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 pairs up with our previous Q&A about favorite instrumental covers: What’s your favorite cover of an instrumental?
Originally the theme from Young Frankenstein, this instrumental is eerie and atmospheric, with an unexpected harmonic structure, and a theremin that carries the melody.
The singer-songwriter and folk artist Eurtan surprised me by taking on this odd instrumental gem. She imbues her one-of-a-kind fantasy-folk genre into this tune. The original, composed by John Morris, is unique and eccentric enough as it is–but I much prefer this version. Erutan used a violin for the melody, and really mixes things up by adding some echoey vocal ahs into the mix. She also traded the dark cellos, clarinets and orchestral horns for combination of celestial-sounding bell chimes and harp. Overall, it sounds less like Frankenstein, and more like a siren about to drag you to the depths of the ocean. This musician worked so much magic with this one that I thought it was an original composition at first!
Richard Thompson’s “The Great Valerio” introduced me to Erik Satie, the weird-ass nineteenth-century French composer. Falling under Satie’s spell, I looked for other folk/rock/pop arrangements of his pieces. Apart from a few jazz interpretations (highlight: this one by Jessica Williams) nothing much turned up. But at some point a name unknown to me–bassist Seth Ford-Young–appeared in my search results with a tango-infused take on “Gnossienne #1.”
OK, sure, tango is a nineteenth-century form, and the instruments here are decidedly old-world, but this was the newness I was looking for. Ford-Young and friends inject some bounce into Satie’s austere music without losing the spooky.
What I didn’t know until I sat down to write about this cover was that I was familiar with Seth Ford-Young all along–not his name, but his work. He was the bassist on some of my very favorite tracks on Tom Waits’ Orphans project (2006). Ford-Young seems game for just about anything, having also played with the likes of Barry Manilow, Edward Sharpe, and The Hot Club of San Francisco.
I love a cover that completely subverts the original – a brass band cover of one of the pinnacle ’90s acid house tracks?? Are you insane? That’s debatable, but what’s not is the fact that this cover of 808 State’s “Pacific 202” absolutely slaps. Taken from an album of Acid House covers, the quality of this track’s arrangement is the standout feature – every melody line and beat is here, but represented by an entirely different brass section instrument. While the tempo is slowed down somewhat, it fully shows off the brilliance of the melody of the original.
In 1997-1998 I was rather obsessed with ska music. Splitting time between my home in New Jersey and college in Michigan, I saw the Detroit-based band the Articles five times that year. While many ‘90s ska bands fused elements of ska with punk, the Articles were a “traditional” ska band. They played horn-powered instrumentals in the style of the ‘60s Jamaican legends the Skatalites. Their music featured a mix of originals and cover songs, with arrangements allowing for plenty of extended solos. At the time, their music felt both retro and innovative, paying homage to the past while putting their own spin on a hot new trend.
The Articles had a strong influence on my musical education in that they served as my introduction to the world of jazz. After listening to their debut album Flip F’real and then interviewing one of the sax players for my college paper, I bought a stack of jazz records.
One of my first purchases was a Thelonious Monk compilation. The reason: the Articles covered “Blue Monk.” In my view, it was one of their best tracks. The band starts out playing the melody in a quiet, almost somber manner as if to symbolize a wild evening coming to an end. When the drums kick in the song turns into a full on celebration. The first time I heard them play the song, it felt like an old familiar tune, even though I’m sure I had never heard Monk’s version before. It was also excellent for dancing.
“Let’s Go Away For Awhile” is a beautiful song that lives on a beautiful album, the Beach Boys eternal masterpiece Pet Sounds. But because it is an instrumental and surrounded by the likes of even more extreme beauties like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” it’s easy to overlook. But that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking as it is. It’s still unquestionably stunning. So why would any human think it was cool or necessary to write lyrics for an already perfect Brian Wilson penned-instrumental from one of the GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL-TIME and then record an updated version of it?
But in 1994 Sean MacReavy went and did just that. Now, if you are a pop-purist, the thought of someone doing this might make you shudder, which is understandable. But Sean’s lyrical cover is not the product of brazen hubris. It is a heartfelt expression of pure, unadulterated love, as beautiful a tribute to the spirit of Brian and the Boys as you’re ever gonna hear. It is absolutely uncanny how well Sean has captured Brian’s lyrical voice. Full of desperate longing and a hunger to escape, the lushly refurbished “Let’s Go Away” sounds like a long-lost balladic sibling to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Rub your eyes (and ears) and you’d swear its words were penned by the great man himself. It’s just crazy… and absolutely gorgeous.
It would have been easier to pick a jazz cover for this one, but because I wrote about a jazz cover of a rock song for the first part of this Q&A, I wanted to stick to a rock cover. So my choice isn’t necessarily my favorite, but it does happen to be by one of my favorite bands of all time, The Clash.
The original version of this song was recorded by Booker T. & the MGs for the soundtrack to the 1968 movie Uptight. It was released as a single, and as part of the soundtrack album in a longer, more uptempo version. By the way, I don’t think that anyone has made a biopic about Jones, but they really should. The man could play pretty much any instrument, started playing professionally at 16, wrote “Green Onions” while still in high school, studied classical music and composition at Indiana University while performing with the MGs on the weekends, wrote many songs for other performers, played countless sessions, produced Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” (among others), and continues to record and perform.
Back to the song. I feel like “Time is Tight” was just one of those songs that was part of my musical knowledge, although I probably didn’t know its title until about 1980. At that point, two pretty different corners of the musical world covered the song and brought it new prominence. I suspect that my conscious recognition of “Time is Tight” came when The Blues Brothers, whose band included MGs members Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, used a medley/mashup of the song and Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” as their intro music. They played it even faster than the original uptempo version, and it served their purpose well.
At around the same time, The Clash, who at that time seemed to be the polar opposite of The Blues Brothers, used “Time is Tight” as a warmup song, playing it at rehearsals and soundchecks. They recorded a version in 1978, but it was never released until 1980, on the Black Market Clash EP, with only one confirmed live performance in 1980 in Los Angeles. It was also on the expanded Super Black Market Clash album released in 1993.
The Clash’s version is pretty faithful to the source material, with the major difference being that there’s no organ (which I guess makes it unfaithful, considering the importance of Jones’ organ to the song). Instead, that part is replaced, at different times, by guitar, piano (by Mick Jones), and saxophone, contributed by Gary Barnacle, a childhood friend of Clash drummer Topper Headon, who played on a few of the band’s albums, and has had a career as a sideman an arranger for acts across the musical spectrum.
There is a certain looseness and playfulness to the Clash’s version, as if they never expected that the recording would ever see the light of day. But it did, and it makes me happy.
I already loved this tune, my knowledge kindled by the Irish folk-fusion super-group Moving Hearts, who mixed folk with jazz and rock textures in the last decade or so of the last century. A traditional air, seemingly, and sometimes called to Peadar and Donal, even although O’Donnell actually existed, one of those educated polymath firebrands Ireland is so good at producing: writer, radical and politician. Usually a pipe tune, the version by Moving Hearts, with Davy Spillane on the uillean pipes, is so good that you can barely imagine it played on anything else. Least of all on a stringed instrument. I mean, how on earth could you possibly get all those same bends in the notes, the notes Spillane negotiates with such ease.
Well, you don’t tell Jerry Douglas it can’t be done, that is for sure, this doyen of the dobro a dab at delivering the undoable. The first time I heard this version I could not speak for several minutes, so dumbstruck it made me. Now a regular in his repertoire, it was appropriate he first introduced this at a Transatlantic Session’s recording, that consummate yearly mix of the “old countries” music, Scotland and Ireland, with how the transplanted took it over, adding to the US indigenous cooking pot of influences far and wide, their descendants adapting it for their own. (Jerry Douglas also does a mean “Hey Joe,” by the way.)
The task of any good score is to match the emotions and tone that a performance journeys through, nudging the audience to an appropriate reaction to events. The original tune channels the magical mystery, the tiptoeing around the castle at night in search of adventure, the freedom of soaring above the quidditch stadium on a broom. This one reframes the Harry Potter movies as old westerns, and really wouldn’t a shoot out between Voldemort and Harry Potter be basically the same thing as a wand duel? The steady horse-clop beat matches the diligent perseverance that Harry and his friends have as they fight against evil.
I love the cinematic quality in Kronos Quartet’s cover of the second movement of Philip Glass’s “String Quartet #2,” a.k.a. “Company.” Simply put, if this were in a movie trailer, I would probably see this movie.
When Link Wray died in 2005, a whole host of artists paid tribute. One was Bob Dylan. He opened four concerts in London with Wray’s iconic instrumental “Rumble” (a song inducted in the very first “Singles” class at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame of a few years ago). A few years later, he incorporated “Rumble” into his own “Rainy Day Women” on stage; I wrote about that in my Dylan Substack newsletter. But while Bob’s “Rumble” was a fun nod, the ’05 covers were basically like the original. Plus Bob was on piano, so it’s not like he was playing the famous guitar riff himself. A better live cover was performed by Bruce Springsteen – on some of the very same nights as Bob, but a continent away. Bruce was on his solo Devils & Dust tour, which means he “Rumble”d all by himself. As a t-shirt sold on a recent Neil Young solo tour read though: “I said solo. They said acoustic.” Bruce’s “Rumble” is still loud and frenzied as hell, honoring Wray as a pioneer of distortion.
If you’re familiar with Roy Clark, likely as not it’s because of his cornpone Hee Haw persona. But there was far, far more to Roy Clark than pickin’ and grinnin’ in a pair of overalls. He was a master of multiple instruments and played in whatever genre made him feel good, be it country, bluegrass, or blues. One song he played that showed both his range and his mastery was “Malagueña,” written by Ernesto Lecuona. First published in 1928 for solo piano, it would go on to have lyrics tacked on and become a jazz standard. Clark took a twelve-string to it and made it his live show closer.
Here, as Clark performs it on The Odd Couple, you can see both his mastery and his absolute concentration on what he’s doing. As he performs, the sitcom trappings dissolve, and the audience is in thrall to his genius. That’s not Felix Unger who’s knocked off his seat at the end; that’s Tony Randall, the actor, and we all know it, and we all forgive him because we all feel the same way, even if we weren’t the ones sitting three feet away from Roy Clark and his lightning fingers.
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Los Straitjackets doing “My Heart Will Go On”