There is something undeniably thrilling about hearing a song that sounds familiar but somehow different. Sometimes you might have a nagging doubt about what it is until the chorus comes along and you realise that it is a cover, while in other cases you might have to go and Google it to work out why it sounded so familiar. A lot of cover versions are terrible, of course. The sacrilege committed on a number of our favourite songs is almost too much to bear, with Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit among the worst offenders, according to a Rolling Stone survey.
Yet, there are also plenty of classic covers that make us realise why we love them so much.
Covers Breathe Life into an Old Song
Even if you try and avoid Elvis Presley as much as possible, it is highly unlikely that you have never heard Viva Las Vegas at some point in your life. It was first performed for the 1964 film of the same name and reached as high as 12 in the UK charts, but would probably be forgotten about by now if it wasn’t for the many cover versions of it.
Perhaps most famous is the ZZ Top version that added their distinctive guitar playing for a fresh sound that blew the original away. This has long been a popular song with artists from wildly different genres, from punk rockers Dead Kennedys and Nina Hagen to rockers like The Killers as well as bluegrass, reggae and country artists. Even Dread Zeppelin have had a go at it in their own quirky style. Covers of this song have become firmly ingrained in pop culture, as they have appeared in movies such as The Big Lebowski, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Honeymoon in Vegas.
Thanks to these covers, the opening chords of this track instantly bring to mind the casinos of Las Vegas and it joins a select band of tracks that show how casino life has permeated music culture and brought about a sense of familiarity and branding – which can mean big business for casinos. Other covers that have appealed on a thematic basis like this include space travel, as seen in Kate Bush’s version of Rocket Man and The Beatles’ Across the Universe, as covered by Beady Eye and Seether among others. There was even that time when an astronaut did a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while floating high above the Earth in 2013.
Another example of an older song that has had new life breathed into it is Nirvana’s haunting live version of David Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World in 1993. In 2017 it was ranked at number six in terms of Nirvana’s most played songs on British TV and radio. Then there are The Shins, who took We Will Become Silhouettes by The Postal Service, making it fresh and folky in the process.
They Can Make a Good Song Into a Classic
What about those cases when the original was a really good song, but the cover simply took it to a whole new level? For many people, the last few songs that Johhny Cash recorded before death made him the undisputed king of covers. Personal Jesus, In My Life and One are among the songs that he added a new edge to but it is with Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt, recorded in 2002, that Cash really hit home. His weather-beaten, vulnerable voice added incredible depth to this song, whose original version was nominated for a Grammy in 1996.
Even Trent Reznor had to admit that the cover was an “honour”, although he also described hearing it for the first time as being like “someone kissing your girlfriend” and said that the song “isn’t mine anymore”. This powerful cover and the incredibly sad video behind it take a good song and turn it into something so much better. Some covers are so good that you probably don’t even know that they aren’t the original. For instance, The Clash took I Fought the Law by The Bobby Fuller Four and made it their own with a fierce, punk rock vibe that took it to number 29 in the UK charts and helped it rank as 175 on the top 500 songs of all time by Rolling Stone. The Ramones covered Do You Wanna Dance by Bobby Freeman and gave it the unique Ramones treatment with a short and sharp cover runs for about 2 minutes and that stands the test of time.
They Take a Classic and Make it Different
Clearly, some of the cover versions that we have looked at so far did a really good job on songs of varying quality and reputation. However, what about when a current artist takes a much-loved and highly-respected song that most people would be afraid to touch? Father John Misty has been making music since 2004 and is a wonderful example of someone who isn’t afraid to get stuck into songs like Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box, Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. The man born as Joshua Tillman makes these songs very different from the original but just as brilliant, helping his number of YouTube subscribers grow to over 15,000 in recent times.
They Help Us to Discover Old Songs
An example of how a great cover can help us discover an old song comes from the Cramps. Songs the Cramps Taught Us is an album that brings together songs from the past from people like Roy Orbison, Jimmy Stewart and Charlie Feathers. This iconic garage rock band – formed in 1976 and active until 2009 – took these old-time numbers and turned them into something fresh and modern. It will never be known how many people were inspired to look up the original versions of songs such as Sunglasses After Dark or Jelly Roll Rock, but this example goes to show that the best cover versions can help us to find new (or old) artists.