Whether you love or hate them, covers of popular songs are part of the lifeblood of the record industry. It’s a means of keeping relevant music alive through the generations, updating the sound of classic compositions (which sometimes goes horribly wrong – ever heard Nothing Else Matters covered by Biff Naked? Terrible.) and they serve as a means of introducing older hits to new audiences. It’s also a way for record companies to keep making money off of crap that should’ve met the same fate as bio-hazardous waste from liposuction clinics and spoon-feeding the masses pablum – ‘musical product’ that neither contributes to the cultural makeup nor advances music as an art form.
Personally, I have a secret love of cover songs, particularly the genre-jumpers. Some of the better examples I’ve heard are Tori Amos‘ so-goddamn-creepy cover of Eminem’s 98 Bonnie & Clyde, The Gourds’ hickabilly cover of Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice, and A Perfect Circle’s ironic re-up of John Lennon’s Imagine.
Artists have even made whole careers of playing covers: lounge lizard Richard Cheese, who covers genres from rap to rock; Hayseed Dixie (whose name is a parody adaptation of AC/DC), who perform ‘rockgrass’ covers from artists like AC/DC, Ted Nugent and Queen; Beatallica, who cover Beatles songs as if played by Metallica; Dread Zeppelin, who cover Led Zeppelin tunes in a reggae style with an Elvis Presley impersonator on lead vocals; and most notably, the king of oddball covers, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic.
So for your listening and viewing pleasure, I present to you, in no particular order, a selection of some of the more notable examples of cover songs.
Hurt – Johnny Cash
Anyone who doesn’t know who Johnny Cash has either been in a coma for the past 50 years or has been in an asylum (or Afghanistan). Either way, they’re people who get crossed off my list of “People With Whom To Hang”, because not knowing who Johnny Cash is is like not knowing about salt.
Karma Police (feat. Citizen Cope) – Easy Star All-Stars
At first blush, the idea of taking beloved classic albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Radiohead’s OK Computer and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and drastically reworking them in dub reggae style seems to be a bad joke at best and the ultimate sacrilege at worst. After all, each of the three bands have their (sometimes rabidly) loyal fans and each of these albums was a benchmark of creativity, technical and production prowess and inventiveness and each set the tone of modern music for decades to come. So when Michael G and Ticklah decided to just that, they really had no idea of what they were setting out to do, nor the success that they would enjoy as a result of their efforts.
As it turns out, fans of all three groups had nothing to fear: the end result worked far better than anyone(including the ESAS) had a right to hope for or expect.
Check out their version of Karma Police, with vocals by Citizen Cope.
We Don’t Need Another Hero – Northern Kings
An interesting facet about the culture of the Nordic states is that they really get into their Viking roots. I mean, really get into them. Take the Northern Kings, for example.
Hailing from Finland, these guys look like they should be swinging giant battle axes or brandishing two-handed swords in each hand, wearing a Thor-style horned helm, a wolf-skin loincloth and boots and howling at Freyja ( Yes, I realize that Freyja is a Nordic, not Finnish, god; allow me my allusions). Instead, they sing epic, manly, hairy-chested versions of hits from the 80’s and 90’s while wearing tophats with their braided beards.
Proving my long-held belief that “metal makes everything better”, they create a new genre: symphonic metal karaoke. This vid is a weird cross of Phantom of the Opera, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Van Helsing and Metalocalypse, all on mushrooms.
Don’t believe me? Watch it and see for yourself.
Cake – I Will Survive
Cake burst upon the scene in the 90’s with their sophomore effort, art house sound and single, ” target=”_blank”>The Distance, and rocked the alternative scene. On that same album, they brought out their cover this track, first recorded by Gloria Gaynor. Stripped down and bare, recorded decidedly lo-fi, dry as a sun-bleached skull and tossed off as casually as zipping your fly, Cake’s version blew the song up all over again and cemented Cake as part of the cultural landscape for the following decade despite the pasting critics gave them in press.
Incidentally, it happens to be Gaynor’s least favorite version due to John McRae’s alteration of the lyric, “I should have changed that stupid lock” to “I should have changed my fucking lock.”
No offense, Ms. Gaynor, but get over it; it’s not even your song, so getting bent about a change in the lyrics isn’t really your purview. I’ll bet the original composers Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren are pleased as punch to be getting wads of green as a result.
Fade to Black – Igor Presnyakov
I know. Your first reaction to this guy’s name is “Who?”
After you watch this vid and listen to his cover of this early Metallica track, you won’t soon forget IggyPres.
One – Apocalyptica
What is is about Finland and combining metal and classical music? I really have no idea, but whatever it is, I hope that it’s a trend that will continue for a long time to come. There’s some strange element in metal’s most brutal compositions that translates very well to being played on classical instruments. Is it the structure? The energy? The raw, driving passion and power? Or some other intangible that lends itself to the translation of metal on cellos?
I have no idea. Whatever it may be, there’s little doubt in my mind that Apocalyptica have nailed whatever it is on the head. Keep it up, gents, and may the Lords of Metal continue to smile down upon thee and grant thee safe passage to Valhalla.
The Saga Begins – Weird Al Yankovic
Of course, no list of cover songs would be complete without including the king of oddball covers, Weird Al Yankovic.
An institution unto himself, Weird Al made his name by appearing on Dr. Demento’s radio show playing Another One Rides the Bus (a parody of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust). From that moment on, Weird Al gradually became a household name and established a solid foothold in an arena that is filled with one-hit-wonders. I mean, really, who hasn’t heard Amish Paradise (a cover of Coolio’s Gansgta’s Paradise)?
And if you haven’t, what rock have you been hiding under for the last 20 years?
Beat It (Chinese Red Army video remix) – Michael Jackson
It’s not actually a remix: it’s an incredible video mashup that I think definitely qualifies as a video cover. It makes me laugh every time I see it, and it also reminds me of how gifted MJ was, rumors and allegations of whatever else he may have been aside. This song is still fresh and still rocks, even 28 years after its original release.