‘All Along The Watchtower’. Not a bad tune – nice bit of harmonica, Dylan refraining on the whole from the elk drowning guttural yelps, perfectly pleasant thrumming bass and patter of drums. Two-and-a-half minutes of OK.
When Jimi takes over, though, sheeeet…
It’s the classic example of a cover version surpassing its source material, and it’s something that happens quite a lot. It’s a testament to Dylan that he’s been covered so many times, and in a paradoxical way it’s a testament to the strength of his songs’ DNA that some artists go on to create better versions, from The Byrds’ jingle jangle take on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ to Guns ‘N Roses’ crass balls out reworking of ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ and Neil Young’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’.
Whether Kesha’s forthcoming rendition of ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ joins these ranks remains to be seen, and depends largely on the amount of Auto-Tune and rave synths she adds to lines like “I once loved a woman, a child I’m told / I give her my heart but she wanted my soul”.
Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ is another big one. The Man In Black’s unofficial epitaph, recorded shortly before his death, hardly altered the Nine Inch Nails version but that pained, fragile, almost broken voice – coupled with the timing of the track and Rick Rubin’s production – bestows on it a power missing from the admittedly pretty powerful original.
Also in the ‘Wasn’t That The Original?” category: Jeff Buckley’s take on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and Nirvana’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Sorry, we mean Bowie’s. Covered by Nirvana. Bowie’s actually had it with people thinking it’s a Nirvana track, and once said of the song: “Kids come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song’, and I think, ‘fuck you, you little tosser!’.”
NME’s Photo Director Marian Paterson prefers the Nirvana recording (and their version of ‘In The Pines’) while NME’s Assistant Reviews Editor Laura Snapes selects Beck’s takes on INXS as her choice, with the reasoning: “Why? PHWOAR, THAT’S WHY.”
NME.COM’s Assistant Editor Priya Elan nominates Kim Carrnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (“The original is this strange, plonky country song and the cover is new wave gold”) while NME.COM Editor Luke Lewis opts for Ryan Adams’ ‘Wonderwall’, declaring
It takes guts to take a melody as well-known as this and change it. But Adams’ desolate whisper quarries a depth and subtlety that’s missing from the original. Noel Gallagher agreed – after he heard this version in 2004, he started singing it Adams’ way.
NME’s Reviews Editor Emily Mackay nominates Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, originally by Betty Hutton. “No offence to the 50s actress, comedienne and star of Annie Get Your Gun”, she says, “but the sassy shazam of her horn-parping original serves as a mere backdrop for Bjork and video-director Spike Jonze to scrawl their deranged silver-screen fantasies across.”
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I’d personally probably add The Fall’s ‘Lost In Music’, The White Stripes’ ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, The Who’s ‘Young Man Blues’ (although not ‘Summertime Blues’), and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s ‘Blinded By The Light’ to the list.
The Slits and Creedence Clearwater Revival both almost steal ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ off Marvin Gaye, meanwhile, but not quite.
Anyway, over to you. Which cover versions are better than the originals? We’re going to make a gallery and playlist from your suggestions so let us know.