The art of the cover: 5 songs that improve on the originals

Recess | Playground

The cover song, now such a staple of rock music, has had a complicated history, one entangled with the questions surrounding copyright law and the spread of musical ideas. In the mid-twentieth century—back when the common understanding of a “song” was wholly distinct from a definitive recording—the cover song was inseparable from its undertones of racism and cultural appropriation: major labels would release covers of songs by black artists, now performed by white artists, in order to compete with them on the charts, sometimes just weeks after the original single’s release. Recently, covers have a markedly less cynical reputation, serving as homages to an artist’s biggest influences. The choice of a song to cover is a telling one for a band, ranging from ironic, winking appreciation to a more experimental reinterpretation of past hits. And it’s a good rule of thumb that a successful cover song must do something new with its source material—it must stand as an artifact all to its own. Many critics cite Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as a consummate example of a cover that transcends the original song. But beyond Hendrix, here are five covers that go above and beyond in their reinterpretation of the rock canon.

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The Slits, “Heard It Through the Grapevine”

English post-punk band The Slits took on Marvin Gaye’s classic Motown hit in 1979 while recording their debut album “Cut,” and since then it’s become one of their most-played songs (recently buoyed by an appearance on Season 1 of “Master of None.”) Though the original song stands as an all-time classic, The Slits version stands out for its freakish danceability and its clever subversion of gender—though it’s sung by a female, the male perspective of Gaye’s original lyrics about infidelity is brilliantly left intact (just listen to Ari Up spit the words, “I know a man ain’t supposed to cry / But these tears I can’t hold inside”). Up’s vocal performance, a mix of guttural growls, yodels and shouts, makes the cover, making this song about cheating a truly frightening affair.

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The Feelies, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)”

The Beatles’ self-titled “White Album” was a scattered patchwork of ideas that ran the gamut from ridiculous to wildly experimental, and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” was typical of the album, a John Lennon-penned ode to Yoko Ono buried in the second disc of the double album. That New Jersey’s The Feelies picked up this track for their debut “Crazy Rhythms” was fitting, as it distills their tight, nervy brand of post-punk. Between Glenn Mercer’s yelps, Anton Fier’s rolling percussion and the band’s trademark guitar jangle, this rendition of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” serves both as a characteristic introduction to The Feelies’ style and a standout homage to that most deified of rock bands.

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Dum Dum Girls, “Baby Don’t Go”

First released in 1964, Sonny & Cher’s original “Baby Don’t Go” is a surprisingly upbeat song about separation, its boogying rhythm and harmonica flourishes seeming incompatible with its subject matter. But in 2010, Dum Dum Girls, led by singer Dee Dee, transformed the country pop hit into a slow-burning cut that closed the album “I Will Be.” Over a spare arrangement of reverb-drenched guitar, synthesizers and a lo-fi hum, Dee Dee lends real aching to lines like “I never knew had a mother / I hardly knew my dad / I’ve been in town for 18 years / You’re the only boy I’ve had.” Much of “I Will Be” was a pastiche of the bubblegum girl pop of the 1960s, and “Baby Don’t Go” offers a distinctly different mood from the tracks that precede it even as it refracts the music of the same era. Both sonically and emotionally, Dum Dum Girls’ rendition of “Baby Don’t Go” surpasses its source material.

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This Mortal Coil, “Kangaroo”

Formed and curated by the 4AD label head Ivo Watts-Russell, the collective This Mortal Coil made a habit of reinterpreting songs from the roots of alternative rock, using the talents of label members like Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and Modern English’s Robbie Grey to lend these covers the dreamy gloom that defined much of 4AD’s output. Watts-Russell, evidently, was especially fond of the songwriting of Alex Chilton and Big Star, whose 1970s power pop was instrumental in the development of indie music. “Kangaroo” is one of two cuts from Big Star’s unfinished masterwork “Third” that appear on This Mortal Coil’s 1984 album “It’ll End in Tears,” along with “Holocaust.” Though the latter is known as one of Big Star’s most emotionally wrenching tracks (a trait that has lent itself well to covers), it’s “Kangaroo” that stands out in its uniquely 4AD sound. Singer Gordon Sharp turns Chilton’s already disjointed track into a demented ’80s-prom-night jam, sacrificing the original’s subtlety for yearning pathos that’s no less haunting. David Lynch reportedly wanted to use another This Mortal Coil cover, “Song of the Siren,” for his 1985 film “Blue Velvet,” and it’s no surprise—both that track and “Kangaroo” evoke the same twisted vision of romanticism that define Lynch’s films. It’s worth wondering whether the iconic theme to “Twin Peaks” would have existed without the hypnotic bass picking that opens “Kangaroo.”

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Downtown Boys, “Dancing in the Dark”

Much coverage of Providence, R.I.’s Downtown Boys revolves around their label as a “political” band, but this designation detracts from the pure passion that drives their particular brand of punk rock. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” which closes their 2015 album “Full Communism.” Cranking up the tempo of the original, Victoria Ruiz’s vocals drip with vitriol, disgust, exhaustion, but, most of all, resolve, turning the line “I get up in the evening / And I ain’t got nothing to say” into a stark observation of the state of the world today. After spending the length of an album taking to task police officers, the one percent, tall boys and white privilege, “Dancing in the Dark” could not be called a victory lap—since victory, obviously, is so far from being achieved—but it’s a reminder of the cathartic power of music in the face of injustice. The power of The Boss’s music is in the way it captures the anger and desire of people who feel put-upon and oppressed, and here Downtown Boys tap into that potential like no other band has.

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