There’s a paradox with some artists — the legends who stand apart from so much of pop music history in such a way that would seemingly make their music untouchable. Nina Simone is one of those artists. Her influence is vast, and her voice is so distinctive that it’d seem impossible to have her music rendered in any context outside her own body of work. In Simone, you have an enigmatic and complicated artist with a stunning, idiosyncratic voice. On one hand, maybe that counterintuitively opens up her music. There’s no real way to approach it directly, to try perform it just like she did. Rather, there’s a way you could interpret Simone’s music as a blank canvas; you might reference her work but still need to manipulate the music to fit within your own personal aesthetic. You can’t quite get away with a straight reading of a Nina Simone song (though that’s not to say some of the artists on this list didn’t try). Simone’s voice should make her music wildly intimidating to approach. And yet, her career yielded several standards that have been covered over and over.
Within the rock and indie sphere, the song that looms over pretty much everything else has to be “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a track written by Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell, and Sol Marcus that’s been covered consistently since its release, by a vast array of artists. In 1965, just a year after Simone released her version, the Animals cut their own. It lives on as one of their most recognizable songs; and, as you’ll see with some of the covers below, the Animals’ version sometimes eclipses Simone’s original, as it became the template for most of the notable covers of the song. Fifty years later, people are still covering it — Lana Del Rey’s new album, Honeymoon, closes with her interpretation of the song, which in hindsight feels like an inevitable inclusion in her career. It was just a matter of time until it occurred. On the occasion of LDR’s new version, we’ve compiled a list of notable or curious covers of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” As it goes with these lists, the results are all over the place: from solidly run-of-the-mill, to disappointing, to batshit strange, to so good they’ll level you.
The “Archetype” Award – The Animals
Throughout his career, Eric Burdon’s never really let go of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” offering up different arrangements and recordings of it repeatedly in the five decades since he originally covered it when he was still in the Animals. The Animals’ version of the song is one of those weird cover situations, the kind where it’s one of their own best and most iconic songs, but was also enough of a hit that its prominence might sometimes outstrip that of Simone’s original. As you’ll see by the list that follows after these Burdon selections, it’s common that many artists covering “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” seem to have known it from the Animals’ version, or at the very least play it in more of the Animals’ style. Besides the quicker tempo and rock arrangement, the key element there is the organ and guitar intro, an expansion on an idea briefly glimpsed toward the end of Simone’s original. Covering the song only a year after Simone released it, the Animals were the first to put their own stamp on it, and they created the archetype that most artists would follow when offering up their own versions of the song. They were the ones who made it a hit. This is its own classic.
The “Generation Landslide” Award – Eric Burdon’s 1974 Solo Rendition
Nine years after the Animals’ released their famous single, Burdon cut “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” for his 1974 album Sun Secrets. And, well, it sounds like Burdon had discovered some new drugs and/or Led Zeppelin in the ensuing near-decade. Where the Animals’ version was a taut, two-and-a-half-minute pop rendition of the track, Burdon’s solo version stretched to eight and a half minutes, sprawling out into a final two minutes full of echo-laden screams from Burdon. The different versions, taken together, could sum up the difference between 1965 and 1974. The Animals’ version is a great bit of ’60s pop. The Sun Secrets version is excessive in a kind of frayed and fried way, a harder and more freaked-out reading of the song that captures the sound of the ’60s bursting and tumbling into the dejection and decadence of the ’70s. There’s something darkly indulgent — almost lurid-sounding — about this version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” making it one of the more unique covers of the song, and one of the more worthwhile ones to revisit.
The “Spinning Off The Face Of The Planet” Award – Eric Burdon’s Reggae Madness Circa 1990
I recently had a conversation with some friends where we tried to figure out what ’60s artists — particularly classic rock artists — made it out of the ’80s alive. That is, those who didn’t make embarrassing albums futilely trying to adapt to the sounds of the era, those who didn’t start rehashing their past — if there were any who really came through the ’80s and ’90s without too many valleys in their career, who actually put out music that was critically well-liked and maybe, even, still relevant. It’s hard to come up with the names. Not that I’m overly familiar with Burdon’s ’80s work, but, man, this performance from 1990 is exactly what I’m talking about with the depressing developments of the ’60s greats by the time they hit their 20- or 25-year mark. Here’s Burdon, starting to age really quickly, singing some version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” with a vaguely reggae rhythm and cheesy guitar tones, on the beach, to what looks like a crowd assembled for some local radio show. It’s not the most inspiring image of the legacy of the ’60s, and the song’s rearrangement is pretty whatever — Burdon does his thing still, but at this point it’s easy to feel like his reinterpretations are starting to run their course.
The “All Right, We Get It” Award – Eric Burdon With Jenny Lewis
As many years have passed between that unfortunate vision of Burdon on the beach as had passed between that moment and the original release of the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” in 1965. So that means we have 25 years more of Burdon and the song, though it’s mostly been small variations to the long live version. But, naturally, when he and Jenny Lewis got together to record something for True Blood — a show which had become able to garner ever higher-profile artists, including match-ups between the old guard and newer talent — of course they gave “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” another go. There’s a lot of touches and textures unique to this take on the song: the warped electronic beat in the outro, or the way the piano part is re-contextualized as some kind of horror-movie soundtrack, a few mournful guitar lines. Still, there’s a feeling like these are modulations to keep it fresh, with new ideas thrown in just to give the sense of new ideas being thrown in. After five decades with the song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is something Burdon thoroughly owns, but that’s probably better heard in him singing the song onstage. There doesn’t seem to be anything new for him to glean in the studio from the bones of the song itself.
The “#truedetectiveseason3″ Award – Elvis Costello
In the wake of True Detective’s second season, the speculation has been a little less fervent about what’s next — the hashtag proliferation more of a flicker than a wildfire — compared to the feverish mood after Season 1. That being said, Elvis Costello’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” took me back to some version of the show’s world, in a “vague excitement about what could come next” kind of way. Think this season’s dream sequence, the one set in some kind of purgatory in Ray’s perennial watering hole, soundtracked by a Lynchian performance of Conway Twitty’s “The Rose.” Something like that, with Costello’s rendition simmering in a smoky, seedy lounge someplace.
The “Obligatory Tori Amos” Award – Cyndi Lauper
Whenever we do one of these lists, inevitably there will be a cover that’s primarily some stripped-down, piano-based, emotionally raw performance. It’s the Tori Amos archetype, and usually Tori Amos has covered the song. Tori Amos, however, has apparently not covered “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” so this time around, we have an honorary recipient of the “Obligatory Tori Amos” Award with Cyndi Lauper’s rendition from her 2003 covers album, At Last. As it goes, it’s that straightforward piano arrangement, the kind of cover that sort of bludgeons you with the idea that it’s nakedly emotive. Lauper’s version isn’t bad by any means, but it isn’t so imaginative. It’s hard not to wonder what kind of synth-drenched version she could’ve offered up in her ’80s peak.
The “Most Likely To Succeed” Award – John Legend
The “Most Likely To Succeed” Award is something that goes to a safe bet, something predictable and unsurprising. It’s the kid who’s already playing the stock market in high school and goes on to work in finance just like you expected. That’s John Legend, ever the talent in a calm and pseudo-anonymous way, covering “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” in the early ’00s, sounding exactly like you thought he would. Which is to say: There is nothing revelatory about Legend’s reading of the classic track, but it definitely possesses an irritating brand of competence.
The “Mickey Mouse Club” Award – The Killers
It’s nice to see the kids taking a shot at a Nina Simone song, considering the lengthy history of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is so rooted in the classic rock years. Then again, Brandon Flowers does introduce it as an Animals song, which is definitely something Brandon Flowers would do. On some level, fair enough — the Animals’ cover of the song is one of their iconic tracks, and their version is more the template for many of the other covers (including this one) than Simone’s original. Still, there’s something about this performance that lines up with Flowers’ and co.’s tendency to run rampant with earnest-yet-cartoonish interpretations of their forebears, whether it’s the watered-down Springsteen signifiers on Sam’s Town, or the fact that here they are playing “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (an Animals song) with Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother, a walking embodiment of nostalgia for the early ’70s. It really just seals the deal when Flowers appears to bellow “Stronger than dirt!” at the end, the same nonsensical blurt offered up by the Doors at the end of “Touch Me.”
The “I Have Nothing Snarky To Say About This One” Award – Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens
Yusuf Islam fka Cat Stevens’ version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came around in 2006, when he released the album An Other Cup, his first foray into Western pop music since the late ’70s. The arrangement isn’t the most invigorating, primarily built on a stately string figure that sounds surprisingly cheap and/or fake in places. But, look: This is a standard that’s been done to death, and Islam doing this song at this particular point in his career — after, for example, being denied entry into the United States a few years after 9/11 — has a lot more resonance than a lineage of more straightforward covers of the song.
The “What The Shit” Award – The Guy From Shinedown
There’s a whole array of awards reserved for when nü-metal acts cover songs way out of their league, because it’s a safe bet that it’s going to come up every single goddamn time you have a song that’s been covered as much as “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Usually, I’d go with the “Good God, How Did We Let This Happen” Award for our friend Brent Smith of Shinedown, who provided a cover of the track for Birdman last year, but that award’s been reserved for someone else, so here we have a brand-new award, minted for the perversion of nü-rock coming into direct contact with the legacy of Nina Simone. A year later, this is what’s happening. Who oversaw this shit? And for critical darling Birdman? Seriously, letting the guy from Shinedown sing Nina Simone is something that’s just going to slide these days? To be fair, the small bit of Smith’s cover that’s audible in the movie’s trailer doesn’t sound like a complete trainwreck, but it’s hard to really judge without knowing whether a bunch of awful guitars are about to come squealing in. The reason I don’t know what happens next is that this song is not available on iTunes or, seemingly on YouTube, so maybe someone involved in the movie saw the light and restored justice to the universe.
The “Perpetual Sunset” Award – Joe Cocker
Sure, there are plenty of uptempo, funk-inflected jams in Joe Cocker’s career. But his best stuff is probably the slowburn ballads that just flicker until he lets his voice loose on the chorus and makes the whole thing erupt. Situated right alongside his version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” on his album of the same name, Cocker’s rendition of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is an outlier in the pack. If you look at what else Cocker was prone to cover — the Beatles, Dylan — chances are he was looking at the Animals’ version of the track, but tonally his might be more akin to Simone’s than many of the other covers out there. It’s still a thoroughly ’60s rock reading, of course — even if it dispenses with the organ intro the Animals introduced into the equation, it does have a big organ solo section and that crying blues guitar intro. That intro, small as it is, is part of what makes Cocker’s version. It’s a touch that sets his version apart, and even if it’s a brief touch, it’s one that’s gorgeously and gently emotive.
The “Honorary Nina Simone Rap Sample” Award – Common
Normally, this wouldn’t count — Common’s “Misunderstood” is not a cover, but his own track built around samples of Simone’s original. Lil Wayne sampled it once, too, but this Common track uses the sample so well I’m making an exception for the list. Finding Forever was a solid-but-not-overwhelming follow up to Be, but “Misunderstood” was one of the highlights, and largely due to the way the track uses the Simone sample amidst a moody, faintly foreboding beat. It’s not as brilliant or intense as Kanye’s “Blood On The Leaves” turned out to be six years later, but, hey, the point is the same — Simone’s voice is immortal, and it can lend gravity to any song when it’s sampled well.
The “Quentin Tarantino Bonus Points” Award – Santa Esmeralda
In 1977, Santa Esmeralda had their own hit with a cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” this time a disco rendition with elements of Latin music and flamenco. While it’s one of the more well-known interpretations of the song, it’s also another outlier in the mix — you don’t find a lot of other versions of “Misunderstood” that are 10 minutes long, riding along on a disco beat embellished with Latin production touches, with that Animals riff rendered in big late-’70s strings and guitars. Still, let’s be honest: Today, the calling card for Santa Esmeralda’s version of the song is the fact that part of it soundtracked the climactic swordfight between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, which is way cooler than anything else about it.
The “Spiritual Successor” Award – Mary J. Blige
Of all the covers on this list, Mary J. Blige’s is perhaps the only one that has nothing to do with the Animals and the lineage their cover yielded. Recorded for a Nina Simone tribute, Blige’s rendition is a contemporary soul version that’s definitely looking toward those elements in Simone’s version, keeping the arrangement rooted in melancholic piano figures. It’s almost strange to hear it now, with the Animals having provided the blueprint for so many of the pop covers over the decades. But Blige’s does its own thing while calling back to the original essence and ethos of the song. With too many perfunctory run-throughs of the pop version perfected by the Animals, Blige’s contribution is an important one to the canon of “Misunderstood” covers, finally giving us another one that’s a little more meditative and emotional.
The “Internet Ephemera” Award – Chris Sedgwick & Ozzy Osbourne
This is the kind of detritus that makes YouTube and the digital era such bizarre things to experience. How would you have stumbled upon this oddity if not for the vast archives offered up by internet rabbit holes? Back in the ’70s, a dude named Chris Sedgwick enlisted his friend Ozzy Osbourne to sing backup on a rendition of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” And while Ozzy’s super-distinctive voice is obvious when it pops up, this is otherwise a pretty straightforward ’70s rock arrangement of the song. It’s tempting to wonder what Black Sabbath might’ve done with the track if they’d thrown their collective powers at it.
The “Imaginary Sabbath” Award – Pentagram
Well, since there isn’t a legit Black Sabbath version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” here’s Pentagram’s, which gives you an idea of what might’ve happened had Ozzy and co. actually covered the song back in their heyday. Of course, Pentagram are legendary on their own merits, and this version is thoroughly their own, too. While it takes the template laid out by the Animals and all the subsequent rock versions of the song, there are few other takes on “Misunderstood” that have the same heavy swagger as Pentagram’s.
The “Maybe Get The Sunset Over With Already” Award – Gov’t Mule
Well, here’s something different. Gov’t Mule’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” actually has roots in Joe Cocker’s arrangement, not the Animals’ or Simone’s. Theirs is that same blues-crawl sunset as Cocker’s, opening with that tearful guitar line. Still, uh, I’m not sure that this being 12 minutes does the thing any favors, especially when it’s just solo after solo and not necessarily built around any passages that give the song some sort of arc. I know this is the wrong band to be nitpicking about something like that, but “Misunderstood” is not a complex song — stretching it out like this risks spreading it a little too thin, reducing it to a consistent organ drone and drumbeat over which the players can do their thing as they would over any other track. It’s a well-played version, no doubt, and it’s cool to hear someone quoting Cocker’s version, but it doesn’t have the same investment as some of the other “Misunderstood” covers out there.
The “Good God, How Did We Let This Happen” Award – Zeds Dead
Some kind of purist would probably rail against the idea of Simone’s original being turned into any sort of electronic song. And, sure, it sounds like it’d be a hell of a challenge to pull that off right, but it’s something I’d be really interested in hearing achieved properly. Zeds Dead version is … not really that. There’s something about the remix that never quite comes together, like Simone’s vocal line is just piped in wherever, whenever, over a backing track that comes out of her song but could really have existed totally separate from the original “Misunderstood” vocal part. By the time you get to the big throbbing break, it sounds like there are a bunch of goals at play and none of them are really being reconciled. It’s a shame, too, because while this is interesting in concept, the end result comes off like a mess.
The “Rift In Time And Space” Award – Red Band
When I first stumbled upon this one, I didn’t know what the hell I was watching. Red Band, whom I knew nothing about besides the fact that I was watching a video of a bunch of puppets singing “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” seemed a surefire candidate for the “What The Shit” Award. Upon further investigation, turns out Red Band is an Israeli puppet cover band with a TV show, or something. There’s also “Paint It Black” and a performance of “Rockin’ In The Free World” that doesn’t end so well. Anyway, their version of “Misunderstood” is a pretty idiosyncratic arrangement compared to everything else on this list, but the whole vision of a purple puppet singing this is still very strange.
The “Stoned Immaculate” Award – The Moody Blues
It’s funny how much of a difference three years can make. In 1965, the Animals cut “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and it’s a jaunty piece of R&B-influenced ’60s pop. In 1968, we’ve got the Moody Blues playing it with a goddamn flute, the psychedelic vibes of the decade’s latter half in full swing even if we don’t have a bunch of zoned-out harpsichord or whatever. And the Moody Blues had jauntier versions of this song, too, but this particular performance approaches something different. The little textures, like flute or harmonies here and there, mixed with the old ’60s recording leads to a kind of lo-fi ethereal sound, setting this apart from other interpretations of “Misunderstood,” and situating it in the ’60s in a way above and beyond something like, say, Joe Cocker’s version.
The “Frayed ’60s Dream” Award – Lana Del Rey
News that Lana Del Rey was including a cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was the impetus for doing this list. It was news that seemed completely logical — historically and thematically, the song fits right into Lana’s overall persona, especially after the simmering humidity of last year’s Ultraviolence. And the resulting cover sounds about exactly as you would’ve predicted based on news that Lana Del Rey was covering “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Though it comes from her new album Honeymoon, her rendition of the song has the sort of smokily detached emotion that dominated Ultraviolence, the characteristic that made that record great. It fits nicely into where Lana excels: her burnt-out Pop Art take on Americana.