A great song isn’t just a collection of insightful lyrics, a catchy melody and a clever hook. Sometimes what makes a song great is the performance. The original incarnation of a really good song can provide the foundation of future greatness in the form of an even better cover version. In this article, I take a look at what I consider to be 5 essential cover versions of songs that are better than the original.
All Along the Watchtower – The Jimi Hendrix Experience, original by Bob Dylan, first released in 1967 on the John Wesley Harding album. I honestly only ever heard the original version for the first time while researching this article. Bob Dylan: singer, songwriter, guitar player, author, artist, and entrepreneur, wrote this song using is typical insightful and fanciful lyrics. Jimi Hendrix and his band-mates (Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass) were able to take – in my opinion – a pretty average folk song and turn into an iconic rock anthem, still popular on classic rock stations over 50 years after its initial release.
From the haunting acoustic guitar that kicks off the song to the signature Fender Stratocaster lead guitar, the steady drumbeat and groove bass familiar to most Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings, this version was injected with a new kind of life and vigor that was missing from the original. What really sells it is the bridge where Jimi plays some distorted slide guitar through what sounds like an early version of a flanger, which then leads to some really cool wah pedal work and a really good guitar solo. Jimi’s vocals were also much more poignant and emotion filled than the original. There is no doubt in my mind that this version is superior to the original. Apparently, even Mr. Dylan himself was very impressed with Hendrix’s version.
For more really interesting reading on this and many other songs and performers, check out ultimateclassicrock.com.
References: Wikipedia; bobdylan.com; ultimateclassicrock.com
Knocking On Heaven’s Door – Guns N’ Roses, original by Bob Dylan, first released by Dylan on the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack, 1973. Although both versions are very good, I prefer the Guns N’ Roses version to the original. Duff McKagan’s bass playing on this song (and on most other GNR songs) is first rate and gives this version of Knocking On Heaven’s Door a punch that to is lacking in the original. Of course the other elements of this recording help too, such as the guitar onslaught of Slash and Izzy Stradlin – the last studio album by Guns N’ Roses he appeared on – the gripping vocals by Axl Rose and drums by Matt Sorum all combined to give it a kick that Bob Dylan probably never could have imagined.
Guns n’ Roses played it live for many years but released the studio version in 1990 as part of the Days of Thunder soundtrack, and released it on their album, Use Your Illusion II the following year.
References: bobdylan.com and Wikipedia for dates and verification of certain facts.
You Really Got Me – Van Halen, original by The Kinks. The original was probably considered pretty heavy for its time, featuring Dave Davies’ power chords and Ray Davies’ lyrics.
The Van Halen version captured the essence of the song and multiplied by 100 to create a power pop song (a little too commercial to be considered metal) that became somewhat of an anthem of the late seventies and early eighties. It appeared on their 1978 debut album, often played on the radio directly after Eruption (a wild instrumental number, highlighting Eddie Van Halen’s virtuosity), which by the way is still a very common occurrence decades after its original release.
Reference: Wikipedia for dates and verification of certain facts.
Crossroads – Cream, original by Robert Johnson. Talk about a roots rival, this one reaches way back into the early days of the Delta Blues. Originally released as Crossroads Blues, this song has so much mystery and mystique, with so many crazy rumors surrounding it, which, for the most part, belong more to folklore than fact.
Robert Johnson’s music, by and large, had been forgotten for many years since it was originally recorded in the mid thirties until a revival in the early sixties by mostly white fans who popularized his music again. English musicians of the late fifties and early sixties began to interpret and adapt not only Robert Johnson’s music but also the music other famous bluesmen as well.
Eric Clapton became a huge fan of Johnson’s, which led to his cover of Johnson’s Crossroads Blues as a member of Cream. They titled the song, simply Crossroads. The band Cream consisted of Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals, Ginger Baker on drums and Jack Bruce on bass and vocals. Other than the lyrics, it’s hard to imagine that both these recordings are of the same song they are so different but if you are a fan of blues-based classic rock, have a listen to Johnson’s version – it’s a really cool history lesson. If you’re a fan of rock guitar, you will notice many very familiar elements in Johnson’s guitar playing.
References: Wikipedia and “Escaping the Delta” by Elijah Wald,Harper Collins Publishers
Blinded by the Light – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Bruce Springsteen original. If you played these two versions one after the other, you would be excused for not realizing they are in fact, recordings of the same song. Manfred Man did such a tremendous job of making this one their own, that it became a hit in its own right. Mixing soulful vocals, keyboards and synthesizers, masterful guitar playing and drumming to create a very unique take on Springsteen’s song, which can still be heard on the radio some 45 years after its initial release. The unique layered vocals at the end of the song, with all their opposing parts was a very original feature of Manfred Mann’s version, somewhat reminiscent of the vocals in Gold Dust Woman and The Chain both by Fleetwood Mac.
For Part 2 of this series on cover songs, visit: Cover Songs – The Ambiguous List