Paul Fitzpatrick: London, July 2021
From the Beatles to Bowie every great artist has recorded a cover version of someone else’s songs.
In many cases you won’t even know it’s a cover, it usually depends on your musical knowledge and whether you’ve heard the original before.
For instance, until recently I had no idea that Adele’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ was a Bob Dylan track and had previously been released by Billy Joel and Garth Brooks, well before Adele’s version attained over 200 million hits on streaming services.
Dylan’s song is now deemed to be a ‘Modern Standard’ and has been recorded by over 460 different artists, and all the while I thought it was an Adele original.
Nowadays of course I want to know every detail about the music I’m invested in, but when I was younger I couldn’t tell you if a song was a cover version or an original and to be honest it didn’t matter.
I loved Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da by the Marmalade and cared not that it was a cover and the Beatles version had come before it.
In the early 70s, Bowie with Pinups and Bryan Ferry with Those Foolish Things brought credibility to the concept of ‘cover albums’, sharing their musical influences and displaying their penchant for covers like a badge of honour.
The topic of cover versions came into my mind recently when I was listening to ‘California Dreaming’ by Bobby Womack.
I wondered how many people knew about this version and it got me thinking about my favourite ‘cover versions’ and how I categorise them.
So here’s a ‘not so deep-dive’ into the concept….
When you think the cover is the original:
I think the first time I was caught out like this was with Rod Stewart’s ‘Reason to Believe’, the B side to Maggie May.
It was one of those singles where the B side got almost as much needle-time as the A side (in fact as you can see from the image, it was the original A side, and Maggie May was the B side), but I had no idea that it was a cover version that had been released previously by Tim Hardin.
Rod went on to become quite the cover specialist…. Cat Steven’s ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’, Hendrix’s ‘Angel’ the Sutherland Bros ‘Sailing’ and Carole King’s ‘Oh No not my Baby’ were all big hits for Rod with most of his legion of fans unaware of the original versions.
Similarly, for several years I had no idea that ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Hendrix was a Dylan song or that ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ was a traditional Irish folk song recorded by The Dubliners before Thin Lizzy made it their own.
Ditto the Isley Bros ‘Summer Breeze’, a Seals & Croft recording and Nilsson’s ‘Without You’, a Badfinger track.
The common thread here is that from Hendrix to Adele there are always tracks that I’m shocked to discover are covers. I’m not suggesting the fact that they’re covers devalues them in any way, indeed, you can argue that there’s a great skill in identifying a ‘hit’ that nobody knows about and making it your own.
When the cover is better than the original:
This is a subjective point and totally in the ear of the beholder.
There’s obviously lots of examples where a cover version is more popular than the original (see Adele above), but I wanted to shine a light on a select band of elite songwriters who are great performers in their own right but for some reason or another there’s a pattern of other artists consistently improving upon some their material….
Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower by Hendrix, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall by Bryan Ferry, George Harrison’s version of ‘If Not For you’ and The Byrds classic, “Mr Tambourine Man’,
just a small selection of tracks that other artists have borrowed and updated from Dylan.
Bruce Springsteen: Patti Smith’s ‘Because the Night’, Manfred Mann’s ‘Blinded by the Light’ and ‘Fire’ by the Pointer Sisters. Three tracks buried beneath Boss anthems that became defining tracks for the artists who covered them
Leon Russell: Donny Hathaway’s ‘A Song for You’, George Benson’s ‘This Masquerade’, Joe Cocker’s ‘Delta Lady’ and The Carpenter’s ‘Superstar’.
Not one of these tracks charted for Leon but they were huge hits for the acts who covered them.
These are all great songs, written by iconic artists so it’s strange that the definitive versions of all of these classics are by other acts and not the original artist.
In some cases it seems that artists can come along, pick up a gem, give it a polish and make it shine even brighter.
Artists who make covers their own:
When Mick Jagger was asked about his favourite Stones cover he said it was Otis Redding’s version of ‘Satisfaction’, which is not a surprise as artists tend to compliment acts that reinterpret their music with a different take on the original… and this is what Otis Redding did, utilising Booker T and the MG’s and the Memphis Horns to give ‘Satisfaction’ the full Stax treatment.
Otherwise, it’s just karaoke….
It’s logical then to be able to love two divergent versions of the same song, particularly if the act covering does it in a manner that breathes new life into it.
Joe Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ would be a prime example but to be fair there’s lots of candidates…
For instance, Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ is a classic but Billy Paul’s jazzy, Philly-infused rendition completely updates it and takes it to a different level.
It’s well worth a listen if you haven’t heard it before….
Likewise in the early 70s Isaac Hayes went through a phase of taking middle of the road classics like ‘Walk on by’ and ‘Close to You’ transforming them into big orchestral masterpieces lasting up to 12 minutes long.
His versions weren’t necessarily better than the originals, but they were just as good in their own way and they were unmistakably Isaac Hayes. Listen to them and you’ll see where Barry White got his schtick.
In a similar vein, Wilson Pickett’s version of Hey Jude, featuring Duane Allman’s first recording session on guitar, is also a bit special and worth checking out on the playlist.
Of course, you can also add Clapton’s version of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and the Hendrix versions of All Along the Watchtower and Hey Joe to this list.
Nowadays of course we’re awash with tribute albums and cover versions and songs with samples that sound like old songs, so it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, but if you dig deep enough there are always some diamonds.
As is my wont, I have made up a playlist of some classic 70s based covers, many of them mentioned in this piece which you’re welcome to dip into.
It would also be good to hear about some of your favourite covers on the FB page….
One thought on “You Can’t Judge A Song By Its Cover….”
Nice informative post. Good work. Thanks!