They Right the Songs
Using a mix-and-match approach that evokes the deep-voiced, deep-hearted pith and passion of Greg Brown and the full-bodied rock flavor favored by the Canadian Invasion, a band called Crash Test Dummies achieves a uniqueness born of amalgamation. Very cool. Or, as they say in the press, very critically acclaimed. The band's deservedly hailed Arista debut, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, gets critics giddy with its buoyant melodies, bizarre arrangements, unpredictable lyrical configurations. Thanks in only small part to a relentless hype campaign, the lead single, "Superman's Song," has elicited raves from the industry anti-Bible Hits, major radio stations, Margo Timmons of Cowboy Junkies, and cast members of the old Man of Steel television show. Very cool.
But far from the coolest song on the album. The centerpiece of Ghosts, the only track you need to hear to know the Dummies matter, is "Androgynous," a smirky, quirky, and wholly potent gender bender rendered acoustically. Over sparkly mandolin riffs and a solid beat, Brad Roberts sings deeply and sincerely, "Here comes Dick, he's wearing a skirt/Here comes Jane you know she's sporting a chain/Same hair revolution/Same build evolution" in a salute to a world to come, wherein gender doesn't matter.
The Replacements ascended from garage bozos to America's Best Rock Band in 1984 behind a masterpiece LP called Let It Be. Over exploding but sparse (and out-of-tune) piano chords and sand-block riffs, Paul Westerberg sang roughly and sincerely about "Something meets boy/Something meets girl/Both look the same/They're overjoyed in this world." Same song. Same overwhelming emotional effect. Twice in seven years.
"I heard the original on a compilation a friend made for me," explains Brad Roberts. "It was a very bare-bones presentation, little more than off-the-cuff vocals, out-of-tune piano, and a jazzy snare brush, very stripped down. But even at that level, I thought it worked very powerfully. The melody is quite compelling. We thought that if it could sound so damn good in a minimalist way, surely it could survive a Crash Test Dummies rearrangement. So we hammered away at it, and by the time all was said and done, our own version was very much a radical departure from the original. It was sounding very much like one of our tunes. It had gone through this transformation that we were quite pleased with, and so we chose to put it on our record. I should be careful about this, so as not to offend Westerberg fans. We haven't taken the song over, and I'm not suggesting we could assume responsibility for the song's strength, because that's all Paul."
There are two sides of the cover coin: coolness vs. appropriation. "I'm not concerned about that in the case of `Androgynous,'" Roberts responds. "It's a strong song that stands on its own. But it can be interestingly represented in an alternative fashion. We were careful to put only one cover on the album. When we play live, we have a couple of others thrown in for good measure, but we keep them to a minimum, and make sure they're something we've significantly reworked, and made our own."
Since the dark and noisy night rock and roll was born, cover songs have played a major role in the genre. In the Fifties, when Americans were even stupider than they are now, white artists would record softened versions of songs by black artists so the tunes could be sold to white (large) audiences. No self-respecting (his mistake) white man would give an ear to a single by one of those crazy damn colored boys like Fats Domino or Little Richard. But if Pat Boone recorded a milquetoast version of the same song....
In the modern era, covers often serve as crutches for artists who lack original resources. After Vanilla Ice melted the charts with his first hit, he reached deep into his songwriting intellect to compel the masses via Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music White Boy" and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." Tricky business, these covers. But aberrations aside, remakes often achieve a greatness equal to - or beyond - that of the originals. Here're our selections for the all-time Top 40 coolest cover songs:
40. "MacArthur Park" by Donna Summer
Trivia: This, not "Love to Love You Baby," which only made it to number two, was Summer's first chart topper. More important, this version of Jimmy Webb's bad trip works because it placed Donna's rock voice in a disco-music forum. Good recipe.
39. "Paint It Black" by the Feelies
Like a Rolling Stone? Not really, and that's its strength.
38. "Que Sera Sera" by Sly and the Family Stone
Sly does Doris. Or so rumor had it.
37. "Cruella De Ville" by the Replacements
Anything lifted from 101 Dalmatians is automatically cool.
35. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" by Toots and the Maytals
It's tough not to improve on John Denver.
34. "A Horse with No Name" by the Jack Rubies
A great band that sold about as many records as America had members. Listen to both versions of this song, and then explain how that could happen.
33. "Just the Way You Are" by NRBQ
Do go changing Billy Joel.
32. "Stop Your Sobbing" by the Pretenders
Chrissie and company have had hit-and-miss luck with covers, but you can't go wrong with a Kinks song.
31. "Oh Well" by Joe Jackson
From early Fleetwood Mac to the Rockets to Jackson's latest LP, a monster riff goes a long, long way.
30. "Got the Time" by Anthrax
Joe Jackson peaked early with the masterful Look Sharp! album. This was one of the highlights, a sizzling anthem with lyrics that sound for all the world like he was singing "chickens in my head, chickens in my head." He wasn't. Neither is Anthrax.
29. "Like a Prayer" by John Wesley Harding
While bands such as Anthrax avow a true fondness for Madonna, others are less reverent toward the star of A Certain Sacrifice. Ciccone (nee Sonic) Youth sliced the tomato with The Whitey Album three years ago. Harding, the brilliant Brit wit/singer-songwriter, has a way with covers, including "Crystal Blue Persuasion" on his Name Above the Title LP. But this acoustic selection, from God Made Me Do It: The Christmas EP, is his crowning cover achievement, a gorgeous piece of music that indicates one reason Madonna needs a good spanking for her reliance on production and technology.
28. "Like a Virgin" by Lords of the New Church
27. "Ballroom Blitz" by the Damned
Different harmonics than the masterful Sweet original (on Desolation Boulevard, one of the best rock albums ever made) but equal fury. Found on the Machine Gun Etiquette LP, this take proved the Damned really could play, when the drugs and the song were both right. The wild breakdown at the end both parodies Sweet's version and elevates it to new psycho-rock heights.
26. "Black Diamond" by the Replacements
From the same mid-Eighties album as "Androgynous," this KISS blaster fits nicely aside such ravers as "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" and "Gary's Got a Boner." Nowadays what's left of the 'Mats can muster only lame albums and sappy videos. Ah, memories.
25. "Freddy's Dead" by Fishbone
If songwriting were a martial art, Curtis Mayfield would wear a black belt. Fishbone does him some justice.
24. "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" by Circle Jerks
Jackie DeShannon will never be the same.
23. "Suspicious Minds" by the Heptones
The Elvis (Presley) classic set to a three-beat rhythm by the veteran reggae group.
22. "Heartbreak Hotel" by John Cale
The Elvis (Presley) classic set to piano and voice by Lou Reed's old buddy. Maybe Velvet Underground should have let Cale sing more often.
21. "Walk on the Wild Side" by John Palumbo
Palumbo's nostalgic "Drifting Back to Motown," also from Victim of the Nightlife, should be a hit. So should this. Funky, ultramodern backing provides a striking contrast to the cynical vocals and soaring harmonies in this heavily rearranged but still-faithful treatment. Probably what the Velvets would have sounded like if they started in 1991 and invited David Bowie to produce and sing.
20. "Strange" by R.E.M.
From Lou Reed nuggets to this perfect Pylon tune ("Michael's nervous and the lights are bright" sung by Michael Stipe!), R.E.M. has never been shy about remaking. At one point when they used to tour, the boys would silence audiences with a harrowing, pin-drop, a cappella reading of "Moon River." Cool, but not as cool as "Strange."
19. "Raspberry Beret" by Hindu Love Gods
H.L.G. consisted of the instrument-playing members of R.E.M. and singer Warren Zevon. They covered a bunch of old blues and such for a one-off album, this being the best of the batch. Further, it proves Prince has some bit of credibility as a songwriter.
18. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by Elvis Costello
Linda Ronstadt, who wouldn't have a career without other people's songs, has covered Elvis (Costello) a number of times, including "Alison" twice. Costello turned animal with a rare cover of his own, from the shimmering, acoustic-oriented, T-Bone Burnett-produced King of America. Royal.
17. "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" by Violent Femmes
Boy George, you're being paged. Or is it aged?
16. "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Graham Parker
Parker loves the good old stuff, particularly the immortal Sam Cooke's work. "Cupid" on The Mona Lisa's Sister is nice, but this cut from Alive! Alone in America is heart shattering.
15. "Crawling from the Wreckage" by Dave Edmund
From Graham Parker's Repeat When Necessary. Repeat either version often.
14. "Try a Little Tenderness" by Three Dog Night
The ultimate playground for the strong-of-voice, this Otis Redding supersong has been done up by everyone from Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers (live) to the Commitments (in the new Alan Parker movie). The Three Dog Night rendering on 1970's Captured Live at the Forum stands as the best.
13. "All Along the Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix Dylan's own is a pretty acoustic, rather low-key reading. Hendrix's is not. And that's what cool covers are all about. In fact, Dylan has said that after hearing Hendrix's treatment, he altered the way he sang the song.
12. "Tangled Up in Blue" by the Jerry Garcia Band
This list could, of course, include any of the Byrds' or Roger McGuinn's Dylan borrowings. The Grateful Dead has also turned through pages of the Dylan song book a number of times. This track, from the new Garcia double album (which contains a ton of covers), was chosen because of the cool, female background vocals.
11. "Chimes of Freedom" by Bruce Springsteen
Roger McGuinn performs a killer live version of Dylan's powerhouse bell ringer. Bruce recorded it. So many people do Dylan better than Dylan.
10. "For What It's Worth" by the Candy Skins
This cool new British band draws heavily on Sixties sounds, and included this Buffalo Springfield cover on its recent debut, Space I'm In. The group also sampled Mick Jagger's "Sympathy for the Devil" scream for this. The Rolling Stones are suing. When the Stones take you to court, you must be doing something right.
9. "Take It to the Limit" by Casselbury-DuPree
They shoot Eagles, don't they?
8. "The Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Butthole Surfers
Donovan once ran into the surf, stoned out of his calabash on the good 'erb, and soon found himself in Atlantis, Texas, doing the mashed potato. Vibrato is one thing, but - oh God, they're drowning!
7. "Cry Me a River" by Aerosmith
Steven Tyler can sing.
6. "Take Me to the River" by Talking Heads
David Byrne can sing.
5. "Little Black Egg" by the Chant
Possibly the greatest guitar-riff hook in the world besides "Day Tripper."
4. "Luka" by the Lemonheads
Suzanne Vega was on the verge of single-handedly regenerating the folk movement - or so the critics said - before she nose-dived with the superficial album that included this tale of a tormented child. She lost her edge, but sold mo' records. The Lemonheads didn't lose their edge, delivering the sympathetic story of the battered boy over fuzzy stun-guitar rips and pounding drums on Lick. Don't know if they were joking, but do know they haven't sold many records.
3. "I Fought the Law" by the Clash
Some might say that the Clash covered a bunch of material within their originals. So what are ya gonna do, throw 'em in jail? The Clash fought the good fight and covered a great tune here.
2. "Seasons in the Sun" by Too Much Joy
Too Much Joy takes covers to extremes, to jail, even. They were arrested, but not convicted, for obscenity when they came to Hollywood and covered 2 Live Crew songs in rock form. Transforming rap to rock was not just an anti-censorship statement, though. The Joy boys also reworked LL Cool J's "That's a Lie" on Son of Sam I Am. Cooler still, they played a little joke on the same album. You might recall that the Clash's first hit was a song called "Train in Vain." But the Clash did not list the song on London Calling. It just sort of shows up as you listen. TMJ did list "Train in Vain" on their album, but the song is not on the record. How could they do anything cooler than that? Cover the Rod McKuen-Jacques Brel smarmfest as if it were a rock song.
1. "One Tin Soldier" by Mad Parade
This mid-Eighties power-punk outfit from Covina, California, was responsible for two supercool covers. "Mother's Little Helper" - the Rolling Stones prophecy of Valium hazes to come - was delivered on speed as the third track on a seven-inch single. For their mini-album, they decided to blister up one of the all-time great songs, the theme from Billy Jack. They weren't the first - Sonny and Cher covered "One Tin Soldier" on their old TV show - but they were the best.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.