Cover Songs That Shouldn't Be

As noted a little while back, I recently bought Tom Waits's Orphans collection, which includes a number of covers that are given his "lounge singer from another planet" treatment. Most notable among these is probably "Sea of Love," which I first heard through the Robert Plant side project the Honeydrippers, but has been covered by approximately a billion people. Waits's take is weird and creepy, but actually kind of interesting.

A little more recently, I bought the Alabama 3 album La Peste, which includes a cover of "Hotel California." A pretty bad cover, actually-- I junked it almost immediately. I'm not sure "Hotel California" really rates as one of the all-time greats, but it didn't deserve what they did to it.

Anyway, I've been thinking about cover songs a bit recently. Which brings up the question:

What are the songs that shouldn't be covered by anybody?

I'm not talking about bad songs, here, I'm talking about really good songs, songs that are so good done by their original artists that you really shouldn't mess with them. Anybody can make a bad cover of a bad song, or even a good cover of a bad song, but there's something really annoying about making a bad cover of a great song.

It's a tough question, though, because it's hard to think of songs that are so good and so individual that they really shouldn't be touched. There are lots of dreadful cover songs out there-- the rap/reggae version of "Angel of the Morning" that went around a few years ago, Matisyahu's novelty-act "Message in a Bottle"-- and lots of pointless note-perfect imitations-- the Sixpence None the Richer "There She Goes," the pop-punk "Boys of Summer" from a few years back-- but not that many songs whose very existence is an affront to all that is good and decent.

The two biggest offenders would probably have to be the Sean Combs (I forget if he was "Puffy" or "Diddy" or "Siddy" at that point) violation of "Every Breath You Take," and whoever it was that did a semi-rap take on "No Woman No Cry" some years ago-- the Roots, maybe? Those were both pretty horrendous, and the latter was especially bad-- the Bob Marley version of the song is just perfect, and I don't understand why you would feel compelled to mess it up.

Elton John, of course, gets a special award of merit for doing an unforgivable cover of his own song.

What other cover songs are out there that are not just flawed in the execution, but in the whole concept?


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I'm not willing to classify any song as completely uncoverable -- someone could come up with an interesting and unusual take that really works for the song, no matter what it is. Two examples: Dwight Yoakam covering "I Want You To Want Me" or Soul Asylum covering "Sexual Healing". Neither one should work, and yet somehow they do.

Now, bad covers... to quote Peter Buck on the R.E.M. cover ove "King of the Road": "If there was any justice in the world, Roger Miller should be able to sue for what we did to this song."

I'm not sure that any song is completely uncoverable, but the post stimulated two reflections:

1. The cover of Paul Simon's "American Tune" by the Indigo Girls is astonishing. Willie Nelson, otoh, sings it like it's another pretty song.

2. Anybody with half an ounce of musical talent covers Dylan better than Dylan could. Witness Tim O'Brien's "Red on Blonde" album.



So did the Dresden Dolls' cover, but sadly, I only know of it from an MP3 a friend found out there on the Interblag, and the only YouTube videos I can find are low-quality recordings of them performing alongisde Panic! At The Disco.

I think some songs are uncoverable just because they're so closely associated with a time or an event. It's hard for me to imagine a good cover of "Anarchy in the UK", for example, or of Neil Young's "Ohio".

By Chris Goedde (not verified) on 26 Jan 2007 #permalink

I can't necessarily think of any songs that shouldn't be covered, but I can think of songs that have been covered that in retrospect shouldn't have been. For your consideration: "Walking in Memphis" by Marc Cohn, as covered by Cher.

And then there's a few songs where it just doesn't matter who sings them because they're going to sound pretty much the same no matter who sings them... "Come Together" by the Beatles, for example...

Sampling is not covering. Diddy (and everyone else in hip hop and other pop music -- and some not so pop music) sample. It's mostly hooks or choruses, but it's not the whole song.

The best cover takes a unique approach to someone else's material -- often reaching across musical divisions to find a song to cover. For example, the Gipsy Kings' cover of Hotel California.

The worst covers strip a song of everything it was and fail to offer anything new (Sheryl Crow's version of Sweet Child o' Mine, Lenny Kravitz removing all the soul from American Women, etc).

I don't think there are any non-coverable songs; there are only ways to not cover a song.

The Dresden Dolls cover can almost certainly be found at, specifically here, with its friends. Their "Two Headed Boy" cover is not to be missed, but the Mr. Bungle cover of Baby One More Time is, I think, better.

Songs that are too good to be covered don't exist. At least in my experience, the failure is a lack of imagination. I would have said it'd be difficult to cover the Stones' "Satisfaction" in a way that was, well, satisfying, but it turns out PJ Harvey and Bjork did a fantastic job. See also, Nina Hagen's cover of Straight Outta Compton.

There are a lot of mediocre rote-for-note covers out there, but the good ones are artists bringing a whole new feel to the tunes their covering (RATM's Fuck The Police, frex), and sometimes they're good enough that the old one sounds like the cover from then on. Trent Reznor once said that the problem with having Johnny Cash cover one of your songs is that from that moment on, you're covering a Johnny Cash tune.

Curious aside: the only Nickelback tune worth listening to is their cover of Elton John's Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting.

By Mike Hoye (not verified) on 26 Jan 2007 #permalink

Sampling is not covering. Diddy (and everyone else in hip hop and other pop music -- and some not so pop music) sample. It's mostly hooks or choruses, but it's not the whole song.

Whatever you want to call it, it was an abomination.

Of course, the Police managed to mangle one of their own songs (the '86 version of "Don't Stand So Close to Me"), so maybe they had it coming...

I think some songs are uncoverable just because they're so closely associated with a time or an event. It's hard for me to imagine a good cover of "Anarchy in the UK", for example, or of Neil Young's "Ohio".

That's an excellent point.

Sampling is not covering. Diddy (and everyone else in hip hop and other pop music -- and some not so pop music) sample. It's mostly hooks or choruses, but it's not the whole song.

True enough -- and now that you mention it, a poor sample actually bothers me more than a poor cover. Canonical example of course is "Ice Ice Baby," which sticks in your head precisely because it stole the fantastic hook from "Under Pressure"... and then put c-raptacular junk all over it. So it's catchy crap, which not only sucks, but also lessens the ability to appreciate the original song.

The best sampling is fantastic, but it can go very, very wrong in a way that a poor cover doesn't.

I'm not sure if it counts as a song, but JS Bach's Air in G was used more or less intact to underpin a particularly insipid pseudo hip-hop song called "Everything's Gonna Be All Right" a few years back. If there is a Hell, there is a place set aside in it for the people responsible.

By Antiquated Tory (not verified) on 26 Jan 2007 #permalink

I can only think of two covers I like as much as the original. The problem is that really great songs are the ones that tend to be covered.

Cat Stevens' "I think I see the light" from the Monabone Jakon album got covered by Loud Family:

And Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" which got rather improved by Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, these many years ago:

Mr. Bungle cover of Baby One More Time

Or FNM's cover of Easy. Mike Patton's got a kick ass voice ... as in, he can sing pretty much any style.

Nobody could have imagined Johnny Cash doing a Nine Inch Nails song. But it was an awesome version, all must admit.

Even something (same genre) as distinctive and artist-dependent as this would make a passable Bluegrass song....

Just sayin'.

It's all about the challenge, and the cover artist who feels pressed to meet it.

Is there a special exception for punk rock covers? Given what Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have managed to do with Seasons in the Sun and Wild World, both of which seem to work precisely because the original is so distinctive, it seems that there's really no middle ground of individuality where one cannot be covered.

It's hard for me to imagine a good cover of "Anarchy in the UK",

Have you heard Motley Crue's version?

No, really.

My fault. I misremembered the track I intended; I meant to say that this would make a good Bluegrass cover. With a good banjoist, especially.

Nothing is forbidden....

I agree that sampling is not covering, but nobody but Sting should ever sing, nor anyone but Andy should ever play, "Every Breath You Take" (except me in the shower). It's a song of mathematical precision that nobody seems to get.

The cover of "No Woman No Cry" was by the Fugies, but I disagree with the opinion that it was bad; there is merit to be had adding lyrics to a song when it brings relevance to a new audience.

As for The Dresden Dolls, I was in San Francisco when they played "Hit Me Baby" live, which is the version I saw on The trio of leather-clad lesbian cheerleaders singing along to that was priceless. However, the best cover on that site is their cover of Bowie's "Life on Mars".

A song that I feel should be left alone as perfect: "The Wind Cries Mary" by Hendrix.

Hmmm ... just checking through my music folder ...

Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd
Anything by the Beastie Boys
Born In The USA, Springstein

... you know, I'll stop before I really get started, not least because it's 3a.m., and it's potentially a long list. Which is bound to contain a lot of songs that have, unfortunately, been covered.

By Kurt Montandon (not verified) on 28 Jan 2007 #permalink

I thought Susan Tedeschi's version of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" was pretty awful. What makes the original so memorable is the total coolness and lack of emotion in the narrator as he tries to be scornful in what you'd think would be a pretty emotional situation. Well, Susan Tedeschi is incapable of "coolness" or "lack of emotion", and she sounds more like the person who's being broken up with, thus making it seem as if she doesn't know what words she's singing.

By Cryptic Ned (not verified) on 28 Jan 2007 #permalink

No cover of the Carpenters' "Superstar?" Oh, but I must protest... Sonic Youth did a fantastic job...

The Madonna version of American Pie was definitely one for the list.
However, my main purpose for this comment is that I'm going to commit sacrilege. There are two artists where, I think, the opposite is true: Just about every song of theirs is better when covered.
One of them is Leonard Cohen. This isn't especially sacrilege; everyone knows that he's a far better songwriter than he is a singer.
The other is Elvis Presley.
Now before you fire up all indignant, think about this for a moment. Admit it, you really liked the JXL remix of A Little Less Conversation. And Cheap Trick's version of Don't Be Cruel was pretty good. Even Wynonna Judd's version of Burning Love was cool. And who can forget the Blues Brothers' soundtrack version of Jailhouse Rock?
Now partly, it's because most of the Elvis covers that you know of were done by really good artists, like Bruce Springsteen (Viva Las Vegas), Bob Dylan (Can't Help Falling in Love), Billy Joel (All Shook Up), Joni Mitchell (Baby, I Don't Care) and Paul McCartney (It's Now or Never). But partly it's because of those dumb 50s sappy arrangements which spoil Elvis' tremendous singing ability.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 29 Jan 2007 #permalink