10 Obscure Covers Better Than The Originals
When you’re not using it to try and keep up with the world’s continuous flailing lurches towards a preposterous and avoidable end, Twitter can be kind of fun!
For example, you could get a bunch of your friends to try and convince Weezer to cover Toto’s “Africa,” which is something I solemnly swear to never write a Gotcha Covered column about in any way, shape or form, in case you were wondering, on account of me not liking Weezer very much (sorry) (but not that sorry).
Or you can get all your music-geek friends to think over some of the big questions that tend to come up every so often, such as this suggestion from the New York Daily News’ Josh Greenman:
I usually have a bunch of these in the chamber at any given time, ranging from the obvious (Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” towers high above every other Bacharach cover combined) to the meta (“Testify,” my favorite Parliament cover, is a cover of a Parliaments song) to the underrated (Chaka Khan & Rufus thoroughly snatching “You’re Welcome, Stop On By” from Bobby Womack) to goofy (the Beastie Boys turning Billy Joel’s “Big Shot” into manic hardcore).
But there’s more to this category than just the usual suspects — Hendrix doing Dylan, Nirvana doing Leadbelly, Prince and a few other guys who weren’t Prince doing the Beatles. This, I figure, is a good opportunity to point out 10 cover versions I like more than the originals that aren’t nearly as famous as the songs they covered, and might have been overlooked either upon release or in retrospect. I like most of these originals a lot, but these selections take everything I like about a song and drastically amplify it, change it, or otherwise highlight it in ways I wouldn’t have thought to hear in their more famous forms.
Sandy Bull, “Memphis, Tennessee” (1965)
If it had strings, Sandy Bull could play it — better yet, he could transform it. Bull was a musician whose ability to blend folk roots, jazz virtuosity, and a profound apathy towards the divide between popular and classical music made him a progenitor for psychedelic styles across the board, and his 1965 album Inventions might be his best. The full title of the album, Inventions For Guitar, Banjo, Oud, Electric Guitar And Electric Bass, is just the first sign that it’s an ambitious record — the more profound moments come from sidelong folk/jazz/Eastern excursion “Blend II,” the paired electric and acoustic versions of selections from Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 5,” and a sparse-yet-expressive version of Luiz Bonfá’s Black Orpheus soundtrack selection “Manha De Carnival.” But it’s the way Bull explores another guitarist’s work — namely Chuck Berry’s — that goes the extra mile.
“Memphis, Tennessee” was then recent enough to feel still popular — Johnny Rivers hit #2 with his version in 1964 — but old enough to be as famous for its influence as its initial impact. Bull turns the 1959 single into an instrumental meditation on where Berry took his chords, blurring the lines between the melodies he’d written for guitar and the ones he’d composed for his voice, and finding every possible place he could take them — all of them given this extra layer of otherworldliness thanks to some almost oversaturated reverb. This might not have been the first example of psychedelic rock, per se, but it’s hard to find a more clear and distinct early blueprint for what psychedelic rock actually meant: a way to take the familiar components of rock ‘n’ roll and make them stretch out into surprising new forms.
Chants R&B, “I’m Your Witchdoctor” (1966)
It’s funny to think that a blues-rock song that involved both Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page (albeit as a producer) could be so handily outdone as an exhibition of ferocious guitar wailing, but here we are. John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers cut “I’m Your Witchdoctor” for a single ahead of their 1966 LP Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton, and it’s a funny kind of outlier in that Clapton’s performance is an almost entirely rhythmic one — his solo’s more famous for the fact that he plays a sustained note on a Les Paul through a Marshall amp that popularized the kind of overdriven sound that blues-rock and hard rock bands would spend the rest of the decade chasing.
But it took a band out of New Zealand to make it actually shred: Christchurch’s Chants R&B briefly took Melbourne by storm when their lead guitarist Max Kelly — who had deserted the Australian Air Force — had to head back to Australia to face charges. The rest of the band migrated along with him, and hearing how he plays on this version, it’s easy to imagine them following him all the way to hell: His entire performance in this song, the A-side of one of two studio singles Chants R&B ever released, is rock’s best unspoken endorsement for the power of amphetamines until the heyday of Motörhead — and even the version they released 11 years later feels restrained by comparison.
The Pointer Sisters, “Wang Dang Doodle” (1973)
Willie Dixon wrote it, Howlin’ Wolf christened it, and Koko Taylor made it a hit, but there’s something about the way the Pointer Sisters did “Wang Dang Doodle” that just made sparks fly off it. The closer to the self-titled debut that opened with their fantastic take on Lee Dorsey’s “Yes We Can Can,” “Wang Dang Doodle” is the door-slamming, foot-stomping bookend to an LP that established the Pointer Sisters as a band that could hang with both the past and the future’s notions of rhythm & blues.
And this one just goes: with a raucous, bass-heavy strut provided by the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils as their backing band, the Sisters thoroughly, almost theatrically bring the whole scene to life. You get the notion that they not only know who Automatic Slim and Butcher Knife-Totin’ Annie are, but that they’ve gotten drunk with them, owed each other money, and done some things together they’ve sworn to never bring up again. And as amazing as the song sounds in the hands of those aforementioned blues greats, this is the version where the chorus is a chorus, all those voices driving home an atmosphere where the idea of throwing a party this wild actually sounds as big as it feels.
Eddie Hazel, “California Dreamin'” (1977)
Game, Dames And Guitar Thangs is Eddie Hazel’s only solo album — though given the personnel, it’s more like a P-Funk album with Hazel as the frontman — and it earned such a fervent cult following for both its spectacular virtuosity and its under-pressed rarity that an episode of Homicide: Life On The Street used the accidental destruction of a copy as the motive for a murder.
That rep as a funk-connoisseur favorite was likely sealed in its first six-and-change minutes with this take on the Mamas & the Papas hit, which got Bootsy, Bernie, Bigfoot, and the Brides Of Funkenstein to radically transform a ’60s folk-rock standard into a state of funk without limits. Hazel’s an able singer, but it’s his guitar that pushes this into another plane of cosmic amazement, as though he’s looking at the West Coast not from the winter landscape of New York but the cold void of space. This is the California you dream about when you’re one of the world’s greatest guitarists and your most recent formative experience of the state came through the prison yard at Lompoc serving time for possession.
Cristina, “Is That All There Is?” (1980)
Peggy Lee’s version of one of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s last big hit songwriting credits is its own weird little corner of pop culture — orchestrally arranged and conducted by a then-still-obscure Randy Newman; used to delirious effect in the climax of Martin Scorsese’s Kafka-goes-to-SoHo classic After Hours; cited as a relatable favorite song in a moment of either rare self-awareness or irony-deficient obliviousness by President Brainworms. All that, and it got even weirder when No Wave singer Cristina Monet-Palaci got her hands around its neck.
Produced as a single by August Darnell of Latin disco-swing greats Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Cristina’s “Is That All There Is?” took the aloof ragtime arrangement and replaced it with a slapstick, herky-jerk reggae-punk lurch where even the saxophone sounded drunk. Glib, snotty, jaded, and altogether above-it-all, Cristina herself gives a masterclass in vocal eye roll, and scandalously changes the lyrics in ways both subtle (the house fire in the original first verse turns out to be caused by her mother — “she was like that”) and major (the verse about the circus is replaced with an entirely new one about going to a disco).
This got her in trouble with Lieber & Stoller themselves, who apparently weren’t too thrilled with the song’s references to gay clubbers, BDSM, and Quaaludes. Cristina was disappointed but understanding, and her justifications were at the very least scholarly (“I was exploring narrative, a conversational approach that might last have been heard in the clubs of Montparnasse, you know, Paris in the late 1950s,” she told the Boston Globe in 1980). Her music career sadly didn’t last that much further into the decade — 1984’s Don Was-produced Sleep It Off was enjoyably wiseassed new wave that didn’t catch on with the record-buying public — so is that all there is to pop stardom?
Redd Kross, “Deuce” (1984)
What if KISS weren’t a massive multi-million dollar rock band/brand/conglomerate/money toilet? What if they were a bunch of dopey kids banging out dirtbag garage rock? What if you could listen to their dumb-but-hooky songs without requiring yourself to validate Gene Simmons any further than he already validates himself? 1984 gave us at least a couple answers to this question, and while my Twin Cities bias leads me to lean towards the Replacements’ “Black Diamond” as the ne plus ultra of Kisspunk, I can never entirely commit to that position 100% thanks to Redd Kross sledehammering the absolute dogshit out of “Deuce.”
The noisiest cut from their ’84 covers EP Teen Babes From Monsanto makes the already caveman-stupid lyrics (“Get up and get your grandma outta here”? “Do the things he says to do”?) so obvious it’s almost — almost — ironic, as though they’re really just playing the song for its pure oomph and the whole Homer Simpson “we’re gettin’ some drive-thru, then we’re doing it twice” method of Pleasing Your Man is just along for the ride. In other words, the McDonald brothers sing like the lyrics don’t actually mean anything at all, and all the meaning is in the riffage. Which it is, and damn if they don’t get real profound with it, so to speak.
Olde Scottish, “Wild Style (The Krush Handshake)” (1994)
Alongside the 1983 documentary Style Wars, Charlie Ahearn’s docudrama Wild Style is the definitive film about hip-hop in its waning old-school years, right before breakdancing became a full-fledged Cannon Films fad and Run-D.M.C. radically transformed what rap groups actually sounded like.
And among all its noteworthy musical moments — a scratch exhibition by Grandmaster Flash, the Fantastic Freaks/Cold Crush Brothers/Grand Wizard Theodore show in the South Bronx’s Club Dixie, the climactic show at the East River Amphitheater — one of its signature aspects is the recurring punk-funk score written by Blondie guitarist Chris Stein and hip-hop/art gallery superscenester Fab 5 Freddy, maybe the best work ever put out as a direct result of the uptown-meets-downtown confluence of the early ’80s. When Scottish trip-hop producer Howie B. covered it, though, he took a brief piece of film score and got a tight band of acid-jazz lifers to extrapolate it into a fierce funk workout complete with scratching from cult hero yakuza-turned-turntablist DJ Krush.
Acid King, “The Stake” (2006)
Small Stone Records’ Sucking The ’70s cover compilation series isn’t the deepest listen: If you like your hard rock sludgy, you’ll at least get something of a kick hearing stoner metal bands like Clutch and Orange Goblin powerfully slog through old AOR jams and the occasional punk outlier. Little of it is genuinely surprising, but when you get a track that really knocks its source material for a 180, that makes it that much more of a geek-out moment.
And that’s why Steve Miller Band’s fogged-up blooze-rawk Book Of Dreams cut “The Stake” sounds so fantastic in the hands of San Francisco-rooted doom metallers Acid King: Where Miller sounded laconic and carefree, guitarist/singer/messenger of Hell Lori S. really drives home just how oppressive the implied heat of the lyrics can really feel (“Burnin’, burnin’, all you can take”), and “nobody loves you like the way I do” sounds as much like a supernova-level threat as it does a statement of affection. And if you like your guitars to sound like Fury Road-retrofitted vintage industrial fire-spewing matte-black monstrosities, all the better.
Dam-Funk, “Things That Dreams Are Made Of” (2010)
The Human League’s Dare is easily one of the greatest synthpop albums ever recorded, and yet the funny thing is that I’ve never been able to hear its opening salvo the same way ever since Dam-Funk got ahold of it. It’s a great fit — the George Duke/Edgar Froese/Junie Morrison of modern boogie funk is only a strange candidate to one-up Phil Oakey if you purge all notions of Dirty Mind and “Sharevari” out of your head.
And while Dam’s got a bit of a technological advantage over the 30-years-previous equipment the Human League used, the fact that he kneads out all the stiffness and makes the whole thing sound slipperier and fuller — there’s honest-to-god low end in the song as he does it — makes it far more than just a simple patch update. Too bad everything else in the music video winds up terrifyingly malfunctioning, but what can you do.
Glass Candy, “Rise” (2014)
There was always something vaguely mournful and intangibly lonely underneath Herb Alpert’s otherwise satiny-smooth hit “Rise,” a #1 hit in ’79 that earned a queasy place in pop culture when General Hospital used it to score an infamous sexual assault scene. Even “Hypnotize” reclaiming it as a party-ready club anthem cast a cloud over it once Biggie was shot and killed a week after its release.
So Johnny Jewel didn’t have to do much to infuse it with Glass Candy’s own characteristic sense of wistful Italo/synthpop ennui — what we wound up with instead was a shift in the mode of it, Stevie-meets-Vangelis keyboards echoing into the emptiest night ever as every other piece of the original composition from its slinky bassline to its famous trumpet is run through neo-noir synthesizers for goth uprockers. Forget Luke and Laura — this is a love theme for Swan and Mercy.