From Nirvana to The Cure: The 10 best David Bowie covers of all time
With such an illustrious career spanning across decades, David Bowie would push the boundaries of rock and roll and become a major figurehead of music. With his unrelenting and unique talent, Bowie went on to inspire countless musicians throughout his career and, in homage to his brilliance, a number of those artists paid tribute to his work through their own renditions of his material. While using someone else’s originality to express oneself isn’t naturally aligned with Bowie, the truth is, the singer loved a cover too.
The list for any avid Bowie fan may not be too much of a surprise. Naturally, there is room on there for the likes of Nirvana and Bauhaus, with their covers of iconic Bowie tracks—but there are also a few unfamiliar musical tributes to the man who spent much of his career ascending to the stars. The real beauty of this list of greatest Bowie covers comes with the sincerity with which each cover was made. There’s a touching sense of connections on every cover that most artists couldn’t muster for just anyone.
Then again, Bowie wasn’t just anyone. He provoked within people a total sense of artistic courage and creative direction that inspired artists and captivated audiences in equal measure. Another British institution, and bastion of her own singular style, Kate Bush was a gigantic Bowie fan and, after his death, said of the singer: “David Bowie had everything. He was intelligent, imaginative, brave, charismatic, cool, sexy and truly inspirational both visually and musically. He created such staggeringly brilliant work, yes, but so much of it and it was so good. There are great people who make great work but who else has left a mark like his? No one like him.
“I’m struck by how the whole country has been flung into mourning and shock,” continued the ‘Wuthering Heights’ signer with utter admiration. “Shock, because someone who had already transcended into immortality could actually die. He was ours. Wonderfully eccentric in a way that only an Englishman could be. Whatever journey his beautiful soul is now on, I hope he can somehow feel how much we all miss him.”
Such an imposing figure of music makes for a list of covers that was incredibly exclusive. Some acts choose to be like Icarus and go as close to Bowie’s burning sun as possible and, quite often, find the same fate as the Greek myth. However, the acts below have managed to toe the line between paying homage to the great rock and roller and use his own art to inspire theirs and offer a perfect interpretation.
Whether you love Bowie or really love him, this list is bound to give you some joy. Naturally, who have we missed out from this list? Let us know in the comments below and suggest some fantastic covers we may not have heard.
The 10 best David Bowie covers of all time:
Beck – ‘Sound and Vision’
“Everybody dizzy yet? There’s some sick bags under your chairs if you need it,” Beck told an intimate crowd of 280 people who were sitting on cushions on the floor as the musician conducted at 157-piece orchestra around his slowly rotating stage.
Beck, stood in the middle with a dazzling jacket and black fedora, span in one direction his circular stage while the audience—who were there by invitation only—span slowly in the opposite direction. In what was arguably the most ambitious David Bowie cover of all time, Beck was pushing the boundaries of sound and vision with an effort like no other.
“It was an experiment and an opportunity to try something completely irrational,” Beck told Rolling Stone. “I attempted to conjure some scenario that could only exist in this kind of space for a one-time performance. It’s doing something you could never do on a tour. I was thinking a lot about Busby Berkeley films and multiples of musicians and dancers.”
The show, which took place in 2013, was given the green light by Bowie himself who allowed Beck to work his magic on the 1977 song. “It’s not easy,” Beck added. “It’s also incredibly impractical putting everybody in a circle. Every musician is facing each other. It’s an audio nightmare. But the idea of the music surrounding the audience is what was interesting, and how you could play with the sound spatially.
“So the song gets really disjointed, fragmented—it’s what you would hear in electronic music, but here it’s done live. I was curious to see if it could be pulled off.” Pull it off he did… and in quite spectacular fashion with a pomp pop swagger. See footage of the evening, below.
Nine Inch Nails – ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’
Nine Inch Nails, more specifically Trent Reznor, has never been shy to admit his admiration for David Bowie and his music.
“Scary Monsters was the first one I related to. Then I went backwards and discovered the Berlin trilogy, which was full-impact,” Reznor once told Rolling Stonein a reflective op-ep penned just weeks after Bowie‘s death. “I read into all the breadcrumbs he’d put out—the clues in his lyrics that reveal themselves over time, the cryptic photographs, the magazine articles—and I projected and created what he was to me.
“His music really helped me relate to myself and figure out who I was.” Reznor has always shared his admiration for the Starman.
Having once been given the opportunity to share a stage with Bowie for a one-song special duet, Reznor could not hold back his joy at the moment: “I was outside of myself, thinking, ‘I’m standing on stage next to the most important influence I’ve ever had, and he’s singing a song I wrote in my bedroom’,” he said.
While the pair would perform NIN song ‘Hurt’ together on stage countless time, Reznor and the band decided to pay tribute to Bowie while live on stage as part of a 2009 performance in Toronto. The song, which Reznor worked on in the producing room as part of remix, offered the band a chance to fully experiment with some of Bowie’s original material.
Speaking about the song’s origins, Bowie once explains. “It’s not as truly hostile about Americans as say ‘Born in the U.S.A.’: it’s merely sardonic. I was travelling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, ‘for fuck’s sake’. The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.
See Nine Inch Nails deliver a special rendition of ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, below as Trent Reznor pays tribute to his friend and collaborator.
Nirvana – ‘Man Who Sold The World’
The vocal power of Kurt Cobain is too often overlooked. While his lyricism and attitude are what put him on teenagers’ bedroom walls across the globe in the early nineties as the face of grunge, his vocal performance is still a powerhouse piece of the puzzle. It’s a similarity he shared with Bowie, who was also dismissed as a singer.
No better is this seen than with the vocal performance of not one of his own songs but as part of Nirvana’s cover of Bowie track ‘The Man Who Sold The World’—a song they made famous on MTV’s Unplugged and has since become wrongly seen as one of the band’s best original songs.
While David Bowie originally released the track, the song’s ubiquitous sound has lent itself to many covers over the years from the musical spectrum’s far reaches. The debate about who delivered the best rendition is better left for the back rooms of pubs and clubs, the argument over who recorded the most iconic effort was surely settled a long time ago. Nirvana’s cover of the track is the undoubted winner, no matter your allegiance. The song’s eponymous album was ranked as number 45 of Kurt’s favourite albums of all time, and it’s clear he shares an affinity with the track. Later, the song and the session became an integral part of the band’s output in those last months before Cobain’s sudden death, forming a large part of their MTV rotation.
Bowie said of Nirvana’s cover: “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.” The Starman, ever the lover of any art, added: “It was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”
Though Bowie did admit that people thinking that the song is Nirvana’s own does annoy him a little: “Kids that come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!’”
Nirvana’s stripped-back cover was an authentic tribute to the song and an honest interpretation of the track’s content. It’s a theme which Cobain delivers perfectly with his vocal. He allows the song’s protagonist to meet his doppelganger and share the odd moment, offering Cobain the chance to, perhaps, crack open the door to his own feelings of the time.
It naturally fits Cobain’s own paradoxical life, a man with the world at his fingertips so hasty to shove it away. It’s this vulnerability and resignation that resonates so cleanly.
Oasis – ‘Heroes’
Manchester’s angriest band, Oasis, have never been afraid to let people know their opnions—if it’s good or bad. Here though, Liam and Noel Gallagher finally have something they agree on and that is their mutual love for David Bowie.
The perfect cover is a difficult cocktail to get right. Much like making a cocktail, the perfect recipe is all to do with balance. The delicate balance between paying tribute to the original and taking the song down your own path. That’s something that Oasis pull off with ease on their cover of the enigmatic seminal single from the Bowie. The cover was released as a B-side to their 1997 single ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’, and with it, the Manchester band deliver a lethal concoction of bravado, acknowledgement, and rock and roll star power.
“This is the first song I heard by David Bowie,” remarks Noel in an interview mourning the Starman’s passing. Gallagher the detailed how the song changed his life: “Singing this song with the light behind him. It totally fucking blew me away. I went down to my local second-hand record shop a couple of days later and got Best of Bowie and never looked back.
“And for all my talk of, ‘Well, what are his songs about? We don’t really know what they’re about’, I think ‘Heroes’ is quite straightforward. The sentiment is amazing: We can be heroes, if only for one day. We all can’t make it in life, but we can feel like we make it, for one day at a time. That’s why it’s my favourite.” This is the emboldening sentiment that ran through the veins of Noel Gallagher in 1981 and the same one he gave a generation of council estate kids in the ’90s.
This cover of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is one of our favourite Bowie covers of all time and within it, you can feel the adoration they hold for the man himself while still projecting their own rock star shadow, casting the rest of Britpop in darkness.
The White Stripes – ‘Moonage Daydream’
Next up it is The White Stripes and their early take on David Bowie’s powerhouse track ‘Moonage Daydream’.
When you think back to some of David Bowie’s best songs, it’s very hard to look too far past his illustrious and seminal record The Rise and Fall ofZiggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. It’s an LP that introduced the world to Bowie’s persona Ziggy Stardust and created its own genre of glam rock. So it’s no wonder that an aspiring young band called The White Stripes picked up one of the record’s best tracks ‘Moonage Daydream’ for a special early cover over 20 years later to express their incarnation.
The White Stripes were in their infancy when they picked up the cult favourite track and added their own unique spin. The recording below is likely from one of their first-ever shows with most people dating the clip back to around 1997. But what really hit us is that despite the rough sound, Jack White’s oddly high vocals, and a newly developed band, this cover incredibly indicative of The White Stripes’ future sound.
The interpretation from one of our favourite guitar impresarios is a uniquely Jack White style of sound, even at the young age of 22. It moves away from the original glam rock tones and instead leans more heavily on the blues roots of the song, White’s fire breathing guitar eviscerating all those in earshot. The fuzzing guitars and pounding drums signalling the beginning of the new generation taking up their rock and roll batons.
Listen to The White Stripes performing David Bowie’s classic song ‘Moonage Daydream’ below.
Depeche Mode – ‘Heroes’
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of its release, Depeche Mode released an official cover of David Bowie’s epic, and truly remarkable, track ‘Heroes’.
The song has been a live favourite of Depeche Mode’s for a while as they’ve toured countless arenas across the globe. Dave Gahan and the rest of the band also released some official visuals in a moodily lit studio to boot. Tim Saccenti, who has shot a number of videos for Depeche Mode in the past, directed the clip.
“‘Heroes’ is the most special song to me at the moment,” singer Dave Gahan said in a statement when releasing their official rendition. “Bowie is the one artist who I’ve stuck with since I was in my early teens. His albums are always my go-to on tour and covering ‘Heroes’ is paying homage to Bowie.”
“When we started rehearsing I brought up the idea of maybe doing a Bowie cover especially after losing him,” Dave Gahan told Classic Pop magazine. “Martin and I are both huge fans, and still are. So it just seemed right, Martin was into it. It’s got a real early Depeche flavour to it.”
Discussing the recording process, Dave added: “I was so moved, I barely held it together, to be honest,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Martin [Gore] listened to ‘Heroes’ once it was mixed and randomly told me, ‘Wow, that was really fucking good.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?’”
Enjoy the clip, below and see the way Depeche Mode handle a hero.
The Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Space Oddity’
If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times; the key to a great cover version is all about walking the delicate balance between paying homage to the original while adding your own special influence to the song. Smashing Pumpkins were clearly listening to us back in 2013 when they covered David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’.
Bowie’s original track was the singer’s breakthrough hit and it was his first taste of stardom and would go on to be the starting point of an illustrious career like no other. However, while Bowie was master of his own music, he was also deeply passionate about encouraging other artists to express themselves.
This is why we’re pretty certain that Bowie would’ve been happy with Billy Corgan and the band deliver a unique rendition of ‘Space Oddity’. While Bowie’s track was beautifully haunting and lonely, tinged with a spectral otherworldliness that twinkled in the space that surrounded his main protagonist, the Pumpkins went for something a little heavier.
In fact, The Smashing Pumpkins do a very good job of making this iconic song feel not only brand new but as if it could appear on any of their albums. They replace the twinkling with guitar feedback and amp up the loneliness with Corgan’s unique vocal, all of which makes for a truly memorable cover.
The footage below comes from the band’s appearance at SXSW in 2013 as part of the Guitar Center Sessions and is a must-watch for any fan of either The Smashing Pumpkins or Bowie.
Bauhaus – ‘Ziggy Stardust’
Quite rightly given the accolades as the inventors of goth, Bauhaus wasn’t all about being black in heart and fashion. No, they had a little bit of glam to their palette and their 1982 cover of David Bowie’s iconic song ‘Ziggy Stardust‘ shows they had all the glittered swagger of the man himself.
David Bowie is a man whose songs have been covered numerous times. Bowie is just one of those artists who, having influenced and energised so many creative minds, has a lot of famous fans. Bauhaus, the forefathers of goth-punk, were just a few of those very fans.
The band are widely attributed as huge fans of the star and paid tribute to Bowie and his alien-rock star incarnation Ziggy Stardust with their cover of Bowie’s iconic ode to the flame-haired, glitter-booted, rock and roll extra-terrestrial from his 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.
They even shot a quite brilliant video to go alongside the track which came out as part of a double A-side in October of 1982. The video was shot in the catacombs of Camden Market (actually just a series of tunnels but that’s what the locals call them) and features a full mock-gig set up with complete backline and riotous fans.
It would act as a catapult for the band, eventually landing them a spot on the acclaimed show Top of the Pops.
Marilyn Manson – ‘Golden Years’
Up next it is Marilyn Manson and his rendition of ‘Golden Years’, a track which would later feature on the Dead Man on Campus soundtrack.
Manson, like all the names on this list, has been heavily influenced by Bowie’s creative output. Shortly after the Starman passed away, Manson felt compelled to show his love for the musician and penned a poetic essay detailing his impact as part of an article published through Rolling Stone. “My first introduction to David Bowie was watching ‘Ashes to Ashes’ on MTV. I was confused and captivated,” Manson writes. “But it wasn’t until my first real stay in Los Angeles, around 1997, that someone told me to take a moment to listen to something other than Ziggy Stardust , Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory . So I went for a dizzying car ride through the Hollywood Hills and listened to ‘Diamond Dogs.'”
“All of my nostalgia, instantly turned to awe,” he continues. “I was hearing him sing about fiction as a mask to show his naked soul. This changed my life forever. Every song of his was a way for me to communicate to others. It was a sedative. An arousal. A love letter I could never have written.”
He adds: “This crushing moment of fear and loss can only be treated the way his music has affected everyone who was fortunate enough to hear and love it.
“Let’s NEVER let go of what he gave us.”
Couldn’t have said better ourselves.
The Cure – ‘Young Americans’
Last but by no means least, we have The Cure. Robert Smith, the iconic frontman of post-punk icons The Cure, has never been shy to discuss his admiration for the great David Bowie.
Bowie, whose ever-developing career and repeated character changes propelled him to the top of popular music, had impacted Smith’s vision of music and helped formulate his understanding of the type of music he wanted to create within his band.
While The Cure are undoubtedly a band who verge closer to the darker side of proceedings in their earlier material, a conscious decision by Smith to lighten the mood by introducing a more significant pop sensibility to the band’s sound resulted in hits such as ‘Friday I’m In Love’ and ‘Lovesong’.
Drawn into a conversation about how Bowie had influenced his approach to music, Smith answered: “I listened to music before Bowie, obviously. I have an older brother and he played me Hendrix, Cream and Captain Beefheart… all that type of stuff from the 1960s but David Bowie was probably the first artist that I felt was mine. He was singing to me.
“He [Bowie] was the first album I ever bought, Ziggy Stardust was the first vinyl album I ever bought. I always loved how he did things as much as what he did. I love that idea of being an outsider and creating characters.”
He added: “I look back at some the things we’ve [The Cure] done and I can see echoes of some of Bowie’s stuff in it. I got my dream come true when he invited me to sing with him at his birthday in New York. That was a fantastic night, unreal actually for something like that to happen.”
There are, perhaps, no two artists more clearly linked than David Bowie and Robert Smith. The straight line drawn between them showcases just how influential Bowie was and will continue to be.