According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “Yesterday” by the Beatles was covered over 7 million times in the 20th century, making it the most covered song ever.
Not one to doubt the Guinness company (they do make a mighty fine pint), the sheer number sounds impossible to me; it’s not that I doubt that “Yesterday” has been covered to death, but recorded 7 million times? It would take 40 years to listen to every single version, back-to-back.
The horror. The horror.
Now, if some tortured angel had been consigned to tally every time a band played Chuck Berry’s classic “Johnny B. Goode,” I’m positive the marathon “Yesterday” listening session/example of extraordinary rendition would be a mere blip in the cosmic timeline of each time a band rips out JB Goode.
I mention JB Goode only because it’s one of those songs that bands cover simply as a testament to the greatness of the song, the Holy Grail of rock and roll, a gargantuan that has never been conquered (indeed, one of the worst covers ever is the Grateful Dead’s JB Goode version from their “Skull and Roses” album, a sputtering, wheezing, joyless carcass).
Nonetheless, the Rolling Stones took Berry’s “Around and Around” and made it a shot across the bow to the world of pop music. Strutting their cover out with sinister sexuality (hide your daughters!), the Stones drove Berry’s original beyond its syncopated innocence and draped it in the unmitigated menace that made the Stones notorious. It didn’t hurt that Keith Richards also plays, by far, the best Chuck Berry-style guitar ever.
Just as rock bands must master Chuck Berry as surely as a poet must master meter, any ’70s bar band worth its beer tab had to play a passable “Proud Mary” because not dancing to the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic is like singing “La Marseillaise” during The Pledge of Allegiance. Yet, no version, even CCR’s own, matches the soaring grandeur of the Ike and Tina Turner‘s cover of the song.
Taking CCR’s swamprock stew and reducing it to a hot, sticky demi glaze of sublime gutbucket blues, the Ike and Tina version not only rocks with the conviction of a newly-converted heathen, its eight-minute testimony of the saving grace of rock and roll is, quite simply, a sublime celebration of life. Tina’s vocals reach heights that can only be described as celestial and Ike’s arrangements tear the roof and the steeple off the joint, as the rhythm section blows out the doors, sending the word out onto the streets, beyond the faithful, winning converts with every hearing.
Filled with such gospel-inspired fervor, Joe Cocker’s take on “With a Little Help From My Friends” takes a third-rate Beatles song and creates a classic of the first tier. There is nothing timid about the remake. Cocker takes every phrase and verse and endows them with a sanctity that elevates the song light years beyond the original’s ambitious production. Taking the Beatles’ old-timey dance hall arrangement and placing it smack dab in the middle of the crossroads, Cocker can’t save us (even with the angelic choir backing him), his searing, bluesy vocals having consigned us to the road to perdition. Turning Ringo Starr’s cup of weak tea into a jar of whiskey, Cocker’s vocals (and arrangements) so overshadow the original that the two versions are, quite literally, like black and white.
Patti Smith pulls a similar trick with her stunning cover of “Gloria” (originally recorded by Them — Van Morrison’s first band — but covered by almost everyone), almost completely remaking the song by not just adding lyrics but making it a song-within-a-song. Growling her way into the sparse intro with, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” Smith holds fast to the spirit of the original and then exponentially expands it, unbinding it from its earthly (and earthy) bonds and setting it free to take its place among the stars.
Returning to Earth, two covers of Bruce Springsteen songs must be included on this list. While “Fire” was not recorded by Springsteen until after the Pointer Sisters had taken their superlative version to number two on the pop charts, Robert Gordon had released a version a year before (with modest success). As it is the sister’s version that we all know, its summer’s night hanging at the burger joint atmosphere creating perfect make-out music, the cover meets all the criteria set forth here: it stands alone, above the original.
Also standing alone, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band took Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light” (from his “Greeting From Asbury Park N.J.” LP) to number one in 1977, probably due in some part to how the line “revved up like a deuce” was interpreted by millions of tittering teenagers. Silly, but MMEB’s version remains the one we know — it doesn’t hurt that it’s also a rockin’ rendition.
Taking a great song — “Wonderwall” by Oasis — Ryan Adams used his genius (with the inspiration/perspiration ratio intact) to create an even greater song. Sad though the original’s content is, Adams managed to distill the song’s essence so well that Oasis lead deuce (see the previous paragraph) Noel Gallagher will only play the Adams version live. As much as I like the original, Adams made this song his own.
With limited space, I’ll give these songs honorable mention: Scissor Sisters, ”Comfortably Numb” (original by Pink Floyd), a goofy, disco remake complete with Bee Gee-ish chorus; Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” (David Bowie), an acoustic version that magnifies the song’s solipsistic theme; Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen), although covered far too many times, Buckley’s version stands as the definitive version; Richard Thompson, “Oops, I Did It Again” (Britney Spears), worth looking up on Youtube.