Made Me Listen! (Transformative Covers)

I’m not surprised that some oppressive cultures have attempted to outlaw some or all forms of music. Music is a drug. It alters mood and brain. Music cannot be controlled.

The cover–a redo of a song made famous by someone else–is a tricky proposition. Many are good, some are a waste of time. The transformative cover–when something brand new is brought to a song–can be a very happy thing indeed. Here are eight of my favorites, listed in alphabetical order by artist.

1. “Ruby Tuesday” — Franco Battiato

Battiato is apparently well-known in Europe, perhaps not as well known in the U.S., certainly not by me. He sings in a standard pop style in the general direction of Andy Williams or Tony Bennett. This style should not work on this Rolling Stones hit, or any other iconic rock and roll tune. I’m no fan, for instance, of Frank Sinatra’s covers of “Yesterday” or “Something.” They’re pretty, but they aren’t right. What makes Battiato’s cover right is that he picked a song that isn’t quite so sweet. “Ruby Tuesday” has itself a bit of grit. A bit of poingancy. Battiato’s sweet, heartfelt rendition, made me listen–in a fresh way–to the lyrics, and to realize just what a good song this is.

2. “Twist and Shout” — The Beatles

The Twist was a dance craze that emerged in 1960, lasted into 1961, and gave us such songs as “The Twist,” “Peppermint Twist,” and “Let’s Twist Again, Like We Did Last Summer.” Then, in 1964, in one of the great rock and roll singing performances of all time, John Lennon took this three-year-old, dead-as-a-doornail dance craze song, and blew the lid off it. He didn’t sing from nostalgia, or to do it again like we did before, he did it Now and Forever More, and There Can Never Be Another. I still get goosebumps when I hear this.

3. “Bad Moon Rising” — Thea Gilmore

Like many listeners, I misheard the lyrics in this Creedence Clearwater Revival hit from 1969. It was played extensively, a huge hit, has been covered numerous times since, but I never truly heard the lyrics until Thea Gilmore covered it on her Loft album, in 2004. John Fogerty (according to Wikipedia) was supposedly inspired by a hurricane when he wrote this, but in Gilmore’s version, it seems unmistakably about the Vietnam. I hear a resigned lament from a soldier about to go out on patrol, and not expecting to return.

4. “All Along the Watchtower” — The Jimi Hendrix Experience

One of the most famous covers, and for good reason. It isn’t that easy to cover a Bob Dylan song, in my humble opinion. The temptation, I think, is to make it sound too pretty. Jimi Hendrix keeps the apocalyptic drive going, and the result is beautiful, but not at all pretty. Perhaps it should be considered cheating for Hendrix to have played guitar as he did, and to be allowed to cover songs, but last I looked, it was not.

5. “That’ll Be the Day” — Modest Mouse

Lots of people have done lots of fine covers of Buddy Holly’s work, but none has whipped my head around like this. This song, as done by Buddy Holly, sounds jaunty, upbeat, and very pop. The jaunty pop sits in direct opposition to the lyrics, and jaunty wins. Modest Mouse has slowed it down, and added marvelous buzzy guitar, which bring the music in alignment with the words, and reveals the song for the tortured and ominous piece that it is.

6. “The Rains of Castamere” — The National

Hey, Game of Thrones fans!!! Does this really count as a cover? I don’t care. The lyrics are by George R. R. Martin, a fictional song if you will, sung repeatedly and mentioned often in the book, where it serves as a theme and warning to all non-Lannisters. It never had an original version, exactly, but with music by Ramin Djawadi, the song has moved to the TV series, where it has been used often and well. This version was played over the credits in an episode in season two, and what a delightful surprise it was. Because, while the melody is reminiscent of medieval tunes, The National’s performance is contemporary. It is not trying to be rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s not trying to be “period,” either. It isn’t trying to be anything; it just is, and it’s perfect.

7. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — Cat Power

The original 1965 version of this song is my ring tone. I loved the song as a teenager because the adults were appalled by it. Eventually, I got all the lyrics, and said, wow that’s actually a good song. I never liked any of the covers of it, though, until I heard this one. The song is slowed way, way down, and as with “That’ll Be the Day,” above, the technique delivers. I not only hear the lyrics, I am forced to think about them. This song was written half a century ago, and yet it sounds like today. In the heyday of Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, etc., Jagger/Richards were overlooked as songwriters. I’m looking at them now.

8. “Real Love” — Regina Spektor

I was in Trader Joe’s parking lot when I first heard Spektor’s version of this song. It was before I had Shazam, and so I had to sit there and wait until the the KCRW deejay back-announced the track. I then had to wait months before it became available for download. This is perhaps the most transformative cover of all. The song is a John Lennon “leftover,” a track he never released. Sometime in the eighties, the three surviving Beatles got hold of it, went into the studio, and made a final Beatles record, using Lennon’s recording. The product made many of us very, very sad. Many of us wished the track had never been released. I felt that way, until I heard this cover. Regina Spektor takes this song, and lifts it above the mediocrity I took it to be. Her performance strengthens my faith in the ultimate goodness of the universe, that things really do come right in the end.

So that’s my list. To repeat, I’ve listed my favorites IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER (sorry to shout) in order not to imply that one choice is more fave than the others. Because, in truth, I cannot decide.

Creating links is boring. I trust all you kids out there are Internet capable enough to hunt all these guys down if you so choose, and in fact, you’re probably so hip, you’ve already got them on your own playlist.

This is a fuzzy picture of Jakob Dylan taken in 2009. His version of John Lennon's "Give Me Some Truth" made my long list of favorite covers.

This is a fuzzy picture of Jakob Dylan taken at The House of Blues in Anaheim, in 2009. His version of John Lennon’s “Give Me Some Truth” made my long list of favorite covers.


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