Let It Die: 23 Songs That Should Never Be Covered Again
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1. "How Soon Is Now?"
Perhaps because it's The Smiths' most recognized and recognizable song, "How Soon Is Now?" has endured countless ignoble recreations since it debuted 20 years ago. It's high time for it to retire with dignity. In spite of what bands may think, the nearly seven-minute epic isn't easy to cover, as it quickly exposes their shortcomings—few things are worse than someone trying to be Morrissey. Sadly, the song's association with the '80s and The Smiths' cool cred guarantees more ill-advised reprises down the road. See faux-lesbian Russian teen-pop duo t.A.T.u., who make it sound like a number by The Chipmunks.
Does any Beatles song need more cover versions? It's tough to resist a great song, but apart from early covers by R&B greats like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles (and some digressions from Frank Sinatra and Elvis), does anyone actually shine new light on a Beatles hit? "Revolution" could stand in for the whole catalog, but it deserves special mention, if only for Rascal Flatts' 2007 cover for the Evan Almighty soundtrack. When the blandest possible country act is covering a song on the soundtrack to a sequel to a Jim Carrey movie, the word "revolution" shouldn't be involved in any way.
3. "Born To Be Wild"
What says "I'm a rebel who plays by my own rules" less than the Steppenwolf song that's become an "I'm a rebel who plays by my own rules" cliché? Nothing. Nobody told that to Hinder or NASCAR, who teamed up for a cover this year. But the real offenders are the thousands of bar bands who've made it into a late-set staple. There's probably one playing it to drunken yahoos as you read this.
4. "I Melt With You"
A staple of myriad "Best Of The '80s" compilations, Modern English's biggest hit has been flogged into oblivion by numerous ad campaigns, bands tapping '80s nostalgia, and Modern English itself. (The band re-recorded it for 1990's Pillow Lips.) Since the cult of the '80s developed in the mid-'90s, countless terrible versions of "I Melt With You"—particularly by shitty emo/punk bands—have assaulted listeners. Check out Bowling For Soup's version from the Sky High soundtrack, which changes the lyrics "Making love to you" to "Being friends with you" for impressionable Disney ears.
5. "All Along The Watchtower"
One source estimates that Bob Dylan has played this song 1,400 times—more than any of his others—but that number pales in comparison to the number of covers out there, by performers including Pat Boone, Dave Matthews, Heart, Tiny Tim, and virtually every jam band ever. In one regard, "All Along The Watchtower" is an argument for covers, as Jimi Hendrix's version is virtually definitive. But then you remember Heart.
6. "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
Cover songs make a statement about the band playing them, and this one says, "We like Joy Division, so we're cool, right?" Yes and no: Released just a month before Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis killed himself, it has become his band's defining song. As such, countless bands have unwittingly pissed on Curtis' grave—which actually has "love will tear us apart" as an inscription—by massacring his song. Fall Out Boy's bladders must be pretty empty.
Another seeming case in favor of covers, "Respect" was originally released by Otis Redding in 1965, though Aretha Franklin owned it from 1967 on. Bold for its time, the song addresses racial and gender issues with a forceful, no-bullshit refrain. Nearly half a century later, American Idol contestants use it to show their "soulfulness" and "spunk." (It figured prominently in the repertoire of inaugural winner Kelly Clarkson.) Its reinterpretations by the likes of Dexy's Midnight Runners don't fare much better.
8. "Come On Eileen"
Speaking of Dexy's Midnight Runners, the group's 1982 hit "Come On Eileen" desperately needs to find eternal rest, along with the pointless '80s nostalgia it embodies. And what was it about shitty '90s ska bands and hits from the '80s? Because Save Ferris was all over this back in '97. "Eileen" was played out even then, when it was a mere 15 years old.
No other voice in country music—or, perhaps, any kind of music—could convey gut-wrenching vulnerability and loneliness like Patsy Cline's. Granted, her entire catalogue basically boils down to "Why you treat me so bad?", but no one asked that better. That voice makes "Crazy"—written by a young Willie Nelson—especially haunting. Not so haunting are the versions by mid-'90s emo band Mineral, or crappy industrial band Kidneythieves, which put it on the Child's Play 4 soundtrack.
10. "What The World Needs Now Is Love"
How do you know definitively that a song should be retired? How about when 10 second-season finalists from American Idol join together to release it as a single? You can find the CD—one song with all the finalists, another version with just Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, and Rickey Smith—for $.01 on Amazon.
11. "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"
"Grapevine" presents the strongest argument for covers, as Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong shopped it to several artists before anyone bit, and three different versions became hits (Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1967, Marvin Gaye in 1968, and, uh, The California Raisins in 1987). Regardless, it basically remains Gaye's, and renditions by groups like The Average White Band, Kaiser Chiefs, Michael McDonald, Psychic TV, and, uh, Señor Soul are patently inessential.
12. "Tainted Love"
Another journeyman of a song, "Tainted Love" began life back in 1964 when Ed Cobb wrote it for soul singer Gloria Jones. It reappeared 11 years later with Ruth Swan, but for 26 years, it's been mostly associated with Soft Cell, who made it a staple of '80s pop. The dark electropop of that version make it a favorite among industrial and techno bands such as Coil, Deathline Int'l, Atrocity, and that paragon of clichéd rebellion, Marilyn Manson. His "dark" and "twisted" video for the song is guilty of a number of crimes, perhaps none worse than the image of his "goth thug" vanity license plate.
13. "Rebel Rebel"
Supposedly David Bowie's most covered song, "Rebel Rebel" has lived a long, full life since he debuted it on Diamond Dogs in 1974—so full, in fact, that Bowie retired it after a 1990 tour (though he inexplicably rerecorded it in 2003). Even had Bowie let sleeping dogs lie, plenty of other bands have it covered. And really, who wouldn't want to hear Dead Or Alive's take on it? Or let Bryan Adams rework it? Duran Duran maybe? Def Leppard? Seu Jorge, you get a pass.
14. "99 Red Balloons"
No other song better embodies '80s musical nostalgia than Nena's "99 Red Balloons"—ahem, "99 Luftballons"—and for that reason alone, it deserves retirement. Not enough? How about a slew of terrible covers by the likes of Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger, or a Harry Potter-themed version called "99 Death Eaters" by Draco And The Malfoys, or the raved-up version by Airbag? Maybe that isn't enough: When VH1 Classic auctioned airtime for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2006, one viewer donated $35,000 for the station to play Nena's video continuously for an hour.
15. "Rock And Roll All Nite"
If cover songs make statements, this one says, "We just like to fuckin' party, bro. Go to the lake, take the T-top panels off, spark one up, and just get wild! Ooooowwwwwoooooooo!" (It's best if you imagine Matthew McConaughey in Dazed And Confused saying that.) Or, to use Paul Stanley's introduction at the 1996 Video Music Awards: "Everywhere around the world, we try to tell people: There are no borders, there are no prime ministers, there are no presidents, there's only one nation: That's Kiss nation! There's only one rock 'n' roll national anthem: 'Rock And Roll All Nite,' party every day!" It's tough to argue with that logic, but bands, take note: It's inhumane to subject the world to more Kiss especially if you're recasting it as ska (SKAndalous All-Stars) or dance-pop (Daytona).
16. "Blitzkrieg Bop"
At the corner of Bowery and Second in New York, there should be a panel of pure black granite, à la the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At the top will be inscribed "Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice" ("If you seek a memorial, look around"), with the names of the bands who should have never covered "Blitzkrieg Bop": Skid Row, Rob Zombie, The Beautiful South, Hanoi Rocks, and untold anonymous groups appearing at a bar near you. May we never forget.
17. "Brown Eyed Girl"
Possibly the only song on this list that's in President Bush's iPod, "Brown Eyed Girl" has, if nothing else, been played to death by your local oldies station. According to BMI, it has been played an astounding 8 million times on radio and TV since debuting 40 years ago. Please, bands, there's no reason to add to that Not that it's stopped groups like Rockapella, Jimmy Buffett, Everclear, Boyz Night Out, and something called the Caribbean Magic Steelband, who included it on the album Island Favorites. Well, Van Morrison's native Ireland is technically an island
Harry Nilsson wrote it, Three Dog Night made it famous, and dozens of bands beat the crap out of "One" (a.k.a. "One is the loneliest number") for years thereafter. Aimee Mann reclaimed it for the sane populace with her gentle cover (featured heavily in Magnolia), which erased years of abuse, including a version by Dokken. It would be best for everyone involved if Mann's version provided a bookend to Nilsson's.
19. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
Two covers of The Rolling Stones' staple have brought incredible new life to this clear classic: Devo's jittery new-wave shot, and Cat Power's deliriously slow, wandering version. Hundreds of others have attempted to recreate the power of Keith Richards' massively recognizable lead and Mick Jagger's pouting about the life of a rocking man. There's no shame in leaving this one to the masters (and karaoke bars).
Every time earnest coffeehouse troubadours strike the simple chords of "Wonderwall" and feel its majesty coursing through their veins, an angel dies. Just because a song is easy to play doesn't mean it's easy to play well. Ryan Adams does a suitable version, adding some soulful smoke, but other singer-songwriters haven't had any luck, and there's even a cottage industry of half-serious covers (Radiohead, Robbie Williams, Mike Flowers Pops). Write your own "Wonderwall," coffeehouse crooner.
Imagine a world in which only those who truly understand and embrace the message of John Lennon's "Imagine"—that religion, nationalism, and capitalism are all essentially insane—bother to cover it. Unitarian churches go nuts with it, and that's fine, but Avril Lavigne, the physical embodiment of crass consumerism? That's just painful. Even A Perfect Circle mangles it, turning something hopeful and beautiful into something foreboding and scary. Too bad Lennon wrote such a beautiful melody—it lends itself to empty renditions.
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" passed into the realm of pop standard long ago, so often has it been committed to record and covered live in performances ranging from heart-stopping to merely histrionic. To be fair, two of those cover versions were arguably better than the original: John Cale's mournful take (only slightly marred by its appearance in Shrek and Scrubs) and Jeff Buckley's gorgeous rendition. But apparently no one can settle on a "definitive" edition and just let it be, because Bono, Imogen Heap, k.d. lang, Bon Jovi, and too many others have tried, with increasingly sterile results. Recently, actor Anthony Michael Hall (yes, that Anthony Michael Hall) growled his way through his own version; can William Shatner's take be far behind?
23. "What A Wonderful World"
Considering that an aged Louis Armstrong sang the original, it's hard to believe this song is a scant 40 years old—it sounds far more old-timey in both sentiment and performance. Maybe that's because the world has endured countless renditions over the years by a who's who of the enemies of good taste: Celine Dion, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, Rod Stewart, and John Tesh. Even Joe Pesci felt compelled to share in 1998. But when a ventriloquist sings it through a stuffed turtle who's doing an impression of Kermit The Frog covering Louis Armstrong, we as a society must finally say enough.