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When a cover is more than a cover

For anyone who has abided a wedding band’s wretched version of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” or was tempted to grab a pistol and go out in a blaze of glory over some bar band’s idiotic “Free Bird” rendition, cover songs can feel like a criminal waste of time.

Yet, about a month back, I saw a ska band at the Ska Brewery (imagine that) do a skankin’ version of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” and it got me thinking: How does a band take a song and make it more than merely hackneyed?

The best covers transcend the original, taking a great song and reworking it to the point that it becomes something new, compelling, powerful. Not only does a great cover pay respect to the song (if not the composer), it honors the medium, the form. A great cover doesn’t just tell a band’s audience “we really love this song,” it draws attention to the song in a way that a single, unadorned wall presents a masterful painting.

Riffing off that conceit, a cover that deserves its own wall, it’s “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. Composer Otis Redding acknowledged that when, during the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, he playfully referred to it as the song, “that little girl done stole from me” (she’d taken it to the top of the U.S. charts just a week earlier). Although Redding had some success with the song two years earlier, it is Franklin’s version that everyone knows. Arguably one of the defining songs of the 1960s, it is also the quintessential example for defining the topic of this column.

Such a shining example at the start should not construe that this is an ordered list — no “best” or “least” here — nor will I claim that it is a complete one. Think of this list as what would arrive on a random shuffle, constructed with limited resources. This list, like my thoughts, meander.

Like Redding, Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor said “...that song isn’t mine anymore,” after watching a video of Johnny Cash performing “Hurt.” Not only does the song retain the original’s bleak sense of solipsism and isolation, Cash’s tremulous singing and sparse instrumentation make the song even more poignant — and powerful.

And like Redding and Reznor, Bob Dylan has said that the rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix was so superior to the original that he now only plays the Hendrix version. Filled with some of the most masterful guitar playing ever recorded, the song is not just a sonic assault on the original, it’s like a Martian translation of Keats. Listen to the original and, yes, it’s a good Dylan song (which is saying something); listen to the cover and it’s obviously a masterpiece.

Numerous bands have covered, “When Doves Cry” but it found its most beautiful and most interesting rendition with The Be Good Tanyas (although Patti Smith’s version is a close second). No surprise here, though; it’s a song that demands to be covered, even if Prince’s original is classic.

“The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen has made its way onto numerous movie sound-tracks, usually as some hip reference to an idealized gen-X vision of the 80s. The song’s paisley-underground hipper-than-thou feel got roughed up on Pavement’s 1999 “Major Leagues” EP. Stripping off the original’s frou-frou orchestration and patching it back up with some amazing guitar work, Pavement gave me permission to like the song.

With a cover of “Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin on their debut LP, The Clash showed themselves to be not just a great punk band, not just a great reggae band, but a great band. A limited genre (in my estimation), reggae is still a tricky form and difficult to master — all too often, bands who try to sound reggae fall flat (e.g. Clapton’s uninspired version of “I Shot the Sheriff”). Conversely, The Clash took to reggae almost as readily as they took to rock (their numerous reggae cuts on the “London Calling” and “Sandinista!” LPs should remove all doubts) and with their cover of “Police and Thieves,” just a good reggae becomes a great song.

In the mid-’80s, as the lines between hardcore-punk and thrash metal began to blur, while punk bands like Bad Brains and Black Flag broke out with more metallic sounds and metal bands, like Anthrax and Slayer, took on punk’s more stripped down and faster approach. Thus, when genre-blurring vanguards Metallica recorded The Misfits’ “Last Caress” on their “Garage Days Revisited” EP, they took a hardcore castoff and turned it into a speedcore classic. While no true headbanger would confuse the cover as the original (because they’d own several Misfits disks), neither would they say that Metallica’s version was not vastly superior.

Before there was heavy metal, late-’60s louder-than-bombs band Blue Cheer released a nuclear version of Eddie Cochran’s rockabilly classic “Summertime Blues” and, by most accounts, unleashed the first heavy metal song to the world. I like Cochran’s version just fine (and The Who’s live version likewise rocks) but credit must be given to Blue Cheer for taking the slightly-swinging original and turning it into a brass-knuckle sandwich that defined a new genre of rock (for better or worse, depending on your point of view).

Ricochet back to the era of the intentionally loud, in-your-face form — rap, this time — and The Gourd’s hilarious six-minute bluegrass version of Snoop Dog’s “Gin and Juice” cannot be ignored. Not to say that this version is superior to the original (unthinkable in ways that defy explanation) but The Gourds take the song and tip it, seemingly to its polar opposite, without sacrificing a single salacious phrase, bending G-strings into the shape of a Sybarite’s sneer.

As I said, this list is by no means complete — and requires another column — to address the sin of omission or any reader beefs.