Now what do I mean by that phrase? Cover versions ought to be an easy thing to describe but there are all sorts of complications. The songs in the great American songbook–those great songs by the likes of Gershwin and Arlen and Berlin and the rest–are standards. They’ve been sung by dozens if not hundreds of performers. And what about Motown? Some songs moved through multiple performers before producing a definitive version. Is every version after the first a cover?
This can get downright Talmudic. So let’s establish some ground rules. A cover song is a performance by a signer or a band of a song usually associated with another band. Associated to the point of it’s hard to conceive of as anything but the originating band’s song. Imagine if ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was ever recorded by a band other than The Beatles and try to not think of it as a Beatles song. That’s a cover.
But what about unexpected? Covers are sometimes a crutch, a convenient way to get fans of an older act interested in someone new. And sometimes they’re just an act of homage. An unexpected cover, for me, is one that switches genres, seems mismatched with the covering artist or provokes and delights me in some unanticipated way. Let’s let the music do most of the talking.
1. Phil Collins tortured everyone with a straight (and painful) remake of this Supremes hit but who knew a rockabilly masterpiece lay buried inside? I especially love that first bend of the C chord using the Bigsby. Check out the Stray Cats covering You Can’t Hurry Love:
2. There’s a story that this Burt Bacharach-Hal David gem was given to Herb Alpert who cringed at singing about “sprinkling moon dust in your hair.” He gave the song to a new act he’d signed, The Carpenters. So it seems more than a little incongruous for Paul Weller, not the world’s most cuddly guy, to cover it. He knocks it out of the park.
3. Another Motown cover, this time by Los Lobos. While the reading is more or less straight, the roots-rock/mexicali heavy Wolves broadened their definition of roots music when they started playing Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?
4. Let’s stay in the soul groove. After playing some of the most iconic guitar of the British Invasion and Classic Rock eras, Jeff Beck took up the mantle of primo noodler. This Curtis Mayfield classic showed up on his Flash album, allowing his old bandmate/nemesis Rod Stewart to do a star blue-eyed soul turn on People Get Ready with some beautiful lyrical fills and, blessedly brief, solo runs.
5. If you ever happened to catch the video of The Eagles reunion tour you may remember seeing Joe Walsh doing mad, 4-finger rolls on a Flamenco guitar during Hotel California. Well, a cancion de flamenco does lurk within and it took the Gipsy Kings to tease it out entirely.
6. We started with a mention of the mid-80s, so let’s end with the era’s most famous unexpected and wildly successful cover. We’ve spent the last 25 to 30 years parsing the population into ever finer segments that talk past each other. We used to find common ground as do Hollis‘ own Run DMC covering Aerosmith’s Walk this Way.
Got any to share?