About a year ago, my friend Bryan Smart, knowing I’m a serious music fan, suggested I try Spotify. I loaded it onto my iPhone 5S and, after a few days of enjoying the no cost version, I bought the $10 per month premium edition. In the past month or so, Apple released its music streaming service and, as it came with a three month no cost trial, I thought I’d give it a whirl as well.
When Bryan first suggested Spotify to me, I was reluctant to try it out. I have a couple of thousand CDs all ripped in a lossless format and an old Macintosh pushing out my music bits to a high end DAC played through a pretty high end stereo. When I’m listening privately, I will often use my iPhone but attach it to a different high end DAC that is plugged into a vacuum tube based audio amplifier and then into my high end headphones. I readily admit, I’m an audio gear geek and sometimes enjoy messing around with the electronics as much as I do listening to the music itself. With Spotify set to its highest bit rate, playing through either system sounds great so, if you’re one of us gear geeks, you will probably be happy with the quality of its recordings.
I can’t say much about the audio quality of AppleMusic. I’m in my Cambridge, Massachusetts home for the summer and didn’t bring along all of my audio stuff as that would require a van and we’ve only a Prius station wagon.
The Accessibility Paragraph
The underlying theme of this blog is technological accessibility, primarily for people with vision impairment. This is an article about some songs that make me happy when I hear them. So, to make the connection, I’ll say, both AppleMusic and Spotify are almost 100% accessible on iOS/8.4 and, in my very limited testing, on the iOS/9 public beta as well.
Exploring New Music
As I wrote above, I own a few thousand CDs. As they average about 45 minutes each, played end to end, my personal music collection would take something more than 2000 hours of listening time to hear all of it. With Spotify and/or AppleMusic, with 30 million or more songs in their libraries, I now have more than 1.5 million hours or 62,500 days or nearly 175 years of music to which I can listen. As both Apple and Spotify’s catalogues increase daily, these two services provide what amounts to an infinite series of songs to which I can listen in my lifetime.
While my CD collection is pretty large, it also tends to be fairly serious. Certainly, I’ve the canon of punk rock, The Clash, Ramones, Patti Smith and so on. I’ve a bit of “classic rock” including albums by The Rolling Stones, Cream, led Zeppelin and others. I’ve a ton of blues albums, largely by acts led by great harmonica players. I’ve a little bit of country of the traditional style. I’ve a ton of Bob Dylan recordings and the only category into which he fits comfortably is “Bob Dylan.” Most of the collection, however, is jazz, classical, opera and other genres that tend to be called “serious.”
In person, I’m not terribly serious . I enjoy humor, comedy and I enjoy music that contains these characteristics as well. One of the really nice things about both Spotify and AppleMusic is that I have access to songs, albums and artists that I would have never purchased. I enjoy novelty and comedic lyrics but, more than any other musical weirdness, I really enjoy oddball cover versions of songs, especially when the cover version takes the song into a different and interesting direction. The rest of this article is a list of some of my favorite covers that can all be found on AppleMusic or Spotify.
Definition of “Cover Song”
In an according to Hoyle definition of a “cover song,” the term can be applied to virtually any song performed by an act for which it wasn’t specifically written. This, however, is such a broad definition that could be construed to include the entire Frank Sinatra catalogue as, excepting a very few of his songs, they were all written by people other than him and many were recorded by a lot of different artists. In fact, for this article, I’m ignoring most of the jazz and blues genres as even the top artists, people like Miles Davis or Buddy Guy, mostly recorded songs written and performed by others who came before them. Jazz and blues are special because the songs themselves don’t change much while the interpretations and arrangements make all of the difference.
Thus, for this piece, I’m narrowing the definition of “cover song” to one that means a version of a song that takes the original and, in a humorous or stylistic way, changes it drastically.
I’m also going to attempt to include only off beat, rarely played cover versions of songs where the original or another version was the more well known one. I do include two singles that made it to the top forty but, for the most part, this list contains lesser known recordings of fairly popular songs.
I’m also going to leave out songs that fall more into the folk tradition and have been covered by many different artists so don’t expect to read a passage on Robert Johnson’s Crossroads as, while we know who wrote the original, the myriad other versions have turned playing it into more of an exercise in folk music than in more standard song craft. If, like me, you’re a fan of the blues and American roots music, though, you should spend some time listening to the small number of recordings Johnson left before dying at age 27. In the early sixties, Bob Dylan, in an article he wrote about Robert Johnson said, “It was like Johnson was playing for an audience only he could see and that audience was the future…” so, as you live in that future, give Johnson a serious listen.
Let the Silliness Begin
Just a quick note to the readers, while the first song in this list may be my favorite cover song of all time, the rest of the songs are listed in no particular order, not by my personal preference, not alphabetically, just in the order that I wrote them down. As I do with many of the articles I publish here, my “research” on this section did require some time spent googling to find specific facts and talking to my little group of insiders for additional ideas. So, thanks to the people who helped with input on this list and to Wikipedia and other web sites for making it so easy for me to track down the details.
Son Of A Preacher Man by Pansy Division
The song Son Of A Preacher Man was a hit for Dusty Springfield and used to great effect in the movie “Pulp Fiction.” The song is one of lost love and desire and, when Springfield sings it, “Preacher Man” is a good, song and would be her biggest hit. Pansy Division, a now defunct all gay San Francisco based punk band took Son Of A Preacher Man and, simply by changing the character telling the story from female to male makes a dramatic difference. That Pansy Division also turns it from pop into punk makes this version of the song all the more terrific. I found the Pansy Division of this song on AppleMusic but not on Spotify.
My Way by Sid Vicious
My Way was originally written by the terrific songwriter and singer Paul Anka. The most famous, some would say the canonical version was that recorded by Frank Sinatra who, in many ways, made My Way into his personal theme, usually only performing it as an encore. After the Sex Pistols broke up (I wonder if they’re the shortest lived act in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame), the now late Sid Vicious and his also dead then girlfriend Nancy Spungen worked to start a new punk act with Sid out in front. After selecting a few of the usual suspects kicking around the New York punk scene, the Sid Vicious band did a handful of rehearsals and got booked to play a weekend at the New York nightclub, Max’s Kansas City. All three of these performances were recorded directly from the sound board in the club and resulted in the posthumous Sid Sings live album which featured his rendition of My Way, a must hear cover of the Paul Anka classic. Sid’s version is pure punk, he forgets some of the lyrics, adds a few of his own and owns the song. Give it a listen on your favorite streaming service.
Money Changes Everything By Cindy Lauper
As I wrote above, I wanted to avoid including anything that either became too popular or are considered the canonical versions of the songs being covered. Cindy Lauper’s version of Money Changes Everything from her first solo album is one of the two exceptions I will make in this article. If one goes back and listens to the original version, recorded by a Georgia based punk act called The Brains in 1978, they’ll hear a singer deliver a depressing, dirge like song lamenting the loss of his girlfriend to another man far wealthier than himself.
When Lauper worked on “Money Changes Everything” in the studio, though, her producers tried to encourage her to do a version as if it was a Bob Dylan styled folk rock item. Cindy refused and insisted, “No! This isn’t a Dylan song, play it like London Calling, it’s more like a Clash song.” Apparently after a lot of convincing, Cindy got her crew to give a “pop punk” version a try. Lauper turns the song from one in which a male protagonist sings about losing his gal to one in which the protagonist is the woman ditching her guy because, indeed, “money changes everything.” Lauper’s performance is powerful, well worth a listen and is about two steps more “punk” than the original.
Money (That’s What I Want) by The Flying Lizards
First recorded by Motown hit master and songwriter, Barrett Strong and written by the legendary Barry Gordy in 1958, Money (That’s What I Want) would become the first hit single from that most influential of record labels. Strong’s version, however, never received the commercial success of the version recorded a number of years later by The Beatles in which John Lennon and George Harrison would attack the song with guitars making the orchestral Motown version sound like it was performed by sleeping musicians.
My favorite of the many versions of this song, though, is that released by The Flying Lizards on their only album. *Money (That’s What I Want),” opens with the lines, “The best things in life are free, But you can keep them for the birds and bees” that fall into the chorus, “Money, that’s what I want.” In the annals of rock and roll lyrics, this song may be the single most cynical. The Flying Lizards drop the driving guitars we loved in the Beatles version and had none of the Motown production values. Recorded on a Tascam Portastudio four track cassette tape based mixing board and multi-track recording device available back then in most pawn shops for a few bucks, The Flying Lizards stripped the song of any pretense, the lyrics are delivered in a near deadpan monotone and the instrumentation is minimal. If you’re seeking cynicism, give this version of this song a listen.
Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band By Jimi Hendrix
Like most rock and roll records, The Beatles released their album Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on a Tuesday. If the oft repeated story is true, the night before the release, Paul McCartney and a few of his friends, including Jimi Hendrix, gathered at Abbey Road Studios to listen to the album together. As the story goes, Sir Paul proudly pronounced, “This stuff is hard to play, we won’t be hearing too many bands covering Sargent Pepper any time soon.” On the Friday night of that same week, Paul and his buddies went to a London nightclub to see Jimi Hendrix play and Jimi and The Experience opened up the show with a cover of “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” You can and should find and listen to Jimi’s version, it’s on Spotify but I couldn’t find it on AppleMusic.
Jimi Hendrix spent much of his career performing cover songs. Some of his biggest hits, Watchtower, Like A Rolling Stone, Wild Thing and Hey Joe were all covers. Many of his lesser known songs came directly from the catalogue of blues standards. Jimi wasn’t special for his songwriting skills but, rather, for his interpretations, his arrangements and his way of making any song into something entirely his own. If you haven’t guessed by now, Jimi is also one of my very favorite artists and I’m really fond of his version of “Sargent Pepper.”
Surfing Bird by The Ramones
I love punk rock and, when in late 1976, I got to see The Ramones play as an opening act at Max’s Kansas City my life changed and I sold my soul to the genre. Thus, when I sat down to write this article, I knew that I would be including at least one Ramones song and, as I didn’t want this piece to turn into an article about my favorite Ramones covers (they recorded dozens of them), I forced myself to pick a single favorite. this caused a bit of internal debate, should I feature Needles and Pins a song written by Sonny Bono and recorded by The Searchers or if I should choose Surfing Bird, a very silly song originally recorded by the Beach Boys. I chose the latter.
The Ramones, for all of the wild stories that live on about them were, if nothing else, committed New Yorkers. When The Ramones became somewhat popular and started making rock star money, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee, instead of running out and enjoying all of the luxury their new found wealth could provide didn’t even move out of their rent controlled Greenwich Village apartments. Lyrically, while certainly less serious, The Ramones were deeply “New York” and, of course, the Beach Boys were the quintessential California act.
The Ramones took the ultra west coast Surfing Bird and rocked it out so hard that it took on what I can only describe as a New York feel. There’s no surf guitar sound in this version, just straight ahead 4/4 power chord driven rock and roll in the key of G.
I Love Rock And Roll By Joan Jett
I Love Rock And Roll was written by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker and recorded that year by their band, Arrows. To be perfectly honest, prior to looking up the song on Wikipedia, I’d never heard of this version, this band or these people. Fortunately, I have AppleMusic and Spotify and was able to pause in my writing to give it a listen. This version of I Love Rock And Roll, while containing the elements that would make Joan Jett’s version so great, in general falls flat. Arrow never allows the sparser portions of the song get quiet enough and fall far short of the vocal assault Jett provides on her recording.
In 1982, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts took this song into the studio and left with one of the greatest rock and roll anthems of all time. Jett and her band deliver the song with power, energy and raw enthusiasm. Joan Jett’s I Love Rock And Roll isn’t just a great cover song, it’s a definite member of the list of the all time greatest rock and roll songs.
I Will Survive By Cake
I Will Survive was first released by American singer Gloria Gaynor in 1978 and received the Grammy Award for best disco song of the year. Unlike most disco songs, though, Gaynor sings without backing vocals and uses few studio effects in the original. Gaynor sings with great strength in this anthem of surviving a failed relationship and proudly boasts that she will carry on without the person to whom she is singing. While I’m not a huge fan of the disco genre, this is one of the songs that transcend stereotypes and I enjoy it a lot.
Then, in 1996, a band called Cake covered I Will Survive on their album Fashion Nugget. Cake transformed the song from one of strength and individual resolve to a sad rock ballad sung by a man who finds an ex-girlfriend in his home. In the Cake version, when the vocalist sings, “I should have changed the fucking lock, I’d have made you leave your key, if I’d have known for just one second you’d be back to bother me…” he’s not speaking from a position of strength displayed by Gaynor in her disco version but, rather, the protagonist of the Cake version has found a stalker in his home and simply hopes the woman will just go away. These two versions couldn’t be more different and I hope readers listen to both as I think you’ll enjoy them separately and together.
Bohemian Rhapsody By William Shatner
In addition to containing some of Brian May’s terrific guitar work, Bohemian Rhapsody shows off Freddy Mercury’s amazing vocal range and the band’s terrific skills at producing songs with a big sound. Live and recorded, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is always a crowd pleaser.
Years ago, shortly after Freddy Mercury died and Queen disbanded, I went to the old Boston Garden with some friends o see the band Guns and Roses. Queen’s guitarist had started a solo act called The Brian May Band and I had the unfortunate coincidence of being one of the very few people who ever got to see them perform as they opened up for GNR that night. May’s act was a mix of traditional rock and roll cover songs and a lot of songs by Queen. I don’t recall who sang Bohemian Rhapsody in May’s band that night but I can say that it was the worst version of the song I’ve ever heard. The Boston Garden audience, probably out of respect for Brian’s great work in Queen, didn’t boo or jeer but, fairly quietly, wandered out of the arena and got on line for more beer or in the queue for the restrooms.
Simply put, Bohemian Rhapsody is a very hard song to cover. The combination of Freddy’s tremendous vocal range added to May’s terrific guitar playing makes this one of the most difficult of the great rock and roll songs to play. But, one version, that by William Shatner is both so awful and so wonderful at once that it deserves a mention on this list of my all time favorite covers.
Shatner, known for playing Captain Kirk on Star Trek among other things in his long career as an actor, is not known for his singing. His version of Bohemian Rhapsody is, rather than sung, more recited rhythmically. Shatner changes mood and occasionally shouts and, in a version dripping with irony, he delivers a version well worth a listen, if only for a laugh.
Satisfaction By Devo
Back in the early days of what would later be called “punk” and/or “new wave” music, I lived in Lower Manhattan and went out to clubs like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, A7, Mudd Club, Ritz, Irving Plaza, Danceteria and many other hot spots that featured new music on a near nightly basis. Thus, by a coincidence of timing and geography, I got to see a lot of great acts perform live in their formative years. One band, however, that slipped through without my getting to see them play in a small venue was Devo whom I would first see, along with millions of others, for the first time when they performed on Saturday Night Live. Devo did their version of the Rolling Stones Satisfaction and the following day, I ran out and bought their debut album and would see them perform live a number of times since.
The original Rolling Stones Satisfaction features an iconic guitar riff played by Keith Richard that is so memorable that many can identify the song by the second note he plays. The vocals are pure Mick Jagger, smooth and cool while rocking and aggressive. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Satisfaction is a simple, straight ahead 4/4 rock and roll song based in a simple riff that even beginner guitar players can learn to master. Satisfaction, therefore, is also one of the most covered songs in the history of rock and roll with nearly every junior high dance band including a version at nearly every dance for more than five decades.
The Devo version stands out as special in that, following the band’s philosophy of human de-evolution, they perform a deconstructed version of the song. Instead of Keith Richard’s sustained guitar line, the Devo version is played in staccato bursts and, where Mick Jagger sounded smooth and cool, the Devo singer goes choppy and nearly robotic in his interpretation. The Rolling Stones version is obvious in its raw sexuality; Devo plays it stark and removes any double entendre from the lyric.
Both the original version and the Devo cover are well worth a listen as they are so very different while both being really good rock and roll songs.
This is by no means a definitive list of every great rock and roll cover song but it’s a bunch of them that I personally enjoy for a variety of reasons and hope you may enjoy them as well. It’s early August, I didn’t feel like writing a serious blog article about technology, accessibility or any of the more challenging subjects I usually discuss here. I thought a piece about cover songs would be fun, I enjoyed writing it and hope you enjoyed reading it as well.
As this is by no means a complete list of great rock and roll cover songs, I’d very much enjoy hearing your favorites so please post them in the comments section below.