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Five more cover versions that are much better than the original songs

7 July, 2015 — by Leon Barton0

nina simone profile portrait black and white

“Okay” said Noel ‘not a fan of cover versions’ Gallagher, “Six! Six covers versions! Is that all you’ve got?”

“Oh, don’t you worry your monobrowed little head, son” I replied, “there’s plenty more where those came from.”

Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’
(written by Trent Reznor, recorded by Nine Inch Nails)

Cash’s wonderful Rick Rubin produced American Recordings has provided rich pickings for ‘Even Better than the Real Thing’, the segment on the radio show I co-host where we play cover versions which we argue are even BETTER than the original versions.

His version of Neil Diamond’s ‘Solitary Man’ and Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’ have already featured, and I’m sure we’ll be back for more in future.

But the real jewel in the crown is his extraordinary version of the Nine Inch Nails song ’Hurt’. We played it three shows in, as leaving it any longer would have meant the elephant in the room growing ever more restless. It’s a small studio, we really didn’t want a restless elephant in there.

Here’s Trent Reznor:

“The song came out of a really ugly corner of my mind and turned into something with a frail beauty. And then several years later an icon from a completely different world takes the song and juxtaposes himself into it in a way that seems more powerful to me than my own version. I was flattered as an artist and as a human being they could do that with my song. And it came at a very insecure time in my life and it felt like a nudge and boost and a hug from God. It said ‘everything’s OK and the world is bigger than what’s just in my head’.”

Cash pretty much owns this song now, to the extent that the Associated Press recently wrote the following in a live NIN review: “They closed the night with a slow and smoky cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ which earned nonstop cheers from the crowd.”

Nina Simone – ‘To Love Somebody’
(Written by Barry and Robin Gibb, recorded by The Bee Gees)

The Bee Gee’s second single was a truly great soul song. Amazingly it didn’t even bother the top 40 in Britain, stalling at 41. Despite often being thought of as written to order for Otis Redding, it’s actually probably the best song any band has ever written for their manager. Yeah, manager.

Here’s Barry Gibb:

“It was for Robert [Stigwood]. I say that unabashedly. He asked me to write a song for him, personally. It was written in New York and played to Otis [Redding] but, personally, it was for Robert. He meant a great deal to me. I don’t think it was a homosexual affection but a tremendous admiration for this man’s abilities and gifts.”

If Redding had lived long enough to record it I’m sure it would have been amazing. As it is, it’s really Nina Simone’s UK number 5 hit in 1969 which I’d argue is the definitive take. It’s certainly better than Michael ‘two hairstyles, neither of them good’ Bolton’s.

Otis Redding – ‘Try a Little Tenderness’
(written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods, recorded by The Ray Noble Orchestra)

Talking of Redding, hands up who’s heard the original version of this track by the ‘mighty’ Ray Noble Orchestra? This is the internet not a classroom, so I don’t know why I asked that. I have no idea how many hands are up now, but it’s probably zero. Even the one or two who might have heard it probably don’t have their hands up. Forget I asked.

This is very much the case of a cover being the definitive and most famous version of a song, and rightly so. Much like Joe Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, the greatness mainly lies in the arrangement and the way it builds. Plus it’s got Booker T and the MG’s playing on it and Otis Redding singing on it. Seriously Noel, you really prefer the original to this? Are you insane?

Buddy Rich – ‘The Beat Goes On’
(written by Sonny Bono, recorded by Sonny and Cher)

This was our first ever ‘Even Better than the Real Thing’ on the radio, and a cracker it is too. As the ultimate drumming showman, it was perhaps inevitable that Rich wouldn’t be able to resist a song with such a title. The original is a fairly inconsequential piece of mid-60’s pop fluff but Rich’s version is wonderful. It builds beautifully and has a fantastic groove (as you’d expect) but the real star is the vocalist, Rich’s 12 year-old daughter Cathy.

Buddy was best buds and a near-neighbour of Frank Sinatra, whose daughter Nancy had just become a huge star in her own right the previous year with ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’. I don’t know anything about the relationship between the young Cathy Rich and Nancy, but I would hazard a guess that based on the vocals on ‘The Beat Goes On’ that she was a fan at least. Going even further, I imagine her looking up to Nancy as an older sister. It just adds to the charm of this track to do so, even if it isn’t true.

The vocals are somewhat shaky but more loveable as a result (Rich Sr joked that she was drunk… maybe he wasn’t joking). With a vocal technician like Barbara Streisand my guess is it would have been pretty dull, and I’m certainly not the only fan, All Seeing I lifted the vocals for their 1998 UK hit version. If it ain’t broke…

Iron and Wine – ‘Such Great Heights’
(written by Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello, recorded by The Postal Service)

I wasn’t sure whether to pick this or something else fairly similar (which can wait for part three) but I heard the Postal Service version on the radio yesterday so “I am thinking it’s a sign”…

Iron and Wine is Sam Beam, a Sub Pop label mate of the Postal Service, and his version was one of the B sides to the Postal Service version, released as their first single.

I’m not an folky/acoustic purist. For example, as much as I like Jose Gonzales’ much-loved version of the Knife’s ‘Heartbeats’, I don’t think it’s any better than the original. But with ‘Such Great Heights’, the delicacy of the song- the lovelorn lyrics and gorgeous melodies really lends itself to Beam’s intimate take.

Follow Leon on Twitter: @LeonCBarton

Five more cover versions that are much better than the original songs
Five more cover versions that are much better than the original songs
Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Buddy Rich, Otis Redding, Iron and Wine... they're all giving cover versions a good name and improving on the originals.
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