From Bob Dylan to The Beatles: David Bowie’s 20 greatest covers of all time
“I don’t see any boundaries between any of the art forms. I think they all inter-relate completely.”—David Bowie
Here at Far Out Magazine, we believe you can tell a lot about an artist from how they cover other’s work. After some extensive research, we don’t think there’s anyone better at it than the wonderful David Bowie.
Bowie straddles the line between paying homage to the original as well as adding a few layers of his own creative artistry to proceedings. Constantly walking the line between tribute and originality, The Starman did it better than anyone.
So below we’re bringing you our 20 favourite covers from the genius musical talents of David Bowie.
Expect to see some of the world’s greatest artists pop up as Bowie doesn’t hold back—no song too small or not too big for the Thin White Duke to handle in his stride.
Here are 20 of his greatest covers of all time.
20. ‘Debaser’ – Pixies
Though not a solo cover form Bowie, using the vessel of his band Tin Machine to pay homage to one of his favourites bands, the Starman takes on the iconic indie anthem.
The song, originally written and sung by Pixies frontman Black Francis, arrived as a pivotal moment in the development of indie rock as the first track to appear on the band’s now-iconic 1989 album Doolittle. Bowie’s rendition fo a Pixies number signifies a full-circle moment for Pixies, a group who have made no secret of the inspiring nature the Starman had on their creative vision.
After supporting Bowie on a number of his Sound and Vision dates, he was also quick to heap praise on the alternative rock group throughout his time: “I found [the Pixies] just about the most-compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 1980s,” he once said. “I always thought there was a psychotic Beatles in them.”
This live cover from 1991 is our particular favourite.
19. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – Bob Dylan
As part of Mick Ronson’s final solo record, Heaven and Hull, Bowie jumped on to the cover of Bob Dylan’s iconic 1965 classic.
Never shy to show his admiration for Dylan, Bowie famously wrote a song in tribute to the great man where he would sing: “Now hear this Robert Zimmerman, though I don’t suppose we’ll meet.”
Funnily enough, Bowie would rise to fame would go on to meet Dylan numerous times throughout the 1970s and 1980s with muted success: “I think he hates me,” Bowie once said in an interview after their first meeting. However, the years would go by and mutual respect would develop between the two.
While it may not reside high on some of Bowie’s best vocal work, it’s made the list for the gravity of the song.
18. ‘See Emily Play’ – Pink Floyd
Bowie was a massive fan of Pink Floyd in his day and here he takes on the Syud Barrett penned 1967 release ‘See Emily Play’ which found its way on to the 1973 album Pinups.
“Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd was the first person in rock I had seen with makeup on,” Bowie once said when discussing some of his earliest inspirations. “He wore black nail polish and lots of mascara and black eye shadow, and he was so mysterious.”
He added: “It was this androgynous thing I found absolutely fascinating.”
17. ‘All The Young Dudes’ – Mott The Hoople
Though the legitimacy of this Bowie-penned track as a cover is something we could debate all day, we prefer to enjoy the music and there’s no doubt that this remains one of Bowie’s best.
Produced by Bowie, the musician planned to give the song to the band after they previously rejected his number ‘Suffragette City’. However, things wouldn’t work out and Bowie would subsequently record the song himself. Bowie would take the song on as his own during the Ziggy years and never look back.
Lou Reed once said: “It’s a Gay Anthem! A rallying call to the young dudes to come out in the streets and show that they were beautiful and gay and proud of it.”
16. ‘Across The Universe’ – The Beatles
When you put two great artists together like David Bowie and The Beatles then you know it is always going to be something very special.
“I asked John one day, ‘how do you write your songs’, he said ‘it’s easy, you just say what you mean, you put a back beat to it,” Bowie once reflected on his friendship with John Lennon.
Adding: “I said ‘what do you think of my kind of rock ‘n’ roll?, he said ‘it’s great but it’s just rock ‘n’ roll with lipstick on.”
Bowie took on the Fab Four’s 1969 song from Let It Be to devastating effect.
15. ‘My Way’ – Frank Sinatra
From Sid Vicious to Elvis Presley, anyone who is anyone has covered Frank Sinatra’s classic ‘My Way’.
Bowie’s super rare rendition of ‘My Way’ actually precedes the version that was later popularised by Sinatra. Bowie’s music publisher, it is said, had the unknown singer write English lyrics for Claude François and Jacques Revaux’s ‘Comme d’habitude’ which arrived as the basis of the song ‘My Way’.
Bowie’s unreleased cover of Sinatra’s anthem from was later released in 2016 via BBC 4.
14. ‘I Can’t Explain’ – The Who
A song so synonymous with The Who it is hard to imagine any other artist getting close to the swinging power of the original.
The song, famously written by Pete Townshend, arrived as pioneering moment in music history when it was released as just second single release and first under the Who name.
Yet on Bowie’s 1973 album Pinups the mercurial artist does just that and adds another layer of glam rock glitz to the track’s pulsating rhythm.
13. ‘Pablo Picasso’ – The Modern Lovers
Originally written by Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers the track found it’s way on to Bowie’s 2003 record Reality and is given a shimmying new sparkle as it moves away from its proto-punk roots.
Taking on Richman’s dry wit and comical lyrics, Bowie tells the wonderful fictional story that suggests the great Pablo Picasso never struggled romantically despite his short stature, singing: “Well he was only five foot three but girls could not resist his stare / Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole / Not in New York.”
Bowie found himself at the helm of was that of another singer with a penchant for the dramatic: Morrissey and his song ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’.
Discussing the former Smiths frontman, Bowie once said: “I rate Morrissey as one of the best lyricists in Britain. For me, he’s up there with Bryan Ferry.”
The pair, who crossed paths a number of times throughout their careers, developed a strong creative relationship. Telling a story behind their friendship, Morrissey wrote in his autobiography: “David [Bowie] quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.”
Using the track on his 1993 record Black Tie White Noise Bowie shows his skill at turning any song and vocal, even one as idiosyncratic as Morrissey’s, into something completely unique.
11. ‘Dancing in the Street’ – Martha and The Vandellas
Easily the most famous of Bowie’s covers, he took on the iconic 1964 track alongside his close friend and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger after some huge artists had already had their go.
While Van Halen, The Mamas and The Papas, and The Grateful all had a shot, it’s Bowie and Jagger’s that will outlast them all.
Bowie and Jagger joined forces in 1985 to raise money for the Live Aid famine relief cause, a collaboration that would solidify their friendship with a now-iconic music video. “I think Mick Jagger would be astounded and amazed if he realised that to many people he is not a sex symbol, but a mother image,” Bowie would later comment.
10. ’20th Century Boy’ – T Rex
At the Brits in 1995, Bowie would join the wonderfully talented Brian Molko alongside his band Placebo on stage for a special cover.
“I can tell you about the time I first met Marc Bolan, who became a very, very good friend of mine. We actually met very early on in the ’60s before either of us were even a tad known,” Bowie once said. “We were just two nothing kids with huge ambitions. We both had the same manager at the time and we met each other firstly, painting the wall of our then managers office.” From there, the two never looked back and became relentlessly close friends until Bolan’s tragic death.
The two, clearly enamoured with one another, then delivered a cover of T-Rex’s iconic track ’20th Century Boy’ in a small tribute to Bowie’s friend Marc Bolan.
9. ‘God Only Knows’ – The Beach Boys
Featuring on Bowie’s 1984 record Tonight, the Starman adds a heavy dose of his dulcet tones on this harmony-driven classic.
The song, originally written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher, would later lay the foundations for popular music because of Wilson’s use of an unorthodox and pioneering selection of instruments during its period of recording.
Brian Wilson’s impeccable writing is given yet another lease of life by Bowie here who adds not only another layer of vocal purity but the sultry and sexy nonchalance of an artist who knows exactly what he’s doing.
8. ‘China Girl’ – Iggy Pop
A rock and roll friendship like no other. It’s safe to say that the great Iggy Pop and David Bowie were inseparable and Mr Pop needed to be included here.
“The friendship was basically that this guy salvaged me from certain professional and maybe personal annihilation — simple as that,” Pop said later. “A lot of people were curious about me, but only he was the one who had enough truly in common with me, and who actually really liked what I did and could get on board with it, and who also had decent enough intentions to help me out. He did a good thing.”
He added, “He resurrected me. He was more of a benefactor than a friend in a way most people think of friendship. He went a bit out of his way to bestow some good karma on me.”
While the debate on whether this is officially a cover or not will rage on for millennia, the fact that the original song comes via Iggy Pop’s 1977 record The Idiot before landing on Bowie’s most commercially successful LP, Let’s Dance, means it makes our list as one of his best.
7. ‘Waiting for the Man’ – The Velvet Underground
The long love affair shared between David Bowie and Lou Reed is well documented and their friendship would often spill out on to their respective careers.
“Lou Reed is the most important definitive writer in modern rock,” Bowie once said of his close friend. “Not because of the stuff that he does, but the direction that he will take it.”
On many occasions, the pair would share the stage, and on many others, they would take on each other’s songs. Here, we’re looking at Bowie’s 1972 cover of The Velvet Underground hit ‘Waiting For The Man’ as our favourite of the bunch.
6. Waterloo Sunset’ – The Kinks
“I’ve never heard a Kinks song that I didn’t like,” David Bowie once said of his admiration for the band.
“Of course, from their noisy and brash beginnings, The Kinks have come to stand for some of the most enduring and heart-clutching pop of all time.
“They are in the gut of every British songwriter who followed them and are indisputably a cornerstone of everything pop and rock. I love ’em. The world loves ’em.”
On the tour edition of 2003 album Reality, Bowie gave his fans a very special cover of The Kinks song ‘Waterloo Sunset’. Adding his iconic vocal to an already iconic song, Bowie makes the 1967 hit his own.
5. ‘Wake Up’ – Arcade Fire
When Bowie suffered a heart attack following the gruelling world tour from the previous years, there was a degree of worry that he may not take the stage again.
“David Bowie was one of the band’s earliest supporters and champions. He not only created the world that made it possible for our band to exist, he welcomed us into it with grace and warmth,” Arcade Fire once reflected on Bowie’s influence. “We will take to the grave the moments we shared; talking, playing music and collaborating as some of the most profound and memorable moments of our lives.
They added in tribute after his death: “A true artist even in his passing, the world is more bright and mysterious because of him and we will continue to shout prayers into the atmosphere he created.”
In 2005, with concerns about his health, Bowie was soon back at it and joined Arcade Fire for a rendition of their song ‘Wake Up’ as part of a Fashion Rocks performance. It’s a wonderful thing to see.
4. ‘I Got You Babe’ – Sonny & Cher
Recorded for American television on October 19th 1973, at the Marquee Club this is one of the best Bowie duets you’ll ever see. Bowie reportedly told the audience: “This isn’t anything serious, it’s just a bit of fun. We’ve hardly even rehearsed it.”
With that line in your heads take in the splendour of this brilliantly nuanced performance of ‘I Got You Babe’ form David Bowie and Marianne Faithfull.
See the clip, below.
3. ‘Imagine’ – John Lennon
Following the murder of his longtime friend and collaborator, David Bowie paid tribute to John Lennon with a very special cover of ‘Imagine’ while on his Serious Moonlight Tour.
Bowie goes on to share a few more moments with the crowd and the footage is worth watching purely to see the humanity in David’s candour with the crowd. However, with that said, the cover is impeccable, impassioned and utterly irresistible.
2. ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ – The Stooges
The performance below is from the Sydney stop of the Glass Spider tour and sees Bowie in swashbuckling form. Holding court, he delivers a spine-tingling performance of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’.
With it, Bowie found a home in the retrospective rock and roll revelry, at a time where he was trying to match the theatricality in his heart with the big-budget stadium tours his growing legend deserved.
Revisiting Bowie’s wonderful friendship with Iggy Pop, it’s worth recalling Pop’s wonderful tribute: “David’s friendship was the light of my life,” he said in the immediate aftermath of his death.
“I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is.”
1. ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ – The Rolling Stones
Bowie, like much of his work at this time, would add a heavy dose of sex to this cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’.
“There was always an exchange of information within our friendship,” Jagger once said of his friendship with Bowie. “And I suppose there was always an element of competition between us, but it never felt overwhelming. When he’d come over, we’d talk about our work — a new guitarist, a new way of writing, style and photographers. We had a lot in common in wanting to do big things onstage — using interesting designs, narratives, personalities.”
Now, revisiting our number one song. Originally released in 1967, the track was buoyed by the exuberance of the seventies and seemed to fit Bowie’s style more than the Stones’.
Something Richards and Jagger clearly agreed with as they avoided playing the track until the late seventies. When it did return to their setlist it appeared as though Jagger had adopted Bowie’s tone.