Pickled Priest Mixtape: The Great Covers, Volume 1
I've been toying with the idea of making you this mixtape for some time now. Yeah, I've noticed you in the cafeteria acting all cool with your friends. But then our eyes connected and there was an immediate soul connection. I knew right then you'd appreciate a theme mixtape featuring some of the great cover songs of all time. Some of the ones I included for you were obvious, some were clever, some overlooked, some pure genius. Just the right amount of each. And I was right. You were insatiable--you wanted more mixtapes with the same theme. And forever yours, I said I would. Here is the first one, from me to you. Enjoy.
1 “Respect” / Aretha Franklin (Otis Redding)
In 2017 we celebrated the Golden Jubilee (50 years!) for the late Queen of Soul’s celebrated reinvention of Otis Redding’s R&B classic. It is arguably, we’d say indisputably, the greatest cover of all time. So, out of respect, we’re just getting it the fuck out the way right out the gate. Otis is no dum dum dum diddly dee dum dummy—his gut reaction on first hearing the young (24), gifted, and black Aretha’s reinvention of his original (according to Peter Guralnick’s seminal book Sweet Soul Music): “I just lost my song! That girl took it away from me!”
2 “Hey Jude” / Wilson Pickett (The Beatles)
Long before the unneeded musical of the same name, “Wicked” was the nickname affixed to Wilson Pickett, perhaps the nastiest (and surely the cockiest) pure soul singer ever to enter a studio. One listen to the Wicked Pitch of the South ripping into “Hey Jude” will make you understand how much soul was baked into the music of the Beatles. Granted, Pickett could’ve covered Mr. Rogers’ “Won’t You be My Neighbor” and made it sound like a salacious come-on to a poolside NILF lounging just over his backyard fence, but here he cooks up an absolutely simmering soul stew for the first three minutes, then deep fries the rest in Alabama grease after that. And if you think Wilson’s going home before bringing a scream-packed coda down the Yell Brick Road, then go back to Kansas and take cover from the storm.
3 “Darling Be Home Soon” / Joe Cocker (The Lovin’ Spoonful)
It would be hard to refute a claim that Joe Cocker is the greatest song interpreter in rock history. But while his voice can make almost anything sound good, it was his talent at choosing songs that was his secret weapon. It’s one thing to skim the top of the pile for an established classic like “Respect” or “Hey Jude,” but it’s another to dig deep and see the promise in a vanilla love song like “Darling Be Home Soon,” originally recorded by the Lovin’ Spoonful for the soundtrack of the 1960 romantic comedy You’re a Big Boy Now (famously the movie Francis Ford Coppola submitted to earn his UCLA master’s degree). In Cocker’s hands, it became a dramatic, soulful testament to young love (with a definite thematic nod to the Bible-study devotional, Footprints in the Sand, for good measure). To tell you just how high everybody was in the late 60s, the Spoonful’s dippy original inexplicably became a top 20 hit in 1967. But Cocker drilled down to the song’s core, recalling the often painful transition from youthful naivety to self-realization. When you’re young, the lyric “And now / A quarter of my life is almost past / I think I’ve come to see myself at last / And I see that the time spent confused / Was the time that I spent without you” runs as deep and powerful as the Nile River.
4 “Ring of Fire” / Social Distortion (Johnny Cash)
One of the production discussions I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for would’ve been the “mariachi horns or no mariachi horns?” debate during the sessions for Johnny Cash’s 1964 classic “Ring of Fire.” While I appreciate the balls on one level, on another it can be argued that they’re a little cheeseball—taking away from the bite the song could’ve had with a tougher, darker rendition. No matter, I’ve come to love it just as it is and our love for mariachi music has been well-documented on this site. There are plenty of modern outlaws who worship at the altar of Cash daring enough to attempt to reclaim the song’s core blend of passion and danger. Mike Ness of Social Distortion did just that when he included the song on his band’s self-titled masterpiece from 1990. In many ways, Social Distortion was a roots-punk update of everything Johnny Cash sang about for his entire career. Ness and Cash were spiritual—if not stylistic—brethren, for sure. Social D’s “Ring of Fire” makes love sound dangerous indeed, but even I must admit I kinda end up pining for some horns by the end. Surely, someone can find a middle ground inside that circle of flames.
5 “Hurt” / Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails)
Speaking of John R., the man himself was another great song interpreter (especially later in his career when he teamed up with Rick Rubin), and the list of great Cash covers is a long one (give us time, we’ll get to them). But you’ve got to start with his takeover of Trent Reznor’s crushing album closer from Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 masterpiece, The Downward Spiral. Surely a song Cash never knows about if Rick Rubin doesn’t knock on his door. The song was stolen outright by Cash in much the same way Aretha ran off with “Respect” and never looked back. Even Reznor agreed, deferring to Cash’s version as a “powerful piece of art.” Trent’s version is undeniably powerful, but it’s Cash’s song forevermore.
6 "Jailhouse Rock" / ZZ Top (Elvis Presley)
With apologies to Elvis, in my opinion here's the definitive version of “Jailhouse Rock” as heard at ZZ Top’s "First Annual Texas Size Rompin' Stompin' Barndance and Bar B.Q." in Austin, Texas, on Labor Day, 1974. Captured live for posterity on the band’s half-live LP Fandango! I think even songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller would agree that ZZ's take adds the depth charge of a deep-fried lightning bolt to the song and makes Elvis’s Broadway-ready version seem tame by comparison. This is how a prison band wails in the heart of Texas. Billy Gibbons sounds like he's firing up a blowtorch just prior to the opening riff and his strings sound like they’ve been smoking in spicy barbecue sauce all afternoon. Sure, Elvis's version will always be a classic, and no slight is intended, but when you want to rock the big house, nothing quite compares to that little ol’ band from Texas, Z…Z…Top!
7 “Common People” / William Shatner (Pulp)
Pulp’s “Common People” mined the Prince and the Pauper storyline (but this time with a wealthy “princess” in place of legitimate royalty) by venturing into the supermarket for a little remedial training in the daily rituals of the working class. With expedience, the song was rightfully anointed a modern classic by the Ray Davies Academy of Distinctively British Observational Songwriting. Unlike some previous songs we’ve chosen, there’s no doubt that Pulp’s original is superior to Captain Kirk’s cover. Actually, some might rank this cover as one of the worst of all time (and have). Which leads us to an important and delicate concept crucial to assessing the value of song covers: sometimes a humorous take on a great song (intentional or accidental) is as welcome as a serious one. That said, there’s always been a fine line between funny and stupid, so you better stay on the right side of that line. You have to have the gift of common sense that most common people simply do not have. It’s a gift rare as a left-handed savant. Shatner’s time as a Priceline spokesman alone proves he’s capable of a little self-deprecation, but his discography, particularly his infamous 1968 “classic” The Transformed Man, proves his dedication to song-interpretation isn’t just a passing fancy. He’s in it for the love of the music even if his musical talent is dubious. But damn if his relatively straight take on Jarvis Cocker’s masterpiece doesn’t work marvelously. It’s the rare novelty song that doesn’t wear itself out. (I’ve played it the same amount of times as the Pulp version if my iTunes stats are accurate.) A little credit goes to the wise addition of Joe Jackson to bring home the chorus, but this is Shatner’s ship all the way to a place no man has gone before…or since.
8 “Rock and Roll All Nite” / Toad the Wet Sprocket (Kiss)
At least for a short period in the early 90s, Toad the Wet Sprocket (a band featured in our Worst Band Names of All-Time post) was a better band than you remember. Their songs were not “alternative” in any way, assuming your definition mandates a modicum of edginess in order to qualify. Glen Phillips was simply a capable writer of jangly mainstream pop tunes that were easy on the ears. He also had a way of crafting thoughtful lyrics well beyond what normally is required for radio-ready pop songs (a la the Gin Blossoms). The girls ate it up, too—a cute, earnest fella with a boyish voice and a pure heart. His sincere take on Kiss’s perennial concert closer (an inaugural inductee into the Confetti Manufacturers Association Song Hall of Fame) was a surprisingly pleasant revelation. Phillips converted the song from a rowdy crowd pleaser to a melancholy ballad in the same vein as Rivers Cuomo’s Home Recordings series (“Can’t Stop Partying” from Alone II in particular). Toad’s version, from the regrettably-titled Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved tribute record from 1994, adds a similar tone of wistfulness that somehow makes it seem like a lifetime of reckless backstage partying actually has a downside. Quite an accomplishment.
9 “Tainted Love” / Soft Cell (Gloria Jones)
Normally, it’s essential that the majority of listeners be familiar with the source material of a song in order for them to appreciate the cover version. Soft Cell’s synthesized update on Gloria Jones’ somewhat obscure 1964 B-side is a prime example of the exception to this rule. Most act with surprise on discovering the song’s origins were as a soul single by a relatively unknown soul diva more noted for being the girlfriend of T. Rex’s Marc Bolan than for her recorded output. By highlighting Soft Cell’s killer one-hit wonder, however, you also draw overdue attention to Gloria’s wildly infectious original—and doing humanity a great service in the process.
10 “Mad World” / Michael Andrews & Gary Jules (Tears for Fears)
On the heels of “Tainted Love” comes another song from the dark period known as the 80s. This time, the original is from Tears for Fears’ 1983 record, The Hurting. “Mad World” wasn’t a big smash for Tears, but it was a relatively well-known album cut in the US (and hit #3 on the UK charts). The song soared in popularity after this stark cover was included in the 2001 cult film Donnie Darko starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role. The far superior Andrews and Jules version mirrors the haunting, unsettling mood of the film so accurately that one listen to it over the end credits will be all you need to remember the song forever. And it seems particularly poignant right now in 2020.
11 “Jolene” / The White Stripes (Dolly Parton)
Circulated on bootlegs well before it was included on the DVD Under Blackpool Lights and on the Canadian Tour documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, “Jolene” is just one of several astonishing covers done by the White Stripes over the years. (Get ready, the first three or four volumes of this series will likely each feature one of them.) The list of covers the Stripes released is a tribute to Jack’s (and Meg’s) deep appreciation for music history, but they seem to have a particular sweet spot for the ladies of country and rockabilly—Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, Patti Page, and of course, Dolly Parton, whose “Jolene” was a galvanizing presence in many a White Stripes’ live set. Suffice it to say, this ain’t your mama’s Dolly Parton. While there’s no substitute for seeing it live and in person, Parton’s story of a girl begging another not to take her man is one of the landmark heart-wrenching tales in all of country music. Gender be damned, the chorus’s plea has never sounded more maniacally imperative than in this version.
12 “One Man Guy” / Rufus Wainwright (Loudon Wainwright III)
There’s surely a mixtape to be made of children covering their parents’ songs (Did Mozart have kids? Did they go into the symphony business?) Until then, this cover jumps out as a prime example of the circle of life. The song works on a couple levels, the least of which is the obvious father/son angle. Loudon was a folk troubadour in his day, hitting the road with just a guitar slung over his back. Rufus, too, has toured solo numerous times (although he’s gone the full band route as of late). Add in the fact that Rufus is gay and that only makes the song even more delightfully apropos. (Ironically, Loudon once wrote a song for his 2-year-old son called “Rufus is a Tit Man” and in later years intro’d the song with a “Rufus is a pec man now” disclaimer.) The delicious irony clearly isn’t lost on Rufus, but he plays it reverent and to the original intent here and in the process has created a new multi-faceted version that surely makes his father proud.
13 “Hallelujah” / Jeff Buckley (Leonard Cohen)
Easily one of the most covered songs of the last 30 years, even Cohen himself said that the song “could benefit from a break in exposure.” But not on a tape that is designed to highlight great covers—no can do. It’s true that the song lends itself well to reinterpretation, but that also accelerates the burnout factor. John Cale’s version from the Shrek soundtrack, although quite good, probably did more to burn out the song than any other usage to date. k.d. lang’s version at the Vancouver Winter Olympics opening ceremonies made sense in context (Cohen is Canadian), but suffered from poor execution. Lately, it’s everywhere all the time—from acoustic guitarists tucked into the corners of Potbelly sub shops to the motherfucking The Voice. If we were kings, the song, from this point forward, would exist for two performers and two performers only. The original, of course (particularly good as done by elder statesman Cohen on his recent tours and recorded for posterity on his fabulous Live in London record), and the version from Jeff Buckley’s 1994 record Grace. Buckley was an old soul, wise beyond his years, with a profound spiritual bent to his performances. While I have a little trouble with his posthumous deification, a masterful performance is a masterful performance and his “Hallelujah” more than lives up to the grand promise of the song’s title. It ends Side A on a major lift.
14 “Wild Thing” / Jimi Hendrix (The Troggs)
Conventional wisdom puts Jimi’s take on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” at the top of Side B. To keep you on your toes, I insert a personal favorite in its place. Jimi did a bunch of killer covers over the years, but “Wild Thing” benefits greatly from Jimi’s nasty update on the song’s iconic riff. Plus, the vocals cater to his voodoo wheelhouse—more of a come-on to a front row harem than a vocal showpiece (let’s just admit that he wasn’t the best singer). There are a few versions to be had, but for this mixtape, I like the shorter version from Live at the Fillmore East best.
15 “You Really Got Me” / Van Halen (The Kinks)
While we’re playing Guitar Hero, it only makes sense to time travel into the late 70s for an update on another legendary 60s riff. Eddie Van Halen was never shy with his instrument—he came right out of the gate on his band’s debut record (the original VH1) with an arena-sized version of a riff that seemed best-suited for a Muswell Hill garage. It absolutely crunches. Add David Lee Roth’s lion-in-heat vocal, which matches Eddie’s wattage pant for pant, mix in a punishing rhythm section, and you have the Kinks classic on steroids.
16 “I’m Your Man” / Nick Cave (Leonard Cohen)
Cohen strikes again! While Leonard’s version sounds like the suave bedroom seductions of a consummate ladies man, Nick’s, predictably, is more of a lecherous affair—burlesque, with a perverse undercurrent. Leonard goes for the Armani suit and top hat, Cave for a wide-collared silk print shirt open to his belly button. Downright suspicious is Uncle Nick, willing to tell you anything to get in your pants.
17 “Nothing Compares 2 U” / Sinead O’Connor (The Family/Prince)
By Papal Decree, one of the biggest blowouts in the history of cover songs. We’ve all put the purple pussy eater on a pedestal, assuming he’s untouchable, but his is no match for the stark powerhouse vocal performance here.
18 “New York” / Cat Power (Frank Sinatra)
If you want to see how far this Sinatra cover could go wrong, spend a torturous night with no-talent ass-clown Michael Bolton’s musical abortion Bolton Swings Sinatra. Then, come back to Cat Power’s reinvention of the song (including, but not limited to, the truncated title). Chan Marshall stalks the song like she’s going to kill it, but instead follows it into a dark, foggy alley and falls in love with it instead.
19 “Take Me Home, Country Roads” / Toots & the Maytals (John Denver)
I love John Denver. Check that. I love some John Denver. I’ve always thought the sentiment of his “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was pure and clean, natural like a mountain spring. When I first heard the reggae version by Toots & the Maytals with West Jamaica substituted for West Virginia, I did a double take. Do they even have mountains in Jamaica? Then a close examination of the lyrics revealed that Toots tailored the song to mirror his own surroundings. And then it all made sense, and it too seemed perfectly natural.
20 “Pressure Drop” The Clash / (Toots & the Maytals)
Turnabout is fair play. Toots reggaefied a classic American country tune, so why shouldn’t a British punk band snag a reggae standard from Toots? The Brits have always had an active pipeline connected to Jamaica and Joe Strummer’s affection for reggae and world rhythms slowly seeped out from his music—becoming more and more pronounced as his career went on. “I Fought the Law” may be their most famous cover, but their “Pressure Drop” (Toots’ original remains one of this site’s all-time favorite tunes) added just the right amount of speed and attitude.
21 “Take Me to the River” / Talking Heads (Al Green)
Sadly, Al Green and “Teenie” Hodges, writers of the soul classic “Take Me to the River,” made more money from a version of this song sung by the animatronic Big Mouth Billy Bass talking fish sold in novelty shops in the late 90s than they did from their own version or the funkified Talking Heads cover from 1978. Hard to fucking believe. Reverend Al’s version was more soulful and spiritual (a baptism perhaps?) than the Talking Heads, but David Byrne inhabits this song, like most of his songs, as if possessed by its healing properties. Each version is a classic in different ways, but the version from Stop Making Sense is simply untouchable.
22 “Funny How Time Slips Away” / Al Green (Willie Nelson)
Once again, we have another switcheroo. The Heads took on Al Green, now Al Green takes on Willie Nelson. Al was a great interpreter of songs—his version of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees is also a classic—with his seductive take on Willie Nelson’s 1962 single our personal favorite. As to who now owns the definitive version, it’s certainly no whodunit. Reverend Green. In the studio. With the velvet pipes.
23 “Mr. Grieves” / TV on the Radio (Pixies)
It’s one thing to cover a classic song from the old days in a new style. Well-written songs tend to facilitate stylistic reinterpretation. But what about a song that is so far from an obvious choice it’s almost impossible to imagine it done a different way? Let’s put it this way—there aren’t many good Pixies covers out there for a reason. A Pixies song is a Pixies song—don’t even attempt it. But we consider TV on the Radio’s take on the Doolittle gem “Mr. Grieves” the best Pixies cover to date. It takes the frantic Pixies original and brings in a modern doo wop harmony that takes the song, if not to the church, then at least to choir practice. As the last track on their amazing debut EP, this was a harbinger for future great things.
24“Hard to Handle” / The Black Crowes (Otis Redding)
Here at Pickled Priest, we take our Otis Redding covers very seriously. Aretha wants to do “Respect”? Approved with gusto. Michael Bolton wants to take a run at “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay”? If we’d been in charge of the record label, we would’ve removed his head, shit down his throat, jammed a cork up his ass, and waited for the explosion. That said, there was really no risk in letting a young Georgia band take a crack at Otis’s “Hard to Handle”—a great track, but one not as well known to the masses at the time. Plus, the Crowes hailed from Otis’s home state, which gives them eminent domain or something like that. What’s the worst that could happen? Thankfully, their “Hard to Handle” is tough, loud, and nasty—it cuts to the song’s bone and snaps it in half. Replacing the original’s horns with piano, organ and guitar fills, the Crowes version quickly became a vintage Southern rock classic immediately upon release. It sounded old and lived-in on day one and has aged even better. Had Otis lived, there’s a good bet a guest vocal would’ve happened at a Crowes gig in Atlanta or Macon. Now that would’ve been hard to handle.
25 “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” / Devo (The Rolling Stones)
Here’s an unlikely success story. The odds of a New Wave band, dressed as if ready for an environmental disaster during a Tupperware party, coming up with a tolerable cover of one of rock’s most revered (and tired) warhorses is unlikely. Conservatively, probably 10 million to 1. Mission accomplished—I know I play this version more than I play the original. Yes, I appreciate the original immensely, but that flame has been burned out long ago even though the legend never did. Every once in a while, I sit back and pretend I’m hearing it for the first time, and it works to some degree. But the Devo version tickles me pink each and every time I hear it.
26 “Yesterday” / Marvin Gaye (The Beatles)
We end with probably the most covered song in the history of music. According to Wikipedia (and why not?) over 2,200 artists have covered it. What Marvin did in 1970 was take the simple sentiment of McCartney’s original and turn it into a moving, poetic soul classic. Marvin Gaye, with the possible exception of Sam Cooke, had the purest voice in music history. His take on “Yesterday” is understated but powerful. It seems as natural as the original, but with a soulful approach that sounds like a prayer to a higher power. And with an “Amen,” we come to the close of Volume 1. This is only the beginning.
We'll see you soon with another volume. Meet me by the janitor's closet by the girl's gym and we'll discuss the deets.