Rich Isaacs had a great idea in Issue 107 of Copper (“Complete Recovery: Unusual Takes on Others’ Songs”). It made me realize that I have many cover versions among my collection of albums and 12-inch singles that are cool, curious, noteworthy or sometimes, just a lot of fun. As with Mr. Isaacs’ picks, mine tend to be quite a change-up from the originals. An interesting point – I often heard the cover versions first, long before discovering the originals, so to me, the originals sometimes seem like the cover versions. Here are some of my own favorites I have returned to, time and again:
BR5-49 – “Real Wild Child” aka “Wild One” (original artist: Johnny O’Keefe)
Australian rocker Johnny O’Keefe wrote and recorded this tune in 1958 as “Wild One.” Decades later, two different cover versions (among many) stood out. Iggy Pop’s is perhaps the best-known cover version out there and changes it up with a dose of punk attitude. Not to be outdone, in 1998 the legendary Nashville retro-country band BR5-49 recorded it on their Big Backyard Beat Show album in yet another totally different, countrified arrangement. Not surprising, however, as BR5-49 at that time had hundreds of cover tunes in their repertoire, from their many long nights playing at Robert’s Western World in the Lower Broadway district of Nashville. While no longer a performing unit, co-leaders Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett work on other musical projects these days. Multi-instrumentalist Don Herron has toured with Bob Dylan and others. And “Smilin’” Jay McDowell is now a curator at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
Isaac Hayes – “Don’t Let Go” (Roy Hamilton)
In the late 1970s, Isaac Hayes had a minor career reboot with a handful of new albums when he moved to the Polydor label. There are many highlights during this era (including some downtempo tunes that would give smooth soul crooner Barry White a run for his money), but my up-tempo favorite is his complete 1979 retooling of the jaunty Roy Hamilton hit “Don’t Let Go” as a dance floor workout. The Isaac Hayes version is a full-on remake complete with snappy horn and string arrangements for flavor, and a pulsating four-to-the-floor beat.
Jools Holland – “Mess Around” (Ray Charles)
A few decades ago, prior to being an original member of Squeeze and hosting the popular Later…with Jools Holland music program in the UK, Jools Holland was a young lad banging out boogie woogie on the ivories and recording a fantastic little EP called Boogie Woogie ’78. Assisted by Squeeze guitarist Glen Tilbrook, Jools gives his take on a tune that Ray Charles performed early in his career, penned by none other than A. Nugetre (the infamous pseudonym of Ahmet Ertegun). A rollicking good time! Squeeze (with Holland on keys) would also perform this tune in concert (appearing on the deluxe 2-CD version of their Argybargy album).
Oingo Boingo – “You Really Got Me” (The Kinks)
Van Halen waxed a very respectable version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” a highlight of their brilliant debut album, giving it a solid boost of hard rock goodness. Danny Elfman and his merry band of mystic knights in Oingo Boingo twisted this tune around completely in 1981, delivering a horn-powered new wave rocker that closed side one of their first full-length A&M album, Only A Lad. Their version features Steve Bartek’s blistering guitar fills, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez’s thundering drum kit, and the horn section punctuating the lines behind Elfman’s vocal hiccups. With Boingo mothballed permanently, Elfman enjoys a career as a prolific film score composer, with Bartek as his orchestrator.
Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – “A Taste of Honey” (Bobby Scott)
This tune started out as a tune written to accompany a Broadway play of the same title in 1960. Originally a shmaltzy waltz, Herbie changed it up, propelling legendary session musicians the Wrecking Crew with his four-beat shuffle arrangement that turned the tune around into something new, becoming a major breakthrough in his long career. Originally the B-side of a rocked-out version of “The Third Man Theme” (which would appear on a later album), “A Taste of Honey” got all the attention and became a hit record that peaked at #7 on the Billboard charts and won a Grammy in 1965 for Record of the Year. And besides that, it also appeared on the album with one of the most infamous album covers of the 1960s. It seemed that everyone’s dad owned a copy of Whipped Cream & Other Delights. Yours truly grew up with this album in the house, not quite understanding the sultry look and whipped cream (actually shaving cream) that model Dolores Erickson sported so well on the cover; at the ripe old age of three, that’s understandable!
The Mavericks – “Hungry Heart” (Bruce Springsteen)
Imagine a jangly rock tune redone in a lazy shuffle with a taste of twangy Duane Eddy-inspired guitar and percolating brass on the back beat, anchored by Raul Malo’s crystal clear vocal, and you’ve got the Mavericks’ twist on this familiar tune. As with many Mavericks tunes, one can’t pin a specific genre on their music, a mix of styles combining their early roots in country with rock, Tejano, pop and Cuban influences. The album this tune is from, Play the Hits, is an all-covers album from 2019 showcasing songs that influenced them throughout their careers, and each one is a treat – one of my musical highlights from last year.
Matt Bianco – “Yeh Yeh” (Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames)
Popular in the UK, I didn’t hear about the band Matt Bianco until after I had discovered Basia’s first two albums. In 1984 she and pianist/collaborator Danny White had performed on the Matt Bianco album Whose Side Are You On? (with the notable hit “Get Out of Your Lazy Bed” and the Basia feature “Half A Minute”) prior to both leaving the group and starting Basia’s solo recording career. After that album, Mark Reilly (Matt Bianco’s leader) restructured the group with the addition of Mark Fisher, and this configuration’s first hit single was “Yeh Yeh,” a rhythmic pop update of Georgie Fame’s smooth, swinging organ-driven original. Why “Matt Bianco?” The band, being fans of spy film scores and TV themes, wanted a name reminiscent of a spy or secret agent. Danny White is the brother of smooth jazz guitarist Peter White, who made a name for himself recording and touring with Al Stewart, as well as performing with Basia on record and in concert.
Devo – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (The Rolling Stones)
Perhaps the most upended tune in this entire list must be this version of a Rolling Stones classic that Mark Mothersbaugh and crew whipped (sorry) into a strangely and uniquely Devo-ish arrangement that makes it practically a new tune. New Wave was all the rage in my high school days, and this 1978 track was one of many tunes that shook our basement parties into a pogo-ing frenzy. I still have that loud neon green t-shirt somewhere, I’m sure. (Important safety tip—the pogo is very hard on calf muscles.) Like Danny Elfman, Mothersbaugh has gone on to score many films and television shows.
Pseudo Echo – “Funkytown” (Lipps, Inc.)
Australian synth-rockers Pseudo Echo gave a very 1980s take on this 1979 chart-topping funk/disco classic. The band managed to nudge their version up to No. 6 on the Billboard charts, whereas the Lipps, Inc. version spent four weeks at No. 1. Interesting side note – Lipps, Inc.’s lead vocalist Cynthia Johnson previously sang in a group called Flyte Tyme, which featured future members of The Time (Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jellybean Johnson and Monte Moir were all Flyte Time alums). Pseudo Echo’s run of hits ended in the 1980s, but they are still recording and performing sporadically despite a fluctuating line-up throughout the years.
The Cramps – “She Said” (Hasil Adkins)
The Cramps were no strangers to obscure 45s as a source of inspiration, and this one is no exception. This time, they reached way back into obscurity with their rough updating of Hasil Adkins’ eccentric “She Said,” perhaps just a little more coherently than Adkins’ original. What better way to end this list than with “a dying can of that commodity meat,” and a tune that mostly likely nobody else has ever covered.