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Credit: Bert Voerhoff

Music

Seven Rolling Stones covers that are better than the original version

@TylerGolsen

Few are able to do The Rolling Stones better than The Rolling Stones themselves. Their style is completely unique, and most artists who decide to take on a cover wind up channelling, or simply copying, the swagger and sway of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Great cover songs are ones that understand what made the original so listenable in the first place, take the best elements, and then tailors the song to the artists’ strengths. Based on personal taste, its hard to say that I would consistently reach for these covers over the killer originals, but each and every song on this list goes to great lengths to put a fresh spin on a well-worn classic.

Sometimes that doesn’t exactly work out. Britney Spears’ cover of ‘Satisfaction’ wasn’t bad in theory, but is damn near unlistenable in execution. Little Richards’ version of ‘Brown Sugar’ never elevates beyond the gimmick of the fact that it is Little Richard singing ‘Brown Sugar’. It’s a delicate balance, and one that takes quite a bit of skill to pull off.

Below are seven of the most successful examples ever put to tape. If you feel yourself getting burned out or bored with some of your favourite Stones songs, maybe consider putting on these covers instead.

Seven Rolling Stones covers better than the originals:

1. ‘Satisfaction’ – Otis Redding

Choosing the best cover of ‘Satisfaction’ is tremendously difficult. Like most of the songs on this list, the original Stones version is an absolute classic, but unlike most songs on this list, there have been tons of covers of the band’s first major hit in the US.

This spot almost went to Devo’s unhinged and mechanical version, but when the original inspiration behind a song ends up covering it, that’s had to beat. Otis Redding’s version of ‘Satisfaction’ is sweaty, propulsive, and contains the horns that Keith Richards wanted the riff to originally sound like.

2. ‘Tumbling Dice’ – Linda Ronstadt

Staring down Mick Jagger’s signature bluesy howl and daring to out-sing him takes guts, but if there was ever an artist who turned cover songs into an art form, it was Linda Ronstadt.

From the Eagles to Roy Orbison to Buddy Holly, Ronstadt had such a kinetic presence that she automatically took hold of a song and made it her own, no matter how famous the original was. It’s hard to beat the original version of ‘Tumbling Dice’ from Exile on Main St., but Ronstadt really gives it a run for its money.

3. ‘As Tears Go By’ – Marianne Faithful

Here’s a secret to choosing a good Rolling Stones cover: pick a song from before the band really found their footing. As we’ll see on this list, pre-1968 Stones songs are just begging to be remade and reworked. The Stones had yet to become the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Band’, and they wrote quite a few songs that don’t quite gel with their image and sound.

‘As Tears Go By’ was actually the first song ever written by Jagger and Richards, and it’s hardly a cover at all. Marianne Faithful actually got fist dibs on it since the Stones were uncertain about the softness of the song. They were right, and Faithful handles herself much better than The Stones did on their sappy version.

4. ‘I’m Free’ – The Soup Dragons

I have no idea if this is a controversial opinion or not, but ‘I’m Free’ was The Rolling Stones at their most blatantly copycat nadir. The chorus is a direct swipe from ‘Eight Days a Week’ (and not even the hook of that song either), the production is thin, and the guitars are obviously swiped from the jangle-pop Byrds sound that was popular of the time.

Baggy was probably on its last viable legs in 1990, and there’s a decent argument for The Soup Dragons to be seen as trend chasers. But, hey, so were the Stones in the ’60s. Plus, The Soup Dragons’ version of ‘I’m Free’ is a lot slicker, cooler, and more interesting than the original. Some perfectly placed horns, backing vocals, and slide guitar elevate ‘I’m Free’ to a new level.

5. ‘No Expectations’ – Johnny Cash

The original mournful country honk of ‘No Expectations’ is a wonderfully sad time capsule of a band about to make a major transition. Brian Jones was on his way out, and although he occasionally made small additions over the next few sessions, his slide guitar on ‘No Expectations’ remains his last meaningful contribution to The Rolling Stones.

In order to beat – or even just match that original version – you need someone adept at country music. Not just adept: the best country musician of all time. So that’s exactly what happened when Johnny Cash stepped up with his sped up version of ‘No Expectations’. Although its more rollicking than the original, Cash’s voice retains the weariness necessary to make the song’s lyrics translate.

6. ‘Heart of Stone’ – The Allman Brothers Band

Anyone who read my ranking of the songs on Hot Rocks knows that I’m no big fan of ‘Heart of Stone’. It’s just a flaccid, forgettable ballad from a time when the Stones were really struggling to write songs that matched their style and energy.

Cut to an old and raggedy version of The Allman Brothers Band, who bring the necessary experience to counter the original’s naivety. Ringers like Derek Trucks, Warren Hayes, and Oteil Burbridge help raise the band back to their legendary status, and the guitar interplay between Trucks and Hayes is the key to ‘Heart of Stone’ being as compelling as it is.

7. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ – Bryan Ferry

Brian Ferry’s debut solo album These Foolish Things found the Roxy Music singer not only taking on the Stones but also trying his best to outswing some of the songwriters of all time. Lord knows how he got away with it, but it remains a fascinating reimagining of some of the best songs of the past couple of decades.

His take on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ employs a great trick: annunciation. Jagger sounds like a Lucifer who’s ready to impale you with his pitchfork this second, while Ferry’s is far more refined, classy, and subsequently unnerving. In short, Ferry probably understood the assignment slightly better, and his vocal take on the Devil is an underrated gem.