With a little help from my friends: 26 artists whose best-known songs are covers

With a little help from my friends: 26 artists whose best-known songs are covers

The A.V. Club’s weekly list

1. Ike and Tina Turner, “Proud Mary”
By the time Ike and Tina Turner recorded Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” in 1970, the duo already had more than a decade and almost 20 albums under its belt. But despite several attempts, crossover success proved elusive. Fresh off a stint opening for The Rolling Stones the year before and no strangers to covering well-known rock tunes, Ike and Tina found their ticket with this energized rendition of CCR’s 1969 hit. It reached No. 4 on the Hot 100, sold more than a million copies, and earned the act a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show as well as its sole Grammy win for Best R&B Vocal Performance in 1972.

2. Joan Jett, “I Love Rock ’N Roll”
By all estimation, The Arrows’ 1975 single “I Love Rock ’N Roll” should have been a hit: Although it landed the group its own TV show in England, that wasn’t enough to make it cross the Atlantic or rise any higher on the British charts. Instead, Joan Jett saw the band perform it on their show while on tour with The Runaways, which led to her recording her own version in 1979 with the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook. That version originally appeared as the B-side to the “You Don’t Own Me,” but Jett wasn’t satisfied with it. She rerecorded the song with her band in 1981, and that version went to the top of the Billboard charts and launched Jett’s solo career in the process.

3. Soft Cell, “Tainted Love”
In 1976, American soul singer Gloria Jones—also known as a backup singer in T. Rex as well as the longtime girlfriend of the band’s legendary frontman, Marc Bolan—re-recorded her 1964 song “Tainted Love.” By then, the brooding, stomping ode to heartbreak had become a staple of Northern soul DJs in England. But the song would become best known to the world at large in 1981, when the British synth-pop outfit Soft Cell took it to the top of the charts in its native land, and to No. 8 in the States. To its credit, Soft Cell didn’t play it faithful or safe: The group’s cover version is slow, eerie, and sultry, an enduring dance-floor anthem that disputes the notion that synthesizer-driven new wave had to sound cold. Soft Cell became an established act with its own strong, striking material, but its calling card will always be the song that Jones built.

4. Three Dog Night, “One”
Most Three Dog Night hits were actually written by other people, which helped the band storm the charts multiple times in the late ’60s and early ’70s. TDN’s biggest hit, “One” (a.k.a. “One is the loneliest number”) was penned by Harry Nilsson in 1967, and its version came out just two years later, eclipsing Nilsson’s by a commercial mile. Nowadays, the Nilsson version is largely forgotten—especially by radio stations—in favor of this cover.

5. Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”
To many, the late Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is the definitive version of the song, so much so that some people may not be aware it’s a cover. In fact, it’s a cover of a cover. Buckley took his inspiration for the song from John Cale’s 1991 cover of the Leonard Cohen 1984 original, which, while still pretty downtrodden, is even more sparse and moping than Buckley’s 1994 take. To date, the song’s been covered 586 times by various artists in various languages, and, as of 2008, more than 5 million copies of the song had been sold, whether sung by Buckley, Cohen, Cale, Rufus Wainwright, or even Adam Sandler, who performed a satirical version of the song at a 2012 benefit for Hurricane Sandy victims.

6. The Kingsmen, “Louie Louie”
The Kingsmen were barely a band when they recorded a chaotic, garage-rock cover of Richard Berry’s calypso-tinged song, which had been a regional hit influenced by Chuck (no relation) Berry’s “Havana Moon.” According to legend, the night before recording their second single, the band played the song for 90 minutes straight at a gig, then went to the studio the next day and recorded the song in one take, with the band arranged in a circle around a single microphone. Somehow, sloppiness works in its favor, as the band managed to catch lightning in a bottle. Despite unintelligible lyrics and the occasional dropped beat, the raucous song became a favorite of radio DJs and a staple of teen parties, making The Kingsmen one of the most enduring one-hit wonders of the ’60s.

7. Quiet Riot, “Cum On Feel The Noize”
Originally released by Slade in the early ’70s, “Cum On Feel The Noize” gave Quiet Riot its biggest hit and provided a major breakthrough for heavy metal a decade later. Quiet Riot’s cover doesn’t change much from Slade’s version, but it fared substantially better, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and propelling the album Mental Health to platinum status. Although Quiet Riot’s follow-up album, Condition Critical, sold well, none of the songs had the same staying power, including another Slade cover, an equally unimaginative take on “Mama Weer All Crazee Now.”

8. David Lee Roth, “California Girls”
When Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth first toyed with the idea of going it alone, he did so in a surprisingly tentative fashion for such a flamboyant figure, opting to kick off his solo career with an EP, Crazy From The Heat, consisting of a quartet of cover songs. Although the material included numbers originally performed by The Edgar Winter Group, Louis Prima, and The Lovin’ Spoonful, the track that took Roth to No. 3 on the charts—aided in no small part by a video filled with numerous bikini-clad beach babes—was his rendition of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” featuring Carl Wilson (not to mention Christopher Cross) on backing vocals. While Roth’s 1988 album, Skyscraper, found him climbing to the very top of the U.S. rock charts with “Just Like Paradise,” it’s his Beach Boys cover that earned him the most airplay and continues as his highest achievement on the Billboard Hot 100.

9. Joe Cocker, “With A Little Help From My Friends”
The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” was written as the token “let’s have Ringo sing that one” for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a designation typically reserved for the band’s simplest, silliest little ditties. But in the flailing hands of English blues-rock singer Joe Cocker, “Friends” became a radically rearranged, slow-burn soul number that topped the charts in the U.K. and made Cocker’s name overseas, after he delivered his iconic rendition at Woodstock. Cocker’s version so impressed The Beatles that they granted him license to cover two more on his breakthrough second album, and so Cocker’s star continued to rise with a little help from these, and other friends whose songs he performed. But “Friends” remained his signature hit and—particularly after it was used as the theme for The Wonder Years—became one of the most indelible songs of the Summer Of Love.

10. The Animals, “The House Of The Rising Sun”
“The House Of The Rising Sun” has become so inextricably linked to The Animals’ wildly popular 1964 cover of the song that previous versions have been drowned out. It was a folk standard, one of many collected by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, with recordings dating to the first third of the 20th century. From there it was arranged and altered by a wide range of artists, blues singers Josh White and Lead Belly, folk singers like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, a remarkable rendition by Joan Baez, and even “Mama Africa,” Miriam Makeba. A version of it performed by folk singer Johnny Handle caught the ear of The Animals, who made it their own with electric guitar arpeggios, organs, and the tortured vocals of singer Eric Burdon. In their hands, “The House Of The Rising Sun” was an anthem of the British Invasion.

11. Aretha Franklin, “Respect”
As originally recorded by Otis Redding in 1965, “Respect” was a modest crossover success, peaking at No. 35 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. In the hands of garage-rock acts like The Vagrants—who had a regional hit with their version in 1967—Redding’s call for honor and fidelity got snottier and slightly misogynistic. It would take another of soul’s strongest voices, Aretha Franklin, to turn the song into a pop standard—one that became her musical calling card. Working from the framework of Redding’s original, the slicked-down, tightened-up “Respect” that leads off Franklin’s 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You makes a crucial change of perspective, ensuring its place as an unofficial anthem of the burgeoning feminist movement. Backed by her sisters Erma and Carolyn, Franklin demands respect, eventually spelling it out in the cover’s righteous breakdown. It’s the song’s signature moment and the most notable break from the source material. It’s also confirmation that, although Otis Redding wrote “Respect,” the song belongs to Aretha Franklin.

12. Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes”
Written in 1974 by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon—the latter a talented musician who opened The Beatles’ 1964 U.S. tour and co-wrote songs with Jimmy Page and Randy Newman—the song was inspired by the 1942 movie Now Voyager. (According to the book 100 Greatest Cover Versions: The Ultimate Playlist, the specific part of the film was “the scene in which Paul Henreid lights cigarettes for Bette Davis.”) Several years later, Weiss brought the song to her pal, singer-songwriter Kim Carnes—and after keyboardist Bill Cuomo spruced up the tune with some synths, the song took off, hitting No. 1 for nine weeks on the Billboard charts and winning the Grammy Award for Song and Record Of The Year in 1982.

13. Tiffany, “I Think We’re Alone Now”
Tiffany was all of 15 when her breakout hit, 1987’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” was released. It would go on to top the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K., but many of her teenaged fans weren’t old enough to recognize the song. Originally recorded by Tommy James And The Shondells, the 1967 version was also a hit, though not as big as Tiffany’s. It’s a testament to the song’s timeless, lovelorn charm (not to mention Tiffany’s fizzy chirp) that it translated so effectively from the bubblegum ’60s to the plastic ’80s. It also marked Tiffany’s early peak; in spite of a few hits to follow, she’d never reach the same heights again.

14. Run-D.M.C., “Walk This Way”
There’s no doubt that Run-D.M.C. would have secured a spot in music history even without its genre-busting cover of Aerosmith’s 1975 song “Walk This Way,” but the hip-hop trio’s commercial success starts (and in some ways ends) with the 1986 cover. The track—produced by Rick Rubin and featuring Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry—was the first hip-hop song to make the Billboard top five, and it’s credited (or blamed) for basically inventing rap-rock. When the song comes on the radio now, it’s a toss-up as to which version it will be—both were big hits.

15. Elvis Costello, “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding”
As a songwriter, Elvis Costello is responsible for some of the greatest compositions of the post-punk era: “Alison,” “Pump It Up,” “Everyday I Write The Book,” etc. But the song he’s best known for was written by his friend and producer Nick Lowe, and originally recorded by Lowe’s group Brinsley Schwarz. It’s had the longest, widest life of any Costello hit, which is saying something considering its competition.

16. Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”
The original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” has essentially been buried—it was performed by The Family, a project used by Prince (and featuring former members of The Time) as an outlet for his copious songwriting in the mid-’80s. It might’ve remained buried, a long out-of-print commercial failure, but Sinead O’Connor’s manager suggested she cover it in 1989, leading to the Irish singer’s biggest hit. (It also inspired a ton of new covers—Prince even started playing it live, a lot, and released a version on his own Hits record.) It’s the song that thrust O’Connor into the mainstream, a spotlight she was never entirely comfortable with.

17. Los Lobos, “La Bamba”
Los Lobos has been together for more than 40 years now and has recorded about 20 albums, but the Chicano rock band is still best known for its version of Mexican folk song. The group performed Richie Valens’ music for the 1987 biopic La Bamba, including half a dozen Valens tracks for the film’s soundtrack. The most popular by far was “La Bamba,” which went to No. 1 in eight countries, including the U.S. and England. Although Los Lobos’ version was meant as a tribute to Ritchie Valens, who introduced mainstream America to it in 1959, “La Bamba” is actually a traditional song commonly performed at weddings in the Mexican state of Veracruz. While both Valens and Los Lobos gave the track a bit of a rock beat, the original is a little more toned down and dates back to the 1830s.

18. The Byrds, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
David Crosby and Roger McGuinn’s folk-rock pioneers wore their influences on their sleeve, from McGuinn choosing his signature Rickenbacker 12-string guitar because George Harrison played one, to the band’s numerous Bob Dylan covers. After including four Dylan covers on their first album, the band went deeper into the folk establishment, adding harmonies and jangly guitar to Pete Seeger’s meditative take on the book of Ecclesiastes. The song went to No. 1, and while subsequent years saw several Byrds originals become smaller hits, the band never reached the top 10 with one of its own songs.

19. The Lemonheads, “Mrs. Robinson”
In the wake of Nevermind blowing up the music industry in the early ’90s, major labels scrambled to sign any and every band whose indie cred seemed bankable. It was only after the ink was dried on the contracts that they realized that those bands might not appeal beyond that core of listeners. The Lemonheads’ excellent 1992 album It’s A Shame About Ray originally didn’t include this cover of the Simon And Garfunkel classic, but when the band recorded it for The Graduate’s 25th anniversary VHS release, the song took off. Atlantic then reissued It’s A Shame About Ray only six months after its original release, this time with “Mrs. Robinson” included. It worked, as MTV gave the song a whole lot more airplay than it did anything else from the album. And The Lemonheads never came close to that kind of attention again.

20. Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You”
Whitney Houston was already a star when she portrayed a singer in The Bodyguard in 1992. Naturally Houston would record a song for the soundtrack, which would play over the closing scenes of the film and into the credits. The story goes that when the song she originally wanted, “What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted,” was being used in Fried Green Tomatoes, co-star Kevin Costner brought her Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “I Will Always Love You.” Houston went with it, and the song went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time. Parton’s version is unmistakably twangy, and Ronstadt shaped it into something more soulful, but Houston’s version is the gold standard, and its enormous popularity shaped her subsequent career.

21. Alien Ant Farm, “Smooth Criminal”
In 2013, nü-metal band Alien Ant Farm did a Reddit AMA where its cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” came up repeatedly: “Not trying to be a jerk,” one Redditor said, “but does it suck to know that to non-fans the only thing they know about you is a cover?” It’s a fair cop: The California band’s biggest homefront success was this manic 2001 cover, which spawned a hit video, showed up in American Pie 2 and Rock Band, and topped the Australian singles chart, plus Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. (The band’s second-biggest hit, “Movies,” made it to No. 18.) Unfortunately, the sped-up version felt like a one-off novelty song, and while it pushed AAF’s studio debut album to platinum sales, that didn’t translate into ongoing fame.

22. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “Blinded By The Light”
Bruce Springsteen’s very first single was 1973’s “Blinded By The Light,” and it did basically nothing commercially. (“Born To Run” would deliver the Boss his first hit a couple of years later.) But Manfred Mann’s Earth Band revved the song up in a 1976 cover version, earning a smash hit that it would never replicate, adding some ’70s sparkle (and keyboard) that Springsteen’s version lacked. It also notably changed the chorus from “cut loose like a deuce” to “revved up like a deuce,” which has been famously misheard since as “wrapped up like a douche.” (Springsteen even commented on that common mistake on his VH1 Storytellers episode—and also noted that “Blinded” was his only trip to No. 1 on the singles chart, and it wasn’t even his version that got there.)

23. The Ataris, “Boys Of Summer”
Perhaps Kristopher Roe and the rest of The Ataris figured that substituting the floating ’80s synths of Don Henley’s “The Boys Of Summer” with chugging guitar lines wasn’t enough to make the song relevant to the new millennium pop-punk crowd. So in the band’s hit cover from 2003’s So Long Astoria, Roe replaced the “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” lyric from the original’s final verse to a Black Flag sticker. Henley meant it as an indictment of upper-class posers identifying with hippie music, so Roe gave it a more meaningful signifier for the Warped Tour crowd. The song became such a hit that the band played it at baseball’s all-star game, but “Boys Of Summer” would be the only Ataris song to crack Billboard’s Hot 100.

24. Urge Overkill, “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”
A 1967 Neil Diamond hit “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” was initially written to acknowledge the singer’s rabid (and passionate) teenage girl fan base. But the song’s pointed references to forbidden love and vaguely paternalistic lyrics (“Girl, you’ll be a woman soon / Soon you’ll need a man”) could certainly be construed as creepy. That’s the angle retro-minded rock band Urge Overkill took on its cover of the song, which initially appeared on 1992’s Stull EP. “We were fans of Neil’s songwriting and his persona,” bassist Eddie Roeser said in a 2004 interview. “We weren’t really aware that that song had been a minor hit and thought that was just a really bizarre song.” Luckily for them, director Quentin Tarantino heard this cover and thought it would work great in Pulp Fiction—and one Uma Thurman dance later, the song became Urge Overkill’s best-known tune.

25. Frente!, “Bizarre Love Triangle”
When the Australian band Frente! arrived in America in 1994, it came armed with Marvin The Album, an LP released two years prior in its homeland and had produced a couple hits down under. The track that broke Frente! in the States, however, was an acoustic version of the New Order classic “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Originally buried as a B-side until it found traction on radio, the song took Frente! into the U.S. alternative top 10 and up to No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100, the only time the band would appear there. Although Frente! disbanded in 1997, lead singer Angie Hart has continued to dabble in cover songs on occasion, tackling the Pet Shop Boys (“You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”), The Smiths (“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”), and The Cure (“Pictures Of You”).

26. Every UB40 hit
Americans could be forgiven for thinking British reggae band UB40 exclusively played covers: Every one of its songs that placed in Billboard’s Hot 100 were by other artists, most famously its version of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” and Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” both of which hit No. 1. But UB40 had already been a band for several years before it made its 1983 covers album Labour Of Love, which was a loving homage to UB40’s reggae heroes—including Tony Tribe, who was the first artist to give Diamond’s song a reggae makeover. UB40’s “Red Red Wine” would be a massive hit and lead the group down a path of imitation that would define its most well-known music for the rest of its career. It would even alter the original: Diamond plays a UB40-esque version of it in his live performances.

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