Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Up until a few years ago, I had no idea who Radka Toneff was. I stumbled upon her only because I was doing what what all Cover Me nerds do in their spare moments: looking for cover versions of their favorite songs (in my own case it’s to add a little spice to my specific-song-themed-playlist situation because I’m a deluxe version nerd).Continue reading »
This marks the fourth year I’ve done a big anniversary countdown (after 1996, 1987, and 1978). It also proved to be the most challenging. There were a lot of covers released in 1969. In fact, according to covers-and-samples database WhoSampled, there were more than in any of the other years we’ve done. Their database lists 3,110 covers, which is surely still a small fraction.
The reason for the cover song’s proliferation seems clear to me after going through them all: Popular bands released a lot more music back then. Aretha Franklin released two albums in 1969. So did The Byrds, Elvis Presley, Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, and Nina Simone. Creedence Clearwater Revival and Merle Haggard released three albums apiece. James Brown topped them all with four. To get that kind of output, artists would pad their albums with covers. Every 1969 album by every artist I just mentioned includes at least one cover. Many include several. A few are all covers. It adds up.
Impressively, many of those covers reinterpreted songs that had come out within the previous year. This entire list could easily have been “Hey Jude” covers. “Wichita Lineman” and “Light My Fire” came up constantly too (the latter song slightly older, but it had hit the charts again in 1968). Even songs from 1968’s soundtrack to Hair got covered endlessly in 1969.
Even beyond “Hey Jude,” Beatles covers dominated the year. I’m not going to go back through the entire 3,110 covers and count, but if you told me Beatles covers made up a full half of those, I wouldn’t be shocked. Add Bob Dylan covers to that side of the scale and it’s probably true. Beatles songs got covered in every conceivable genre for every conceivable audience. Jazz and swing and folk and proto-metal Beatles covers everywhere the eye can see. Plenty of people cover the Beatles these days, sure, but trust me: It’s nothing like it was in 1969.
So wheedling all those down to the top 50 proved incredibly difficult. But it means this is maybe the top-to-bottom strongest set thus far, and it killed me to leave some off (that’s why our Patreon supporters will get a set of 69 bonus tracks – so join now).
One note: I left off Woodstock performances. For one, we counted down the 50 best covers performed there last month. But more importantly, most people did not actually hear those covers until the movie and soundtrack came out in 1970. Jimi Hendrix performed his iconic Star-Spangled Banner – pretty much everyone’s top cover of the weekend – to a nearly empty field. Most of the audience had left before he punched in at 9 AM that Monday morning. That said, several of the classic covers performed at Woodstock were released as singles or on albums the same year – including Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” – and those studio versions make this list.
Now, let the sunshine in with the 50 best covers of 1969.
Andrew Leahey & the Homestead – Lips Like Sugar (Echo and the Bunnymen cover)
Nashville Americana musician Andrew Leahey first heard “Lips Like Sugar” a couple years ago while touring through Texas. Dozing in the van, he woke up to a bandmate blasting the Echo and the Bunnymen hit. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope we don’t crash right now, because I absolutely need to learn how to play this,'” he said. “We’ve been playing it ever since.” He recorded it for his new album Airwaves, out tomorrow.
Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – You Only Live Twice (Nancy Sinatra cover)
Guitar great Bill Frisell first recorded the classic James Bond theme a couple years ago for his album (one of our favorites of that year). He revisits it now for a live album with bassist Thomas Morgan. Like any jazz musician worth his martini, Frisell changes and expands the Bond song the second time through. It’s barely recognizable much of the time, but would still be worth a spot on our Best Bond Covers list.Continue reading »
Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
There was nothing that preceded it. I didn’t have those words. I didn’t have that melody. And I was playing chords and all of a sudden, I sang that. And I couldn’t believe it. I was dumbstruck…. I have no idea where that came from. It was far about the level I was writing at the time…. I was sort of conscious that it was a gift. And I was very emotionally moved by it.
Paul Simon knew he had something special when he wrote the first two verses of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Since Simon wrote the song in a higher key than he was used to singing, he also knew the song was meant for one man and one man only to sing. Art Garfunkel demurred at first (“You have a nice falsetto, Paul, why don’t you sing it?”), out of a giving spirit more than anything else; it didn’t take long for Simon to talk him into it. The song needed a third verse in order to properly build up (Simon whipped one up in the studio), and it took seventy-two takes to record, but “Bridge” came together beautifully. Simon may have felt that Garfunkel’s gospel touch was “more Methodist than Baptist,” but Clive Davis, head of Columbia, knew what they had immediately. Even at a longish (for a single) five minutes, he announced that it would be the first single, first track, and title song of their next record.
But you probably knew that. Pat yourself on the back, then try this bonus question: Did you know Roberta Flack’s hit was a cover too?
The original version was performed and co-written (though she didn’t get credit) by Lori Lieberman, who I interviewed for my recent book on cover songs. She said her experience at a Don McLean concert inspired the song. After he left the stage, she scribbled a poem with many of the lyrics on a cocktail napkin. Professional songwriters Charles Fox (music) and Norman Gimbel (lyrics) then fleshed out her words into a proper song.Continue reading »