One Song, Five Takes — A Musical Meme

I haven’t done a musical meme for a while, so here’s one for you:

Find a song with at least five cover versions (i.e., a version other than the most famous version) and give a quick review of each cover (can’t find five? Try three, then).

My selection: "Unchained Melody" from the Righteous Brothers

Cover Artists:

Cyndi Lauper (off of 2003’s At Last): A slow, torchy and surprisingly affecting version; Lauper’s been developing a reputation as a smart song interpreter, and this song certainly lends credence to that. This is the version you’d play when, in fact, you hope God will speed your love to you, because your love is not with you now. Rating: B+

Justin Guarini (off of 2003’s Justin Guarini): Someone dropped Justin into a karaoke booth! This thing might have gotten 2003’s teen girls all moisty, but here in 2005, it’s exhibit A in his trial for crimes against humanity. Rating: D

Heart (off of 2002’s The Essential Heart): You know, the Wilson sisters can do a fine cover of Led Zeppelin. Righteous Brothers? Not so much. It’s not like this is a subtle tune, mind you, but Heart’s inherent level of rawk-bombast is waaaaaay too much for this poor little love song. Dial the whole thing back 70% and it would be okay. As is, pass. Rating: C-

Stray Cats (off of 2005’s Live From Europe — Paris July 5, 2004): A toss-off version, sung in French, no less, with microphone feedback and everything. Brian Setzer’s rockabilly guitar bridge makes for a nice touch, though. Rating: C+

Al Green (off of 1973’s Livin’ For You): Oh, come on. Al Green could sing Britney Spears trailer park pop anthem "Toxic" and make it sound like a smooth soulful thing. That he’d do justice here isn’t even a question. Green drops in Hammond B3 organs, soul strings and backup singers and makes this version a top contender for 1973’s "Song Most Procreated To" title. Rating: A

What have you got? 

33 Comments on “One Song, Five Takes — A Musical Meme”

  1. I’m your huckleberry.

    I’ll go with “I Fought the Law”

    5. Hank Williams — Really really really really terrible.
    4. Green Day — More of Green Day’s derivative recycled punk rawk crap
    3. Mike Ness — A tie with the Dead Kennedy’s for second best cover of this song.
    2. Dead Kennedys — Jello Biafra and the boys unique sound really makes this song their own.
    1. Clash — Best Punk Cover Ever!

  2. I was underwhelmed with the Green Day version as well. Possibly because if I recall correctly they recorded it for a Pepsi commercial.

  3. Well, you asked for it. Here’s 5 versions of “Toxic”.

    1. Nickel Creek. An appreciative audience whoops and hollers when they’re given permission to like something by Britney because it’s covered by someone cool (see also: Travis, Richard Thompson). Too bad this version sucks. Dumbass cool-chasers. Sweet violin, though: C

    2. Local H. Thrashy rendition turns it into another generic post-punk number but the hook survives and you can dance to it. Awesome bass: A-

    3. The Chapin Sisters. Ahhh … this one has some emotional resonance and gorgeous harmonies. They are fit to touch Richard Thompson’s tuning peg: A

    4. Michael Gum. This proves that the impact of the Chapin Sisters’ folky version reflect true talent, not just a cheap contrast of styles: C-

    5. Britney. I call this a cover because she didn’t write or produce any of it, just showed up to sing. Any interchangeable breathy blonde “singer” would have done as well. Britney: D. Her producers: A+ for a glorious Bollywood/Bond/disco mashup.

  4. Agreed about the Local H, but “I call this a cover because she didn’t write or produce any of it” is just wrong. Not only is that not what a cover means, but that means that huge swathes of 20th century music that isn’t by modern pop starlets get relegated to cover status for no good reason other than the fact that modern rockists don’t like Britney.

  5. “Tainted Love”

    Originally song by Gloria Jones (1964): A good version of the song. The whole tone of the song is slow and “bluesy”. You’d imagine that the point of the song was her confession that he’d taken her love and that’s not nearly all (meaning her virginity).

    Redone in 1977 by The Clash. Revamped the song, gave it raw edge, punk sound and really made this their song. She took his love and his favorite jeans, his record collection and his last pack of smokes.

    Redone by Softcell in 1982. Most people think this is the original version. And Softcell really did make it their own. Of course in their singing of the line “and that’s not nearly all” leads you to wonder what else besides love could you take from a guy…not clear if they were alluding to a fluid or their reputation at the local Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.

    Redone by Hootie and the Blowfish in 2000. Really bad. She took their love and apparently what ever roaches were left in the ashtray. They tried to make it their own version but in the shadow of Softcell, it was a sad attempt.

    Marilyn Manson chimed in in 2001 with their grossly commercial attempt at making another radio-friendly remake. Sadly, many young people are under the mistaken impression that Marilyn Manson created the song and is a rock god. Perhaps if they knew what a parody the group is and how they are the punch-line of a very old joke…At any rate, I digress- this version is just bad. She took his love and what ever venereal diseases he happened to have at that moment.

  6. Getting Seasonal:

    Frosty the Snowman

    1. Leon Redbone & Dr John: In my opinion, the ultimate version of Frosty. A+

    2. The Ronettes: “Frawsty Da Snowman” Not bad, pretty good original take on it. The New Yawk accent is nice. B+

    3. Los Straitjackets: Funky instrumental surf-rock version. Would sound perfect at any holiday party. A

  7. I am so sorry! I made a huge error…The Clash should be replaced by Coil in 1984. My wife read over my shoulder and slapped me on the back of the head. The Clash are credited with having done a cover that they never did…and apparently it was really good. Just stands as testament to their strength- even in fantasy land, they rock.

  8. It seems that I can’t find songs with multiple covers, but I do adore a few unexpected covers.

    1. “Easy” – Faith No More. It’s so true to the original, with only a few tips that they’re in any way less than 100% earnest in their adoration of the song.

    2. “Sweet Dreams” – Marilyn Manson. Yes, I know, Dane dissed it above, but it was the first track I ever heard from MM, and truly appreciated the dark retelling of an old 80’s favorite.

    3. “Baby One More Time” – Marty Casey. This was a one-off from the tragic Rockstar:INXS series this past summer. Marty took the song in a wonderful new direction, changing the nature of it in it’s entirety.

    Now can anyone do what I’ve failed to do (with a little Googling) and tell me others that have covered the same songs?

  9. Ian, let me quote that whole chunk about Britney again: “I call this a cover because she didn’t write or produce any of it, just showed up to sing. Any interchangeable breathy blonde “singer” would have done as well.

    I didn’t write that to denigrate Piaf, Sinatra or anyone else who doesn’t write or officially produce their own songs. Singers who are deeply involved in the interpretation of a song written by someone else bring real talent and musicality to the table, and that counts for a lot in my book. Someone can do an amazing job on a job written by someone else and essentially will end up owning that song. Britney, God love her for being part of several pop sings I truly love, does not have that talent.

  10. Offhand, I’m sure there are many covers of songs I dig, but five of ’em? That I’ve heard? Not offhand.

    That said, here are a few I can think of that haven’t slipped from my mind:

    Oingo Boingo – I Am the Walrus – Just great. Better than the original, I think, inasmuch as their version could be performed live. And rocked.

    U2 – Unchained Melody – Pretty meh, I think. Still at a loss as to why U2 decided to perform it.

    I Can’t Make You Love Me – Prince/George Michael – both version don’t really hold a candle to the original, in my estimation. But they aren’t BAD.

    The Loomers – I’ll Be Around – Heard this version before I ever heard the original. I think this one is better, actually.

  11. Actually there’s one more cover of “Unchained Melody” that I can think of — by Joni Mitchell, off her 1982 album “Wild Things Run Fast”.

    The song begins as “Chinese Cafe” and gently morphs into “Unchained Melody”.

    A slow, lovely version of a classic, in Mitchell’s very distinctive voice. I’d give it an A.

  12. Famous Blue Raincoat.

    There have been dozens of covers, according to this site, but I only have access to three covers and the original.

    Leonard Cohen, the original. Still my favorite. Cohen and a guitar, with minimal adornments. The female background singers are just another instrument; their voices are sounds and not competing words. The whole things is heartbreaking in the best of ways.

    John Bergeron. There’s more gravel in his voice than in Cohen’s, but it’s wrapped in cottony layers of backup singers: the ladies sing along with him, and most of the song consists of them all singing together. Diluted the impact of the song, I think. And while it’s overall quite faithful to Cohen’s, Bergeron has left out any irregularities, and the resulting song is smooth and even – more like a lullabye than a song of loss and pain. It does have violin, and you can never go wrong with violin. But the overall version? Meh.

    Angela McCluskey & Tryptich. You can also never go wrong with cello. This version starts with cello (Would it be too wrong of me to say “You had me at cello”? Heh.) and then adds plinky drums, the name of which I don’t know. These plinky drums continue, and they’re oddly urgent and intense and unrelenting. And it’s all beautiful. There are no backup singers, just one woman’s voice, very clear. She’s made a few small changes in the lyrics – just a word here, a phrase there – and it alters the whole thing in a subtle way that I kinda liked. This cover is one of my all-time favorites.

    Tori Amos. This cover, however, is my all-time favorite for this song. What is there to say about Tori Amos that you don’t already know? Like McCluskey’s, this version has no backup voices. I’m pleased about that; this song doesn’t have room for more than one person at a time. Tori’s version has the most emotion of these covers, with just as much spilling from the piano as from her voice. (Incidentally, I’ve heard that she approached this song as Jane reading the letter that she’d found.)

  13. Another great cover of Famous Blue Raincoat is by the much-underappreciated Jennifer Warnes. It’s the title cut of an entire album of Leonard Cohen songs.

  14. I’m far too braindead from all the turkey of the past several days to think of much, but I will say this:

    Don McLean’s “American Pie” is a great song that should not be remade by anyone, but most especially not by Madonna or the Brady Bunch Kids. A sickening chill just went down my spine just having to think about the latter…. Brr.

  15. Ahh, the old melancholy favorite, “Hallelujah,” originally by Leonard Cohen. Notable for appearing at the end of nearly any television show in which people die poignantly.

    Rufus Wainwright – Showed up in the Shrek soundtrack, and is probably one of the better versions out there. Solid B

    Jeff Buckley – Oh, Jeffy Buckley… how I miss thee. Probably the best, for my money, from the very first little intake of breath through all the mellowest melancholy tones. A

    Bono (from the Towers of Song cover anthology) – Uhh… yeah… almost kinda nice. Sort of. Q-

    Haven’t found any other covers, though Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have a great, original song by the same name.

  16. David — k.d. lang does a beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, on her album “Hymns of the 49th Parallel”.

  17. The song: “All Along the Watchtower” – Many people think Bob Dylan originally wrote this, owing to its inclusion in the American Beauty soundtrack and many fuzzy memories of the 1960s, which like many such memories are notable for their hallucinatory, delusional qualities. Jimi Hendrix was indeed the originator of the song. Through the powers of octave and rhythm, of reverb and vibrato, he and his guitar were able to transcend time and copyright, and wrest the song from Dylan’s palsied hands. Dylan was retroactively dis-owned (and you may feel free to apply any modern-day connotation of “0WNED!!1!” ’cause it certainly applies). So let’s discuss the covers.

    Bob Dylan This Traveling Wilbury, this erstwhile songwriter, probably deserves some credit as to the rough outlines of the song. His wistful harmonica describes (to use a metaphor) three rickety beams lashed together to support a lonely chair a dozen feet above the ground. His watchtower serves only as a base for observation, for cowards to peep at the columns of armies moving toward, then past. In the original Hendrix, (to extend the metaphor) the watchtower is to Lichtenstein Castle as Michael Corleone was to Fredo. It observes, challenges, and repels those who would do it harm; as dragonfire ripples in the sky and the ground around it is blasted with Illudium PU-36, the watchtower withstands. The day after Ragnarok, its inhabitants, be they joker or thief, can emerge and try to rebuild the world. Conversely, the Dylan version covers the song like a whore’s bedsheet covers Michelangelo’s “David”: sure, it keeps the dust off, but at what cost???

    Dave Matthews Band – These guys are all right. They cover this song all the time, often with a bunch of their jam-band friends. It accompanies many pleasurable activities like hacky-sack, footbag, or seepa. The best covers must be at least double the length of the Hendrix version and four times the length of the Dylan.

    Other covers: claims there are over 200 of these, but I haven’t heard them. And most of those are just alternate recordings of Hendrix or Dylan. So therefore, I’ve covered the biggies.

    But as a bonus:
    Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons“Two Riders Were Approaching”, one of the last chapters in Watchmen. You’ve all read it, you know what I’m talking about. Surpasses the Dylan and nearly attains the lofty heights of the Hendrix.

  18. I’d just like to note that the Righteous Brothers’ rendition of “Unchained Melody”, while undoubtedly the most well-known version of the song, is itself a cover. The original song was composed by Alex North (who later became a great film composer, scoring films like Spartacus and Cleopatra) and lyricist Hy Zaret, and originally recorded by Duke Ellington’s vocalist Al Hibbler in 1955, ten years before the Righteous Brothers recorded it.

  19. If you enjoy covers you may like Coverville, a podcast that is all about covers. or you can subscribe to it via iTunes.

    My favorite covers are The Gourds cover of Jin and Juice, usually credited to Phish. If you’ve heard a blue grass cover of the song it is The Gourds. Eva Destruction and Her Big Band’s cover of Ball and Chain is very nice as well.

  20. This was so much fun, I woke up this morning with another one in my cranium:

    Summertime Blues originally done by Eddie Cochran (I think)

    In no particular order

    1. Blue Cheer, proto heavy metal. They cast off the rockabilly shuffle and lay waste with heavy metal guitars and screeching vocals.

    2. The Who. This version shares a lot in common with the Blue Cheer version. I’m not really sure who recorded first. They may have nothing to do with each other. Both bands were doing similiar things.

    3. Stray Cats. Faithful rendition of a rockabilly classic.

    4. The Beach Boys. Im not sure. Their West Coast surf pop sensibility doesn’t really work well with this particular song.

    5. Rush. A couple of summers ago Rush released a very interesting album of all covers. I’m not that big a Rush fan, but the album was very original, with them impressing their trademark sound onto all the songs. They really took the time to make each song their own. Their version of Summertime Blues goes all the way back to “Working Man” and is a total jam. It is up there as one of the best covers ever. Period. Totally Awesome. Shares a lot in common with Blue Cheer, and The Who, but Geddy Lee’s unique voice totally rawks it into the fifth dimension.

  21. Jaquandor:

    “I’d just like to note that the Righteous Brothers’ rendition of ‘Unchained Melody’, while undoubtedly the most well-known version of the song, is itself a cover.”

    Yup. This is one reason why I noted people should take their bearings off the most famous version, rather than necessarily the original version. As with “Unchained,” there are a few other songs better known in cover versions than the original, the aforementioned “Tainted Love” and “All Along the Watchtower” being two of them.

  22. I’d like to make a small correction…for some reason I wrote “love” instead of “tears” when quoting the lyrics of “Tainted Love”. Maybe it was a Freudian slip but I’m trying not to think about it too hard.

    Also- has anybody else heard of The Clash doing a cover of the song? I could have sworn I had heard it before. After I got slapped I searched through the song catalogs for The Clash and couldn’t find any mention of it. But I did find other people who had had the same delusion.

  23. I’ll pick “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”.

    First, the Duke Ellington more-or-less original that I have, which is actually a 1947 recording: The band is really bright-sounding, more like the 50s orchestra than the 30s. The vocal (Al Hibbler) is smooth but not terribly interesting. The instrumental chorus is, of course, marvelous, particularly the voicing behind the sax solo. The trumpet on the bridge is wonderful; it’s probably Ray Nance, but it might be one of the other guys. The ending is quick and a little disappointing, actually.

    Etta James: This is from 1961, and there are way too many strings for YHB’s taste. There’s an odd pizzicato rhythm-section thing going on, and some woodwinds come in for the bridge. Ugh. On the other hand, Etta. On the other other hand, Etta is not really believable as someone who doesn’t get around much anymore. She plays up the frustration, rather than the melancholy. And at the end, when she repeats the title again, low and intimate, I get the impression that if she isn’t getting around, she isn’t staying in alone, either. C+

    Louis Armstrong: This is from the 1961 Louis and the Duke sessions, and features a small group with the Duke on piano. The great thing about this recording is Barney Bigard’s clarinet playing, which winds around and answers Satchmo’s singing. The piano is tinkling in the background through that, and then comes front to take an uninspired solo. The whole thing swings surprisingly gently, up until the last few bars, when Louis gives it a boffo ending. B

    Mel Torme: Young Mel, but not Very Young Mel, probably the early sixties. A big band, no backup singers. He does the Mel thing, where he screws around with it. Takes what would be the instrumental chorus himself, soloing around the melody more freely than many instrumentalists do, and of course adding words and phrases as he goes. Also does the intimate repeat thing, but then adds a ‘Yeah’ holler for no apparent reason. B-

    Paul McCartney: This is from the Former Soviet Album, recorded live in 1987, and it smokes. The fuzzy guitar noise that replaces the clarinet line isn’t really to my taste, but it suits the version. The instrumental chorus is great (and brief), with piano pounding, guitar slashing, and the drummer whaling. And, you know, vocally, he’s doing that rock star thing that I like. He’s so cute. B+

    B.B. King: This is quite early, and not distinctively B.B., either instrumentally or vocally. There’s a good hot brass line, with a plunger mute trumpet at the start that’s very good. When it comes to the instrumental chorus, there’s mostly imitation Duke with trumpet and sax calling back and forth, followed by a very good trumpet. I should look up who that is. B.B. does do some interesting bending of the melody, particularly on the ‘Mind’s more at ease’ part of the bridge, but there’s no guitar solo, and one the whole, you wouldn’t know it was him. B-

    I know, it’s cheating to do standards, but I’m that way.


  24. Well, here’s a song that I have three cover versions of at hand: “California Dreamin'” (original artists: The Mamas and The Papas).

    1. America (as found on their album The Complete Greatest Hits, original date unknown): Fairly straightforward version, but I wouldn’t pick it over the original. It does have a nice piano intro though.

    2. The Beach Boys (on Made In U.S.A., 1986): Features Roger McGuinn on 12-string guitar. Very slick production, and, of course, since it’s The Beach Boys, the vocal harmonies are impeccable. Nice sax solo in the bridge and coda. I like this one.

    3. Queen Latifah (on The Dana Owens Album, 2004): A slow, soulful rendition of the song (which, as I understand it, was based on an older cover by someone else, can’t remember who). She’s got a great voice for it. Nice arrangement with the strings and acoustic guitar. I like this one, too.

  25. Vardibidian:

    “I know, it’s cheating to do standards, but I’m that way.”

    No it’s not!

  26. “As with ‘Unchained,’ there are a few other songs better known in cover versions than the original…”

    My favorite example of this is Close to You, which is best known in the version by the Carpenters, but was originally recorded by Richard Chamberlain during his “Dr. Kildare” years.

  27. No it’s not!

    Yes it is!

    I dunno, it seemed called for. Actually, I think cf Ian up there, it is kinda cheating, in that there isn’t one version of the song that isn’t a cover. Also, I have twelve ‘covers’ of the “St. Louis Blues” and eleven of “Honeysuckle Rose”, which has got to be cheating, somehow.


  28. “This is one reason why I noted people should take their bearings off the most famous version, rather than necessarily the original version. As with “Unchained,” there are a few other songs better known in cover versions than the original, the aforementioned “Tainted Love” and “All Along the Watchtower” being two of them.”

    Oh, absolutely. It’s just that I’m a film music nut, and we tend to be a little possessive about stuff like that: “Hey! Don’t go referring to ‘Unchained Melody’ as a Righteous Brothers song! Alex North wrote the tune DAMMIT!”

    If there’s a segment of music fandom that has a bigger chip on its shoulder than we film music fans, I’ve not found it!

  29. XTC do a fantastic cover of “All Along The Watchtower” on their first album. Funk bass, harmonica, angular new wave vocal stylings; the thing is practically unrecognizable.

  30. I Put A Spell On You
    First, the iconic version: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

    1) Nina Simone. Replacing the driving horn section of the classic version with piano and strings, Nina gives a rendition as powerful as the original. Able to match Hawkins for sheer emotion, Nina Simone makes this her own song. A

    2) Queen Latifah. While one of the better songs from the Dana Owens Album, this version goes in a different direction, evoking shades of Hawkins first attempt at the song. This rendition is full of sorrow and loss instead of the classic’s possessive rage. While she makes the song much more of a jazz standard, she strips the soul out of the lyrics. B-

    3) Joe Cocker. The one living singer that could possibly match Hawkins for raw loud emotion, and he sings it softly. It almost seems as if he is covering the Queen Latifa version. All I can hear is what the song could have been. D

    4)Natacha Atlas. Ah, the joys of iTunes. An amazing Bollywood-esque number that somehow is devoid of all emotion. B

    5)Buddy Guy and Carlos Santana. Two great guitarists that seem to be playing different songs. If we could strip Santana off of this track, I am certain there is a good song underneath. Sadly, Santana’s guitar licks overpower the rest of the song. D-

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