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David Byrne’s favourite covers of all time

@TomTaylorFO

Al Green might be no stranger to twisting the motives of his tracks, but for David Byrne stirring oil and water is a central tenet of his work. During his time with Talking Heads, the band released only one single cover, but thanks to the engines of originality and reinvention that they represented – they turned a rebellious gospel anthem into a repackaged new wave explosion. 

The Talking Heads frontman was allured to the classic track because he adored the fact it “combines teenage lust with baptism”. Considering that Byrne was already obsessed with the idea of a frontman inhabiting a sort of preacher figure by this point, it is not surprising that he absorbed the song into Talking Heads wonderfully weird oeuvre. Up until More Song About Buildings and Food, the band had been adding an arthouse vibe to punk and making all the snarling wannabes seem like vapid platitudes. However, now they were set to drift into new wave and wipe the etch-a-sketch of music clean.

It was not without a touch of reluctance, however, that they used an Al Green classic to catapult their attack on banality in all forms. “There’s always a little bit of resistance to recording a cover,” Byrne told the writer Ray Padgett, “because it’s kind of a crowd-pleaser. I’d seen it happen before, where radio DJs who pick what they’re going to play will often pick a cover song… So then a band gets known for covering somebody else’s song as opposed to writing their own material. They have to go through a struggle for years to get identified with their own songs.”

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As it happens, even the futuristic sound that Talking Heads lent to ‘Take Me to the River’ which led to the track becoming an early commercial success for the band, stuck in the singer’s craw somewhat. Almost as a result of the success they had with it, it became their last cover version. As Chris Frantz explains: “David resented that it wasn’t one of his songs that was the hit. So, he said, ‘I’m not doing any more cover songs’.”

Thankfully for our sakes, he is still a keen appraiser of the art form and there is a slew of covers that he rightfully covets. On the DB Radio section of his website, the American Utopia star rattled off a wonderfully eclectic playlist and opined: “Here is a playlist of songs covered by unexpected artists. They step outside their usual genre for material and then personalize it. Often their interpretation gives the song a new meaning…and sometimes the cover is the version we associate with the song, even though the song may have been recorded and released previously by the artist who wrote it.”

The ever-wise musician then muses: “One could argue that Aretha owns “respect” though Otis Redding recorded it first…and that Sinead O Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares to You” is the version of the Prince song that comes to most peoples minds.”

Later adding: “For a lot of the artists on this playlist I suspect that their reason for covering someone else’s song was not to ride the fast track to sales and success, but to show another side of themselves and to escape, briefly, from whatever it is they might be expected to do….they often do this by covering songs you might not think they’d like….this often gives the song a new meaning. We hear an overfamiliar tune with fresh ears.”

Speaking of his own brushes with other people’s songs like his recent interpretation of the protest anthem ‘Hell You Talmbout’, he concludes: “I can testify that covering a song outside of what might obviously be expected is liberating…I can allow myself to be sentimental in ways not very apparent in my own writing, I can make fairly direct political or social statements – also not easy for me. I can channel a different part of myself…so performing a cover changes both the singer and the song.” You can listen to all the covers in the playlist below. 

David Byrne Presents: Under the Covers tracklist:

Rachid Taha – ‘Habina’ (Toufic Barakat, Farid al-Atrache)
Los Ecos – ‘Me Siento Feliz [I Feel Fine]’ (The Beatles)
Sigrid – ‘Everybody Knows’ (Leonard Cohen)
Cat Power – ‘What The World Needs Now’ (Bacharach-David)
Wings – ‘Love Is Strange’ (Mickey & Sylvia)
Caetano Veloso – ‘Get out of Town’ (Cole Porter)
Patti Smith – ‘Gimme Shelter’ (The Rolling Stones)
Patti Smith – ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (Tears for Fears)
Bryan Ferry – ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ (Bob Dylan)
Ashley O [Miley Cyrus] – ‘On a Roll’ (Nine Inch Nails)
Hackney Colliery Band – ‘Africa’ (Toto)
Lambchop – ‘Give Me Your Love (Love Song)’ (Curtis Mayfield)
Willie Nelson – ‘What Was It You Wanted’ (Bob Dylan)
The Persuasions – ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ (Bob Dylan)
The Persuasions – ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (U2)
Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’ (Nine Inch Nails)
Sonic Youth – ‘Superstar’ (The Carpenters)
Seu Jorge – ‘Life on Mars?’ (David Bowie)
Nirvana – ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (David Bowie)
Yo La Tengo – ‘Friday I’m In Love’ (The Cure)
Scissor Sisters – ‘Comfortably Numb’ (Pink Floyd)
William Shatner – ‘Common People’ (Pulp)
Obadiah Parker – ‘Hey Ya’ (Outkast)