Who doesn’t love a great cover song? I know I for sure do, and I have also loved playing in various cover bands for fun over the last several years with my friends in between our regular bands. We generally only come out to play twice a year, or for special benefit shows, but they are always my favorite times, “punks pretending to be other punks and otherwise;” it always feels like a holiday. Over the years I’ve played guitar in bands like “Bikini Kill,” “Minor Threat,” and “Hole,” as well as drums in “Black Flag,” and more, most recently drumming in “Babes In Toyland.”
Being that FTA is hosting our first showcase this week and it’s a cover show, I figured why not make a list of some of my favorite covers? My favorites are usually the ones that change things up and flip the script, but I can also say that I love a good old fashioned nostalgia fest with a straight ahead cover too; you really can’t go wrong either way. For this list I also invited two of my cover band cohorts who have played with me in a Hole cover band on and off for almost eight years now, and who you may also know as FTA contributing writers Chantal and Rebecca. We each dished on some of our favorite covers so take a read and a listen to some real gems!
Bat For Lashes– I’m On Fire (Bruce Springsteen). Natasha Khan does change the lyrics to fit her perspective, but it works well on this cover of an already sexy Springsteen song, digging down to find an even sultrier angle — dare I say creepy? [CW]
Blondie– Hangin’ On The Telephone (The Nerves). This is one of those songs I didn’t realize was a cover for a long time. I love Debbie Harry’s delightfully punchy delivery of the lyrics in this song that only clocks in at 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Originally written by Jack Lee of the Nerves and recorded in 1976, the song didn’t get much attention until Blondie recorded it and released it on their hugely successful album Parallel Lines in 1978. [RD]
Cassettes Won’t Listen– The Freed Pig (Sebadoh).This is without a doubt one of my favorite covers and one of the reasons why I like covers that don’t sound like the original. I found it in the mp3 blogosphere some 15 years ago and fell in love with it instantly because up til that point, I had never heard an electro artist covering a rock band so it pretty much floored me at the time (and I also love LOVE Sebadoh). Then over the years, it got lost in the ether of random hard drives and dead iPods and changing computers several times. I searched for it on streamers to no avail and considered it a fond memory that would live only the recesses of my mind.
Flash forward to last week when I mentioned it in passing to Chantal when discussing putting this list together and she, being a more computer savvy person than I am, found it within moments. It turns out it was posted to Stereogum in December 2007 and as luck would have it, the link was still active and I was once again re-united with the cover that changed it all for me. I love that CWL was able to take a straight up indie punk song and turn it into an electro bop with a bass heavy groove, making it his own in the process. This is something that now doesn’t seem all that outlandish, but in 2007, certainly blew my mind. I’m very happy to finally be able to listen to this whenever I want again after so many years. As a bonus, I’ve also included The Breeders take on the original song which is to keep it at as a straight ahead rocker, just with an amped up tempo. Both great interpretations that I absolutely love. [KH]
Cat Power– Sea of Love (Phil Phillips and The Twilights). Cat Power’s rendition came out on The Covers Record in 2000 and was on the Juno soundtrack in 2007 where it gained wider recognition. Chan Marshall’s accompanies her intimate vocals by strumming an autoharp, giving it a spare, stripped-down sound. My bandmate in Fisty, Lola Johnson, played guitar and sang this song at my beach wedding which seemed so fitting. Thanks, Lola! The original was written and recorded by Phil Phillips and the Twilights in 1959. It reached number one on the R&B charts, number two on the Billboard top 100, and was awarded a gold disc. In 1989, it was featured in the movie Sea of Love starring Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin. [RD]
The Dandy Warhols– The Wreck (Gordon Lightfoot). (Note: not the acoustic version from 2004, but the nine-minute version from their original 1996 demo The Black Album.) While stripped down lyrically, this stark, noisy take on Gordon Lightfoot’s classic “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” is poignant and haunting, cold as the ice-water mansions of Superior herself. [CW]
Dinosaur Jr– Just Like Heaven (The Cure). Okay, here’s one of my faves. Dinosaur Jr starts out the song all bouncy, happy, and grungy, but then—but then—on the second chorus are these harsh and hardcore backing vocals and distorted guitar. Even in this onslaught, frontman J Mascis continues to croon in his nerdy voice and then takes it to a very spirited bridge with his signature guitar playing. The original was released in 1987 by beloved goth rockers the Cure and you can find me singing it very badly at karaoke. [RD]
The Dismemberment Plan– Crush (Jennifer Paige). For their split EP with Juno, the Plan tackled this one hit wonder from Jennifer Paige, turning it from a fun 90’s bop into a quiet, almost apathetic protest. ‘It’s just a little crush…’ Who is Travis Morrison trying to convince, the kiss-blower or himself? [CW]
Filth Is Eternal– Kool Thing (Sonic Youth). These hardcore punks have taken Sonic Youth’s noisy indie rock anthem/infamous dis track to LL Cool J to a raging and metallic place. Vocalist Lisa Mungo at first seems to give a delivery that will match more with Kim Gordon’s original subdued, blasé vocal performance before quickly putting that to rest and screaming most of the rest of the lyrics. This version is shorter, half the length of the original, as the tempo is faster (it is hardcore after all) and they forgo the breakdown and unfortunately the Chuck D. guest appearance. And let me tell you, I love the original, but this is a really powerful take on the song—hearing “I DON’T WANNA, I DON’T THINK SO” screamed with such force and rage is EXACTLY what I need on any given day living in NYC and navigating this world as a queer woman. [KH]
Fountains of Wayne– Baby One More Time (Britney Spears). What is it about 90’s teen music that makes it so fun to cover? Adam Schlesinger (RIP) and Chris Collingwood put their pop sensibilities to work on showcasing the melodies on this Britney classic, revealing how it’s actually very good. [CW]
Fun People– 15 Minutos Con Vos. (The Smiths). Something about this more upbeat version of The Smith’s “Reel Around the Fountain” always has me dancing. Fun People (a genre-spanning punk band from Argentina) improve greatly on the original — I don’t like Morrisey’s voice, ok? [CW]
Galaxie 500– Listen, the Snow is Falling (Yoko Ono). I first heard this song in college on Galaxie 500’s 1990 album This is Our Music. Sung by bassist Naomi Yang in clear, bell-like tones, the track is quiet with lots of extra percussive touches to make it actually sound like snow is falling. When it hits the bridge, the band kicks in and lets loose with a long, meandering guitar solo. The original was written and sung by Yoko Ono with Ono Plastic Band and was on the B-side of John Lennon’s 1971 single “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Ono had recorded an earlier version in 1968 and calls it the first pop song she ever wrote. [RD]
Hole– It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan). – There are a lot of great Dylan covers out there. This one, from Hole’s Celebrity Skin era (it came as a B-side to “Malibu”) has some gorgeous, shimmery guitar work and driving percussion under Courtney’s aggressive vocals, which work surprisingly well in place of Bob. [CW]
Hole- You Know You’re Right (Nirvana). Hole’s MTV Unplugged performance was taped on Valentine’s Day 1995, later airing on 4/17/95, the day after my 14th birthday. Suffice it to say, it was an exciting day for me, but the full weight of the significance wouldn’t hit me til after I was in my 30s. During the performance, the band played a song that MTV billed as “You’ve Got No Right,” and which Courtney Love introduced as “the last song Kurt wrote.” At the time, no one knew what they where hearing and I certainly didn’t realize what a remarkable thing it was at the time either. We didn’t get to feel the full gravity of it until 2002, after the legal battle to release “You Know You’re Right,” the last song Nirvana recorded, and the song came out to the world. About 10-12 years after that, long after my beat up VHS copy of Hole’s set was gone, I going thru YouTube and it came up and it was only then that it dawned on me what I had heard all those years before; I can honestly say I was startled.
At the end of their performance Love says “that wasn’t a very good version” but I beg to differ. She was treated horribly in the aftermath of her husband’s death and it’s clear it was an emotional and painful thing for her to perform. (And also remember, not just Courtney was grieving here, guitarist Eric Erlandson and drummer Patty Schemel were close friends of Kurt Cobain too.) And it was a risky one too given the scorn the media and Nirvana fans were heaping onto her at that time, all of whom had been despicable to her, claiming she stole his music anyway (or rather that he wrote all her music, a cruel and misogynist farce) so performing one of his songs that they had never heard before or even knew existed was just more fuel for their fire. (Read our 30th anniversary piece on Pretty On The Inside for more on this.) And sure, Hole’s version isn’t perfect or polished. It’s raw, but it is pure and it is haunting, the addition of harp and cello alongside Love’s uncharacteristically (mostly) restrained voice really nailing the emotion.
Whether because of the chyron error at the time of the original airing or more likely through the sexist media narrative that has continued to follow Love, this version isn’t more widely known and I’ve found only the most diehard Hole fans know of its existence. Which really is a shame because it’s a stirring version that deserves more recognition. [KH]
Julien Baker– Fell On Black Days (Soundgarden). If there’s someone who can take an already harrowing song and make it purely d e v a s t a t i n g, it’s Julien Baker. She manages to tap into the emotions of the song, while simultaneously tearing apart the musical framework of a heavy hard rock song and full band arrangement, turning it into a quiet solo acoustic contemplation with beautiful finger picked guitar work. Also impressive is taking it from Chris Cornell’s rich, deep vocal delivery to her own range, an obviously significantly higher soprano, without breaking a sweat.
This ticked a lot of boxes for me as I love Baker’s body of work, and while admittedly I’m a bit more of a casual Soundgarden fan, I will always love Superunknown. I had just become a teenager when it came out in 1994, so there’s plenty of the nostalgia factor of thinking back to the time when I was discovering and falling in love with rock music, a time that has gone on to shape the entirety of my life. Baker’s version was performed for KEXP as part of their “Live At Home” series in 2021 and as such was never released as a single, but I have listened many times to the video on YouTube. And though she has done a number of impressive covers (looking specifically at her Jawbreaker and Death Cab covers here), I find this one to be among her best. [KH]
Laura Barrett– Smells Like Nirvana (Weird Al). Not just a cover, but a cover of a parody. Using a kalimba to play Weird Al’s take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an inspired move, and one I’m not sure anyone but Barrett could pull off. [CW]
Shirley Bassey– Light My Fire (The Doors). Bassey takes the organ heavy, hazy psychedelic jam along with Jim Morrison’s rich baritone and brushes that all aside to bring us an absolutely gigantic and over the top arrangement (which is not a bad thing in the least) complete with a huge horn section, strings, slinky bass and some of the best funk drums of the 1970s (if anyone knows who the drummer on this recording is, please comment). Her voice goes through many moods throughout her take, smooth and silky, reaching a commanding crescendo and taking the main focus even in the midst of at least 20 other instruments. Try not to get up out of your chair to dance and groove to this take on the Doors classic. Go ahead, I dare you.
(Bonus non music reason for including this one: Bassey is Welsh and FTA has strong and loving ties to Wales, our webmaster Jenifun taking care of us from across the Atlantic from her home in Newport just outside of Cardiff.) [KH]
Smashing Pumpkins– Dancing In The Moonlight (Thin Lizzy). No, not the one by King Harvest, the one by Thin Lizzy, one of the greatest bands of all time. The Pumpkins slow down the tempo and make wonderful use of Corgan’s plaintive voice to bring out a softer side of this 70’s classic. [CW]
Snail Mail– The 2nd Most Beautiful Girl In the World (Courtney Love). I know what you’re thinking but no, it’s not that Courtney Love, but rather this Courtney Love, the delightful lo-fi twee band made up of Lois Maffeo and Pat Maley of Yoyo A Go Go. (And yes, they were named after that Courtney Love.) The original was released on a 7inch in 1990 on K Records and came into my possession around 1995ish and it has remained with me ever since, one of my favorite records of all time.
I have yet to meet anyone else who has ever heard of this project so I was very much taken aback the first time I heard Snail Mail’s version thinking to myself “wow someone actually knows about this song?!” Lindsey Jordan doesn’t radically change the song arrangement wise, but her version is definitely punchier than the original and I enjoy her lower vocal range more than Maffeo’s delivery. The addition of bass and heavier drumming really brings it home too. You can look up the originals for all the rest of these songs but I love this one too much to not share both. (Fun Bonus Fact: I have the K Records logo tattooed on my wrist.) [KH]
Snapped Ankles– Give Me The Cure (Fugazi). Fugazi’s music is one of the few things I hold to be sacred in this world and a band I love more than most any other, so if someone is going to cover them, it has to be really fucking good to pass muster with me. When I saw that Snapped Ankles, who I also love, had covered them I was immediately intrigued and they managed to create by far one of the most radical re-interpretations of any song I’ve ever heard. While many ardent Fugazi (aka “purist”) fans likely won’t find this particular take to be their cup of tea, these forest dwelling synth post punks hit a real nerve in me with this one. Their version of “Give Me The Cure,” came out last October on a comp called Silence Is A Dangerous Sound on Ripcord Records and it is a drastic reworking of the track from the seminal 13 Songs. I highly recommend the rest of the comp as well, as it is packed full of artists doing their own takes on the legendary band, but this was a major stand out for me. [KH]
Tracy Thorn and Jens Lekman– Yeah! Oh Yeah!. – Score! 20 Years Of Merge Records: The Covers! has a lot of good stuff, including The Mountain Goats’ take on East River Pipe’s “Drug Life,” but Thorn and Lekman’s almost tender cover of this Magnetic Fields murder fantasy is my favorite (and not only because my vocal range is much closer to Thorn’s than the original and I have delusions of performing it live.) [CW]
Undercover SKA– March Slob (Tchaikovsky). I had a pretty big ska phase as a kid, I mean I did grow up in NJ and started going to shows in the late 90s after all. I was also a marching and concert band kid and as such I was around lots of brass instruments anyway so it all just kind of worked. Through being in the concert band, “March Slave” was one of the first pieces of classical music I was exposed to and performed and remains my favorite to this day. Undercover Ska took the bombastic and emotional rallying cry to an irreverent danceable tune, the cheek obvious from the re-title, also a win for the teenage me who had no manners and even less couth. I never heard anything else by this band but every so often I listen to this one on YouTube for a smile and stroll down memory lane. [KH]
Veruca Salt– Bodies (Sex Pistols). “I’m not an animal, it’s an abortion” sounds different coming from Nina Gordon rather than Johnny Rotten, that’s for sure. This B-side to “Number One Blind” starts off as one of the band’s slower tunes, and builds to something powerful. [CW]
Wet Leg– Material Girl (Madonna). I know I said something similar about Fugazi, but I hold Madonna — and particularly her 1980s output— in a similar regard; thou shalt not take the name of the Material Girl in vain in my presence. (I know those two artists are on vastly different ends of the spectrum but what can I say? We all contain multitudes! I’ve also long dreamed of doing a punk Madonna cover band if there are any takers out there.) We’ve also established I love a cover that tears the original apart, and for their version of the 80s anthem to excess, Wet Leg has done just that, easily nailing it and making it something entirely new. They more or less preserve the vocal melody (with some minor alterations) while musically taking the song from a new wave bop with an infectious synth bass line and a steady driving beat to a dark wave feel — the bass now dirgey instead of bouncy, with off kilter drums paired with shimmery shoegazey guitar. And I don’t know about anyone else, but that really works for me. [KH]
Willie Nelson– Time After Time (Cyndi Lauper). It will be no surprise to anyone who knows me that Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, released in 1983, was the first album I ever owned (on cassette, of course). I can’t remember the first time I heard Willie Nelson covering it, but his warm, weathered voice and folksy delivery get me time after time. I also love the bright tones of the mandolin and the sweeping violin that come in to accompany Willie’s trusty guitar Trigger. This song was on The Great Divide released in 2002 which was Willie’s fiftieth studio album. So stoners can get shit done. [RD]
The Young Professionals– Video Games. (Lana Del Rey). A club-ready take on Lana Del Rey’s breakout hit, this one transcends mere remixes to offer a summer banger well worth blasting from your car (or moped.) Singer Ivri Lider pulls one of my favorite cover tricks and doesn’t change the lyrics to suit gender norms, giving us a queer version of this slow-burn turned anthem. [CW]