Two new Spotify playlists present covers better known than the originals, and the originals covered.
[Updated] Recently, my wife and I heard “It’s My Life” and had a who-is-that moment. She came up with No Doubt; me—Talk Talk. In fact, it was Talk Talk synth-pop version from 1984, but No Doubt’s arrangement stayed pretty close to the original so I heard what she heard. The experience illustrated how a song’s popularity is tied to time. A friend similarly argued that if the ’90s are your musical sweet spot, “Hurt” is obviously a Nine Inch Nails songs. If you’re older or younger, it belongs to Johnny Cash. “Take Me to River” was Al Green’s song until it became a signature song for Talking Heads when they cut it and released it as a single in 1978.
These conversations and my affection for mid-‘60s London-based ska/rock band The Equals (with a pre-“Electric Avenue” Eddy Grant) and their original version of “Police on My Back” prompted me to put a call out on Facebook for covers that are more popular than the originals. Some are easy—a lot of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Respect”—but Euclid Records’ Lefty Parker came with Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove,” originally by glam band Hello, which was news to me. Paul Young’s ‘80s new wave soul hit “Every Time You Go Away” was originally a Hall and Oates tune—something I didn’t know but that makes perfect sense in retrospect. Peter Holsapple of The dB’s and The Continental Drifters went deep, declaring Loudon Wainwright III’s “Daughter” more popular Peter Blegvad’s original because Wainwright’s version appeared on the soundtrack for Knocked Up. I realized when I checked the song that I knew it as a song Holsapple used to cover when he played Sunday nights at Carrollton Station in the ‘90s.
The result of this conversation is not one but two Spotify playlists: It’s My Song, and It Was My Song First, the former featuring the more popular versions while the second includes the originals. “Daughter” is, sadly, not on the playlist because Spotify’s sleeping on Peter Blegvad, and one rule I set for myself is that I wouldn’t put a song on list if I couldn’t put the original on the other. That kept Marianne Faithfull’s great cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” off the list, and because The Beatles are AWOL on Spotify, that also nixed “Twist and Shout.” I’m really disappointed that The Brains’ original version of “Money Changes Everything” isn’t on Spotify because I’m still crazy for Cyndi Lauper’s version. I could have gone with her version of “When U Were Mine” over Prince’s, but the battle of album cut vs. album cut felt too intramural to make it to the playlists. Besides, Prince is well-represented as a generator of hits for others. I’m not shedding tears over the absence of Quiet Riot, but I’d have included them if Spotify had glam rockers Slade’s original version of “Cum on Feel the Noize.”
Holes in Spotify kept me from having to deal with some awkward truths, like the possibility that Otis Day and the Knights’ “Shout” from Animal House is more popular than The Isley Brothers’ version. On the other hand, I was sad that Julie Driscoll’s version of “This Wheel’s on Fire” that served as the closing theme for Absolutely Fabulous was missing as well, and without it, I lost the heart to decide the next-best known version of the Bob Dylan and The Band song.
I couldn’t in good conscience box out Rod Stewart’s facile take on Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” but I didn’t feel obliged to fully represent artists who had taken over a number of songs. The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine” case rest easy, as can a number of Clash covers. Like “Police on My Back,” there’s a good chance that The Clash’s “I Fought the Law” is better known today than The Bobby Fuller Four’s version, and “Police and Thieves” is probably better known than Junior Murvin’s original. I went with one so as not to make the playlist all about The Clash, just as I narrowed Aretha Franklin and Linda Ronstadt down to one or two each. If not, both have interpreted songs with such insight and personality that they’d need their own mini-playlists inside the playlist.
One anomaly is “I’m Shakin’,” which The Blasters wrestled from Little Willie John in 1981. That has been the definitive version, but if Jack White squats on a song as he did in this case on Blunderbuss, in 2014 I know whose version anyone under 50 knows best. To acknowledge the The Blasters’ long-time hold on the song—and because it’s a killer—I’ve included their version as well as Little Willie John’s on “It Was My Song First.”
The two lists side by side open up an interesting conversation between versions. While some artists took good songs and made good songs out of them, others made interesting decisions for good or ill. I still can’t guess what Manfred Mann heard in Bruce Springsteen’s freewheeling, hyperteenaged “Blinded by the Light” that made him want to remake it so ponderously. I also still find “Hurt” a slightly awkward fit for Johnny Cash. It’s not until he gets past the initial cutting verse to the first chorus that I connect him and the song’s big picture. What was going on in The Carpenters’ camp that made them think covering Delaney and Bonnie’s “Groupie (Superstar)” as “Superstar” worked with Karen and the duo’s squeaky clean image?
On the other hand, Boy George’s natural theatricality makes his version of Dave Barry’s pedestrian “The Crying Game” dramatic, and pop synthesizers Blondie and glam-pop producer Mike Chapman kept the surf energy of The Nerves’ excellent power pop original and made it bigger, harder and even more immediate without compromising anything that matters.
Determining popularity is at least partly speculative, and in a few cases, I made a call though I’m not sure I’m right. I decided that Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” is better known than CCR’s version, but I’m not positive. A number of the participants in the conversation suggested Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” and 10 or so years ago, I’d have agreed. But Buckley’s relatively short career has limited his presence in the musical conversation, while Leonard Cohen’s late career resurgence seems to have reclaimed the song. Am I right? Since the version I heard first and love most is John Cale’s, and I might be right since it's his version that appears in 2001's Shrek.
I appreciate the participants in the Facebook conversation who cared enough to bring science, even when I didn’t like their answers. I really did not want to include The Eagles’ version of Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” and didn’t accept that their version could be more popular. It’s The Eagles, dammit! But David Roe of The Royal Rounders pointed out that it was the b-side of “The Best of My Love,” at which point I capitulated. Even a b-side of hit by a ridiculously successful band going to be better known than an album cut by a then-cult artist. I loved when Paul Cebar of The Milwaukeeans also brought Billboard science to the conversation, using charts to argue for Aretha’s “Until You Come Back to Me” over Stevie Wonder’s. I’ll take it as a sign that Paul’s right that Wonder’s version doesn’t appear on any of the hits compilations on Spotify except one, and the version is a remake and not the one that I obviously loved more than others did.
Guitarist Settly Smith and poet Andy DiMichele made spirited arguments for the inclusion of Devo’s version of “Satisfaction,” but as much as I like early Devo, I can’t buy the argument that it’s better known than one of the most popular songs in rock ’n’ roll. If anybody can make a good argument, I’m listening and would love to include it. But if I left off The Waco Brothers’ apocalyptic cover of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues” on the suspicion that bigger to me doesn’t equate to bigger, I have to take a similarly hard line with Devo.
The one question these playlists raised for me is why there are so few songs from the last decade. Is it a function of who participated in the conversation? Or a reflection of the state of the music business, where indie bands can only be so big, so their covers don’t become sufficiently ubiquitous to overshadow originals? The same logic that keeps contemporary indie bands in the middle of festival lineups while older bands still headline?
This experience gave me two pleasant surprises: 1) That it’s possible to have a Facebook conversation go more for more than 100 posts without breaking down into pissy spats (Thanks!), and 2) That “It’s My Song” is so entertaining. I expected to find myself more engaged by the playlist of lesser known originals, but the better known playlist is relentless engaging, whether because the cover choices were good ones or because you can hear the extra something brought to the cover. Personality. Talent. Star power. Focus, Production sheen—all help make a playlist of the songs you’ve known for all these years so fresher than I expected when pulled together like this.
Thanks to everybody who was part of the Facebook conversation that helped to generate these lists. There are a number of songs here that I didn’t know were covers. I’m not enough of a Santana fan to know that his “Black Magic Woman” was Fleetwood Mac’s first, for example. If I got anything wrong, let me know, and if you see something missing, share. I’ll happily add cool songs to the list.
For those who pitched me best, instead of best known, versions, I have project for you down the line.
Updated 3:06 p.m.
I removed the "the" from Talking Heads and corrected the release date of "Take Me to River," which came out on More Songs About Buildings and Food in 1978 and as a single in 1979--the year I first used in the text.
Updated 9:43 p.m.
I forgot that Kai Winding did the first version of "Time is on My Side." Since it isn't on Spotify, I'm not going to commit the New Orleans heresy of removing Irma Thomas from the "It Was My Song First" playlist. But strictly speaking, it was only hers first in New Orleanians' hearts..