Cover versions can be divisive, among bands as well as fans; I recall Graham Nash fleeing The Hollies over their decision to record an LP of Bob Dylan songs. And they’re often a sign that the creative well is dry; a way to mark time and fulfil contractual obligations. But I love seeing artists out of their comfort zone, trying to put their stamp on an already familiar tune. Compiling a Top 50 of great covers is a cover version in itself. It’s been done before. Poring over several such charts during these pandemic days, I noticed how similar they all are. There’s a consensus around certain songs. I’m thinking of the Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind, Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love and Ike and Tina Turner’s Proud Mary, none of which, in my opinion, comes anywhere near the original. I reckoned I could do better. Cocker does feature in my deliberations but the track I’ve chosen is superior, I feel, to his over-wrought take on Ringo Starr’s song. Yes, some of the records in other cover selections appear here – it would be criminal to omit the songs by Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix which occupy my top spots – but I wanted to draw attention to fantastic reinterpretations by lesser-known performers such as Karl Blau, Unicorn, Tindersticks and The Czars. A quick caveat: Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, Dusty Springfield’s Goin’ Back, I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye, Dave Berry’s fabulous take on Ray Davies’s Strange Effect and Friends by Arrival would all have made the cut but for question marks over whether they are covers or first versions. Another one: this list could have been full of Aretha and The Beatles, but I’ve restricted them to two entries each. I’m not saying they’re all better than the originals, although it would take a lot to persuade me that The Unthanks and Johnnie Allan, to give two examples, don’t own the songs listed here. Earlier in lockdown, a chum asked for my top 10 albums of all time. After much agonising I whittled it down to 20 and he posted them on Facebook, only for ‘Fred’ to declare himself ‘not impressed’. I don’t ask you to be impressed, but it would be great to hear your verdict on my choices – and a few of your own. MY TOP 50 COVERS OF ALL TIME
1: I Say A Little Prayer – Aretha Franklin
A year after Dionne Warwick hit paydirt with the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song in 1967, the piano intro and backing vocals signalled a different mood on Aretha’s rendition, which drilled into the dark heart of David’s lyric.
2: All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix Experience Bob Dylan’s 1967 original marked his return to acoustic music after Blonde On Blonde. Hendrix gave it a heavier, apocalyptic, cinematic feel. Dylan acclaimed it as definitive. Fine versions too by The Alan Bown and XTC. 3: Starless – The Unthanks Two folk-singing Geordie sisters essaying a 1974 prog-jazz number by King Crimson might have been a cover too far, but Becky’s uniquely breathy style and the dark instrumentation made their 2011 version eerily atmospheric. 4: Turn! Turn! Turn! – The Byrds
Pete Seeger’s ‘biblical’ 1959 song for The Limeliters was made for The Byrds’ heavenly harmonies and regal Rickenbackers, taking the message ‘A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late’ to No1 as Vietnam fried in ’65.
5: The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore – Walker Brothers Undeterred by Frankie Valli’s 1965 flop, the Walkers gave the song a production reminiscent of Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ three years later. Scott’s deep baritone and the title-line harmonies brought out its disconsolate majesty.
6: Twist and Shout – The Beatles
It began as the mop-tops’ copy of the Isleys’ cover of the Top Notes for their debut LP, then became a primal, frantic one-take corker capturing Lennon on ‘larynx-tearer’ vocal (George Martin) and the intensity of their club sound.
7: A New England – Kirsty MacColl Billy Bragg’s 1983 song was skeletal and short. MacColl heard him do it live, asked him to pen extra verses and drenched it in lavish harmonies. The result: a hymn to space hardware and the biggest hit of a life cruelly cut short. 8: Need Your Love So Bad – Fleetwood Mac The 1955 R&B ballad by Little Willie John, who died in jail on a manslaughter charge, received a sumptuous arrangement, with serene strings (criticised as too commercial by blues purists in 1968) alongside Peter Green’s guitar. 9: The ‘In’ Crowd – Bryan Ferry Dobie Gray’s 1964 original seemed unsurpassable, but a lyric about a suave elite with their ‘own way of walkin’ was a natural for a singer with a powerful sense of visual style. The power-chord intro draws you in and away you go. 10: Promised Land – Johnnie Allan Allan’s 1971 foray into the ‘road’ song Chuck Berry wrote in prison using a borrowed atlas is branded Swamp Pop or Cajun R&B. Whatever you call it, he actually eclipses the rock ‘n’ roll laureate’s original and Presley’s 1974 rendition.
11: Fallin’ Rain – Karl Blau Link Wray’s power-chord instrumental Rumble made the Native American’s name, but in 1971 he found his voice and began making great Americana. In 2016 alt-country singer Blau built on its ethereal feel to create a mesmeric epic.
12: My Back Pages – The Byrds A case can be made for Roger McGuinn’s group as the ultimate covers band. This gem from 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday is arguably their best reworking of numerous Dylan tracks. It now feels like the template version. 13: R-E-S-P-E-C-T – Aretha Franklin Although time and feminism have rendered the macho tone of Otis Redding’s 1965 original dated, it was superseded within two years anyway by Franklin’s robust, storytelling twist, which made it a true anthem for the era. 14: The Letter – Joe Cocker The Box Tops’ 1967 hit was lean blue-eyed soul. On a 1972 live set stuffed with great covers, Cocker’s gruff vocal was superbly supported by Leon Russell’s piano and the Mad Dogs & Englishmen band and choir’s big sound.
15: Maybe I’m Amazed – Faces Nine months after Paul McCartney’s finest post-Beatles song graced his debut solo LP in 1970, Ronnie Lane and Rod Stewart traded lines on Faces’ splendid soul-infused revamp, cut live in New York for the Long Player LP.
16: Freedom For The Stallion – Boz Scaggs Gospel-tinged Allen Toussaint song which first surfaced in 1971 with a fine version by Lee Dorsey and was later a minor hit for disco act Hues Corporation. In between came Scaggs’s wondrous rendition from the My Time album.
17: Changes – Charles Bradley Stirring reinvention of a mournful ballad from 1972 by Black Sabbath of all people. On his 2016 album of the same name, Bradley’s gravelly rasp gave it an anthemic feel, its title increasingly imbued with political significance. 18: Trapped – Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band A flop as a 1972 single for its writer, the reggae star Jimmy Cliff, but Springsteen found it on a cassette he bought in an airport and gave it a slow, tense rock feel with a dramatic chorus which became a staple of his live shows.
19: Love Hurts – Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris Taking on the 1960 song recorded by the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison was brave. The duo sang it like they meant it – which it transpired they did – like everything on Parsons’ posthumously released Grievous Angel LP. 20: Ruby Baby – Donald Fagen A US hit for The Drifters (1956) and Dion (1962), this Leiber/Stoller song was recalibrated by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen in a cool, jazzy arrangement for 1982’s Nightfly album. The horns are majestic and the whole thing swings.
21: Little Sister – Ry Cooder
Cooder gave Elvis Presley’s 1961 original a rousing makeover on 1979’s Bop Till You Drop. Seldom can any record have owed so much to the backing singers, with Bobby King and his cohorts surging along in exhilarating style.
22: A Change Is Gonna Come – Otis Redding With its slow pace and lush strings, Sam Cooke deemed his 1964 civil-rights song too morbid. The next year, with various MGs, Mar-Keys and Memphis Horns framing his vocal, Redding trod a perfect line between pained and defiant. 23: The Dolphins – Beth Orton & Terry Callier There are several great covers of Fred Neil’s finest song (yes, even better than Everybody’s Talkin’), but Orton and Callier take it to a hazy, dreamy folk-jazz place that has echoes of two lost greats, Nick Drake and John Martyn. 24: These Days – Gregg Allman Many cite Nico’s 1967 version as superior to the 1973 release by its writer, Jackson Browne. I beg to differ, and also recommend Allman’s blues-inflected treatment from 1973 for nailing the lovelorn desolation of the lyric. 25: Angeleyes – The Czars Abba’s 1978 original was voted a miss on Juke Box Jury by a panel including Johnny Rotten. The Czars’ 2006 reworking, featuring the honeyed baritone of John Grant, gives the song a fresh twist. Indubitably, a smash hit.
26: Save The Country – Fifth Dimension Gospel-influenced rallying cry written and sung by Laura Nyro in reaction to the 1968 slaying of Bobby Kennedy. Fifth Dimension’s lush harmonies were labelled ‘champagne soul’, but this took ‘protest’ into the top 10.
27: Walk On By – Isaac Hayes If you know Hayes only for the Shaft theme, check out this 1969 masterpiece. Bacharach-David’s lament for lost love turns Dionne Warwick’s ballad into a funky, multi-layered magnum opus running to 12 glorious minutes. 28: If You’re Looking For A Way Out – Tindersticks Impossible to top Odyssey’s lavish 1980 ballad, with Lillian Lopez singing her heart out, but Tindersticks take it to a different place, its intimate, pared-back arrangement the perfect setting for Stuart Staples’ low, pleading vocal. 29: P.F. Sloan – Unicorn Glen Campbell took Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman to spellbinding heights. Britain’s Unicorn cast a similar spell on his paean to one of the ‘new Dylans’, yet despite a stunning intro and harmonies to die for, it never caught on. 30: You Really Got A Hold On Me – The Beatles Along with Please Mr Postman, the Fabs’ gritty cover of Smokey Robinson’s song – a B-side (!) for The Miracles in 1962 – was their introduction to Tamla Motown. John and George share lead vocals and do justice to a great song.
31: Walk Away Renee – The Four Tops No longer able to call on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s genius, the Tops resorted to covers yet made the Left Banke’s chamber pop and Tim Hardin’s If I Were a Carpenter their own thanks to Levi Stubbs’s impassioned singing.
32: Better Things – Fountains Of Wayne The NYC quartet had myriad clever, witty songs (e.g. Stacy’s Mom) but took on the Kinks’ 1981 single – Ray Davies’s song about his failing marriage, later to become a Davies-Springsteen duet – as if it were made for them. 33: At Last I Am Free – Robert Wyatt Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’ slow-burning cri de coeur was sung breathtakingly by Alfa Anderson for 1979’s dancefest C’est Chic. To these ears, Wyatt turned its highly personal context to an implied political one: free at last! 34: Wild Horses – The Sundays Huge John Peel favourites, Sundays’ founders Harriet Wheeler and Dave Gavurin ‘retired’ during the 1990s to raise their children, though not before leaving this fragile beauty, by Jagger-Richards, hidden away on a flipside. 35: Seven Days Too Long – Dexys Midnight Runners Chuck Wood’s 1967 foot-stomper achieved Northern Soul cult status but stayed ‘underground’ until Dexys’ pulsating, horn-propelled revamp, led by trombones, on 1979’s Searching For the Young Soul Rebels.
36: Help! – The Damned Clocking in at 1min 43sec, and produced by Nick Lowe, the B-side of the first and finest British punk single, New Rose, was Lennon-McCartney on speed. Regardless of genre, it’s still one of the most thrilling Beatles covers.
37: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart – Al Green Robin and Barry Gibb’s song about their bitter fall-out around heralded the Bee Gees’ reunion in 1971. Green, coming in with a gorgeously poised delivery after a gripping but almost funereal intro, took it to an even higher level. 38: Ballad Of Easy Rider – Fairport Convention Roger McGuinn’s ballad, his solo input on the Easy Rider soundtrack, never sounded better than on Fairport’s fusion of Sandy Denny’s heart-rending voice and Richard Thompson’s melifluous guitar – incredibly a 1969 offcut. 39: When You Walk In The Room – The Searchers Whoever sourced the Liverpool group’s covers knew their stuff. 1964’s remodelling of Jackie DeShannon’s ode to unspoken love was ideal for a harmony-rich, jangly-guitar style that provided a model for The Byrds and others. 40: Hounds Of Love – The Futureheads The Sunderland post-punk band took their shoes off and threw them in the lake to give Kate Bush’s dramatic, lavishly produced paean to passion from 1985 a breakneck working-over as audacious as it was exhilarating 20 years ago.
41: Strawberry Letter 23 – The Brothers Johnson By 1977 George and Louis Johnson were majoring in funk. Nevertheless, when they and producer Quincy Jones sprinkled stardust on Shuggie Otis’s 1971 tale of lovers exchanging love letters, they cut a dazzling pop jewel.
42: Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home) – Paul Young Motown diehards may see this slowed-down reimagining of Marvin Gaye’s 1960s floor-filler as sacrilege. However, by replacing boastfulness with ruefulness, Young not only topped the charts but hit a career peak in 1983. 43: Police & Thieves – The Clash Junior Murvin’s 1976 tale of gang war and police brutality on Jamaica’s streets was adapted with characteristic vigour by the Joe Strummer-fronted quartet for their debut LP 12 months later, cementing the punk-reggae bond. 44: Searching For a Heart – Don Henley Warren Zevon’s sensitive, melodic ballads belied a hell-raising image. Henley, the golden voice of The Eagles, delivered his verdict on love – ‘You can’t start it like a car, you can’t stop it with a gun’ – with panache and precision. 45: Blues Run The Game – Simon & Garfunkel Jackson C Frank’s melancholic masterpiece from 1965 has attracted classy covers by Mark Lanegan, Laura Marling and Counting Crows. The opulent harmonies and sense of fatalism evoked by the folk-rock Everlys edge it.
46: Love The One You’re With – Isley Brothers
Summer Breeze, That Lady... no one fused rock, funk and soul as stylishly as the Isleys circa 1971. In their post-Motown hands, Stephen Stills’ song, inspired by a remark by Billy Preston, was recreated with gospel-like intensity.
47: (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding – Elvis Costello & The Attractions Brinsley Schwarz’s 1974 single didn’t trouble the charts but its appearance on the soundtrack of The Bodyguard film helped fund its writer, Nick Lowe, for years. His then-producer Costello gave it an angrier, energised feel. 48: Eight Miles High – Husker Dü The Byrds’ complex jazz-and-Indian influenced 1966 hit, arguably the first psychedelic rock song, was an unlikely candidate for a punk thrash in 1984. The Minnesota trio’s barrage of noise, rage and angst worked brilliantly. 49: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – Devo A textbook example of a cover that transforms the original, Devo’s 1978 take on the Rolling Stones’ 1965 tale of sexual frustration gives it a jerky, funky feel. See also the Akron, Ohio sextet’s take on Lee Dorsey’s Workin’ In a Coal Mine. 50: To Love Somebody – Nina Simone The Bee Gees’ 1967 original has been interpreted by artists as diverse as Gram Parsons and PP Arnold, Eric Burdon and Michael Bublé. Two years later Simone brought her own brand of magic to the song, earning a British hit.
BUBBLING UNDER: THE NEXT 25 51: Hey Joe – Jimi Hendrix Experience / The Leaves 52: Arnold Layne (live) – David Gilmour & David Bowie / Pink Floyd 53: With Tomorrow – This Mortal Coil / Gene Clark 54: Money – The Beatles / Barrett Strong 55: It Must Be Love – Madness / Labi Siffre
56: Stand By Me – John Lennon / Ben E King 57: Help Me Make it Through the Night – John Holt / Kris Kristoffersen 58: Wild Is The Wind – David Bowie / Johnny Mathis 59: I Should Have Known Better – The Skatalites / The Beatles 60: Private Life – Grace Jones / The Pretenders 61: Wild World – Jimmy Cliff / Cat Stevens
64: Pretty Ballerina – eels / Left Banke
65: Chelsea Morning – Fairport Convention / Joni Mitchell 66: What Do You Want the Girl To Do – Lowell George / Boz Scaggs 67: Rocket Man – Kate Bush / Elton John 68: Sound & Vision – Beck / David Bowie 69: Tiny Dancer – Ben Folds / Elton John 70: She Said She Said – The Black Keys / The Beatles 71: Love Vigilantes – Oysterband / New Order 72: Only Love Can Break Your Heart – Saint Etienne / Neil Young 73: Everything I Own – Ken Boothe / Bread 74: Mercy Mercy Me – Robert Palmer / Marvin Gaye 75: Maggie’s Farm – The Specials / Bob Dylan