Oct 272023

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10. Zee Avi – Who Loves the Sun

For a song about a broken heart, the original “Who Loves the Sun” is a little misleading in tone, all of those “ba ba ba ba”s signaling an upbeat energy that may not be warranted. Zee Avi’s cover channels the heartbreak a little more directly with a barely-there guitar, one string softly strummed. Where once was a chipper interlude at the two-minute mark in the VU original, there now is an extra intense crooning. The lyrics are whispered like a bedtime story or a lullaby (fitting, as this version is found on a children’s cover album). – Sara Stoudt

9. David Bowie – Waiting for the Man

Wow, what a history David Bowie had with “I’m Waiting For The Man”! He has a strong claim to being the first person in the U.K. to cover the Velvet Underground, inspired to cover “IWFTM” by the acetate his manager Kenneth Pitt brought him direct from Andy Warhol’s Factory in December 1966. He also performed the song in various different mod outfits in the ’60s, before playing it with Lou Reed himself in 1997, so inspired was he by its sordid and belligerent sound which he claimed was “so savagely indifferent to my feelings.” But he covered it best when he glammed it up in January 1972 for a BBC session, while in the transformative zone of becoming Ziggy Stardust. His vocal here is full of the desperation necessary to convey the scoring of heroin on a Harlem street, but it’s his dangerous weapon of Mick Ronson on lead guitar that really gives the cover the edge. The Les Paul-wielding genius is a constant threat on the track, liable to explode at any moment with a dirty, snarling solo. And boy does he explode! – Adam Mason

8. Kurt Vile – Run Run Run

There’s a lot of Kurt Vile’s style that sounds like it could have been influenced by the Velvet Underground, certainly the psychedelia and the lack of concern for conventions. In this version, Vile doesn’t stray too far from the original, but doubles down on the waves of feedback and hypnotic groove. As the song hits the five-minute mark, the steady drum beat seems to just get heavier and heavier, awash with swirling guitars and noise but rising out of the din to drive the song ever onwards. When the final drum fill hits, it comes almost as a shock, even though the song is seven minutes long. It still feels too short. – Mike Misch

7. Jane Wiedlin – Foggy Notion

Former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin went the semi-obscure route for her contribution to American Velvet, a Velvet Underground tribute album from 2010. Her selection: “Foggy Notion,” an outtake that didn’t get released until fifteen years after Loaded. Wiedlin rocks it just as hard as the original, and the song’s switch in gender (“she hit him harder harder harder”) turns an uncomfortable moment into a declaration of badassery. – Patrick Robbins

6. Nirvana – Here She Comes Now

Before Nevermind, before Dave Grohl, Nirvana went to Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. There, they neatly turned the grunge knob up and jolted the power chords to make “Here She Comes Now” a Nirvana song. Good luck getting it back. The softest song on White Light/White Heat was soft no longer, as Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Chad Channing took it from Whisper Boulevard to Scream Junction. – Sean Balkwill

5. June Tabor & Oysterband – All Tomorrow’s Parties

One of the gauntest songs in the Velvets repertoire, this proto-goth masterpiece falls, for many, at the admittedly steep bar of Nico’s stark and monotone delivery. Which is a shame, as it is one of the more beautiful melodies in their canon. So it was a delight when June Tabor, the doyenne of English folk music, who can actually carry the tune, yet managing to lose none of the necessary icy chill. Oysterband , agit-folk veterans, truly hit pay dirt when they hooked up with her, their strikingly spooky string laden chug the perfect vehicle for Tabor’s imposing voice. Never has the song carried so much foreboding. From the first of their two collaborations, Freedom and Rain, containing songs also by Billy Bragg and Richard Thompson, with the second, Ragged Kingdom, having covers of New Order and Dan Penn. – Seuras Og

4. Cowboy Junkies – Sweet Jane

If you heard the Cowboy Junkies cover of “Sweet Jane” when it was new, you probably wondered about that “heavenly wine and roses” business at the end, and all the la-la-las or nah-nah-nahs. Was Margo Timmins just making stuff up? It was glorious, but none of it came from the Velvets’ original on Loaded, or from the popular live version of “Sweet Jane” on Lou Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. So the Junkies cover was a puzzler, and you couldn’t Google it because the web didn’t exist. You know, those were different times.

It turns out that Margo’s brother and bandmate Michael Timmins was a true-blue Lou believer. His source was an obscurity, one that only the hardcore fan knew about: a live recording by the Velvets from 1969, not released until 1974. That’s the version the Cowboy Junkies had in mind–that’s where they got the bridge and the la-la-las, and the dragging pace, too, so different from the later, more well-known versions of the song.

Timmons learned from Reed himself that the “heavenly wine” bridge section was on the original Velvets recording. It was left out of the final mix, without Reed’s buy-in, after his departure from the band.

Reed surprised his fans when he praised the cover. Shortly after Reed’s death, Michael Timmins posted about the night he met his idol and the band was invited to Lou’s show the next night. “Half way through the show,” Timmons wrote, “he started up ‘Sweet Jane.’ When he got to the bridge section, he vamped for a moment and then said, ‘this is for the Cowboy Junkies who put the bridge back in this song.’” – Tom McDonald

3. Aloe Blacc – Femme Fatale

Subtle and hypnotic, singer-songwriter-retro soul sentimentalist Aloe Blacc’s cover might take more than one listen to truly penetrate your soul before it officially hooks you. Full of stuttering, hesitation, a fabulously weird pause after the first chorus large enough to drive an 18-wheeler through, and topped with a fragile vocal, this “Femme” is a haunting, ’60s soul-flavored, crying-in-the-rain heartbreaker. – Hope Silverman

2. The Feelies – What Goes On

Formed in the American Northeast, the Feelies were a band which was never commercially successful, but hugely influential in the world of music of music. The recorded body of work is small, but the live performances are legendary, and the classic line up has female and male musicians. The band eventually broke up but came back together and continues on, with numerous side-projects and alumni bands. It was, perhaps, inevitable that The Feelies would cover the Velvets, and that it would go well. The Feelies had a covers band, the Willies (watch them doing “Fame” in Something Wild), but this version of “What Goes On” is attributed to the main band. The band takes the music from proto-punk to, well, punk, with a Krautrock lead in. Rock and roll in its purest, most exuberant and expressive form. – Mike Tobyn

1. 2 Nice Girls – Sweet Jane

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” 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. – Jordan Becker

Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including girl groups, one-hit wonders, the Rolling Stones, and Tom Waits.

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  8 Responses to “The 35 Best Velvet Underground Covers Ever”

Comments (8)
  1. Thanks, I’ll look these up.
    The Cowboy Junkies cover of Sweet Jane is worth a listen

  2. Missed Billy Bragg and Courtney Barnett doing Sunday Morning, it’s joyous

  3. Not surprised it got missed (being way down in the radar), but everyone should check out Rachel Sweet’s version of “New Age” from her 2nd album “Protect the Innocent” in 1980.

  4. https://youtu.be/voV_e0IKwzs?si=RDn5USQRaLMecAsB
    the Riats , a dutch band cut this already in 67 or 68
    with spaced-out organ solo

  5. I’m still a huge fan of Dramarama’s Femme Fatale.

  6. I’m a little sad that Elizabeth Mitchell didn’t get a nod in this list. OK, it was on a children’s record, but her cover of What Goes On is just fucking fabulous. Still and quiet and really kind of brutal.

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