It’s the sort of the cliché that holds enough truth to warrant its place in musical spiel: when a cover is done well the artist makes a song their own. Sometimes they even do it so effectively that the maker’s mark is worn off and lost to the bowels Wikipedia page obscurity.
Sometimes it is a question of the artist realising the potential of a scratchy underground record and snaffling it up, other times it is a complete reinvention of the source material like taking useless crude oil and refining it into fuel. Regardless of how it is achieved, there are a surprising number of songs that have a little-known predecessor sitting quietly on the small print of an album sleeve.
Today, we’re looking at ten of them, some of them triumph over their better-known siblings, while others have been transfigured beyond belief, some you may well know were covers but a couple will probably come as a surprise.
Let’s get to it.
Ten songs you never knew were covers:
‘Hanging on the Telephone’ by Blondie (The Nerves)
To kick things off we’re starting with a song that for my money surpasses the original. Blondie achieved a huge hit with the cover in 1978, but The Nerves version captures a befitting rough and ready West Coast punk-pop feel. The imitation may well be brilliant in its own right, but the original has a rarefied atmosphere and energy to it that the Blondie cover glosses over.
The Nerves only ever self-released one self-titled four-song EP in 1976. However, they were instrumental in supporting the Los Angeles punk-pop scene that eventually produced The Knack, The Plimsouls and various members would also go on to form The Beat (the American group not the English Ska band).
‘Suzie Q’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Dale Hawkins was a man who had the canny knack of being able to craft distinguished rock ‘n’ roll riffs on a whim, but sadly he didn’t quite have the bravura of some of the era’s greased up songsmiths to rise to stardom. With ‘Suzie Q’ he achieved a number 27 single, but in the years that have followed the song has become synonymous with the Creedence.
The band beefed out the riff to score an eight-minute epic that introduced them to the world as the latest rockers to get behind. While the rockabilly original is far sparser, the reinterpretation stays true to the feel of the original record with swaggering style.
‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash (Anita Carter)
June Carter Cash played banjo, guitar, harmonica and autoharp, she acted in several films and television shows to critical acclaim, won five Grammys, wrote several books, performed comedy and endlessly pursued humanitarian work. And perhaps most noteworthy of all, in a retrospective sense, she even co-wrote the song ‘Ring of Fire’ with Merle Kilgore, which would later go on to be a huge hit for her husband and form an essential part of his back catalogue.
Sadly, this little-known fact is indicative of the reality that many people simply view her as The Man in Black’s wife and not a profuse and prolific talent in her own right. While Johnny Cash would later suit the song so perfectly that it became his spiritual theme tune, the Anita Carter original is worth noting for the tale it contains therein.
‘Superman’ by R.E.M. (Clique)
There are certain cover songs so obscure that you have to credit the imitator for the acknowledgement. Not only was ‘Superman’ a cover of the obscure band Clique, but it was even a B-side to boot.
The song was first released by the Houston-based band in 1969 and didn’t really catch the ear of anybody other than Mike Mills who sang lead vocal on R.E.M.’s treatment that scored the band a number 17 single and helped to inform their sui generis style.
‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (The Arrows)
Joan Jett absolutely loves rock ‘n’ roll, her bleached black bangs and profoundly punk wardrobe attests to that, but she wasn’t the first to make her admiration into an anthem. British glam-rock band The Arrows were shouting about how much they like music in 1975, six years before Joan Jett’s now synonymous version.
The song was inspired by The Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)’ and The Arrows quickly crafted their call-back for a weekly TV show about them, Arrows, that ran for two series on ITV in the UK.
‘Hound Dog’ by Elvis Presley (Big Mama Thornton)
‘Hound Dog’ is a song that it would be impossible to imagine music without. For those around upon its release, the song was no doubt ground-breaking, but for everyone thereafter, it has become the eponymous piece of hip-shaking rock ‘n’ roll.
In 1956, The King’s pumped-up version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s classic standard backed the A-Side of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and changed the face of pop culture. The hip-snaking singer tore banality asunder in under two and a half minutes, but with no more bravura than Big Mama Thornton’s (great name, even better look) classic putdown take in 1952.
‘Dazed and Confused’ by Led Zeppelin (Jake Holmes)
The great thing with these covers is that the original keeps getting older, but the reimaginings ensure it stays fresh. ‘Dazed and Confused’ might seem like the quintessential Led Zep vehicle to a never-ending Jimmy Page solo, but it actually has its roots in folk music of all places.
Jake Holmes was primarily a jingle writer, picking up cheques from the US Army and Dr Pepper for his work, so catchiness was the aim of the game. But away from British Airways and Burger King, he managed to make his mark on the music industry with a stoner anthem quite by coincidence.
‘The First Cut is the Deepest’ by Rod Stewart (P.P. Arnold / Cat Stevens)
While it might be fairly well known that Rod Stewart’s track was first performed by P.P. Arnold by this stage, what comes as more of a surprise is that it was originally written by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens.
On a recent Tiny Desk YouTube session, the folk songsmith declared, “This is an old one, maybe some people don’t know I wrote this one, it wasn’t Rod Stewart,” and then surprisingly brisked his way through an acoustic rendition of the iconic track. It might have been covered many times over in the interim, but it is the craft of Stevens that shines through on each one.
‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder (Jeff Beck)
‘Superstition’ is an interesting one in a very chicken-egg sense. Whether it is a cover is open to interpretation. As the story goes, Stevie Wonder heard that Jeff Beck was an admirer of his work just prior to the Talking Book sessions. Wonder was playing just about every instrument on the album, so he decided to lighten his load by drafting in Beck whom he greatly lauded. Beck agreed to play in exchange for a song.
However, when the pair were in the studio, Beck came up with a drumbeat and Wonder ended up picking the guitar after all and improvising a riff over the top of it. The duo crafted a rough demo of the song together and Wonder allowed Beck to take it as his own. While Beck’s own eventual album was pushed back with delays, Berry Gordy encouraged Wonder to record his own polished version after hearing what Beck had done with the demo and the rest is history.
‘Feeling Good’ by Nina Simone (Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley)
Nobody knew their way around a cover quite like Nina Simone, she was so good at them in fact that many people, including Nick Cave, think she was better at singing covers than her own self-penned songs. When it comes to ‘Feeling Good’ the surprise is that it seems so quintessentially in her wheelhouse that it is hard to imagine anyone with the balls to craft it other than her.
The origins of the song, however, is inarguably the least soulful province of all music – the world of musicals. The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd not only featured ‘Feeling Good’ but also ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ by Tony Bennett and ‘The Joker’ by Bobby Rydell. Newley was one of David Bowie’s heroes and clearly, his pedigree elevated the tracks beyond the usual weepy fodder of most musicals.