Feb 022024
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Johnny B. Goode

Really? As in, surely Cover Me must have talked about “Johnny B. Goode” before? Well, I’ve searched, and it seems “Memphis, Tennessee” is the only Chuck song to show itself on this platform. Of course, it may just feel like we’ve given Johnny the once-over twice on account of ol’ Charles Edward Anderson Berry wrote so many of the standard templates of rock (and roll). I mean, it isn’t as if nobody’s ever tried a cover, it difficult to imagine any guitar band ever not taking a crack at it. Is it not compulsory that every band of spotty youth, convening in a reluctant father’s garage, include it in their nascent set of tunes? Hell, I bet it casts a longer shadow than even “Louie, Louie,” always previously the lodestone at such gatherings. Secondhand Songs, still the wiki for cover lovers, suggests 328 versions, which, given the site’s understandable inability to know or find every single itty bitty rendition, suggests possibly a fair few more. (Indeed, as ever, we rely on you to let us know some more good(e) covers in the responses.)

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Jan 232024
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Misty covers

Popular song titles end up as film titles often enough–“Singin’ in the Rain,” “Dazed and Confused,” “American Pie,” “[I] Walk the Line.” But how many songs are referenced by a film title? Only one: Erroll Garner’s 1954 hit “Misty.” The film Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut from 1971, calls it out.

The film follows a jazz radio DJ who spins “mellow groove” for his listeners each evening. One night someone calls in a simple request: “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” The next evening she calls again. “Play ‘Misty’ for me,” she repeats, and hangs up. This psychological suspense thriller hinges–or unhinges–on this repetition.

A hundred good versions of “Misty” were in circulation by 1971, but the caller doesn’t say which one she wants to hear. And the DJ doesn’t ask. (I get it: the film must advance its plot and not get mired in detail, but as a music lover I’m disappointed, and still just curious: What was her jam?) The DJ puts on the instrumental by the Erroll Garner Trio–the original “Misty” recording.

The song was original in both senses of the word: being the first, and being wholly unique. Garner himself was an original: a self-taught prodigy with a style all his own, who could not read or write music notation, but whose unorthodox creations were some of the era’s crowning achievements, both artistically and commercially.

Garner’s instrumental plays a few times during the film, both as part of the action, and as part of the score. In the world of “Play Misty for Me,” there are no covers of “Misty,” and no lyrics.

Moviegoers mostly knew the words anyway, through popular versions by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mathis. But audiences may have been clueless about the substance of the lyrics. “Misty” was the “Every Breath You Take” of its day: it passed as a love ballad or torch song, but it invited a darker reading, with each verse hinting at a serious emotional disturbance, a fatal attraction. Screenwriter Jo Heims had the song’s double-edged meaning in mind, and wove her story around its tale of obsession. As with the radio caller’s request, you hear it once and it’s anodyne; hear it again and something feels wrong.
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Jan 122024
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Psycho Killer covers

“Hi. I got a tape I wanna play.”

David Byrne begins the concert film Stop Making Sense with those words. He then begins the show doing a solo acoustic “Psycho Killer,” backed only by a boombox rhythm track. It’s the capital letter of one incredible sentence of a film, and last year it stepped forward once again into America’s collective consciousness as the documentary’s anniversary rerelease swept Talking Heads into the spotlight one (more? last?) time.

“Psycho Killer” was the first song the band ever worked on – Byrne wrote the first verse, Chris Frantz the second, and Tina Weymouth came up with the bridge’s French lyrics. From small beginnings come great things; for all the success the band had afterward, this remains their signature track.
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Jan 052024
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

I Can See Clearly Now covers

Starting a new year from the old has often the effect of bestowing clarity on the observer, a post-festive pause in the storm, allowing evaluation of the present and a filter to the past, seeking a better way forward. That’s the idea, anyway, and anyone wondering about New Year’s resolutions (assuming anyone still does) needs the ability to clear their eyes and brush away any blurring of intent.

That’s where Johnny Nash comes in. On “I Can See Clearly Now,” Nash writes lucidly about that movement, should you stumble upon it. To me the song always seemed to be a song of hope, one designed to welcome positive thoughts for the way ahead, enticing them to become actions.

“I Can See Clearly Now” spent four weeks at the top of the Billboard chart and soon certified gold, doing well also in markets of the UK, Australia and South Africa, ironically all areas where the record buying population was largely white. Nash, an American by birth and upbringing, was one of the first non-Jamaican artists to break a wider recognition of Reggae. Indeed, the prime aim of his mid-60s move to Kingston had been to broker a wider acceptance of the musical styles of the West Indies. Ironically, his success arguably led to a later fade from the spotlight, as the artists who were making the songs he championed, in the style he had possibly softened up an audience for, no longer needed introduction, with the likes of Bob Marley (who wrote or co-wrote four of the songs on I Can See Clearly Now) now able to stand on the world stage in their own right.

Nash died, aged 80, in 2020, but had benefitted from a resurgence in interest, as films and TV bought up the rights for “I Can See Clearly Now,” most notably through Jimmy Cliff’s version from the 1993 film Cool Runnings. It is a song of hope and, as such, it never fails to lift my mood.
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Dec 082023
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

This Old Heart of Mine

In 1965, the Isley Brothers were looking for a bigger label to help them grow, and found it in Tamla/Motown. The then-trio of O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald Isley sang this Holland/Dozier/Holland composition, Ronald on lead vocals, with Motown’s crack Funk Brothers session team on the instrumental heft. As with so many of the songs from Motown on the 60s, it is a masterclass of construction, from the opening propulsive percussion and the piano riff that immediately identifies it. The orchestra swoops in and the brothers start to emote, before Ronald pipes up with the lead vocal. The xylophone is a magical addition, a catalytic converter that seems to spark and stimulate the responses of Rudolph and Kelly. Magnificent, even as a honking sax plays a baritone solo, a song that has continued to resonate over the subsequent years.

“This Old Heart Of Mine” was first a hit in 1966, and was the Isley Brothers’ biggest Motown success, reaching (only!) number 12 on the Billboard chart that year. In the UK it fared worse, reaching number 47, and then better, hitting the number 2 slot on a 1968 re-release. It seems odd that Motown let them go shortly thereafter. Berry Gordy, who’s been known to make a mistake or two, told them that “It’s Your Thing” was not the kind of music he wanted them recording. But irreconcilable differences don’t always spell “The End.” Cue the brothers setting up their own label, and history!

So what other artists had old hearts that were weak for the song? Listen and learn…
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Nov 102023
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

I Wanna Be Your Dog covers

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.
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