Songs Whose Cover Is Better Than The Original

At least IMHO. BTW, I am not overlooking the passing of Glen Campbell. I have been meaning to write about him for some time but haven’t yet had a chance.

First up is the song, “Mad World,” originally released by Tears for Fears on their debt album, The Hurting, from 1983. These guys had a cool sound, some nice guitar work, good songs and fit well into the early Eighties MTV landscape.

Their original version is here on YouTube or here on Spotify. Where I think it misses the point is that the song is fairly melancholy and yet they’ve done it as an almost upbeat pop song.

Those of you familiar with the 2001 film Donnie Darko – for my money, one of the oddest films ever made – will know the version by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews. Andrews was hired to write the score for the film with the stipulation that he use no guitar and no drums.

He did this album on a very tight budget and brought his pal Jules in to sing while he played piano. This haunting version, that finds the angst in the song, has now become the standard and possibly the only one that many people know.

Spotify link

Yeah, I’m just as big a Led Zeppelin fan as many of you. I’ve featured them a few times and one day will get to a series. Generally speaking, nobody does Zep better than Zep. (Although that said, Heart does a hell of a job, even bringing Robert Plant to tears when they did “Stairway” at the Kennedy Center Honors. Jason Bonham on drums.)

While I think much of Zep’s output is outstanding, occasionally their songs make me shrug. (I have never gotten the whole “Kashmir is great” thing. For the most part, I can take or leave that song.) Another song I like but don’t love is “Dancing Days,” from Houses of the Holy. Yeah, I’ll listen to it if it comes on the radio but it’s not a big deal for me. YouTube version here and Spotify version here.

So when I first heard Stone Temple Pilot’s version, I found that I just really liked the song for the first time. For one thing, it’s acoustic and that seems to bring more of the song out. Also, I think Scott Weiland’s voice just lends itself better to the song than Plant’s.

This version was recorded for a 1995 album called Encomium: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin (Oddly enough, Robert Plant does the song “Down by the Seaside”- with Tori Amos – on his own tribute album!)

SoundCloud clip

The Box Tops were an interesting band. They were a Sixties group who had hits with songs like “Cry Like a Baby,” “Neon Rainbow,” and – ahem – “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March.”

But their biggest hit was their first single, “The Letter,” which was released in August 1967. Now, you have to understand that there were so many songs flooding the airwaves back then, nobody was really thinking about the members of each individual band.

It wasn’t till later that we found out the lead singer was a seventeen-year-old from Memphis named Alex Chilton. He might have gone down in rock history as a one (or two) hit wonder had he not later founded a band called Big Star.

Alas, Big Star never really broke through but did achieve some level of cult status. Chilton’s song, “In The Street,” was recorded by Cheap Trick (starting with Season Two) as the theme for That ’70’s show. (I always thought the creators of that show really had a good finger on the pulse of that era.)

Anyway, The Box Tops version of “The Letter” (they didn’t write it), clocks in at about two minutes and is, in fact, a really good song. Alex Chilton was the American equivalent of Steve Winwood, young and soulful. The YouTube video is here and the Spotify version is here.

In 1970, Joe Cocker toured with an ensemble called Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Joe was always a great interpreter of others’ songs. Here’s a version from this insanely large ensemble’s stint at Fillmore East. Leon Russell on piano.

Spotify version

When the Allman Joys first went to California in the Sixties, they played places like the Troubador and hung with all the artists there. Recording-wise, their albums – according to both Gregg and Duane – were pretty much shit that “cannot be got off on.” Duane escaped and went to Muscle Shoals to do studio work; Gregg hung around to fulfill their contract.

During that time he met Jackson Browne, himself a struggling singer-songwriter. Jackson wrote a song called “These Days,” that oddly, he didn’t initially record. Gregg got hold of it and somewhat rearranged it for his 1973 album, Laid Back. It quickly became the definitive version.

“When [Allman] did [These Days],” Browne said, “I thought that he really unlocked a power in that song that I sort of then emulated in my version. I started playing the piano. I wasn’t trying to sing it like Gregg; I couldn’t possibly. I took the cue, playin’ this slow walk. But it was written very sort of, kind of a little more flatpicking.”

Browne released his album For Everyman the same month as Laid Back, using Gregg’s interpretation. YouTube version here, Spotify version here.

Spotify link

BTW, Rolling Stone did a nice tribute to Gregg recently. And it kinda really hit me for the first time that I will never be able to randomly check in from time to time and see the Allman Brothers Band ever again.  A hole in the universe, if you will.

Anyway, a few other notable covers: Hendrix‘ timeless version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and Johnny Winter’s version of “Highway 61 Revisited.” Others?

30 thoughts on “Songs Whose Cover Is Better Than The Original

  1. Oh, fuck man. Both better than the originals. Clash’s version totally kills and the Beatles sacrificed Lennon’s voice just to get a great take. Good calls.

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      1. I concur with Iago that “These Days” and “I’ll Keep it With Mine” are done extremely well by Nico (that entire album is a gem, if you can overlook the flutes that were later tacked on). How about the Beatles’ “Words of Love”? The Doors’ “Back Door Man”? Cream’s reinterpretation of Robt. Johnson’s “Crossroads”? The Stones’ “Time is on My Side”? Deep Purple’s “Hush”? (I’d better stop now!).

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        1. I’d agree with you on just about everything except to say that I think Holly and Beatles are pretty much equal on “Words of Love.” Great song. I listened to Nico and yeah, as I replied to Iago, totally dug both. I knew of her, never really listened to her. And “Hush. ” Boy I used to love DP’s version of that. But it sort of wore off. But that’s a topic for a post I want to do one day, I. E. “Songs I loved that have lost their luster.” (Or something.)

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    1. Hey I listened to both of these and dug them, especially “These Days.” You’d think the strings would overwhelm the song, but they don’t. Her voice takes a little getting used to as her German accent calls attention to itself. But good stuff. Thanks.

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    1. Hmm. I wonder why that is. Odd duck of a movie for sure. As to That ’70’s Show, I always liked how, when they were going to see a band, they got it right and it was somebody good like Todd Rundgren. Points for knowing Big Star!

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    1. Ha! I’m pretty sure the second one exists only in your imagination. Flo and Eddie are touring with the “Happy Together” tour along with other Sixties bands. (The Cowsills!) Maybe you can still catch ”em. 😂

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      1. Anything Joe lays his vocal chords too he usually makes his own. Too many to list. Tedeshi Trucks do a good version of ‘The Letter’ (One of the first posts I did. Cocker’s version). Neil and the MGs at a Dylan tribute did a dynamite ‘Watchtower’. Been spinning that GA album lately. It’s good.

        I heard Flo and Eddie do that sizzler. “Happy Together” tour? That’s funny. I was a big F&E fan back when they were with Zappa.

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        1. I seen them on an obscure late night Canadian talk show with Peter Gzowski . They were just dicking around and sung that song. ( I heard Peter Buck and Mike Mills from REM do Cat Ballou. I think you can find that one). Sorry Doc I’m just going off here. Seriously i do dig F&E and the Turtles. Some great tunes. They covered a Dylan song way back ‘It Ain’t Me babe’. Interesting guys.

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  2. CB, more evidence that you and I are twin sons of different mothers. ‘Cat Ballou? ‘Love that movie and song. “It was a hangin’ day in Wolf City Wyoming. Eighteen-ninety-four.” Buck and Mills did that? Have to check that out. And the Turtles? Loved ’em. “You know she’d rather be with me.” Howard Kaylan wrote a book about his time with Turtles and FZ. Haven’t read it but I will one day.

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    1. Good stuff! Kid Shelleen was my role model. I heard Buck and Mills do that on a radio broadcast years ago. Loved it. Amazing what sticks in this small brain of mine. One day you and i will have a good long chat.

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  3. Great stuff, Jim. I think Joe Cocker was the born cover artist. “The Letter” is great example. I think my favorite Cocker cover version continues to be “With a Little Help From My Friends.” He turned it into a completely different song. As a die hard Beatles fan, it’s hard for me to admit it, but I like his version more than the original.

    I also love that Gregg Allman solo album you highlighted. His version of “Midnight Rider” is probably my favorite from that record. His last album is set to appear next month. While it’s mostly covers (sadly, he knew he was running out of time, so he settled on covers he felt describe his life and legacy), I still look forward to this one – hard to believe he’s gone!

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    1. I recently read (or re-read) what McCartney said about Cocker’s version. Worth repeating:

      “I was especially pleased when he decided to cover ‘With a Little Help From My Friends.’ I remember him and [producer] Denny Cordell coming round to the studio and Saville Row and playing me what they recorded. It was just mind-blowing. He totally turned the song into a soul anthem, and I was forever grateful to him for doing that.”

      Yes, I miss Gregg and truly look forward to that last album. He had a lot of fans (including musicians.) It will sell well.

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      1. I never knew it was a Lennon song till way after the fact. I heard it on a live RM album (they cover Neil Young’s ‘Like a Hurricane’ on the album also). Andy Mackay plays some nice sax on it and Ferry does some whistling at the end. I love it

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