Welcome to The Flyover Podcast, thank you so much for taking the time to join us for this next hour of stories, jokes, and music.
This week’s episode, “Cover Me,” is a salute to the cover song: the reimagined, the transcendent, and the complete misfire.
We’ll get to all of that in just a minute, but first, we gotta kick out the jams.
(Rage Against the Machine – Kick Out the Jams)
That was Rage Against the Machine with, believe it or not the song that first got me into Rage Against the Machine, “Kick Out the Jams,” their cover of the great MC5.
There have been some incredible cover songs over the years, some that are so good they almost make you forget the original.
There have been more covers of Beatles songs than probably any other band in history, but Joe Cocker’s interpretation of “With a Little Help From My Friends” rises above them all.
Dolly Parton may have written and first recorded “I Will Always Love You,” but even she will tell you that Whitney Houston’s version is definitive.
Every single person who has ever played at an Open Mic or a coffeehouse has done the same pathetic version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and, uh, I should know. Of course, Jeff Buckley’s version is like something that actually came down from the heavens, just a masterful, beautifully emotional recording that never ceases to move me or anyone else who listens to it.
But…have you actually listened to the lyrics?
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
Just two months ago, this was sung at Joe Biden’s Inauguration. Sounds more like a lyric that should’ve been played at Bill Clinton’s.
She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Not sure which of our Presidents might have been into S&M, but, I doubt it was Biden. Taft, maybe?
But here’s the one that always gets me, the verse that always makes me cringe whenever it comes up at some pseudo-important ceremony, or when a prepubescent girl gets to it onstage or in a YouTube video:
Well, there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me, do you?
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving…OK STOP
REMEMBER WHEN I MOVED IN YOU?! He’s talking about his Holy Member here, folks, this is not a song for children! This is not a song for a PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION! The only person I know of who ever truly felt the Holy Ghost moving like that inside of her was Demi Moore in “Ghost.” And maybe one of those televangelists you see on TV at 1am.
Where was I? Ah yes, the greatest cover songs of all time. Charles Bradley doing “Changes,” The Pretenders putting their spin on The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbin,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” you’ll find all of them on any “Best Cover Songs” list.
You’ll also find these next two, which are so good you almost can’t remember how the original version went.
(Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower)
(Ike & Tina Turner – Proud Mary)
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’ve been a staple of the music industry since the Fifties, when covers were less a surprise than simply the way business was done.
If a song was a hit for one artist, it quickly became a race to see who could have a hit with it next.
Bing Crosby does “Autumn Leaves?” Only a matter of time until Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra put their spin on it. Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” barely entered the charts before Moon Mullican’s recording of the song came out, creating a lasting controversy as to who actually wrote the song.
By the time the Sixties rolled around, The Byrds’ versions of Bob Dylan’s early work were literally paying his rent, while The Beatles and Rolling Stones’ nearly put out of business the blues and rock and roll artists of the Fifties they were covering.
In the early days, it was almost a rite of passage. And it was done very quickly: hear the song on the radio, learn it, record it, and get it out there. Which is often why you’d have cover versions with changed or flubbed lyrics, from whatever the hell the Kingsmen are singing about in “Louie Louie,” to Manfred Mann turning “wrecked up like a deuce” into “wrecked up like a douche,” which is…very different.
Ultimately, the goal wasn’t necessarily to sound like the record that inspired you, but rather to internalize it and produce something that became uniquely yours.
Two artists who have this as brilliantly as anyone are Johnny Cash and Ryan Adams.
Now, Ryan Adams may deservedly have his detractors, but there is no denying his brilliance as an artist, or his ability to interpret any song and somehow craft it into his own vision. There may be no song more played out, more covered in coffee houses, than “Wonderwall,” but the Ryan Adams version still hits the way the original once did.
His greatest achievement in the world of the cover song, however, came when he was so moved by Taylor Swift’s “1989” record that he decided to cover…the entire thing! And it’s fantastic, a testament not only to her incredible songwriting, but also to his unique musical ability. He performs the songs as if he wrote and lived them himself, turning mid 2010 stadium pop into something closer to a lost Smiths record.
Johnny Cash was able to add a shockingly productive decade to the final chapter of his career, the songs he chose to record with Rick Rubin giving him and his artistry new meaning. His interpretations of songs by Depeche Mode, Soundgarden, Tom Petty, The Eagles, and more, not only reinvented Johnny Cash the artist, but the songs as well.
When Trent Reznor heard this next one, a song he wrote a decade earlier, he said “I wasn’t prepared for what I heard, and really then, it wasn’t my song anymore.”
(Johnny Cash – Hurt)
(Ryan Adams – Style)
We did the greatest covers of all time, so it only stands to reason that we should dedicate some time to the worst.
Now, there are plenty of covers that are so laughably bad they’re fantastic. Just search for the video of Mick Jagger and David Bowie doing “Dancing in the Street.”
But, those are fun. I’m talking about really bad, I mean the absolute worst, the ones that almost entirely ruin the original song for you.
Like Britney Spears doing the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” I know it’s all #freebritney right now, but after listening to that one again, boy, I don’t know.
Bruce Willis, pardon me, BRUNO, doing The Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” almost makes me ashamed to be from the same state as the guy.
Remember Limp Bizkit? You know, FAIIIIIIIITH. They also did The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIIIIIIIKE.
And did you know that William Shatner, yes Captain Kirk himself, has had a shockingly successful side hustle as a, um, interpreter of other people’s music? He has more than a dozen albums. People actually own them. A record company paid him to do it.
I see…a little…silhouette of a man…scal a moosh scal a moosh…will you…do the fandango.
Yes, he really covered this. It’s wild!
For me, there are two abominations that rise high above the rest, the pieces of corn on top of the highest mountain of crap.
Gather ‘round, children, for a quick history lesson. In the 1950s, rock and roll was still considered the Devil’s music, especially when it was being performed by black artists. In an effort to whitewash and sanitize the airwaves of AM radio, the most milquetoast of the milquetoast would cover the hits of black artists, robbing the music of all its soul and energy, and quite literally robbing the artists of their royalties.
It was disgusting, criminal, and some of the worst music ever recorded. Perhaps none worse than Pat Boone doing Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”
There’s a clip of Little Richard out there talking about this, one of my favorite things in the world. You see him, in all his Little Richardness, talkin’ ‘bout how “when I sing ‘Tutti Frutti,’ I sing ‘A WOP BOP A LU BOP, A WOP BAM BOOM,’ and i say, ‘WOOOOO.’ When Pat Boone sing ‘Tutti Frutti,’ you don’t hear no ‘WOOOO.’”
And he’s right. There ain’t no “WOOOO,” there’s barely even a “Woo.” I almost hate to play it, but it’s important: the powers that be thought this shit could pass as “Tutti Frutti.” As rock and roll! It couldn’t. And it backfired: Little Richard still sold millions and has gone down in history as one of the Founding Fathers of rock and roll. As Richard once said, Pat Boone may have been on the radio, but his own records were in the bedrooms of white kids all over the country. He may have lost the early battle, but he knew he’d won the war.
Now, Frank Sinatra, his pre-1970s career is almost unassailable. His personal life, well, I guess the best you could say is that he definitely wasn’t the worst person Mia Farrow ever dated. The voice. The swagger. The whole thing. There’s a reason Sinatra is still celebrated nearly 25 years after his death, and more than 50 years after he could still sing.
But, in an effort to stay cool, be hip, baby, and resonate with the young people, Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded a version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” that…there’s no other way to put it, it sucks. It’s one of the schlockiest pieces of crap Frank ever recorded, made even more cringeworthy by the fact that you can tell he is absolutely feeling himself on this record.
He thinks this shit is good! He even changed half the lyrics:
The PTA, Mrs. Robinson
Won’t OK the way you do your thing
Ding, ding, ding
And you’ll get yours, Mrs. Robinson
Foolin’ with that young stuff like you do
Boo hoo hoo
I’m sorry to do this to you, but here’s Pat Boone and The Chairman of the Board ruining two otherwise perfectly good songs, here on The Flyover Podcast.
(Pat Boone – Tutti Frutti)
(Frank Sinatra – Mrs. Robinson)
Now, we talked earlier about cover versions that are so good, they make you completely forget about the original.
What about covers that you wish would get made?
You know, like ELO covering LFO.
TLC doing RUN DMC.
Sufjan Stevens playing the songs of Cat Stevens.
Iron Maiden covering Iron Butterfly.
Chance the Rapper doing “Take a Chance on Me”
Nine Inch Nails covering “Ten Inch Record”
Tom Osborne covering Ozzy Osbourne covering Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us,” that’d be fun.
And, my personal favorite, 311 joining forces with 112 to become 3112 for a one-time only performance of Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309.”
I am cleary…a genius.
Now you probably know these next two songs, but I’ll bet you haven’t heard them like this.
I’ll be honest, when I was first doing research for today’s show, and learned that “Tainted Love” was actually a song first done in the Sixties by Gloria Jones, I was shocked. That song is so perfectly Eighties, and so well performed by Soft Cell, it was hard to believe it ever existed in any other form. And then you hear Gloria Jones’ version, and you realize that this song would be a hit in almost any era.
Otis Redding is actually the person who wrote and first recorded “Respect.” When Otis first heard Aretha Franklin’s version, which flips the point of view and turns it into a song of female empowerment, he said, “Well, I just lost my song.”
And he did, Aretha deserved all of her propers, just as she demanded of us. But, it is undeniable that Otis Redding’s recording is delightfully great. It’s got all that funk and soul that he was known for, adding a little something extra to the proceedings.
Hearing it now, with Aretha looming large above, it’s almost as if Otis is agreeing with her, like he’s repeating it back to her. More, “Yes ma’am, I absolutely will respect you,” than the perhaps more misogynistic way it may originally have been intended.
Regardless, these two original versions of songs we’ve grown to love by other artists hold up remarkably well, and show how, as Jackson Browne once said, a good song stays written.
(Gloria Jones – Tainted Love)
(Otis Redding – Respect)
I’ve been out here talking about cover songs all this time, and I almost forgot to ask: why are they called cover songs, anyway?
I’ve performed dozens of covers in my old life as a hack musician in Central New Jersey. I even used to run an Open Mic Night where 75% of the songs would be covers, ranging from a middle-aged, Indian accountant singing “Closer to the Heart,” to a stereotypically Italian guy who looked like Adam Sandler in “The Wedding Singer” pouring his heart and soul into every Eighties standard known to man. Yet, I never even thought about it: why were they called covers?
Did you know that the term cover actually comes from the fact that when an artist would try to capitalize on the success of a hit song by recording his or her own version, that the new version would actually be placed on top of the original 45 in the record store bin. This would literally cover the original song from the view of the potential buyer.
I’ve, ahah, covered a lot of ground in our first “Cover Me” episode, and there are dozens of great songs to choose from, but these next three are some of my all-time favorites, by three artists who couldn’t seem more different, but who all worship at the same altar of rock and roll.
(Dwight Yoakam – Suspicious Minds)
(Stevie Wonder – We Can Work it Out)
(The Beatles – Twist and Shout)
“Twist and Shout” is typically a perfect show closer, in concert, on the radio, or in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but I hope you’ll allow me a brief epilogue to our episode.
We’ve spent the past hour enjoying the best, and most questionable, cover songs in history. But, there’s a certain spot that’s reserved for the most emotional. Maybe it’s the way Jeff Buckley is crying out for salvation in that version of “Hallelujah.” Maybe it’s the gravitas of a song, Johnny Cash singing his own eulogy, knowing his time on the planet is near the end.
Maybe, more simply, it’s the timing.
Bruce Springsteen is legendary for his ability to turn just about anyone’s song into his own during his marathon concerts. He’s done it with Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped,” Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand,” he’s even performed stunning versions of Lorde’s “Royals” and the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”
But, on April 23rd, 2016, just two short days after Prince’s untimely passing, Bruce and the E Street Band took the stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, drenched in purple light, to the instantly recognizable first chord of “Purple Rain.”
I’ve been blessed to witness some unbelievable concert moments in my life. I’ve enjoyed some of the most intense emotions on both sides of the coin during the hours and hours I’ve spent soaking in the energy and artistry of other performers. But, never in my life have I felt what I did in those ensuing five minutes.
That’s the beauty of a shared experience, what we’ve all been robbed of this past year. The beauty of truly being in concert with a performer, as well as the other 20,000 people in your temporary community.
Every single person in that audience wanted this moment, needed this moment. We’d collectively suffered a tremendous loss, and who better than our hero to perform the most fitting, most auspicious, last rites.
Bruce’s version remains a distant second to the perfection of Prince’s, but emotionally? It was the perfect choice in a moment that quite simply called for it.
I don’t know that you’ll truly be able to feel what we did that night in Brooklyn, but just know that, when you’re listening to this last song, it’s that feeling, that connection, that above all else, is why I continue to believe in the undeniable power and spirit of music, why I do this show, and why I continue to hope and work for a stronger community among us all.
We’ll be seein’ ya…
(Bruce Springsteen – Purple Rain)
The Flyover Podcast is recorded and produced by Kyle Pucciarello in Chicago, Illinois. For more information, please visit www.theflyover.site, @official_flyover on Instagram, or email us at email@example.com.