Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The Most Transformative Cover Songs
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Readers recommend their favorites. Submit your own—especially if the cover goes across genres—via hello@theatlantic.com, and please include a short description of why you love it so much.

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Track of the Day: 'Desperadoes Waiting for a Train' by Jason Isbell

A reader recommends a cover song that doesn’t dramatically diverge from the original, but it’s an exceptional pick:

I’ve been liking your choice of cover songs lately, particularly the Lyle Lovett cover of “Friend of the Devil” (my dad was a deadhead). I’ve got a suggestion of my own, by my favorite artist of today on Austin City Limits, Jason Isbell: “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” That rapturous opening guitar especially.

Here’s the original from Guy Clark. And here’s a harmonized version from The Highwaymen—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. The Western Writers of America named “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” the #45 Western song of all time.

Update from a reader, Jim Jolly, who helps with a clarification: The song was written by Guy Clark but first performed on an album by Jerry Jeff Walker, Viva Terlingua. Jim adds, “None of the other recordings comes close.”

One more reader, James Thoroman:

First time I heard this song was when I bought an album by Mallard, which consisted of several members of the The Magic Band who formed a group in England after they separated with Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. Since I didn’t listen to C&W music, I always heard the great songs when they were covered by a group or offshoot that I followed. When I got the album, I expected and wanted more Magic Band-type tunes. At first I was perplexed by why they would include it. Over time, I’ve come to like it. It’s a great song.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

Bear with me: Coldplay is pretty dull, but if you take away Chris Martin’s whingeing singing, it’s redeemable. This is probably the weirdest song choice from a 2005 collaboration between Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. Haden, daughter of the great bassist Charlie, is a former member of the Decemberists who’s behind fascinating projects like a solo, a capella cover of The Who Sell Out. Frisell is a versatile jazz-ish guitarist. “Yellow” is already soft rock—might as well remove the bass and drums and strip it down to the basics, just Haden’s voice and Frisell’s multitracked, fuzzed-out guitar. It turns out there’s a great melody and chord progression in there.

To paraphrase my Coldplay-loving colleague Derek, this Coldplay song is awesome, if you ignore the lyrics.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

Is pop music getting worse? You might expect a 60-something guitar virtuoso, songwriter’s songwriter, and English folk-rock O.G. to be the sort of person who’d say so. You’d be wrong. In 2003, Richard Thompson released an album called 1000 Years of Pop Music, which is pretty much what it sounds like: A repertoire of Western vernacular, from the 13th century “Sumer Is Icumen In” through Abba, with stops in Henry Purcell, Lennon/McCartney, and Hoagy Carmichael. Your mileage may vary, but I think the best track is his rendition of Britney Spears’s 2000 hit.

“Oops!... I Did It Again” was actually written by Max Martin, the Swedish genius behind “I Want It That Way” and “Since U Been Gone” and “Blank Space” and about two dozen other songs you guiltily sing along with when you’re driving alone. In other words: disposable pop confections. Or maybe not. As Thompson’s rendition shows, these are meticulously constructed songs—compositions that can withstand removal from fresh-faced pop stars to grizzled old folkies.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

Some of the greatest covers are the ones that totally efface and replace the original. How many artists can do that once? Aretha Franklin has done it over and over—most notably with “Respect,” which at this point is so tied to her that many people forget Otis Redding wrote and recorded it, as a rather less gender-progressive song.

I heard her recording of “Border Song” on the radio and only realized years later it was by Elton John; I only listened to his rendition as I wrote this. Don’t bother: All you need is this version, which takes the ersatz gospel of the original and alchemizes it into the real thing. The main attraction is Aretha’s vocals, but the backing musicians bring it all together—Billy Preston’s organ, Chuck Rainey’s bass, Cornell Dupree’s chorus-drenched guitar solo, but especially the piano playing, which perfects the recording. Who’s that? Just a little-known studio musician named Aretha Franklin.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

For the Sunday sabbath, here’s a rock reimagining of a Bob Dylan song from reader Mikey:

So I’ve been through your complete archive of cover songs—some very interesting and unusual selections for sure—but I am stunned, gobsmacked even, by the absence of the Guns & Roses cover of Knockin' on Heaven’s Door. I’m eternally fascinated by the vastly different routes Bob Dylan and Axl Rose take to finally get to the same place. And the weird “telephone” monologue [starting at the 3:40 mark] was classic Axl genius …

I’m chuffed that our gobsmacked reader likes our series so much. Submit your own pick here.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here.)

Matt, a reader in Seattle, has an unsettling selection for the cover series:

This is a probably bit out there, but I was reminded of it as I listened to yesterday’s Track of the Day. The song “Tainted Love” was originally written by Ed Cobb and recorded by Gloria Jones in 1965 (thanks Wikipedia). It became famous with the 1981 synth-pop version by Soft Cell.

Then in 1985, Coil covered it. Slowed it down. Released it as a benefit for an AIDS Charity. The slow version brought out a new meaning in the lyrics:

Once I ran to you, now I run from you
This tainted love you’ve given
I give you all a boy could give you
Take my heart and that’s not nearly all

It captured something of the despair and panic (the name of the b-side) of those early AIDS days in the gay and alternative world, where something terrifying was happening. I wasn’t aware of the video at the time, but it leaves little room for misinterpretation. Thirty years later and the emotion still comes through.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

This cover song from a reader goes country:

On the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album, “Friend of the Devil” is a merry jig—a winking description of what fun it is to be an outlaw. Like other cover versions, Lyle Lovett’s take [embedded above] slows the song down. Unlike any others, Lovett makes you feel the narrator’s existential fatigue—both in the way the spare instrumentation evokes the vast isolation of his native Texas and in his delivery of lyrics such as, “If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.”

Update from a reader in North Carolina: “If your correspondent were a real Deadhead, he’d have noted that the Dead also often played ‘Friend of the Devil’ at dirge-like speed.”

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

A reader, Joe, adds another great song to the cover series—and the second one to appear from the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack:

I nominate “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede (1974). The original, by B.J. Thomas, was a sappy, unmemorable love song. This cover version is one of the strangest songs ever to hit to the top of the charts. I remember the first time I heard it, when I was a student in middle school. I thought it had to be a joke or a mistake, with its a cappella “ooga chaggas,” and I’m pretty sure it made me laugh. But there’s actually a lot going on here. Once the song gets rolling, the backing horn section is terrific, and when the “ooga chaggas” return, about halfway through, notice how they are shifted so they don’t match up exactly with the vocals. Even after 40+ years, this version still sounds fresh to me.

Update from a reader:

Blue Swede managed to transform a pretty insipid song into something pretty cool. David Hasselhoff took the opposite tact. He doubled down on the cheese factor and turned it into an epic celebration of sap. Long live The Hoff.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

Fifty-three years ago today—on March 22, 1963—the Beatles released their first album, Please Please Me. The last of the 14 tracks? A rambunctious cover of “Twist and Shout”(the original version was recorded by Top Notes in 1961, followed by a chart-hitting version by The Isley Brothers in 1962):

In the June 2013 issue of The Atlantic, Colin Fleming argued that 1963 was “the year the Beatles found their voice”—in part through a series of covers (how appropriate):

In 1963, the Beatles were exploding in England. Their debut LP, Please Please Me, came out in March, followed by their megahit single “She Loves You” in August. Their second album, With the Beatles, and another hit single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” followed in the fall. Screaming girls, throngs of fans, bushels of albums being sold—this was when it all started.

But the Beatles were also a veritable human jukebox that year. One of their many commitments was to turn up semi-regularly at the BBC, horse around on air, read requests, make fun of each other, make fun of the presenter, and play live versions of whatever people wanted to hear, whether that was their own material or a vast range of covers: Elvis Presley numbers; obscure rhythm-and-blues songs by lost-to-time bands like the Jodimars; Broadway show tunes; Americana; vamps on Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry; rearrangements of girl-group cuts; torch songs. If you wanted to hear what made the Beatles the Beatles, here is where you would want to start.

Other artists who’ve twisted and shouted at some point in their careers: The Mamas & the Papas, Salt-N-Pepa, and Michael Bublé. Update from a reader with another version:

My wife and I saw The Who on four of their first seven farewell tours, 1982 to sometime in the 1990s. At least twice, their encore was “Twist and Shout.” Pete Townshend called it “the best song we know,” or words to that effect.

I love the Goldberg Variations [posted Sunday]—especially the Rosalyn Tureck version. She repeats the returns, as written, which makes the recording longer—over 70 minutes, I believe. I know of no better music in which to get lost in contemplation.

Enjoying this series.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

I know next to nothing about classical music, so I leave it to our regular TOTD contributor to convey the transformative quality of two long compositions to enjoy over the weekend:

Strictly speaking, all classical music is a cover. The originals occurred long before any of us were around.These two tracks are unusual, however, in that it’s the same composition performed by the same musician to very different effects. “The Goldberg Variations” was the first recording Glenn Gould made, done in 1955. Showcasing astounding technical brilliance, the piece rushes head forth over in a scant 38 minutes, bursting with energy.

Gould recorded the Variations again in 1981 [embedded above]. It turned out to be the last piece he ever recorded before his untimely death at 50. This time the pace is considerably slowed (it clocks in at 51 minutes). There is a stately grace to the piece, a maturity found. It’s always seemed to me the two versions are the perfect expression of how we start out and how we end up—different temperaments, but no less impressive on either end.

A couple of words about Gould: A true eccentric, he was a hypochondriac and likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. He hummed while he played (listen closely, you can hear him), often had his nose almost touching the keys and stopped playing concerts in 1964. He had a profound impact on how classical music was recorded and had an equal impact on how Bach and his music was regarded.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

A reader flags a classic, inimitable cover:

When I first heard Devo’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” I couldn't believe it was the same song. Over the years I’ve come to see they’re both expressing frustration. The Stones do it almost languorously, while Devo give the song a frenetic, postmodern twist. Plus Scorcese used Devo’s version in Casino, if I’m not mistaken. Teen-tested, Scorsece-approved!

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)