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, suggested by staffer Hope Silverman: What’s the most bizarre cover you’ve ever heard?
Resisting the temptation to out-bizarre my esteemed colleagues by digging out some ridiculously straight weirdo, wisdom, and truth dictated I retreat to the safety of the wonderful Ms. Marshall. Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, is no stranger to the Cover Me world, and has always imbued her gift for covers in a dreamily idiosyncratic fashion. “Satisfaction,” as with the majority of Jagger/Richards compositions, is no stranger to covers, being the most widely covered Stones song by a country mile. This includes many, many anodyne copycats, a fair few MOR renditions, and even well known oddities like Devo. But all of these are capped by Cat. Hell, she doesn’t include The Riff. She doesn’t even include the chorus, relying solely on a lazy drawl through the verses, the only accompaniment a languid and near comatose guitar strum. I love playing this to the uninitiated, seeing the frowns and the eyebrows, as their brains struggle to connect the distant memory of a lyric, ingrained yet forgotten. I remember the first time I heard it, wracking my mind into recalling where o where had I heard this before. It took a few gos, ahead of the penny dropping with a massive smile breaking out across my face. That smile remains, as I listen again for this piece.
Early in my fascination with covers – or maybe it was early in my fascination with Tom Waits; they happened around the same time – I stumbled upon Jeremy Smoking Jacket‘s cover of “No One Knows I’m Gone.” The recording was on MySpace which, at the time, was where one would go to find under-the-radar music. It appears to have not made the transition to other platforms either; when you Google it, the first result is something I wrote a million years ago and the second is that old MySpace page, which no longer plays. It deserves wider exposure, which hopefully the Soundcloud I just uploaded will help facilitate. Bizarre this cover certainly is, and arresting too. The only accompaniment is a loop of someone coughing. Just coughing, over and over. It sounds extremely off-putting, but it actually kind of works. And you just know Tom would love it.
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It’s not easy being green. It’s even harder coming up with an Elliot Smith cover that doesn’t invoke sudden tears of nostalgia, deep sadness, and longing at the least. Circa 2008, Sad Kermit delivered one of the most iconic and bizarre covers I’ve ever heard when her performed Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay.” Once that croaky, miserly, sweet frog voice floods my ear canals, I’m catapulted back into the world of Miss Piggy and Kermit’s volatile relationship. Instead of Muppet Treasure Island, we have Muppet Apocalypse Now. The rendition juxtaposes the serious lyrics and somber acoustic guitar. I can’t help but chuckle at Sad Kermit’s voice cracking a little while Muppet scenes from Sesame Street play in the back of my mind. Emo Kermit really connects my childhood reminiscence of the Muppets with my moody young adult depressed self. And to me, the best part of a cover is experiencing a classic, familiar song in a fresh way and forging new memories in the process. It is an unfrogettable cover.
When this Q&A prompt was announced, I had an instant reaction. In what very possibly was the last concert that I attended before the pandemic made standing in a crowd of people frowned upon, Sego was the opening act. To be honest, I remember them not being really my speed. Then they started playing a cover of Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” I knew it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t immediately place it, because it was just so outside of my expectations. After the show I could not stop listening to it. It even showed up on my Top Songs of 2020 Spotify playlist. Just listen, you’ll hear why.
Those essential “doo doo doo”s are still there, but after the first “where have all the cowboys gone?” that sounds like it was pressed through a voice-changer, an in-your-face bass line starts. At first, enough of the essence of the original song weaves throughout, but then dissonant instrumental breaks become more common and after pairing them with a new guitar riff, Sego takes us in a completely new direction.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is musical baby food,” Mitch Miller said about rock ‘n’ roll. He called it “the worship of mediocrity, brought about by a passion for conformity.” He practiced what he preached: as chief A&R man of Columbia Records, he is unique in having turned down both Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
So it was no small surprise when he closed his 1970 album Peace Sing-Along with a cover of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” The face of “Sing Along with Mitch” must have been happy to have something the youth of the day might want to listen to, and without having to abandon group harmonies. So Mitch Miller and the Gang did a word-for-word cover – well, Mitch did change “masturbation” to “mastication,” but in his defense that’s what it said in the official published lyrics (John changed it to avoid controversy). We’re left with a man in his late fifties yelling “Right on!” as he runs after relevance. The sheer incongruity gives me what Harry called Sally’s “little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts” anytime I listen to it.
“What the !?*$ ?” That was my actual first reaction upon hearing Nina Simone‘s cover version of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s masterfully melodic, dark and cloyingly ridiculous # 1 hit from 1972, “Alone Again (Naturally).” Now, over the course of her career, Nina had covered some incongruous pop songs, including Melanie’s “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma” and Daryl Hall & John Oates’s “Rich Girl,” so the choice itself wasn’t unusual. No, my shock and bemusement were entirely related to what she did to “Alone Again…”: namely, writing her own set of lyrics set to the original music, the kind of hubristic creative gesture only Nina Simone could enact with perfect impunity. In Nina’s hands, this song full of cursory self-pity ignited by getting left at the altar is re-sculpted into a bitter, emotionally violent diatribe about her fraught relationship with her dying, bedridden Father…and uh, how she can’t wait for him to finally go. She is also seriously pissed at her Mother’s passivity and how she enabled her Father’s worst impulses throughout Nina’s life. “I waited for 3 weeks for him to die, every night he was calling for me, I wouldn’t go to him” chants Nina in the plush orchestral bridge. Oh and don’t let the lighthearted piano figures that introduce each verse or Nina’s endearingly clinking, sliding bracelets trick you into complacency; this thing is a seriously rough ride. She sort of retains the original’s chorus and does incorporate one of its actual verses in tact at the end… but she mostly treats the original like a palette, a foundation…like a total freakin’ doormat.
To hear an old school, AM radio chestnut so aggressively dismantled, approached with such haughtiness and delivered so terrifyingly was mind-blowing. While I liked the original, I felt no proprietary ownership of it and so mostly I just sat back in awe and disbelief at how she transformed this frothy thing into something so insanely uncomfortable and personal that it could literally soundtrack nothing. It couldn’t play in the background at a restaurant, you couldn’t lie back and “chill” with it on headphones. In other words it was built solely for you to sit there in silence and feel outrageously uneasy. And fact is, Nina Simone so completely inhabits whatever song she is singing that you are literally forced to think about her anyway. No matter where you are or who you are with or what you are doing when Nina is playing in the background, she is there with you too and you have no damn choice but to acknowledge her.
Do I like Nina’s “Alone..” ? Well, technically, yes, but for me it’s like a particular dish or person you are only capable of experiencing once a year, i.e. you like them but one unfiltered dose is all you can generally handle and so there needs to be some rationing and intervals. That’s how I feel about this cover. I’ll always want to hear it again but once a year usually satiates the need. See you next year, sweet Nina.
In my mind, I’ve always thought of Tom Jones as a quintessential ‘60s pop star. He had all the credentials: a few massive hits, a James Bond theme, even his own variety show. His resume and songs from that era enabled him to perform a consistent set list comfortably in front of older and older crowds for the ensuing decades. I imagine the Welsh pop singer would completely disagree with this assessment. I’m guessing he sees himself as more of an ageless, badass rock n’ roll front man like Mick Jagger or Robert Plant. The best evidence I’ve ever seen of this is his performance of “Long Time Gone” on his T.V. show. He sings it with all the bravado of a rock star who can do no wrong. Unfortunately, because he sang it alongside the very confused, and possibly very stoned, members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, we can’t call it a cover.
Instead, I’ll point to his rendition of Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” as one of the strangest covers I’ve ever heard. He didn’t try to recast the track as an updated version of a ‘60s pop tune. For his many televised live performances of the song, Jones has tapped a team of young rockers to play a hard-rocking, amps-to-11 version of the track. What can I say – I find his performances of the tune to be a bit “unusual.” Unlike, say, Pat Boone covering “Smoke on the Water,” there’s not a drop of irony in his performance. He’s completely sincere as he tries to out-Kravitz Mr. Kravitz (with some success). He belts out the tune with the seriousness and conviction of a rocker who is 100 percent sure of his unbridled awesomeness. It is both fantastic and unsettling at the same time.
Fair warning: the Mattoid‘s cover of “Eleanor Rigby” is rated NSFW. Adult language. Animal husbandry gone wrong.
Decide for yourself whether this is outsider art, demonic possession, or just good old-fashioned mental imbalance. And as to genre, is it anti-folk? Ogre-folk? Other?
Honestly, any further comment or contextualization would only detract from the experience. Sometimes it’s best to present things “as is,” and let the mystery be. The Mattoid is definitely a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (inside an out-building), and as such he’s beyond labels, explainers, and guitar tuners.
I’m going to take a broad strokes here and assert that every time a national anthem is performed, it’s a cover of the original song. Therefore, one of the most bizare covers of a song (anthem) I’ve ever heard is this rendition of “O Canada” by lounge singer Dennis KC Parks. This was performed before a CFL game that was being played in Las Vegas, featuring a Las Vegas team versus Saskatchewan (which is a bizarre story in itself!). Parks is not Canadian, and had never heard the anthem before, which is why he loses the tune part way through, and incorporates some bars of ‘Oh Christmas Tree’. I’ve never heard what bemusement sounds like before, but I’m pretty sure it’s the sound the crowd makes when he finally finishes.
Back in 2013, I wrote In Defense: Dexys Midnight Runners, attempting to rehabilitate the reputation of a good, sometimes great, band that had been reduced to an overalls-clad punchline (despite the fact that I will maintain to my dying day that “Come On Eileen” is a fine song).
At the end of the piece, filled with really good covers of mostly soul songs by Dexys, I added a couple of bonus tracks, including this cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” by Dexys leader Kevin Rowland, with the comment, “The time has come to trash any and all good will toward Dexys that this post may have generated.”
In 1999, Rowland released his second solo album, My Beauty, consisting entirely of covers and sporting a sleeve that featured Rowland in drag. This sartorial choice and the album led to rumors (or rumours, I guess) that Rowland was suffering from a mental breakdown. This version of “Thunder Road” was going to be included – it appeared on review copies that were sent to critics – but it was removed.
Rowland was quoted at the time as being “naturally disappointed” at the decision but said that he wouldn’t fight it. He said, “It wasn’t meant to be. Had I chosen to rerecord the vocal, staying true to Springsteen‘s lyrics – which was an option – I would have felt I’d compromised the whole record. The whole thing about this album is they are my interpretations, not covers, and that would have rendered it artistically invalid.”
At the time, I wrote what had been widely reported—that Springsteen had objected to the lyrical change. But since that piece was written, Rowland was given permission to restore the cover to later pressings of the album. Rowland was quoted in The Guardian last year:
“’That’s another myth, that Springsteen turned my version down,’ says Rowland. The truth, he says, is that nobody at Creation bothered to get it to the Boss in time. Now, with Springsteen’s management’s approval, the album can be heard as was originally intended. Does this mean Springsteen has heard it himself? ‘I did read somewhere on the internet that he’d heard it and he thought it was neat, but who knows man?’”
Personally, I’m sticking with my original assessment that Bruce should have objected to the lousy arrangement and performance, as well as the lyrics.
For a certain age group out there, there was a time in the late ’90s that’s hard to explain to those who didn’t experience it. The second computer (PC) that my family ever owned did not have internet access, but it did have Winamp, the mp3 player. I didn’t know any way to “rip” CDs, so what I had available to play on Winamp were the 100 or so songs that had been added to the hard drive by the college-aged kid my dad had hired to install the software on the computer. This introduced me to Bjork, the first half of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name of” (it oddly faded out around the bridge), and a cover that melted my teenage mind.
For some reason Soul Coughing was a band that my brothers and I really fell in love with more than just about any band at that time. They had a few radio hits, but I knew that they were still not well-known by a lot of my peers and certainly not on mainstream radio. So when I heard Dave Matthews playing a song off Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom, the trippy, jazzy “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” my jaw dropped. Why was Dave Matthews, of “What Would You Say” and “Satellite” fame, playing this obscure alternative band’s song? I was a teenager with no internet access, so it remained a mystery to me for years (it turns out Dave was a fan and SC toured with DMB), but all that really mattered was that I had just heard one of the most unlikely pairings I could imagine. So thanks… Jessie(?)… for setting up our family computer with some mindblowingly interesting mp3s. All these years later, I still feel like I heard something really cool and, to me, bizarre.
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.
Great article! It that made me think of Jeff Buckley’s cover of Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” which I almost chose, but then I thought about it for a sec and decided his cover of “When I am Laid In Earth” from Dido & Aeneus is weirder, but even more beautiful… Also, I saw Sarah McLachlan dozens of times in the 90s (she is AMAZING live) and she once did Vogue and Everbody Dance Now, possibly as a medley?!
Worst cover song ever! Blood, Sweat & Tears: Sympathy for the Devil.
Boy..so many… A couple I can think of:
Boredoms – Heeba (a cover of Peggy Lee’s Feaver) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiaWeb-whc0
Violent Onsen Geisha – Please don’t let me be misunderstood (Nina Simone) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EYLBA_MDRI
Idea for another article: Musical covers with seriously different lyrics (like the Nina Simone Alone Again example above). E.g. – Dead Kennedy’s – I fought the law and I won, D.O.A. – Midnight Special, etc.
We actually did something like this once, JJ…
One of the most bizarre covers (and disturbing) was Joey Heatherton’s cover of Melanie’s classic, “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma.” It was ironic though, that what she did to that song is EXACTLY what Melanie was writing about!
Banda Plástica De Tepetlixpa – Yesterday
Fade into You (Mazzy Star) by Catman Cohen
His deep voice version is a bit creepy but super hot.