; based on a live version by the Velvets from 1969, it hit #5 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts, and Reed himself allegedly called it “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard.” Of course, artists don’t always properly appreciate their own music, and to these ears, the Cowboy Junkies turn the song into a lugubrious snoozefest. So we will not be presenting that cover – nor, for that matter, will you hear any of the various versions based around that cover. Not when there are so many more little-known treasures out there.

Mott the Hoople – Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground cover)

The story of how Mott the Hoople was about to disband when David Bowie convinced them to give it another go is pretty well known. Bowie handed them “All The Young Dudes” (after the band rejected “Suffragette City,” and Bowie denied them “Drive-In Saturday”) and produced their album, and instead of breaking up, the band became famous. Bowie also suggested that they cover “Sweet Jane,” because of his admiration for Reed. Ian Hunter, Mott the Hoople’s vocalist, did not share this admiration — he thought that the Velvet Underground “stunk,” and didn’t get along with Reed – but they recorded the song anyway, even though Hunter has been quoted as saying “it wasn’t us.” Their version is a somewhat cleaner, more straightforward rock version of the song, made better (as is anything in the world) with more cowbell.

As a bonus, here is a recording from the All The Young Dudes recording sessions (produced by Bowie, while also co-producing Reed’s Transformer), with Reed singing a guide vocal. It joins the Hoople approach to the Reed vocals and makes for an interesting comparison to the Hunter-led version.

Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band – Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground cover)

Reed continued to perform “Sweet Jane” after he left the Velvet Underground and embarked on his solo career. However, after the disappointing commercial response to his depressing Berlin album, Reed decided to release Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, a live album featuring his touring band, most of whom were more influenced by hard rock than the moodier Velvet Underground sound. The live version of “Sweet Jane,” especially the introduction showcasing the interplay between guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner (who both also played with Alice Cooper… and Peter Gabriel) is thrilling. This cover, recorded at the end of last August on a boat circling Manhattan, features Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and a band that includes his sons Grahame and Brian; they do a nice job recreating the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal version, but somehow add a definite Dead twist.

Eater – Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground cover)

The influence of the Velvet Underground on punk music has long been recognized, and it didn’t take long for punk bands to latch on to “Sweet Jane.” Eater, an early English punk band made up of teenagers of limited musical talent but limitless enthusiasm, released this loud, fast version on their debut album in 1978. In 1980, Gang of Four performed a metallic version of the song live, at a gig in San Francisco. A few years later, the American hardcore band Hüsker Dü played this cover of “Sweet Jane” live, in their trademark buzz saw style.

Lone Justice (w/ Bono) – Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground cover)

Lone Justice were a next-big-thing that never really happened back in the 1980s. A country-rock band fronted by the big-voiced Maria McKee, their live performances and debut album received rave reviews from critics, but their sound – too country for rock, too rock for country – didn’t connect with the music-buying public of the day. Bono, however, was a fan, and Lone Justice opened for U2 for a couple of years. A country-tinged cover of “Sweet Jane” (which McKee called her favorite rock song) was a regular part of Lone Justice’s set list, and sometimes Bono would come out and join in. Annoyingly, in this recording, Bono indulged his habit of adding his own self-referencing lyrics, which do not improve on Reed’s brilliance, but his voice does ultimately add to the performance.

2 Nice Girls – Sweet Jane (With Affection) (Velvet Underground/Joan Armatrading cover)

This curiously effective version of “Sweet Jane” melds it with Joan Armatrading’s very different “Love and Affection.” 2 Nice Girls, a self-identified “dyke rock” band from Austin, accomplished this alchemy by slowing down “Sweet Jane” (but without the infuriating ennui of the Cowboy Junkies version) and intermixing the song by the underrated Armatrading in a way that is surprisingly natural. According to the band, as their debut record (containing this version of the song) was being pressed, the Cowboy Junkies’ “mellowed out, slowed down and sung by a woman version of Sweet Jane came out…. It became a hit and we were scooped.” To be fair, the fact that the Cowboy Junkies’ album was on a major label probably didn’t hurt, either. And if it was any consolation – which it undoubtedly was – Reed reportedly liked this version too.

Check out the fully Loaded version on iTunes and Amazon.

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  12 Responses to “Five (or so) Good Covers: Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground)”

Comments (11) Pingbacks (1)
  1. Lots of pointless Cowboy Junkies hate here. Their version, as you point out, is based on the ’69 live VU version, pre-Loaded, and is the same tempo. So how are they doing it wrong?

    Thanks for the Lone Justice link. I loved Maria’s voice in the 80s, and never heard this one.

  2. My dislike for the Cowboy Junkies’ version is far from pointless. My point is that it is, as the piece states, lugubrious and sleep inducing. The slow, VU version is, in my opinion, inferior to the Loaded version, and, although it is the same tempo as the CJ version, the CJ vocals sound, to these ears, bored and barely awake. I have no problem if you disagree, but I have a point.

  3. Considering how this site loves calling shitty acoustic covers of pop songs amazing, I’m shocked by Becker’s idiotic feelings about the divine Cowboy Junkies version of Sweet Jane.

  4. Jesus Christ, and that 2 Nice Girls version sounds like the singer might pass out any minute now.

  5. Hey M. Why the name calling? Disagree with me? Fine. Think I’m a lousy writer? Fine. But no need to make it personal. But at least I put my name out there, and am not hiding behind a pseudonym.

  6. 2 Nice Girls was pretty much my intro to the Velvets. Still love that version.

  7. Hey Jordan. I certainly agree there is no need to get personal and moreover, I think you are doing a service with this 5 covers website, so kudos to you. I happen to disagree with you re: the Cowboy Junkies version, and the main reason is that the Junkies add a different melody/bridge to the song that is not on the “loaded” or “transformer” version, and I think it’s a pretty damn good melody/bridge. It is for the following part of the song:
    Heavenly widened roses
    Seem to whisper to me
    When you smile
    Heavenly widened roses
    Seem to whisper to me
    When you smile
    La la la la, la la la
    Now maybe the Junkies got this new melody or bridge from somebody else, or maybe it’s in a different VU version that I’m not familiar with, in which I case, please educate me. But if not, what the Junkies did is they made the song different and in my mind, they added something that made it better, for the slow version that they were doing (nothing replaces the original, so I’m not in any way saying the Junkies version is better than the original)
    The second thing that is nice about the Junkies version is that they basically changed the whole mood of the song by slowing it down, making it a much more reflective and melancholy song. Similar to what was done with the slow version of “Mad World” awhile back, but the slow version of Mad World doesn’t add in a new melody/bridge like the Junkies.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents worth.
    Keep up the good work, Jordan.

  8. For me it’s the Cowboy Junkies version all the way. The other versions aren’t even on the same planet.

  9. Hi. I’m a dyke. I dove into this website just today, went for Cover 5, saw this and said “I wonder if he knows about the “2 Nice Girls” version which was always my favorite take (and I’m a Cowboy Junkies fan.) I’m blown away.

  10. LOVE all the versions, thanks for this compilation: original, hard, soft, sleepy, jacked-up. I love that this one song inspired such different takes!

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