Many years back – a decade ago at least, I reckon, the editor of the then-Real Groove magazine asked me to compile a list of five favourite cover versions; he never ended up using it but wrote back to tell me he thought my list was weird but cool. I liked that. You hardly ever get direct feedback from your editor – and it’s never that glowing. Weird but cool suits me. The list is pretty straightforward actually, more so with time. There are some novelty covers I did, but the whole ‘novelty’-cover phase wasn’t too charming. I like proud cover versions – people standing up and owning the song, paying tribute to it also, but claiming it. In some sense at least. Not just chuckling away at the themselves and the song as they do it – the novelty-cover tag suggests the fire-escape might be needed. And I don’t like that.
Anyway, I have other favourite covers I’m sure but I’m just going to leave the ones from this list here in the order I chose them about a decade ago, maybe 12-13 years ago…
Here goes. Happy Friday.
1. Joe Cocker, With A Little Help From My Friends:
The first example I ever heard of a song being transformed by a cover. I far prefer this to the original. I like a lot of stuff from the early years by Joe Cocker, first three albums – magic. After that there are some things worth hearing, but not all of it. He was always a good live gig though, saw him a half-dozen times (occupational hazard, he was always touring here) and it was always the chestnuts from those first three albums that made the show.
2. The Gourds, Gin & Juice:
This alt-country ensemble showed that bluegrass and hip-hop are not at all worlds apart. I guess this is a novelty-cover of sorts, but damn that’s some good playing and some conviction in there. (Snoop Dogg original)
3. The Mountain Goats, FM:
I love hearing John Darnielle’s warped bleat and frenzied acoustic strum; it’s the antithesis to Steely Dan’s slick jazz-rock. Nathan Haines covered it with Damon Albarn and I like that – because I love the song and I love Steely Dan, but just hearing this version, abrasive and lo-fi, just a funny twist on a so-slick original.
4. Calexico, Alone Again Or:
This is that other kind of cover; not so much a transformation as a faithful facsimile that makes you realise a good song that you might have forgotten…well that was the case at the time of first hearing this. I’m probably a bit sick of hearing it trotted out as Calexico’s final song but there’s something in it still. A good version of a good song. It’s not like Love was ever threatening to be the biggest band in the world – so I do like the idea that someone attending a Calexico show and maybe hearing this for the first time goes away and finds the original and other songs by that band from there.
5. Warren Zevon, Back In The High Life:
Zevon cracks a high as he sings the word “high” and he couldn’t sound further from being in the high life. Of course, he was making a recording comeback and had just found out he had cancer, or was just about to find it out, I’m not quite sure of the timelines there, but the irony is devilish and sublime, as was Warren’s way. The original is far too happy and pleased with itself. This version is a totally different song, essentially.