I’ve been thinking about cover tunes. Some of my favorite versions of songs are cover versions. The versions of cover songs I tend to dislike are those that are completely expected, singers or bands playing songs by similar artists in essentially identical fashion. Usually, the main reaction I have to such covers is a reminder of how much I like or dislike the original version of the song.
Like many people, the cover songs I enjoy most are those that bring a new dimension to the song, in the process bringing new appreciation to the song itself and to the now multiple versions of it.
I often find that the cover songs that succeed most brilliantly or fail most spectacularly are those with the most incongruent matching of cover artist with original artist and song. There’s an obvious reason for this (and thus, I make no claims here to profundity, but am simply sharing something I’ve been thinking about today) – the greater the distance between expectations of different artists, the more likely some previously unheard dimension or aspect of the song will come to light. When the Sex Pistols did their version of “My Way,” there was no way it was not going to bring something new to the song, for good or bad. In that particular case, I think it’s one of the better examples of an incongruous cover that works. (In fact, some decades on, the Sex Pistols’ version is probably the iconic version for kids raised on rock. I know for myself, it was the version of the song I first came to know, even if I knew right off it was an intentionally ironic cover, and whenever I listen to Frank Sinatra’s version, I sometimes find myself waiting for the verse about killing a cat my way.)
Some cover songs are more socially incongruous than musically incongruous. That is, given common stereotypical expectations of cultural others, some cover versions can seem more incongruous than they probably should, or than they actually are on musical terms. Covers like Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino’s cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” or Algerian rock singer Rachid Taha’s “Rock El Casbah” version of the Clash song will strike many western listeners as unexpected, though on further reflection, an Algerian rock singer covering “Rock the Casbah” is immanently congruous. (In his recent and hilarious novel, Osama Van Halen, Michael Muhammad Knight several times brilliantly skewers such cross-cultural expectations.) In some cases, both sorts of incongruity coexist. An example is Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso’s version of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” What’s incongruous musically here is the crossing of musical genres (something not at all incongruous with Taha’s cover, though present to some extent with Sekouba Bambino’s cover of Brown).
There are obviously many, many incongruous cover tunes, but here’s a short list of ten highly incongruous covers, in no particular order, without any claims to comprehensiveness, and without separating those that are great music from those that are spectacularly bad, but all of which I greatly enjoy for one reason or another.
1. The Sex Pistols’ version of “My Way.”
2. Caetano Veloso’s cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” (admittedly part of a growing cottage industry of jazz and/or “pop standards” versions of Nirvana songs, that also includes covers by artists like Herbie Hancock, Rachel Z, the Josh Roseman Unit, and the Bad Plus)
3. Duran Duran’s cover of Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke”
4. Megadeth’s version of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”
5. Scissor Sisters’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”
6. Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind”
7. Tom Jones’ and the Cardigans’ version of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” (granted not so incongruous on the Cardigans’ part)
8. A Perfect Circle’s version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”
9. The Sex Pistols’ disco choir remake of their own song “God Save The Queen”
10. Diana Ross and the Supremes’ version of “Ode To Billie Joe”