We Got It Covered: Who Recorded the Greatest Cover Versions?

Cover Versions

There is a question I find myself pondering from time to time. What are the greatest cover versions in popular music history and why? In selecting my top ten I have chosen to omit songs which were clearly written directly for the artist(s) like Mott the Hoople’s classic version of Bowie’s All The Young Dudes or Aretha Franklin’s version of Stevie’s Until I Come Back To You. I have also ignored covers, no matter how well executed they may have been, where the artist has made no attempt to do anything new or original with the song. So I have come up with a list but I have also unquestionably forgotten or overlooked many more contenders. As such I really hope others will comment and add their choices (and reasons for them). This is meant to be fun after all.

1. EARTH WIND & FIRE: GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE

The Beatles wrote some cracking Soul tracks, this being one of them, but even Sir Paul McCartney could scarcely have envisaged his homage to Tamla Motown transformed into a triple time Funk classic. Cue breathtaking horn arrangement punctuated by syncopated stabs, an additional guitar, synth and vocal melody to stretch out an amazing intro, interweaving vocal harmonies and the beautiful contrast between Mo White’s low register tones and Philip Bailey’s spine-tingling falsetto. The way the horns and voices play off one another is goose-bumping. The whole piece is a masterclass in incredible instinctive timing and brilliantly funky musicianship. This version was put together for the Sergeant Pepper soundtrack in 1978. The film, starring Peter Frampton, was a flop but the soundtrack was a success. I can see (or rather, hear) why.

2. ROBERT WYATT: SHIPBUILDING

I’m not sure whether this absolutely qualifies as a cover since its writer Elvis Costello played on it but did also record his own beautiful version at the time too (which subsequently appeared on his 1983 album Punch the Clock so technically Robert Wyatt’s version came out first). But despite my reverence for EC, it is one of two hit versions of his songs on which I have to concede that the versions are better than his own (Dave Edmunds’ GirlsTalk being the other). Written in response to the Falklands War, seen by many as a needless event manufactured by the Thatcher government in which young British troops died and so too did many young Argentinian conscripts for the sake of electoral advantage, Costello’s ingenious lyrics and melancholic music are delivered to perfection by Wyatt’s fractured ghostly tenor voice with its almost dispassionate, past-caring tone. The Clive Langer-Alan Winstanley playing and production is fantastic too, lovely piano and sliding double bass adding to the aura. The last time Wyatt sings ‘With all the will in the world/Diving for dear life/When we should be diving for pearls’ and the piano chord under the word ‘will’ changes, it is a full-on butterflies moment. A real one-off.

3. CHAKA KHAN: I FEEL FOR YOU

It is inevitable that where you have truly great songwriters you will have great reinterpretations of their work so it is interesting that my first three have been written by the Beatles, Costello and Prince. In all three cases the original versions are fantastic too but this Discofied mid-80s dancefloor classic is helped somewhat by Melle Mel (of the Furious 5) rapping over the intro before giving way to Stevie Wonder’s inimitable harmonica and then Chaka Khan’s incredible voice; a unique blend of formidable power and exotic range of timbres and dynamics. The production and arrangement are very much of their time but were cutting edge back then. Put it all together – melody, harmonies, musicianship, funkiness and killer hook – delivered by one of the best vocalists around and produced by the legendary Arif Mardin. It might easily have been disappointing. But it wasn’t.

4. ELVIS PRESLEY: BLUE SUEDE SHOES

Carl Perkins is credited with inventing the genre of Rockabilly with this song that saw him become the first Country artist to bother the R’n’B Charts. However it was the young Elvis Presley who would make the track famous and not just because, as Perkins wryly commented ‘… he had the looks, the image, the manager and the talent’ although they may have helped. Presley’s 1956 cover is fast, energetic and infused with the rebellious spirit and sexual tension of those early Rock and Roll years. You can picture his curled down lip and provocative hipshake as his voice bursts through the speakers and the band kicks into motion. How thrilling this must have sounded to teenage fans at the time of its release.

5. ARETHA FRANKLIN: SAY A LITTLE PRAYER

Covers of Bacharach & David songs are numerous but none greater than this one. Again the Dionne Warwick original is beautiful too but Aretha Franklin’s rendition has become the definitive version as her voice sizzles and pops over the verses as if bursting to let forth in the chorus where her unique timing in the ad libs and her controlled dynamism is exquisite. The backing vocals lend the track a Gospel undercurrent while the pianist makes the most of Bacharach’s jazz sensibilities. Another of those moments in time where everything that needed to come together came together.

6. THE TEARDROP EXPLODES: BETTER SCREAM/MAKE THAT MOVE

I hesitated over including this as it only ever appeared in a session for Richard Skinner’s evening show on BBC Radio One (which used to precede the Peel Show) in 1981. However it also happens to be one of the best sessions I have ever heard and one which sadly was not matched by the content of the Teardrops’ second album Wilder which followed later the same year. A bit of context is needed here. Better Scream was the debut single by Pete Wylie’s Wah! (then known as Wah! Heat) in 1980 as the Post-Punk wave was seriously gathering momentum. Julian Cope was one of his best friends. He had also had a year to think about what he might do to improve on the superb original and boy, did the band deliver with punchy brass, a great keyboard part, Alan Gill’s mind-boggling mixture of choppy guitar and funk-punk craziness and some additional lyrics. They even mash it up with the song Make That Move. Cope’s vocals are pretty special too. I am reluctant to say it’s better than the original since they are both powerful, emotionally-charged and energetic and I love them both for different reasons. But in terms of your mates covering one of your tracks, it’s a heck of a tribute. I suspect Wylie was impressed!

7. THE HAPPY MONDAYS: STEP ON

The Happy Mondays epitomised the fusion of Post-Punk Indie guitar music with the energy of the raves and Acid Jazz that produced the Madchester concept. Partly that was because they genuinely were ravers who happened to want to play in a rock band. So having already stormed the barricades in 1989 as the last great Factory Records signing, the following year they set to work on the now legendary album Pills and thrills and bellyaches. Helped by Paul Oakenfold’s groundbreaking production, they hit their peak with this astonishing reworking of a generally forgotten John Kongos hit from twenty years earlier. Topped by the simple but brilliant piano figure that dominates, Mark Day’s trademark Indie-Funk guitar and Shaun Ryder’s brilliantly lazy vocal delivery, it exudes cool and irresistable catchiness while striking a near-perfect contrast between the power chords in the chorus and the relentless groove in the verses. Interspersing it with one-liners derived from the whole E-driven rave scene adds to its aura. And it still sounds so fresh twenty-eight years on.

8. SUGAR MINOTT: NEVER MY LOVE

I love a long-lost gem and this is one I happily discovered when it first came out [but the world subsequently seemed to forget about it]. Silky [or, I guess, sugary (sic.)] voiced Reggae and Lovers’ singer Sugar Minott had enjoyed long-awaited mainstream chart success with the engaging Good Thing Going when he followed it up with this cover of a Smokey Robinson track. The original is a slight oddity that appears as part of a medley from Smokey’s experimental period. But Sugar Minott presents it as a lilting Lovers’ tune sung in the most gorgeously sweet voice that sits atop a lush arrangement and agreeably loud production. Those ingredients were why I often felt compelled to play it repeatedly at the time. Listening again now I feel those feelings flooding back!

9. THE RAINCOATS: RUNNIN’ AWAY

Okay so, to be crystal clear, no-one will ever match the original Sly & The Family Stone version of this amazing song. Their dry-as-a-bone funked up Soul/Pop original is one of many highlights of the genre-defining There’s a Riot Goin’ On album. But, in 1982, a strange thing happened. Apparently oblivious of each other’s plans, London-based Alternative Post-Funk-Punk act The Raincoats and, Paul Haig, former member of legendary Edinburgh Post-Punk popsters Josef K, both released covers of this song. Haig’s version is perfectly credit-worthy but unfortunately it couldn’t hold a candle to the Raincoats’ interpretation. It is made so enjoyable by the octave-unison female vocals which then develop into harmonies, a sweet trumpet part and jagged funky performance by the rest of the band. The ‘la la la’s’ they add are a nice touch as are the bongos and bass in the final stages. Although John Peel played it, it got precious little attention, partly I imagine due to its deliberately rough-at-the-edges lo fi character. An underrated single by a band whose influence on the evolution of Alt Pop is now clearer than ever.

10. JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER

Dylan devotees can get very worked up about this particular debate but I am one of those who feels the best versions of his songs often tend to be covers (i.e. The Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man, Eric Clapton’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Rage Against the Machine’s Maggie’s Farm etc.) and best of them all is this electrifying Bluesy Rock version of All along the watchtower which not only suits Jimi Hendrix’s grainy voice but provides a beautifully open template for the band to kick up a frenetic storm; perfect for Jimi’s controlled anarchy and breathtakingly timed guitar pyrotechnics to ride upon. It is a respectful cover too. Hendrix had turned up to the Electric Ladyland recording sessions with a Bob Dylan songbook. Such was his love of Dylan’s songs that he was determined to identify a suitable choice for a cover. Listening to this track which captured so much of what Hendrix was about, it seems quite amazing that, 47 years on from his untimely demise, Hendrix has been the subject of thousands of copyists including a few pretty well-known ones and yet not one guitarist (that I have heard anyway) has succeeded in capturing that uniquely odd timing, dancing on the edge of anarchy with the confidence of knowing it would not engulf him; the Rock and Roll equivalent of staring into a live volcano. But now I’m waxing lyrical about the guitarist and not the cover. It’s a great version that is dark, dynamic and driven by a disarming sense of urgency. A classic.

Photo by Mike from Pexels

Neil March

Neil March is a Composer & Artist with a PhD and Masters in music composition from Goldsmiths University, who has pursued careers in the contemporary classical and pop worlds, and has been supported by BBC Introducing, for whom he performed with his live ensemble The Music of Sound at Latitude in 2017. Read more.

16 Comments

  1. A great list, opened with one of the key tracks of my formative years – I wore out my EWF tapes while doing my homework and the opening of the guitar solo on Got To Get You In To My Life is on my list hallelujah moments.

    I’d add in Johnny Cash’s reworking of NiN’s “Hurt” – he took the final track from one of the great industrial angst albums and thoroughly reclaimed it as his swansong. Trent Reznor said of the recording, “It’s not mine anymore”. Also worth a mention is Mark Ronson’s “Version” album which reinvented a bunch of decent songs in one fell swoop.

    Less iconic but personal favourites are Marianne Faithful’s take on Cohen’s “Tower Of Song” (though much of the Cohen songbook has now reached standard status) and the Divine Comedy’s live recording of Life On Mars – though no-one could ever reclaim a Bowie song, Neil Hannon’s bittersweet celeste-backed innocence turned out to be perfect for the song.

  2. Great comments. Thanks Kerry. I’ve never heard the Divine Comedy’s version of Life on Mars? but I will make sure I check that out. Great band. Agree totally about Johnny Cash’s reinterpretation of ‘Hurt’.

  3. Matt Donovan

    I was beaten to the EW&F reworking of The Beatles track which knocked the original out of the park in my opinion, so I’m going for Tainted Love by Soft Cell. A beautiful song and clever reworking that doesn’t tread on the toes of the original. I love Marc Almond’s slightly sharp vocal style

  4. 100% agree with you there Matt (even though I do love the Beatles version too). Yeah, I forgot about Tainted Love which would have been a definite contender for my Top Ten. Another one where I love the Gloria Jones original and the Soft Cell reworking of it as a Synth-Pop track in equal measure and for different reasons. :)

  5. jenny pidgeon

    great list! I would add Vanilla Fudge You keep Me Hangin On for its sheer audacity and A Subtle Plague’s version of Rainy Day Women for its depth and texture

  6. OMG! My heart has just sunk after my good friend Jenny just reminded me that I have overlooked one of my favourite ever covers. Namely Vanilla Fudge’s awe-inspiring slow Psych-Rock harmony-soaked cover of You keep me hangin’ on. Absolute classic.

    I am not familiar with A Subtle Plague let alone their version of Rainy Day Women but I must say A Subtle Plague is a mind-boggling concept and any band with a name as good as that deserves to be checked out. :)

  7. Darren hillier

    Totally agree with shipbuilding, a very emotional version.
    I’d like to mention Dexys version of Chuck Woods Seven Days too long, a brilliant cover.
    Cheers
    Darren

  8. Stuart Hogarth

    Would agree with Vanilla Fudge – great track that you and Paul Cook introduced me to. Some other suggestions: David Bowie’s cover of Fill your heart on Hunkie Dory; another Robert Wyatt cover – the Chic song At Last I am Free; and Elvis Costello’s cover of the Gram Parson’s/Flying Burrito Bros’ song I’m Your Toy on Almost Blue. Also, let’s hear it for the cover of Mamma Mia that Paul and Lionel used to do in whatever the heck that band was.

  9. Great to hear from you Stuart and I completely forgot Paul and I introduced you to the Vanilla Fudge version of You keep me hangin’ on. I totally endorse all your choices and of course I have Robert Wyatt’s original 7″ vinyl single of Chic’s At last I’m free which is a superb cover as you say. Thanks for reminding me about all these tracks.

  10. Darren, I just realised the reply I posted to your comment doesn’t seem to be on the page. So here is what I said again. Firstly I totally agree with you and I nearly picked the Dexys cover of Seven days too long which is excellent. But also Dexys’ cover of Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon’s Breaking down the walls of heartache is an absolute classic and wipes the floor with the original. I know that’s a view you share because we’ve talked about it a good few times over the years. :)

  11. JFlames

    Wicked article Neil….. Definitely Chaka khan took that prince track to a next level.

  12. Thanks Josh. Yeah, I love that Chaka track and bought the 12″ vinyl copy when it came out. Stellar line-up with Stevie on harmonica, Melle Mel rapping, Steve Ferrone (Average White Band) on drums and Arif Mardin producing. :)

  13. Cat Ma

    Great list of songs! Your post has been a terrible distraction this morning! I would also add the Flaming Lips cover of Can’t get you out of my head for its ridiculous over-the-top dramatic arrangement, and accompanying timpani.

  14. Great shout Cat Ma. I love the Flaming Lips. Thanks for this suggestion and thanks too for your kind comments.

  15. Dammit! I just realised I completely forgot to include the fantastic Madness cover of Labi Siffre’s It must be love (with Labi in the video playing violin of course). I knew this would happen. I might wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat over great covers I overlooked! :)

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