Radical Reinterpretation
of the Text

Unusual Cover Songs You’ve Probably Never Heard (But Should)

Cover (noun): A recording of a song that was previously recorded or made popular by another. Also called cover version or cover song; (verb) to record a cover.

From rock and roll’s earliest days, cover songs have played an integral role in its history and development. The story of covers is in some way as vital a part of rock history as the story of songwriting itself from Pat Boone's sanitized versions of Little Richard’s “race” hits, to the Kingsmen’s infamous version of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie,” to the Beatles’ show-stopping remake of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist And Shout,” up to the recent furor over Madonna’s remake of “American Pie.” The Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Who, for instance, all started their careers covering American blues and R&B sides. The Stones didn’t really come into their own as songwriters until they had been releasing records for two years, and as late as their fourth LP, the Beatles were still recording almost as many covers as originals. Conversely, many of Bob Dylan's early songs were made popular by other artists before his own versions gained acclaim. Some songs have been covered so much, it’s hard to remember whom the originals were done by. And of course, any bar band worth its margarita salt can do a version of “Wild Thing” and “Gloria.”
So, a definitive list of popular and famous covers would be lengthy, but in many ways it would be interesting, in that some songs become popular as covers years after they were originally done and might not even be recognized as covers by many of the people who buy the records. For instance, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers was redone by Hall And Oates in the 80’s, and apparently some people still aren't aware that it was a cover.
There are many reasons an artist might do a cover, ranging from inability to write one’s own material to simple tribute to a blatant attempt to have a hit with a proven song. Then there are the artists who fundamentally redefine the cover in sound, structure, feel, or at least context. These are the most interesting examples of covers: taking a great side, one that the listener is hopefully already familiar with, and changing it to make it new and fresh, simultaneously discarding and celebrating the original.

In 1976, the Residents, an anonymous bunch of performance artists from San Francisco by way of Louisiana, did a version of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” that so radically redefined the song to make it almost unrecognizable. With the loud, distorted guitar work of frequent collaborator Snakefinger leading the way, the “singer” declaims the lyrics in one of the most unpleasant, violent vocal performance on record. In a career filled with extremes, this stuff is pretty out there, even for these guys.

Tater Totz was a loose-knit band featuring the McDonald brothers from Redd Kross. Their two studio LPs are largely covers of 60s and 70s songs, ranging from “Rock On” by David Essex, to “Let’s Get Together” (originally performed by Hayley Mills in the film The Parent Trap), to “Bat Macumba” by Os Mutantes. Their most audacious selection was a version of Yoko Ono’s “Who Has Seen The Wind” performed to the music of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s a striking piece, and calls into question the place of art, artifice, and irony in pop music.

In 1993, They Might Be Giants’ Hello Recording Club released an EP by Kurt Hoffman’s Band Of Weeds. Hoffman, besides being a member of TMBG’s touring band, was a former member of the Ordinaires. The EP featured four songs arranged for horns, accordion, banjo, cello and drums, but it’s weirder than it sounds, especially when the Band of Weeds tackles an instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean.” At times unrecognizable and at other times so perfect you’ll want to never hear the original again, this isn’t just oddness for its own sake.

“Their most audacious selection was a version of Yoko Ono’s “Who Has Seen The Wind” performed to the music of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.””

In 1986, a punk band from DC called Gray Matter released, on their Food For Thought LP, a version of the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” that comes as close as any Beatles cover ever to beating the Fabs at their own game. Over a minimalist bass/drums/guitar arrangement, taken at breakneck speed, the singer intones Lennon’s surrealist lyrics in such an accusatory way as to make you feel that, not only IS he the walrus, but that it’s a terrible thing and something’s gotta be done about it. The fade takes the contrasting ascending/descending lines of the original to new extremes, and is gradually devoured by screams, curses and invocations that leave the original sounding like a tea party.

Famed bluesman Willie Dixon won several lawsuits against Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement, notably for “Whole Lotta Love,” which borrowed liberally from his tune “You Need Love.” The Small Faces recorded Dixon’s tune (though, perhaps not surprisingly, credited it to Marriott/Lane) and anyone who thinks the Zep sound was born full-blown from the brow of Jimmy Page should give it a listen. The guitar breaks, drum patterns and even the vocal are stunningly familiar, all the more so for having been recorded three years before Zeppelin’s first LP came out. Apparently Page and Plant were Equal Opportunity Rip-off Artists.

In 1995, the Replicants, a side project by members of Failure, Tool and Zaum, released a whole CD of warped covers. Among versions of Missing Persons, Steely Dan, Bowie, Gary Numan, Syd Barrett and Cars tunes, their version of Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” is the standout. Seven and a half minutes long, it so radically re-defines the song that you may even like it. The choruses are hammering and violent, featuring the words “I love you,” screamed by a man who sounds like he would rather do nothing more than gouge his beloved’s eyes out. Metal/punk/pop genius.

In 1984, the Minutemen's landmark Double Nickels On The Dime double LP featured a handful of covers, and one of them, Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” was tossed off seemingly as a joke, especially since it only lasted forty-seven seconds (pretty swift, even for them). But two years later, the guys revealed that they evidently cared more than a little for the song, because an SST Records sampler, The Blasting Concept II, included another, “extended” (padded out to a full 1:15!) version of it. It had the same backing track, but featured, in place of the line “Ain’t got no time to mess around,” the same line with a couple of fervently uttered f-word type profanities. OK, it was still a joke, but at least they knew the punch line.

Another Beatles cover, this one done by the Japanese band Power House, finds “Back In The USSR” done as a slow blues. You wouldn’t think that a Japanese band could play blues, but these guys definitely got it right. I don’t know when or where it was recorded, because the CD I have it on, From Liverpool to Tokyo, has all its liner notes in Japanese.

Laibach, a Slovenian band, has trafficked in political commentary in their music through most of their career and has had a particularly dark outlook and sound on many of their sides. Never was this more apparent than on their version of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil.” This track and its accompanying video, from 1987, seemed to emanate from the dark lord himself. A growling guttural vocal over a bleak, martial backing track, was about the scariest thing I’d ever heard when I first saw it on MTV. The video, filled with German police dogs with red glowing eyes, goat’s heads, and fiery pits, was about the most evil thing I could (and still can) imagine. Their music, imagery and rhetoric invoked totalitarianism in order to subvert it, but the line looks pretty thin sometimes.

In 1987, Camper Van Beethoven convened to record their third LP, only to find that their drummer had broken his leg. So they did the only logical thing: they bought a drum machine and recorded Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Not just the song, the entire double album. It’s all pretty warped stuff, but the title track is truly messed up. I can’t do it justice, but suffice to say that the part where the drums go crazy in the original version for 10 seconds lasts about 10 minutes here. It takes you all around the world in a vehicle that only exists in the imagination of those doing heavy hallucinogens. Simultaneously reverent and parodic, this cover sums up what is so great about all the selections I’ve listed for you. For fans of rock and roll music and all its offshoots, there’s nothing more fun than a great cover.

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