The cover gets a lot of flack. Though often dismissed as unimaginative, unnecessary and downright disrespectful, there’s no denying that every now and then a cover comes along that actually tops the source material. Here are my picks for the top five such songs:
5. CALL ME THE BREEZE – LYNYRD SKYNYRD – Originally penned and performed by J.J. Cale, the panhandle boys take this laid-back tune and strangle it with the Bible Belt. And while that may sound like a bad thing, well, partner, it’s not. What results is a rowdy, rollicking rendition, complete with multi-layered electric git-tar twang and one helluva piano solo – music perfect for a barroom slugfest somewhere out there in Dixieland.
4. AMERICA – YES – The most ambitious entry on the list belongs, naturally, to Yes. No strangers to elaborate ideas and cinematic orchestrations, the English prog outfit envisioned Simon and Garfunkel’s refined, ethereal folk ballad with more of a supercharged twist. Press play and you’re greeted by a wallop of Wakeman’s cheerful, swirling keys and the thud-thud-thud of the rhythm section with military precision. And that’s just the first two seconds. This behemoth clocks in at over ten minutes long.
3. LITTLE WING – DEREK AND THE DOMINOS – For me, listening to “Little Wing,” the classic Hendrix opus, is like eating one measly Pringle. I pop, but then the fun stops. And much, much too soon. It’s a great song, but one that leaves something to be desired. That’s where Slowhand lends, well, a hand. With this 1970 cover, the song now feels fully fleshed-out, complete. Whereas the original slowly builds, Clapton and company start with a rigid riff both bluesy and regal before melting into a fiery, haunting drawl. And the best part? The song doesn’t end till there’s ample soloing to be enjoyed. It’s like having a whole meal, not just a nibble.
2. AN AMERICAN TRILOGY – ELVIS PRESLEY – His career was basically built on covers, but this soaring patriotic ditty stands alone (you can practically smell the apple pie on the King’s breath). “An American Trilogy” is an amalgam of three ‘merican classics – “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials.” The song was arranged and performed by songwriter Mickey Newbury in the early 70s, but it was Elvis who karate-chopped it into a classic. Now, if the crescendo leading into the “Battle Hymn” revival doesn’t leave you covered in chills, then perhaps, baby, that diamond-laden jumpsuit is cutting off the blood flow to your suspicious mind.
1. BLINDED BY THE LIGHT – MANFRED MANN’S EARTH BAND – Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest songwriters this dying planet has to offer. He’s a national treasure, hailed by Barry O as “the rock and roll laureate of a generation,” who then added, “I’m the president, but he’s the Boss.” When Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. was released in 1973, Bruce was still finding his voice, and “Blinded by the Light” wasn’t exactly a sign of things to come. The lyrics (some of my all-time favorite) are wrapped in a warm, fuzzy blanket of whimsy, hitting closer to the imagination of Dr. Seuss than the plight of the working man. But as a whole, the song is – dare I say it? – nothing mesmerizing. That’s where a certain South African keyboard whiz comes in. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, named after said whiz, took an obscure song about g0-kart Mozart, madman drummers bummers and curly-wurlies and in 1975 turned it into a chart-topping smash. Employing hypnotic, pulsating keyboard riffs and a devastating guitar solo, theirs was a complete makeover. They made it their own, which is absolutely key to any memorable cover. Experimental, yet painfully catchy and, therefore, instantly accessible, it outshines the original, so much that most don’t even realize it’s a cover. In the end, isn’t that the best compliment?