Credit: Hannu Lindroos

From Blondie to The Beatles: The 10 best songs you didn’t know were covers

Music is the universal language of the soul that has the power to bring unalike people together in a bonding moment. Sometimes these bonding moments can get contentious when you find yourself arguing with people about who wrote which song. You would be surprised to find out how many covers there are of songs which the band has done so convincingly, that you are so deftly sure they are the writers.

It can be a disappointment and somewhat of a let down to find out that you were, in fact, wrong and that beautiful song you love so much is a cover. You then find the original, at which point, hopefully, you are pleasantly surprised at how different or good it is. Either way, those kinds of informational rabbit holes are fun and can be one hell of a journey.

In this article, we hope to list some songs that will be surprising to you to find they are covers. Some cover of songs are well known to be such, and yet, many might agree that the cover is still better than the original. Just because a songwriter happens to perform their own material, doesn’t necessarily guarantee that their performance is superior.

While sometimes a songwriter may have a personal and intimate connection to the song which results in a wholly unique rendition; if the songwriter does their job properly, any skilled performer can deliver a convincing rendition. 

There are many classic songs which are covers that the general public might be aware of. Some of these include Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ performed by Jeff Buckley and Neil Diamond’s ‘I’m a Believer’, which was first covered by The Monkees and then brought to an even larger audience when Smash Mouth did a version of it for the blockbuster movie, Shrek.

We decided to delve into some other major hits that are in fact covers, that might not be general public knowledge. 

10 best songs you didn’t know were covers

10. ‘Red Red Wine’ – UB40

What many may not know is that Neil Diamond wrote this catchy number. Diamond is responsible for many hits anonymously covered by a slew of different bands; The Monkees did the famous, ‘I’m a Believer.’

The song was originally written in 1967 and was included on Diamond’s second album, Just For You. UB40 recorded and released in 1980, and it went straight up to number one in the UK. Their version was rereleased in 1988 and went to number one in Billboard Hot 100 charts.

9. ‘Twist and Shout’ – The Beatles

The song was written in 1961 by Phil Medley and Bert Berns and was originally recorded by The Top Notes. The version wouldn’t find any chart success until the Isley Brothers did a rendition of it which reached the top 20. 

The Beatles would pick up the song and do their rendition based on The Isley Brother’s version. John Lennon was infamously disappointed with the song, “because I could sing better than that, but now it doesn’t bother me. You can hear that I’m just a frantic guy doing his best.”

8. ‘Tainted Love’ – Soft Cell

Ed Cobb wrote the song, and the first version of it was recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964. Prior to Jones recording it, Ed Cobb offered it to The Standells, who he was managing and producing at the time — they ended up rejecting it.

The British new-wave band, Soft Cell, would do their version of it in 1981 after discovering the song during the Northern Soul period. The version was hugely successful shooting up to number one and immortalising the song and making it as we know it today.

7. ‘I love Rock n’ Roll’ – Joan Jett

The song was written by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker and was originally recorded by the Arrows in 1975. Merrill sang vocals on the Arrows version, and wrote the whole song but credited Jake Hooker as part of a debt to be settled. Merrill stated that he wrote the song as “a knee-jerk response to the Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)’.”

Joan Jett originally recorded the song with two of The Sex Pistols, Steve Jones and Paul Cook, in 1979, but would re-record the song with the Blackhearts in 1981. Her version became her biggest hit, reaching number one in the Billboard charts and earning her a grammy.

6. ‘Hurt’ – Johnny Cash

It is no surprise that upon hearing Cash’s version, one would be inclined to think that his version is the original; it seems like a no-brainer — it sounds like a Cash song. However, the song was written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and appeared on his Downward Spiral album, for which Reznor received a grammy nomination for best rock song in 1996.

Cash would cover the song in 2002 to commercial and critical acclaim, making the song his own. The music video accompanying Cash’s version is considered one of the greatest ones of all time. Reznor would even say that “the song isn’t mine anymore.”

5. ‘Blinded by The Light’ – Manfred Mann Earth’s Band

One of the most drastic sounding covers of an original, Bruce Springsteen wrote the song for his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Springsteen allegedly wrote the song while flicking through a rhyming dictionary, for example, “Madman drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summers with a teenage diplomat.”

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version would prove to be a massive hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Charts in 1977. The song was well utilized in a montage segment in the Ted Demme film, Blow, starring Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz.

4. ‘Superstar’ – Sonic Youth

It may come as a surprise to you given the nature of the band, Sonic Youth, but their hit song, ‘Superstar’ is actually written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell; the song has been recorded by a number of different artists but the most popular version is by The Carpenters in 1971. The song was a comment on the nature of groupies’ relationships with rock stars; the term groupie had just come into the general lexicon.

When Sonic Youth did their rendition, the music video that accompanied the release, mirrored The Carpenters’ version and contained somewhat of a mocking attitude.

3. ‘It’s My Life’ – No Doubt

The most obscure cover on this list was the song written by Mark Hollis of the band Talk Talk. The title track appeared on their second album, released in 1984. The band re-released the single in 1985 and then again in 1990; third time’s the charm, performing the best it ever has in the charts, the third time, reaching number 13.

No Doubt did their version in 2003. No Doubt needed to release a song to promote their greatest hits album. Because Gwen Stefani was on hiatus recording her solo project, No Doubt decided to record a cover. They wanted to pick a song from the 80 – they whittled their choices down to two songs, ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Don’t Change’ by INXS. They would end up going with the former. 

2. ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ – Blondie

When Blondie made the biggest splash, they jumped into the water with a “cannonball!” in the form of their third record Parallel Lines. It saw the group polish up their previous scrappy punk sound and set their sights on the charts.

The band were just developing their soon-to-be-iconic sound when they released ‘Hanging on the Telephone’. The track was originally written and performed by Los Angeles outfit the Nerves, but Debbie Harry and Blondie make this song their own. It sees the group tighten the song up while maintaining its power.

The track has become such a rich part of the new wave outfit’s iconography that it is almost impossible to extract the song from their lexicon, as such, The Nerves version below deserves a special spin, in honour of their contribution.

1. ‘All Along The Watch Tower’ – Jimi Hendrix

When Bob Dylan himself claims your version of his song is the ultimate one, the definitive rendition of the number, then you know you did something right. Hendrix did absolutely everything right on this one. 

Dylan said of Hendrix’s version: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”

Written in 1967, the song has had a fair few renditions from famous faces over the years. Whether it’s from Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam, the smoother than smooth tones of Bryan Ferry, the salt of the earth Neil Young, or even the Irish pop-rock poster boys U2, but none hold a candle to Jimi’s. While those bands all tried to match Dylan’s effort from ’67, Jimi ingested the track, digested it, and threw it up in a Technicolor dream. It’s quite literally perfect. If you think otherwise then we suggest you take it up with Bob.

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