30 April 2009

When the Cover Version Pushes Aside the Original

Here we discuss a few cover versions of songs that are better than the originals. I think of these as I do great film sequels: they occur only rarely.

The Otis Redding clip below is one of the earliest examples, in post-50s rock, of a cover artist stealing a song out from under the original artists. If there is any justification at all for the Stones continuing to add Satisfaction to their set lists, it is as a tribute to Otis Redding

Immediately below is a live performance from 1966, around the time Redding
"broke out".

And here's another: Neil Young doing a live cover, in 1992, if Dylan's Just Tom Thumb's Blues

Having, on my great southwest Texas travel adventure 20 years ago, 'been lost in Juarez at Easter time', where 'the cops definitely had no use for me', I have always loved and identified with this early Dylan classic.

Here Neil, his classic black Les Paul in hand, turns up the volume and distortion to give "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" just the right coke-jitter edginess. Though this performance is a decade and a half old, it stands perfectly as a metaphor for the city under drug war siege Ciudad Juarez is today.

But Neil is like that -- he makes whatever he touches timeless. Neil is one of the few performers who can incorporate Dylan vocal mannerisms into his performance without looking silly.

Think about it, who even tries?
(I heard Jagger stumble and botch it only once. He never tried again after Godard caught him doing Dylan in the recording session for "Sympathy for the Devil", included in Godard's film One Plus One.

Here, Neil executes a rugged Dylan-esque vocal flawlessly.


This last definitive cover I'll mention here you can put to the test yourself. Johnny Cash's cover of U2's song One is number 5 on my black jukebox in the left column. Johnny Cash' cover of One, by U2, discussed in an earlier post here, is now definitive. Just check out track 5 and let me know what you think. In my view, now that Cash has passed on, he owns this song (artistically) and no one will ever take it back.

The lesson here: just because you didn't write that great song doesn't mean you can't do the best version ever. Indeed, I do the world's best cover of Neil Young's Cortez the Killer, I just can't prove it anymore.

{Post inspired by WhiteRay at Echoes in the Wind: "Otis Redding, Neil Young & Gypsy"}

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