Jun 152018
10. Tom Waits – Somewhere (West Side Story cover)

For anyone else, this musical arrangement would be death. Syrupy strings and overwrought production make the intro sound like a number that even Liza Minelli would roll her eyes at. But the music’s very traditional beauty builds a wonderful tension against Tom Waits’ gravel moan. And as a bonus, since this is still pre-Swordfishtrombones Waits, you get some great jazz trumpet lines too.

9. Siouxsie and the Banshees – Helter Skelter (The Beatles cover)

In our Best Covers of 1987 list, Siouxsie Sioux and co. reached number two with “This Wheel’s On Fire.” The slightly lower slot here is no knock, though. They were at the peak of their powers nine years later, while in 1978 you can hear them finding their sound. And they start at pretty close to peak power already, with a knockout Beatles reinvention on their debut album. The Manson family’s writing “healter [sic] skelter” at the murder scene appalled the Beatles. Siouxsie and the Banshees sound like they might have written it there themselves.

8. The Originals – Blue Moon (Rodgers & Hart cover)

Does the singer intend to sound like a lounge-lizard Boris Karloff in the intro? It’s the first of many surprises in this cover. About 90 seconds in, this smooth soul ballad bursts open into into a booty-shaking disco number. This semi-forgotten Motown group boasted quite a lineage; one member came from the Spinners, another co-wrote “Please Mr. Postman” (while he himself was a mailman, no less). Despite some early chart success, they never quite made the same mark as their Motown peers. As this late single shows, it wasn’t for lack of talent. Or attitude.

7. The Band ft. Bob Dylan – Baby Let Me Follow You Down (Reprise) (Traditional cover)

Watch the opening few seconds here closely (the embed should start at 4:20; skip there if it doesn’t). Bob and the Band have just completed their final Last Waltz number, “Forever Young,” but Dylan doesn’t stop strumming. The Band eyes him, waiting to see what he’s doing. There’s no setlist, and Dylan’s not telling them what’s next. You can see Levon, Robbie, and Rick closely watching for his next move. He makes them wait, and so they wait. Finally, Dylan hits the riff to a song they already played, their 1966-era cover of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.” Watch Rick Danko’s face as he realizes what’s happening. The resulting performance is hot and fiery, far superior to the one they’d delivered only ten minutes prior. Better than any of the 1966 versions too, in my book.

6. Blondie – Hanging on the Telephone (The Nerves cover)

First things first: If you didn’t know “Hanging on the Telephone” was a cover, refer to our exhaustive article on the subject. That wasn’t Blondie’s only hit cover of 1978, either; they also had a hit with Randy & the Rainbows’s “Denis,” from the record Plastic Letters. Two albums, two hit covers, all in the same year. They’d do it again two years later, taking on the Paragons’ “The Tide Is High.”

5. The Limit – Please Please Me (The Beatles cover)

The only information I can find about the limit comes from a stray blog comment by a “John Springate”: “I had a recording studio in central London recording lots of demos for punk bands. The Limit were a local band I got to know and they suggested the idea of remaking ‘Please Please Me.’ The single was released through private stock records but never really did anything.” Well, now it’s done something: appeared in the Top Five of this list!

4. Boney M – Rivers of Babylon (The Melodians cover)

Next time you’re feeling down, YouTube-search Boney M. Any video will do. The blaxploitation-Al Capone kitsch of “Ma Baker,” perhaps. Or singer Bobby Farrell’s nutso “Daddy Cool” dance moves. Their “Rivers of Babylon” is a little lower-key than these – MTV was still three years away, so minimal effort was put into the promotional video. But even “minimal” effort for Boney M features togas, palm trees, and the band slo-motion dancing on waterfalls. All for a disco cover of a recent Harder They Come reggae song, which somehow became one of the best-selling songs in UK history.

3. Talking Heads – Take Me to the River (Al Green cover)

A few months ago, we posted a massive countdown of the best Talking Heads covers. As I clarified in that article’s introduction, we meant the best covers of the Talking Heads, not by the Talking Heads. Why? Because the Talking Heads themselves only ever recorded one cover! As David Byrne told me when I interviewed him about it for my aforementioned book, he felt the cover’s success – the band’s first real hit – threatened to pigeonhole Talking Heads as a covers act. So they never recorded a second cover. Talk about going out on top; it’s like hitting a grand slam at your first at-bat, then immediately quitting baseball forever.

2. Nina Simone – Baltimore (Randy Newman cover)

Nina Simone hated the process of recording her 1978 album Baltimore. She had no say in the song selection, she complained later. In some songs, it shows; even Nina couldn’t wring some deep inner meaning out of “Rich Girl.” But on her passionate reading of this Randy Newman song, Simone triumphs over the unfortunate circumstances. Her version earned a sad second life in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore PD.

1. Devo – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Rolling Stones cover)

Was there even any question? Forget just Best Covers of 1978; there are days I would argue this is the best cover ever. Devo’s insane “Satisfaction” holds all the hallmarks of a great cover, dramatically reinventing the song so profoundly that the label made them get Mick Jagger’s personal blessing (a moment Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale told me still ranks among the high points of their lives). Their robotic lurch takes a song one might thing too iconic for such reinvention and throws away all its landmark features: the riff, the sex, the swagger. So much so that people thought they might be mocking the Stones – not at all. “I think those are some of the most amazing lyrics that were ever written in rock and roll,” Mothersbaugh told me, “dealing with conspicuous consumption and the stupidity of capitalism and sexual frustration all in one song. It pretty much encapsulated what was going on with kids at that time, much more than any of the hippie songs, as far as I was concerned.”

Now go check out the Best Cover Songs of 1987 and the Best Cover Songs of 1996.

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