Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
You might think “Like a Rolling Stone” would be the most-covered Dylan song. It was, after all, rated by Rolling Stone as the best song of all time. But it’s not. It’s not the second or third most-covered either. Or fourth. SecondHandSongs lists it at #7. That’s even behind “Make You Feel My Love,” which has had three fewer decades to collect new versions.
I think the reason is clear. In many of Bob’s oft-covered songs, his own recording provides a mere template to be improved upon – both by other artists and in his own subsequent live performances. But “Like a Rolling Stone” isn’t just a perfect song. He’s got plenty of those. It’s a perfect recording, in a way Dylan doesn’t always deliver. Even people who can’t stand his voice on other songs tend to agree that “Like a Rolling Stone” is pretty great. It didn’t need Jimi Hendrix or Guns ‘n’ Roses to make it a classic.
For the same reason, “Like a Rolling Stone” covers don’t tend to be very good. It’s not that artists swing and miss; it’s that they don’t swing at all. Many stick very close to the original recording, in a way artists don’t on most other Dylan songs. One of the most prominent covers, the Rolling Stones’ occasional – and inevitable – live versions, is a good example. Nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t bring much new to the table. Ditto John Mellencamp’s high-profile version at 1992’s so-called Bobfest, which adds some female singers but otherwise keeps the basic template. Even the organ lines, which Al Kooper has said he was just making up on the spot, have become canon, imitated precisely on dozens on other versions.
But, thankfully, there are exceptions. Here are five “Stone”s that roll in a new direction. (Note: I deliberately picked versions that just missed our Best Dylan Covers Ever list, coming Monday, so check back then for a few more great takes – and every day leading up to Monday for another new Dylan-covers feature!)
Major Harris – Like a Rolling Stone
Soul music seems like the genre best able to retain elements of the original “Like a Rolling Stone” while bringing adding a twist or two. There are several great ones – we’ll share another next week – but Philadelphia soul great Major Harris is about as good as it gets. The sassy backing singers make this sound like a gender-flipped Gladys Knight and the Pips, with Otis Redding fronting.
The Arbors – Like a Rolling Stone
The Arbors were a ’60s pop group from Ann Arbor (hence the name) in the vein of the Turtles or Herman’s Hermits. Difference is, they didn’t have a fraction of those groups’ success. Their attempt to turn “Like a Rolling Stone” into a Zombies-style orchestral pop song – get ready for harpsichord! – is a little goofy, but I appreciate the audacity. It sure doesn’t sound like the original.
Mountain – Like a Rolling Stone
Doom metal band Mountain’s 2007 Dylan covers record Masters of War is mostly sludgy guitars cranked to 11. But on “Like a Rolling Stone,” they veer away from their usual wheelhouse for a drums-and-vocals-only number that brings in elements of jazz, spoken word, and trip-hop. It works even better in the context of the album, as a strange and mesmerizing crack in the otherwise unbroken wall of heaviness.
Barb Jungr – Like a Rolling Stone
Jazz singers have a lot of obvious material to draw from in Bob’s last couple decades. But “Like a Rolling Stone” is going to need a bit more tweaking to fit a jazz setting. A number have done it – Patricia O’Callaghan has a version worth a listen too – but veteran Barb Jungr, who’s covered dozens of Dylan songs, really brought her own bass-led swing to it on 2011 covers record Man in the Long Black Coat.
Grand David – Like a Rolling Stone
From the jawharp boi-oi-oings to the kalimba’s gentle dings, before the vocals even come in you can tell this one’s gonna be different. Then there’s what sounds like a theremin. And the vocals are half-whispered. Yeah, it’s weird. Wonderfully so.
Bonus: Articolo 31 – Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like a Rolling Stone)
This version isn’t strictly speaking a cover – Bob’s vocals are sampled and the Italian-language rap verses appear to be original writing, not just translated Dylan lyrics – but it appeared alongside many actual covers on the Masked & Anonymous soundtrack and is worth your time.
Want more? We’ve also done Five Good Covers on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Buckets of Rain,” “To Ramona,” “I Shall Be Released.”