I love a well-done cover song, and I especially love a well-done cover that deviates from the original. There’s something endlessly fascinating about how two different people can arrange such dramatically different interpretations of the same source material. What makes this especially fun is when you discover that a song you’ve been enjoying for years is itself a reinterpretation. Sometimes it even goes a step further, and a song that you knew as a cover turns out to be a cover of a cover. Researching this list became a much more involved “rabbit hole” than I ever anticipated, and I am delighted to share my findings with you. I’m confident that, like me, you’ll have more than a few “whoa, I didn’t know that!” moments.
Bruce Springsteen – Blinded by the Light
When a WatchMojo video got me digging into this awhile back, this was the one that surprised me most. This is one of those songs that I feel like I’ve been aware of for as long as I’ve cared about music. So it was a bit of a shock to discover in my 40s that, not only is it a cover, but it was originally by The Boss. There are differences in the arrangement and the lyrics, but the Manfred Mann version is generally considered the definitive rendition.
Tina Turner – Don’t Turn Around
While “Blinded by the Light” was the big surprise on my first dive into this topic, this one blew me away even moreso. Ace of Base’s third most successful single was originally a Tina Turner song, the B-side of her 1986 single “Typical Male”. Bonnie Tyler, whose repertoire of covers is expansive and impressive, also did her own interpretation on 1988’s Hide Your Heart.
I’ve Got My Mind Set On You – James Ray
Time for a little history about “Weird Al” Yankovic. In 1988, Al released his album Even Worse. The title had two meanings. First of all, the lead single was “Fat”, a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, and the album cover was a also direct parody of Jackson’s Bad cover. In other words, since Jackson was declaring himself to be “Bad”, Al decided he was “Even Worse”. Second, all of the other parodies were of covers that had recently been hit singles, by Tiffany, Billy Idol, Los Lobos, and George Harrison.
The last one was the one that surprised me. Harrison’s most solid 80s hit was actually a cover. I owned 45s of the originals of all the others, but I had never heard James Ray’s original of “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You” (which Al turned into “(This Song’s Just) Six Words Long“).
The Tide is High – The Paragons
One of Blondie’s most distinctive qualities was, and still is, a blending of several sounds and moods. As such, this reggae ditty, which was their third #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, didn’t raise many eyebrows. So, few at the time knew that it was a cover of a 1966 rocksteady song by The Paragons. Although, the fact that the gender-swap screwed up the rhyme scheme could have been a clue.
Torn – Ednaswap
This one’s a little weird. Shortly after Natalie Imbruglia had her breakthrough hit with “Torn” in 1997, there was a short-lived minor controversy. Apparently, some people were upset when they found out that Imbruglia didn’t write the song. It was a cover of a 1995 song by a relatively unknown alternative act called Ednaswap. Nobody claimed had that she wrote the song, however, and there was nothing new about singers having a cover be their first hit. So the “controversy” was quickly reduced to a footnote, whose most prominent documentation is a mention on Pop-Up Video.
Adding to the weirdness, Ednaswap’s “original” wasn’t technically the first recording of the song. Two years before they got around to releasing it, a Danish translation, “Brændt” (“Burned”), was released by Lis Sørensen.
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Robert Hazard
I almost didn’t include this one because, quite frankly, the original is awful. And, let’s be real, there’s something creepy about a guy breathily singing about what girls want. Thankfully, Hazard’s recording never got past the demo stage, so I’ll choose to consider Lauper’s version “technically a cover but sort of not really”.
Downtown Train – Tom Waits
If you asked a random sampling of people around you, there’s a good chance that many of them wouldn’t be able to name a Tom Waits song. On the other hand, it’s almost a guarantee that they’re familiar with at least one of his songs, but covered by someone else. The Eagles, Alison Krauss, Sarah McLachlan, Bruce Springsteen, and The Ramones are among the many big names to contribute to this. Heck, actress Scarlett Johansson recorded an entire album of Tom Waits songs (it was kind of awful, but I digress).
One of the most successful Waits covers is Rod Stewart’s “Downtown Train”. The original was a standout track and minorly-successful single from Waits’ 1985 masterpiece Rain Dogs. Stewart’s 1991 cover starts off with a similarly restrained sound, but gradually swells into a much “bigger”, almost celebratory sound.
Piece of My Heart – Erma Franklin
First off, the more well-known recording, with Janis Joplin on vocals, is properly credited to her band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Second, covers generally draw from that 1968 version, but the original was by Erma Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s older sister). Faith Hill’s 1994 atrocity seemed to be an attempt to destroy the song’s legacy, but Melissa Etheridge managed to restore it a little bit in 2005, even though it was a clumsy attempt at a comeback for Etheridge.
The First Cut is the Deepest – P.P. Arnold
This is one of my favourites. With many of the entries on this list, it’s fun to play the original for someone and watch their face as they slowly realize what they’re hearing. P.P. Arnold’s original recording of “The First Cut is the Deepest” (written by Cat Stevens) also happensto be a fantastic song in its own right.
Nothing Compares 2 U – The Family
In the 80s, there were a lot of Prince side projects and spin-offs. Morris Day and The Time may be the most memorable, with their mega-hit “Jungle Love“. Wendy & Lisa, Vanity 6, and Apollonia 5 also enjoyed a little time in the spotlight. One of the lesser-known projects, however, was The Family. The Family was often tasked with bringing life to songs that Prince wrote but wasn’t interested in doing himself. So even if you knew that Prince wrote Sinéad O’Connor’s 1990 breakthrough hit “Nothing Compares 2 U“, you might not have known that The Family had recorded it 5 years prior.
Prince would eventually record a live version as a duet with Rosie Gaines, which was included on the various iterations of his 1993 compilation The Hits. Also included on this compilation were Prince’s originals of “I Feel 4 U” (covered by Chaka Khan in 1984), and “When U Were Mine” (covered by Cyndi Lauper in 1983).
Killing Me Softly – Lori Lieberman
In 1996, the Fugees released their breakthrough mega-hit, “Killing Me Softly“. Not everyone knew it was a cover of a 1973 Roberta Flack song, but many did. Even fewer knew, however, that Flack’s rendition was itself a cover. The original, by Lori Lieberman in 1972, was a soft acoustic rendition of a poem. “His song” was Don McLean’s “Empty Chairs”.
The first cover could have turned out quite differently; according to Wikipedia:
Helen Reddy has said she was sent the song, but “the demo… sat on my turntable for months without being played because I didn’t like the title”.
Roberta Flack’s successful 1973 cover is still soft, but with some defining chord changes, and a slightly more soulful sound. Further mutating the tune, The Fugees laid down a hip-hop version in 1996, to much acclaim.
If you poke around YouTube looking for versions of this song, you’ll probably find about a dozen copies of a crooner version credited to Frank Sinatra. It does kind of sound like The Chairman, but he never actually recorded it. That’s Perry Como, from his 1973 album And I Love You So.
Some Guys Have All The Luck – Persuaders
First released in 1973 by R&B group The Persuaders, Rod Stewart’s cover of “Some Guys Have All the Luck” served as one of the important hits of his 80s comeback (and his third time appearing on this list, what is it with this guy and covers?) In between those two versions, Robert Palmer also recorded his own version, with significantly altered lyrics and arrangement. Palmer’s version is probably the strangest, kind of a gritty new wave thing, reminiscent of Pete Shelley’s “Homosapien“.
There have been several other covers, including a gender-swapped country version. Of special note is Maxi Priest’s 1987 rendition, which (mostly) returned to the original lyrics and arrangement, but with Maxi’s signature “reggae fusion” sound.
Tainted Love – Gloria Jones
When Marilyn Manson covered “Tainted Love” in 2001 for the Not Another Teen Movie soundtrack, it was fairly common knowledge that he was covering a Soft Cell song. Soft Cell’s 1981 arrangement, however, was not the original. American soul singer Gloria Jones’ Motown-influenced version was a B-side for “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home”, which failed to make a lasting impression domestically. Jones herself, however, had very much made an impression in England, where she was dubbed the “Northern Queen of Soul”.
Eventually the song entered the radar of the synth-pop duo Soft Cell. Their 1981 version became their only major hit in North America, and one of the defining songs of the 80s.
Side notes and honorable mentions:
- You probably knew that The Isley Brothers recorded “Twist and Shout” a year before The Beatles, but did you know that a group called The Top Notes recorded it a year before that?
- “I Love Rock n Roll” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, arguably one of the most ubiquitous and recognized songs of the modern era, was originally released by The Arrows in 1975.
- Animotion’s “Obsession”, unofficial theme song of the fashion world for more than 30 years, was originally recorded by Michael Des Barres & Holly Knight
- Madonna’s “Ray of Light” was adapted from “Sepheryn” by Curtiss Maldoon, but it’s not a direct cover.
- Led Zeppelin have a storied history of borrowing, adapting, and straight-up stealing. A cursory Google search will provide many articles and videos discussing this, but the two examples which I think best fit the theme are “Dazed and Confused”, originally by Jake Holmes, and “Stairway to Heaven”, adapted from “Taurus” by Spirit.
- Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” was adapted from “Crescent City Blues“, written by Gordon Jenkins and sung by Beverly Mahr. Also, more than half the songs on Cash’s 5 American Recordings albums are reinterpretations of a diverse selection of songs.