Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
For a song so often described as primal, raw, and primitive, the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is surprisingly adaptable and open to interpretation. That’s apparent in the incredible 86+ cover versions it’s spawned since the band originally released it as their debut single in the unsuspecting Summer of ’69.
The guitar riff is widely regarded as the crux of it. That dirty, menacing, and God-forsaken thing that emerges like a badass out of a storm of feedback, with its three Ron Asheton chords dramatically and relentlessly progressing the good work of the Kinks, the Sonics, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience in terms of sheer distortion. It’s at #37 in NME‘s 50 Greatest Riffs Of All Time. It’s one of Dig!‘s 20 Licks That Changed The Course Of Rock Music. And it’s one of the Top 10 Best Punk Rock Guitar Riffs Of All Time, according to WatchMojo: “a one-eyed monster that basically serves as the song’s entire framework.” Yet, for all that, there are many artists out there who’ve made the song work without it.
The theme of the song is also pretty straightforward on the face of it. Singer Iggy Pop, the Godfather of Punk, is talking about wanting to make the beast with two backs, right? Really very urgently and desperately. And submissively. That’s emphasised in his unmistakably deranged vocal delivery of: “And now I wanna be your dog / And now I wanna be your dog / And now I wanna be your dog / Well, come on!” It’s also reflected in Scott Asheton’s driving beat, and producer John Cale pounding out a single note on the piano all the way through, with added sleighbells. Yet there’s at least one artist out there who’s expressed humor and romance in their performance of the song, from having found something “gorgeous” in the mix.
The following artists, then, aren’t all concerned with respecting “I Wanna Be Your Dog” as a blueprint for punk, or with killing themselves trying to get the right sludgy guitar tone on the right kind of fuzzbox. They aren’t trying to replicate Iggy’s sexually charged vocal on the original, either. Who could do that? Instead, they’re picking up their banjos, wheeling out their synthesizers, or taking up their cello, ready to provide fresh takes on what might justifiably be called the punk equivalent of “Yesterday.” Iggy himself could conceivably join them, in light of his performance of the song at 2020’s Tibet House Benefit Concert solely with a bunch of string musicians. Chamber-punk, anyone?
Uncle Tupelo – I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges cover)
Not so much godfathers of punk as godfathers of alt-country, Illinois band Uncle Tupelo worked up a bluegrass-style version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” during their 1992 Still Feel Gone sessions with producer Peter Buck (of R.E.M.). This they assimilated into their occasional repertoire of porch-friendly tracks that emanated lonesomeness, hard drinking, and heartbreak. It was an act of subversion, certainly, of a song long thought to be about S&M and long deified for its punk credentials by the likes of Sid Vicious, Joan Jett, Sonic Youth, and Richard Hell. But how beautiful it sounds on the expanded 2003 version of March 16–20, 1992! Little of the original rhythm or chords or indeed tune remain, but instead we have singer Jay Farrar seemingly pining for a loved one, over a bed of luminous acoustic dexterity. A sensitive ballad, then, though the band couldn’t resist a nod to The Riff to finish.
Émilie Simon – I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges cover)
If Uncle Tupelo were blue and lonesome, French singer Émilie Simon is most definitely kinky on her electronic revamp of the Stooges classic, which features on her eponymous debut album of 2003. She’s seductive and provocative as she sings of being in her room and “wanting you here” in her soft and girlishly husky voice. But she’s creepy too, with those ghostly synth effects and that industrial and sleazy musical backdrop.
Parálisis Permanente – Quiero ser tu Perro (The Stooges cover)
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” is altogether a pretty intense track, but there’s also fun to be had in realizing it, as Parálisis Permanente make clear on their 1982 rendition. The Spanish band keep the same arrangement, but the riff is cleaner and the song a little sunnier. Sparkier. These guys may have been the goth-aligned precursors of the post-punk movement in post-Franco Spain, but check out the pop energy on show here, especially on that big chorus! They won over Iggy himself with their more upbeat expression of lust, in any case, as was made clear when he gave their cover a spin on his BBC Radio 6 Music show recently.
John Velghe – I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges cover)
John Velghe, of Baltimore, Maryland, is your man for making an unlikely success of drawing out the romance in “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” He apparently played the song live for a decade as the rock anthem it originally was, but suddenly discovered a new way of playing it in 2010, going one step further than Uncle Tupelo in turning it into a tender-hearted acoustic ballad. He commented at the time: “Some will be offended, some will be pissed, but honestly, I think it’s one of the most gorgeous songs in music history.” Indeed, when Velghe sings “Now I’m ready to close my eyes / And now I’m ready to close my mind” on his stripped-down version, it’s like he’s experiencing some kind of religious conversion.
R.E.M./Patti Smith – I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges cover)
For all the reinventions of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on display here, it would be wrong to sign off without seeing some of the punk-rock pomp restored to the seminal Stooges track. That’s why R.E.M. and Patti Smith are on the scene, with a performance that features guitarist Lenny Kaye and makes every kind of sense at the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. Not only were the Stooges a major influence on R.E.M., but they were also a precursor to Smith’s legendary punk-poet exploits at CBGB’s, while Kaye was one of the earliest public supporters of the band as a rock journalist. It’s a love-in, basically, but thankfully it all works to wonderfully raucous effect!