Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cover Me Please.

A while back, we did a little thing where we all talked about our favorite Post-Beatles music by Ex-Beatles. That worked pretty well, so let's try something else. Let's talk about people covering other people's music.

For me, covers come in two basic type is very faithful to the original and the other takes the song and makes it entirely new. I don't think one is superior to the other, but some pretty cool things can happen. I'm gonna throw out three that I particularly like.

1. The Box Tops' original performance of The Letter. (Don't get all technical. I know that they're actually covering Wayne Carson Thompson, but I've never heard his version and if you can find it, good luck and send me a link.) The Box Tops' version is kind of Bluesy and it's totally appropriate to their era and to getting on TV and stuff. (In the video, toward the end, I really got a kick out of the keyboards player goofing on the fact that they're just miming to playback. (The lead singer may have really been singing...I don't know.)

Joe Cocker's cover kicks it up a few notches and just makes the song exuberant. Pay special attention to the backup singers. To be fair, I'm sure they were all stoned out of their minds, but look how much fun they're having. The Box Tops could have played their version in the garage while dad watched his football game. Cocker's version would have brought the cops.

2. The Beatles original performance of With a Little Help From My Friends. I couldn't find any performance video of this one, just a slideshow with the music. Doesn't matter. Just listen to the beginning, maybe up to the first chorus. Can't you just see Ringo swaying his head back and forth while he seranades us?

Again, we'll go to Joe Cocker for the cover. Joe takes a very sedate little song (nothing wrong with that), and completely changes it to a soul bearing blues-shout. Throughout the song, there are these recurring moments when he's standing on the edge of a cliff and you never know whether he's going to pull back at the last moment or just dive off. I think it's amazing.

Edit to add: The thing that really tells you why this version is not the Beatles version is during the Call and Response, "Do you need anybody". Ringo's performance says, I'll be sad if I don't find someone to love, but I'll get by anyway. Cocker's anguished scream in response, shows his primal need. Yup, these are two very different songs.

Note: I found both the "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" version and the "Woodstock" version. Cocker's vocals and instrumentally, the Woodstock performance is better, but the backing vocals at Woodstock are truly cringe-worthy. You get MD&E.

3. Across the Universe by The Beatles. I've always thought of this as more of a John Lennon song, but technically, he was still a Beatle at the time, so...

For the cover, we'll go to Fiona Apple. This is an example of a cover that is absolutely faithful to the original. It's haunting and it's really beautifully done. And to add to that, it's got a kick-ass video. If any of you don't know, there's some very intricate and technically difficult camera work and choreography going on throughout.

The first shot comes into the broken window and finds Fiona in a corner a little less than 30 seconds in. No cut yet. They also manage to avoid seeing the camera or any crew in that huge mirror behind mean trick. I suspect this shot was done with a crane...the arm reaching in through the window, panning over to find her and then "arming" toward her as the pivot point gets close enough to the window to make the swing. As she stands and walks toward the crane, the arm starts swinging the other way and maintains perfect distance from her. It looks almost like one of those shots where the actor is standing on a platform connected to the camera dolly (it's that precise), but that would be impossible without a cut, so, this must be exquisite crane work. It also makes you suspect (wrongly), that the crashing, flying actors and props must have been shot separately and she's in front of a green-screen, but there's too much evidence to the contrary. I'll eat my hat if I'm wrong, but this stuff must all be happening in the same place at the same time.

At 1:12, they pan off of her, setting up for the first cut at 1:21 in. That's because in the next shot, they do have her on a rig attached to the camera. When you do that shot with her spinning in the room on that axis, you're using a gimbal, either she spins or the entire room does. (When Fred Astaire danced on he ceiling, the entire room was spinning.)

Fiona's the one rotating here, because her hair declines to disobey gravity. This shot may have been done in front of green screen. There's an awful lot of shit flying through the air, and it looks like the foreground "flying shit" is a bit more controlled looking. 2nd cut at 2:00 in. At 2:30 she leans out of frame, followed by a cut where she leans back in. This happens over about 2 seconds. Camera is back on the crane (I think). They're working in a fairly tight space, so maybe this is a jib arm (a mini-crane arm that mounts on a dolly). Not sure, but it's a nice shot.

4th cut at 3:25 in. She walks out of frame at 3:40 in. This is a total red herring making you expect another cut, but she's just moved to the corner booth and the camera searches until it finds her and keeps moving closer and closer til the video end.

I can't begin to tell you how truly difficult it is to pull all of those elements together so seamlessly, but it's all pretty damned impressive.

I really didn't intend to go off on that behind the scenes stuff so much here, but I just got sucked in and couldn't help myself. Enjoy the video and tell me what your favorite covers are and why.


vince said...

Across The Universe is one of my less-favorite Beatles songs. As for Joe Cocker, he can take any song and make it so his that you hardly remember that anyone else ever recorded it.

I'll have to think about this, but I'll absolutely come up with something.

vince said...

OK, that didn't take long. I just had to check a couple of things to make sure I was right.

#1 best ever cover is the Jimi Hendrix cover of Dylan's All Along the Watchtower. Best. Evah.

Led Zeppelin's cover of the Joan Baez song Babe I'm Gonna Leave You off their first album. It's Zep's song all the way.

Janis Joplin doing Me And Bobby McGee. A lot of people know Kris Kristofferson wrote it, but most don't realize he recorded it as well.

Rod Stewart's version of Tom Waits' Downtown Train.

Ike and Tina Turner doin' Proud Mary, the classic CCR song.

The Johnny Cash cover of Nine Inch Nails's Hurt. And the video that goes with it. It was always a powerful song, but the song now belongs to Cash forever. Probably the #2 best cover in my opinion.

Red Hot Chili Peppers' cover of Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground.

Simply Red's cover of the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' If You Don't Know Me By Now.

The Motley Crue remake of Brownsville Station's Smokin' In The Boys Room. pretty good video, too.

Talking Heads' doing Al Green's Take Me To The River. And it's their song now.

Lots more out there, but I suppose I better go back to work.

Nathan said...


I've been thinking about this a little more, (I always think of something after I hit publish, but you can only wait so long).

Across the Universe is the exact same song in both performances. Exactly the same meaning. Exactly the same feeling.

The Letter is basically the same song, just with a lot of fun and feeling added.

With a Little Help From My Friends is two entirely different songs, with almost no similarity left. (Both are terrific.)

John the Scientist said...

I like Guns 'N Roses's version of Live and Let Die better than Paul's. Paul thinks he's a hardcore rocker. He's not.

mattw said...

In addition to the Joe Cocker Beatles cover you mentioned, I also like his cover of She Came In Through the Bathroom Window. It really adds some feeling to the song.

I've got to agree with Vince on Hurt, great cover by Cash.

I really like the Smoking Popes cover of Pure Imagination (the song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) it's more upbeat in tempo and not as mournful sounding as the movie version. Maroon 5 does a version too, but I don't like that as much.

The Eels do a really good cover of Missy Eliot's Get Ur Freak On. I saw them do this song in concert and it rocked. I don't think this video does it justice, but that was the only one a quick search revealed.

And then there's the version of My Sweet Lord from the concert for George Harrison after his death.

mattw said...

God damn that took me something like ten tries to get those links in there right.

Tania said...

How odd - I've been working on a blog post on this subject, so I've got the four I was going to use right here

1) Holly Cole's cover of Tom Wait's Tango 'Til They're Sore

I love both versions, the gravely Waits and the smooth Cole. Holly Cole did an entire album of Waits covers, this was on it.

2) Polyphonic Spree's cover of Nirvana's Lithium.

Both are in need of mental health support and care, but on different end of the spectrum.

3) Alanis Morisette's cover of My Humps.

Because she's making fun of herself and a really ridiculous song.

4)Ben Fold's cover of Dr. Dre's Bitches Ain't Shit

It makes me laugh. Mellow piano music, Ben Folds' mellow voice and OMG ARE LISTENING TO THE LYRICS!?!?!?!?! Hee!!

I would have included Hurt, but Vince beat me to it.

Me First and The Gimme Gimmes do goofy punk covers of all kinds of songs, and I <3 them.

Social Distortion's cover of Ring of Fire is fun and raucous. But I still want to speed it up a bit to go with the guitar in my head.

Oh yes, HAYSEED DIXIE!! Originally a bluegrass AC/DC cover band, they've branched out into KISS, Queen, and other bands. My favorite is probably Highway to Hell. Who'd a thought that AC/DC would translate so easily to bluegrass?

And because I'm really an emo girl at heart...

The Cure's cover Hendrix's Purple Haze.

Hmm. I'm going to send Cindy a note, I'm sure this will cause her to spread CDs all over the apartment floor again. Bwahahahaha!!

mattw said...

Tania, I had forgotten about the Mirssette cover. That is another really good one and the video is hilarious.

Janiece said...

I think I dated Joe Cocker's keyboard player in The Letter.


Also, Vince is absolutely right about Jimi and All Along the Watchtower, with Tina's Proud Mary coming in a close second.

Tania said...

I'm not the biggest Beatle's fan, but any thoughts on the covers on the Across the Universe soundtrack?

On a related note, I do like the Rufus Wainwright cover of Across the Universe.

Any thoughts on Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen? It seems that everyone and their pygmy marmoset has covered that song.

mattw said...

I've heard the Across the Universe soundtrack once and I was really mixed on the results. Some good, some bad.

Nathan said...


Lots of good stuff there.

Vince, I'm constitutionally unable to appreciate anything Rod Stewart does. I fucking hate him.

Hendrix - yes.

I haven't heard all of those, but I like both versions of Take Me To The River. Talking Heads make it their own, but Al still owns it too.


Paul had some chops with other Beatles around to push him and proved he really wanted to be Bing Crosby after the breakup.


I almost included She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, but it's just not in the same league as the ones I chose, IMHO.


I would have forgiven you if you just said you were planning a post and held them for that. I'd never heard most of those and they're hysterical.

And ANYTHING translates to bluegrass. ANYTHING.

And for your question later re: the movie. Most of it's great within the context of the movie, but I can't see listening to them on their own.

Janiece dated Leon Russell? WTF?

Jeff Hentosz said...

Not a big Beatles fan. Never have been. "Penny Lane" is my favorite song. "Across the Universe," not so much. Moving on.

Phil Collins is much maligned, but his cover of The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" is one of the most perfect pop covers ever. And the video is not only fun, but positively visionary, in the way he so deftly backs himself up 20 years before The Love Haters famously backed up Andre 3000 on "Hey Ya."

Audioslave used to do a live cover of The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" that I thought was brilliant.

I don't know if singing a traditional song counts as a "cover," but you haven't lived until you've heard Crash Test Dummies sing "Jingle Bells." It's like it's sung by cannibalistic Vikings -- more Jack Skellington than Sandy Claws, if you take my meaning. The video at this link is some silly homemade Spirograph nonsense, so close your eyes when you listen to it.

As far as Hendrix goes, I can't find a link to Brave Combo's polka version of "Purple Haze," but it's probably best left to the imagination anyway.

Nathan said...


I like that Jingle Bells. Maybe they'll play it at Target this year.

And I loved that Phil Collins cover. I made a round trip from Boston to Chicago when I was in College...just a friend and I. One of the mix tapes we brought had that on every fourth song! Excellent highway music.

Some dude stuck in the Midwest said...

I'll stay with anything by Hayseed Dixie.

Love the Big Balls take on Bon Scott's classic.

I have also enjoyed Metallica's cover of Turn The Page, and Enio Morricone's Fields of Gold by them.

Some dude stuck in the Midwest said...

Correction, Ecstasy of Gold.

Eric said...

While I'm generally inclined to agree with you about Rod Stewart, Nathan, Every Picture Tells A Story is an incredibly, unbelievably, shockingly good album. And, on point, it features great covers of The Temptations "I'm Losing You," Tim Hardin's "Reason To Believe," and "That's All Right" (best known as Elvis' first single, though Elvis' version was itself a cover of an old blues song).

As for other covers:

Emmylou Harris is so unfuckingbelievably good as an interpreter, that it's really hard to mention one of her covers without instantly thinking of others. But her covers of Townes VanZandt's "Pancho And Lefty" and John Hiatt's "Icy Blue Heart" stand out as two of my favorite remakes.

Another cover that leaps to mind is Miles Davis' version of Crosby Stills and Nash's "Guinnevere" I've got it on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, but it looks like it also showed up on the CD Circle In The Round, or you can probably find it on iTunes or AmazonMP3; it's worth checking out--Miles adds a kind of nodded-out murkiness to the song that really haunts the listener.

Sometimes a cover is fun for it's fucked-upness. Nina Gordon (formerly of Veruca Salt) released a really mind-blowing folk-pop acoustic guitar version of NWA's "Straight Outta Compton" that really is something special. But my personal favorite "WTF?!?" cover of all time quite possibly might be Judas Priest's version of Joan Baez's "Diamonds And Rust" because it actually works--you wouldn't think a metal band doing a cover of a snarky folk song about breaking up with Bob Dylan would work, and maybe it only works because Priest was such an awesome band and you can tell Rob Halford loves the song, but it's still kind of sort of fucking insane nonetheless.

Ooo! One last one I'd throw in (also, I agree with most of the nominations above): Patti Smith's version of Van Morrison's "Gloria" on Horses is one of the freaking awesomest covers ever. The original version is kinda raunchy--Smith sings her version straight from the pelvis. If you don't listen to it balls-out cranked-up, you need to see if your libido is still covered under warranty. Rock'n'roll at its best.

Eric said...

You know, I really didn't mean to drop as many f-bombs in that last post.

But I have no regrets. :-P

Random Michelle K said...

My all time favorite cover is the Cowboy Junkies cover of "Sweet Jane".

I'm not sure if it's possible to love a song more than I do that one.

In the opposite direction, no one's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" is as good as his original.

It's his voice.

Ilya said...

In lieu of adding anything substantial to the covers theme, can I just say that I tremendously enjoyed the behind-the-scenes walkthrough of the Pleasantville video. Hoping for more!

vince said...

In the opposite direction, no one's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" is as good as his original.

With all due respect, I think Don Henley does a great cover, and I prefer it to Cohen's.

I'm not the biggest Beatle's fan, but any thoughts on the covers on the Across the Universe soundtrack?

I'm a huge Beatles fan, and didn't like either the movie or the soundtrack.

Any thoughts on Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen?

Jeff Buckley. It's Jeff, his guitar, and the song. It's my favorite version. Rufus Wainwright's version in Shrek is really good, too, but it's not on the soundtrack CD and I don't know if it's available anywhere else.

And Nathan, you're wrong about Rod Stewart. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Well, most of the time. Sometime he sucks, but Eric is right about Every Picture Tells A Story, and a lot of his other work is excellent as well. Great voice? No. But still, especially early Rod Stewart kicks ass.

Eric said...

On the way home, the shuffle play on the iPod brought up Cyndi Lauper's version of Prince's "When You Were Mine," an awesome, classic cover. That's another one I'd have to fave.

Anonymous said...

Hey there--Tania told me to swing by. Gotta ditto the earlier recs, especially Me First & The Gimme Gimmes. Me, I also like Joan Osborne's version of Dylan's Man in the Long Black Coat. It's grittier, more plaintive, and somehow more real for me than the original. I'm undecided as to who's got the better version of Hallelujah-- Cohen or John Cale. (Cale's the one singing in Shrek the movie, Wainwright's singing on Shrek the soundtrack.) And for the sheer car crash, can't look away, awesome awfulness of it all, may I recommend Pat Boone's In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy? His cover of "The Wind Cries Mary" makes ME cry. And not in a good way. (Not for the faint of heart.)

Thanks for letting me crash your cover party--Cindy