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Six cover versions that are better than the original songs

2 June, 2015 — by Leon Barton0

grace_jones private_life

Noel Gallagher recently said that a cover version by its very essence is only a watered-down version of the original song. “I’ve heard a billion covers of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and they’re all shit. You want to know why? Because Bob Dylan ain’t singing it.”

“But Noel” I reply, “have you not been listening to Sensations in the Dark on Freirad 105.9, broadcasting from Innsbruck, Tirol but available the whole world over via the magic of the internet at 8pm (UK time) every third and last Friday of the month?”

Noel stares at me without reply. I continue…

“They do a feature called ‘Even Better than the Real Thing’ playing cover versions which they argue are even BETTER than the original versions. It’s been on for very nearly three years now, so they’ve done around 70 already!”

Still nothing from the stoney-faced Gallagher.

“And anyway, you’re a bit of a clueless bell-end who’s only written one half-decent song (Lyla) in the last 20 years so I don’t know why anyone listens to you anyway.”

“You know what Leon” he finally replied, “you’re absolutely right. Maybe you should do a rundown of some of your favourites so far, to emphasise just what a clueless bell-end I am?”

And you know what, that’s possibly the best idea Noel Gallagher has had in the last two decades.

Grace Jones – ‘Private Life’
(written by Chrissie Hynde, original version by The Pretenders)

When white people play reggae it’s usually shit. Apart from ‘Watching the Detectives’ by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, them’s the rules… Oh and ‘Revolution Rock’ by The Clash (another ‘even better than the real thing’ as the original was by Danny Ray)… Also a lot of those early reggae–inflected Police singles were great t00… But apart from those, and probably countless other examples, when white people do reggae it’s usually shit.

Oh I give up, let’s just let Chrissie Hynde, the actual writer of the song, discuss this one:

Like all the other London punks, I wanted to do reggae, and I wrote ‘Private Life’. When I first heard Grace’s version I thought “Now that’s how it’s supposed to sound!” In fact it was one of the highpoints of my career – what with Sly and Robbie being the masters, and Grace Jones with her scorching delivery. Someone told me it was Chris Blackwell’s idea – thanks Chris!

And thanks Chrissie for doing my work for me. Piece of piss this music journalism lark.

Hank Williams – ‘Lost Highway’
(written and originally recorded by Leon Payne)

A great song but the original version is far too jaunty. Hank Williams by contrast, sings it like he means it. He truly does sound like he’s on the lost highway (he was), plus he’s the greatest singer in country music history. For me there is no contest.

Marvin Gaye – ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’
(written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, originally recorded by Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, originally a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips)

Often when discussing best ever covers, people will pipe up about this song. The Slits’ version or Creedence Clearwater Revival perhaps. People don’t often seem to realise Gaye’s version is a cover too. It’s also about as close as pop music comes to perfection; the production, the instrumental performances but most of all, the way Marv sings it.

I love Gladys Knight’s voice, I’m as partial to ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ as anyone and ‘Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)’ is one of my favourite ever soul songs but her version of ‘…Grapevine’ has none of the tension and paranoia of Gaye’s take. Genius.

Joe Cocker – ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’
(written by Lennon/McCartney, originally by The Beatles)

An obvious choice this one, especially as we played it in the week of Cocker’s death. It’s a good song, written at a time when McCartney was shitting out genius at an extraordinarily regular basis, but the original always reminds me of the great Bill Hicks line: “The Beatles were so high they let Ringo sing!” It’s funny ‘cos it’s true.

For The Beatles, there was an attitude of “well, there’s plenty more where that came from” (and there was) whereas Cocker’s version gives the song the respect it deserves and McCartney was suitably blown away when he first heard it: “He turned it into a soul anthem, and I was forever grateful to him for doing that”.

Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of Cocker’s singing, there always seemed to be something somewhat contrived about its supposed ‘soulfulness’ but on ‘With a Little Help…’ it does the job very nicely. Besides the real genius of the track lies in the arrangement. The organ intro, the instrumental crescendo dropping down to the first verse, the searing electric guitar (courtesy of some bloke called Jimmy Page), the female vocals in the chorus, the call-and-response middle eight, the fantastic drum break counterbalancing Joe’s wailing going into the final chorus… oh lordy, everything about this version is better than the original, and if you disagree, you’re wrong. Full fucking stop.

Taj Mahal – ‘Take a Giant Step’
(written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, originally by The Monkees)

I think it’s safe to say the the Goffin/King partnership was responsible for a fair few decent songs. ‘Take a Giant Step’ however, is not one of them. I loved the Monkees as a kid and even now ‘I’m a Believer’ and ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ are regulars in my DJ sets, but the original version of this song just washes over me.

There’s nothing particularly memorable about it and I don’t know what inspired Taj Mahal to take the song on three years after its 1966 release, but I’m very glad he did. It’s utterly gorgeous, tender and heartfelt, his treatment gives the song a respect I’m not really sure it ever deserved in the first place.

Rage Against the Machine – ‘Renegades of Funk’
(written by Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, John Miller & John Robie and recorded by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force)

Renegades is my favourite Rage album, mainly because it’s all covers and therefore has none of Zac De La Rocha’s shit lyrics on it, and ‘Renegades of Funk’ is its best song. The original was a decent enough piece of early hip hop, but Rage’s version towers above it. Muscular, dynamic and genuinely funky, it’s possibly even Rock/Rap’s greatest ever moment. In fact, it’s da bomb(track)!

The next collection of superior cover versions can be found here: Even Better Than the Real Thing – Part Two

Six cover versions that are better than the original songs
Six cover versions that are better than the original songs
Noel Gallagher recently said that a cover version by its very essence is only a watered-down version of the original song. He's wrong.
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