To most fans of particular songs, hearing them covered by another artist is usually an unpleasant experience. However, there are sometimes exceptions to this, where even the most diehard believer has to admit, albeit grudgingly, that someone has done it better. Here are a few examples of that, with songs that I always liked, sometimes loved, and learned to love all over again, by someone else.
Friday On My Mind. This was a 1966 song, by the Australian group, the Easybeats. They were obviously influenced by the Beatles, yet managed to produce a fresh sound, well-produced, and having an international feel. It sounded as if it could have come from Britain, or America, and managed to become a top ten hit all over the world. In 1973, David Bowie released an album of tribute covers, called Pin Ups, and included this track. He did not mess around too much with the arrangement, and his distinctive voice was just what was needed, taking the song to another level.
If You Don’t Know Me By Now. Philadelphia based soul group, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, had a significant hit with this song, which they released in 1972. It seemed to suit their somewhat dated style, of harmonic backing singers, with a deep-voiced lead. In 1989, the English band Simply Red, fronted by the singer Mick Hucknall, released the album ‘A New Flame’, containing a cover version of this song. At first, I was outraged that he had seen fit to cover this classic. As a ‘soul boy’, I rushed to defend the Harold Melvin version, proclaiming it superior in every way. Soon after, having listened more closely to the Simply Red version, I had to eat my words, and take it all back. Love him, or hate him, Hucknall can really sing, and he sings this better than Harold did.
Valerie. I quite liked the Zutons. As an English Indie rock band, sounding vaguely American, they were good to listen to, and wrote some nice songs. One of these, and my favourite, was ‘Valerie’, a catchy, innocuous pop song, with easy lyrics, and a good chorus. Unfortunately for them, but very fortunately for me, this song was covered, just a year later, by Amy Winehouse on vocal, with the talented Mark Ronson supplying all the rest. That was that, the Zutons were history, and the marvellous voice of Amy blew me, and the song, completely away. No contest.
I know that some of you don’t like Elvis Costello, but I am going to have to upset you by including not one, but two of his superior covers of earlier versions. Here I go.
She. I was never a great fan of Charles Aznavour as a singer, at least in English. His wavering, trilling voice was better suited to his own French language. However, his recording of this song, which he co-wrote, was a massive hit in the UK, reaching number one in the charts in 1974. I considered it somewhat cheesy and trite then, and thought little more of it. Until 1999 that is, when it was recorded by Elvis Costello, for the film ‘Notting Hill’. Suddenly, it was a different song. Unchanged, very familiar, yet so much better, incredibly so. Costello’s voice lends tragedy to the song, and imbues it with a timeless, torch song quality that is truly haunting.
Shipbuilding. This political song was written by Elvis Costello, but released as a single first by Robert Wyatt, former member of the progressive rock band, Soft Machine. Wyatt had been paralysed after a fall, and sung the song from a wheelchair. His plaintive tones gave the song a childlike feel, and his appearance, crumpled in his chair, added to the poignancy of the whole performance. I thought that it was an incredibly effective single, and bought it immediately. Shortly after, Elvis Costello recorded his own version, with a solo from Chet Baker on trumpet. This took everything to where it should always have been, and sadly, Wyatt’s version paled by comparison.
Nothing Compares 2 U (sic). Originally written by Prince, and recorded during one of his ‘offshoot’ projects, The Family, in 1985 , this song gained worldwide recognition, not for Prince, but for Sinead O’Connor, whose cover version was released in 1990. Alongside one of the most effective pop videos ever filmed, a work of art in itself, this wonderful song was the perfect vehicle for O’Connor’s impeccable voice. Even as a die hard Prince fan, I have to say that her version is streets ahead of the original.
You got the love. In 2009, Florence Welch, the extremely talented English singer, released an album entitled ‘Lungs’, under her group name, Florence and the Machine. This contained numerous excellent tracks, original compositions of outstanding quality. Despite this, it was her cover version of this 1986 Candi Staton song, that stood out from all the rest, and rapidly became associated with her, rather than with Ms Staton. I think that this is probably the best ever cover of any song to date. It sticks closely to the original, but the quality of the vocal performance, and the sheer power of Florence Welch’s voice, just sweep you away. It will succeed in doing that rare thing, completely overwhelming the original, until only this version will be remembered.
Jealous Guy. This might prove controversial. I was never a great follower of the Beatles, but when John Lennon became a solo artist, I did really like this song. As soon as you heard it, you immediately knew that it would be an all-time classic. I was able to forgive the various pretentious musings of Lennon and Ono, and their publicity-seeking antics. I felt irked by them at the time, as I was young. Now mellowed by age, it doesn’t seem such a big deal. However, at the risk of offending all his fans, I do actually prefer another version of this song. In 1981, Lennon was murdered in New york. Later that year, Roxy Music, with front man and lead singer Bryan Ferry, released their version of Jealous Guy, as a tribute. I preferred it on first hearing, and still feel that it suits Ferry’s voice perfectly. Sorry John.
So, eight cover versions, that for me, are better than the originals. I will someday do another list, of covers far inferior to the first offerings. I expect you all have your own favourites too, and may well choose to disagree with my choices. That is the great thing about blogging. Feel free to comment, and to offer your own suggestions.