Let’s face it, most cover songs suck compared to the original. This is usually because the new artist tries too hard to replicate the established one, which is a futile effort that never quite works. However, there are rare occasions when an artist or band picks up on an already great composition and advances it (or even “finishes” it).
Below are nine such examples from throughout the classic rock era, each of which builds on the fine original composition to make an overall better song.
9. “Back In the High Life” by Warren Zevon
originally by Steve Winwood
In 2000 Warren Zevon took a fantastic classic by Steve Winwood and turned it inside-out. While Winwood’s original version was a song of great optimism about making a musical comeback, Zevon’s stripped-down acoustic is a sad (albeit beautiful) reflection of a life which was coming to an end.
Listen to “Back In the High Life Again” by Warren Zevon, 2000:
Original 1986 Steve Winwood version:
8. “(There Is) Always Something There to Remind Me”
by Naked Eyes
originally by Sandie Shaw
“Always Something There to Remind Me” was written by legendary songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 1963 and recorded by several artists through the 1960s, with the most prominent being a jazzy, UK chart-topper by Sandie Shaw (see video below). Two decades later, Naked Eyes released a version loaded with orchestral synth effects that really seems to have brought the song to its full sonic maturity.
7. “Feeling Alright” by Joe Cocker
originally by Traffic
Joe Cocker largely made a career on re-interpreting songs to fit his unique style. “Feeling Alright” introduced the singer to the world as the first song on the first side of his debut album. With a deliberate piano and percussion groove underneath the rocking motion of the vocal melody, the song advances the original version by Dave Mason on Traffic’s self-titled album the previous year.
Listen to “Feeling Alright” by Joe Cocker, 1969:
Original 1969 Traffic version:
6. “Something In the Air” by Tom Petty
originally by Thunderclap Newman
While this song put Thunderclap Newman on the map as it was that group’s only real hit, a much lesser known version of “Something In the Air” was recorded for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits album in 1993. While the steady, bass-driven original has totally unique changes in contrast to the slightly violent message, the Petty remake perfectly fits the grunge-y vibe with a very inventive rendition of the middle section.
Listen to “Something In the Air” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1993:
Original 1969 Thunderclap Newman version:
5. “Come Together” by Aerosmith
originally by The Beatles
Here is a perfect example of a solid composition that just need a little more hard rock edge to elevate it to the realm of rock and roll classic. I know this may be blasphemous to those who hold anything Beatles’ as sacred, and there is little doubt that John Lennon’s classic opener on Abbey Road sets the pace for, perhaps, the best Beatles’ album. But just listen to this Aerosmith cover in comparison to the plethora of horrible Beatles’ covers that accompanied it on the soundtrack for the film Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, and one can see that Aerosmith really got into the heart and soul of this song and brought it up a notch.
Listen to “Come Together” by Aerosmith, 1978:
Original 1969 Beatles version:
4. “Little Wing” by Derek and the Dominos
originally by Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix is the only artist to land on both sides of the equation in this Top 9 List (see our #1 song). His original version of “Little Wing” features an excellent, Curtis Mayfield style guitar progression with poetic lyrics. Unfortunately, the song is cut off in the middle of a pretty spectacular guitar lead. On Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the arrangement is vastly expanded with an extended jam that features dual lead guitars by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, both of whom were huge admirers of Hendrix. Tragically, Hendrix died just days after Derek and the Dominos recorded this song in tribute to him.
Listen to “Little Wing” by Derek and the Dominos, 1970:
Original 1968 Jimi Hendrix version:
3. “You Really Got Me” by Van Halen
originally by The Kinks
Fourteen years before Van Halen’s fantastic debut, Ray Davies and The Kinks set them up perfectly with this ready-made rock to showcase Eddie Van Halen’s phenomenal skills. Following the instrumental lead in of “Eruption”, which is a masterpiece of finger-tapping orchestration, the thundering song proper basically mimics the Kinks’ original in arrangement but protrudes in a multi-dimensional sonic space which set the bar for hard rock for decades to come.
Listen to “You Really Got Me” by Van Halen, 1978:
Original 1964 Kinks version:
2. “Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
originally by Bruce Springsteen
The original “Blinded by the Light” was the first song from Bruce Springsteen’s first album as a happy-go-lucky, stream-of-consciousness avalanche of poetry, which is light and loose. A few years later a musician best known for sixties English pop hits rearranged this (along with a few other early Springsteen tracks) into a well structured and well produced pop song with just enough synths and spacey aura to make it a chart topper in 1976.
Original 1973 Springsteen version:
1. “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix
originally by Bob Dylan
One of the many fantastic talents of Jimi Hendrix was his ability to immediately interpret music upon first listen. There is a story that Paul McCartney played him an early demo of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s club Band” only to have Hendrix do a perfect rendition of the yet-to-be-released song live on stage that very evening. Just three weeks after Bob Dylan released the album John Wesley Harding which included the quasi-religious folk song “All Along the Watchtower”, Hendrix recorded his own version in London in January 1968, playing multiple guitar and bass parts himself while Rolling Stones multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones added various percussion instruments. Released later in 1968 on Electric Ladyland The ethereal aura and dark electric feel of this recording makes it one of the finest recordings ever by Hendrix, if not one of the finest of the late sixties.
Upon hearing Hendrix’s final product, Dylan said; “…he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there…” Ultimately, Dylan released his version as a single a year later and some estimate this to have been his most played song in concerts over the past four and a half decades. However, the Jimi Hendrix version of this song is the most indelible through time and is forever linked to the legendary guitarist.
Listen to “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968:
Original 1967 Bob Dylan version:
“Hard to Handle” by Black Crowes, originally Otis Reading
“People Get Ready” by Jeff Beck & Rod Stewart, originally The Impressions
“With a Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Cocker, originally The Beatles
“We’re All Alone” by Rita Coolidge, originally Boz Scaggs
“Twist and Shout” by The Beatles, originally The Top Notes
With this subjective list we’ve doubtlessly left out scores of artists who may have deserved consideration for this list. Please give us your comments below and tell us where you agree and disagree.
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