Nirvana Was a Cover Band: The Ten Best Unexpected Cover Songs

Prince covered Radiohead's "Creep" at Coachella in 2008.
Prince covered Radiohead's "Creep" at Coachella in 2008.
Kevin Mazur

When Radiohead demanded public access to Prince's fantabulous cover of "Creep" recently, I couldn't help but recall falling in love with creative covers as a teenage drummer and finishing all my own shows in the clubs, bars and garages of Pittsburgh with the punk trio Falling Short by blazing through "Riverbottom Nightmare Band" from Jim Henson's Emmet Otter. Later, with the Yawpers, I grinned through our double-time version of "Sweet Emotion."

If you're going to do someone else's song, do something different with it. And if you're going to something different with it, for God’s sake, make it fun.

We all know the most beloved covers in popular music history, from Jimi Hendrix’s timeless “All Along the Watchtower” to Nirvana’s emotive “Where Do You Sleep Last Night?” to Jeff Buckley’s immortal version of “Hallelujah.” In art, stealing is a compliment when you do something new—and, as Frank Zappa said, “Everything’s one note.”

It’s fun when a great band launches into an unexpected yet faithful cover, like the War On Drugs’ surprising “Touch of Grey” or Tool’s majestic, spot-on “No Quarter.” But the MVPs of musical tributes are usually those willing to effectively transpose a classic song for another genre, sometimes going so far out that listeners (in the case of, say, Alt-J’s 2014 cover of “Lovely Day”) don’t know it’s a cover until the vocals kick in. To be that successfully, slyly creative—paying enjoyable homage while still maintaining your own unique voice—is quite an accomplishment. Here are our top ten:

10. X “Soul Kitchen” (1980)
Rolling Stone ranked X’s hurricane of a debut, Los Angeles, #29 on its list of the 100 best albums of the 1980s, and it’s undoubtedly in the top ten best punk-rock albums ever made. At first listen, X’s blistering take on the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” could be lumped in with punk’s general “fuck you” to classic rock, but Exene Cervenka and John Doe—who famously met at a poetry workshop in Venice Beach—somewhat represented Southern California’s progression from Jim Morrison to hardcore. Like the most effective Dead Kennedys tracks, “Soul Kitchen” rattles your skull from the first notes; Cervenka veritably spits Morrison’s doted-upon “American poetry” while Billy Zoom replaces Robbie Kreiger’s flamenco guitar with fuzzed-out psychobilly. Ironically, Los Angeles was produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

9. The Flamingos, “I Only Have Eyes For You” (1959)
When the “Sad Clown with the Golden Voice” version of Lorde’s “Royals” surfaced a few years ago, I wanted to jump up and down on a couch Tom-Cruise-on-Oprah-style, it was so good. But it also reminded me of another song slowed down and sung with far more soul—the Flamingos’ thrilling version of “I Only Have Eyes For You.” It sometimes seems like the 1959 classic's mystique and passion are what all pop ballads have since aspired to equal, but few people know that the Flamingos fantastically transformed “I Only Have Eyes For You” from an ultra-cheesy 1934 hit by Ben Selvin and his orchestra. The Flamingos version—which is so hauntingly beautiful it sounds like it was recorded in another galaxy—floats on air with elegance and eternal romance.

8. Nirvana, “Love Buzz” (1988)
Before Nirvana became the biggest band in the world, and killed the ‘80s with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the Seattle trio made a name for itself in underground rock (before it was called “alternative”) with its debut single, an alternately mesmerizing and destructive cover of the obscure Dutch band Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz.” The original, featuring a female vocalist, is a bit of snake-charming psychedelia with Middle Eastern flair, while Nirvana’s “Love Buzz,” a jammy staple of the ill-fated group’s concerts, served (along with a big Pixies influence) as a blueprint for its career of quiet-loud-quiet-loud songwriting.

7. Tricky, “Black Steel” (1995)
The Gourds may have gained fame with an incredible cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” (often attributed to Ween or Phish), but for a truly brilliant rock and roll co-opting of classic rap, all you really need is Tricky’s spirited version of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” The original is essentially a bouncing bass line supporting Chuck D’s unforgettable narrative of African-American draft evasion; Tricky’s, with Martina Topley-Bird on vocals, takes the meat of Chuck D’s lyrics and juxtaposes them with what might be called hard-rock electronica. The depth with which Tricky transposed Public Enemy for his own vision fits perfectly into his debut album, Maxinquaye, which all but defined trip hop and cemented Tricky as one of the most interesting musicians of the '90s.

6. Miles Davis “Guinnevere” (1970)
Yes, David Crosby really did tell Miles Davis, after being invited to Davis’ house to hear the Prince of Darkness’ wickedly gorgeous version of the Crosby, Stills & Nash staple “Guinnevere,” that he didn’t like Davis’ version and didn’t want his name associated with it. The chords were different; the whole style was different; of course there were no vocals. Maybe Crosby was young and impatient. Maybe he’d smoked the wrong stuff that night. Maybe even those able to appreciate how Davis had just gloriously changed the face of popular music (again) weren’t ready for him to change their music. Davis’ “Guinnevere,” kind of a sibling to “He Loved Him Madly” (his mad-genius tribute to Duke Ellington), is other-wordly improvisational headphone music recorded during the Bitches Brew sessions with some of history’s greatest jazz and fusion players. Crosby, to his credit, grew to love it.

More unexpected covers on the next page.
 

5. Devo, “Satisfaction” (1977)
Devo’s career initially made headway with the support of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno, three classic-rock icons known for moving forward with gifted abandon. Which makes Devo’s landmark cover of “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,” produced by Eno, even more interesting, as by 1977 the Stones were already seen as dinosaurs stuck in time (see: The Clash’s “1977”). A robotic, minimalist rhythm section serves as the foundation for wonderfully nerdy new-wave vocals, rendering the song virtually unrecognizable from the Stones’ classic and turning the dinosaurs’ “girly action” rock over in its grave. What could be more punk than that?

4. Cat Power, “New York” (2008)
One of my favorite concert experiences in recent years was seeing My Morning Jacket cover “Tyrone,” “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Rocket Man” and “Rock the Casbah” at Red Rocks. Amazing. But in reality MMJ plays precise versions of other people’s (great) songs with its own unique instrumentation. When Charlyn “Chan” Marshall, aka Cat Power, covers something, it’s sometimes so transformational, so deep and different, that the timbre of her ghostly voice can give a listener goosebumps. Like Devo’s “Satisfaction,” the enigmatic Cat Power’s “New York”—produced not unlike her soulful career peak, The Greatest—is unrecognizable as a cover until the vocals materialize. It’s like a indie-lounge love song to Frank Sinatra and Manhattan. For another transcendent Cat Power cover, check out how she channels Nina Simone on “Wild Is the Wind,” the best version since Bowie’s.

3. Santana, “Black Magic Woman” (1970)
Almost as if by providence, the Aynsley Dunbar song “Warning,” thumping electric English blues, seemed to leap off the vinyl and say, “I’m a Black Sabbath song.” And so it was. Even moreso, the original Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac version of “Black Magic Woman” screamed, “I’m going to be Santana’s signature song someday soon.” While Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” is thick '60s psychedelic blues with Mick Fleetwood’s rudimentary clobbering laying bricks for tasteful lead guitar, Santana’s gigantic Latin-rock version rocketed out of San Francisco in 1970 on a magic carpet of LSD and flavorful percussion. Thank you, Fleetwood Mac, for the vehicle in which Carlos Santana’s guitar solos rode off into the sunset.

2. Talking Heads “Take Me to the River” (1978)
Some of the giants of rock music—from the Clash (“Police and Thieves,” “Brand New Cadillac”) to Rage Against the Machine (“The Ghost of Tom Joad”)—have succeeded in breathing thunder into originally gentle music. The young Talking Heads, however, went further than appropriation: On “Take Me to the River” the New York quartet utilized the unrivaled wizardry of producer/collaborator Brian Eno to take a harmless, fun-loving Al Green tune and twist the “crazy” knobs until a new-wave diamond appeared. Just prior to the Heads’ legendary creative peak (Fear of Music and Remain In Light), Byrne & Co.’s first experiment in mixing its quirky art-punk with Eno’s studio sorcery—somehow retaining taste, charm and funk while adding a smidgen of sci-fi psychedelia to every instrument—resulted in a studio grand slam.

1. Joe Cocker “With a Little Help from My Friends” (1969)
Perhaps the most successfully creative cover in pop music history was the tour de force John Coltrane manifested from “My Favorite Things,” which he so often used to take off into the avant-jazz stratosphere — similar to how Patti Smith later injected duende into “Gloria.” Personally, I’d take 801’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the New Bomb Turks’ “Mr. Suit” when it comes to explosively appropriating great songs to another genre. But it’s hard to argue with the power of a cover that could so surprised pop-music lovers, or that a singer built a career on a monumental cover, like Joe Cocker did with the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” on his self-titled debut album, and at Woodstock. The song was only two years old then, but Cocker’s eccentric howl, and gritty soul arrangement, lifted up “With a Little Help from My Friends” like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, as the Ramones later did with Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Want To Grow Up.” Only Daniel Johnston and Deerhoof have covered Beatles tunes with nearly the exuberance, imagination and, well, madness of Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Don't miss out on the "Misheard Lyrics" Woodstock version. 


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