My mother used to say some people don’t have the sense God gave geese. But when it comes to the idiocy surrounding the cover song choices of some prominent stars, my father-in-law’s go-to expression may be even more accurate: “Couldn’t pour piss out of a rubber boot if the instructions were printed on the heel.”
A recent Classic Album Review I did for BB Gabor’s debut album got me thinking about weird cover songs. He closed his record with a very un-Joni version of Big Yellow Taxi. I actually love his version, but I’m sure there are far more who’d hate it than love it. Music is subjective. But this is my column, so I’m just gonna tell you the covers I feel defy good taste and enter the realm of idiocy.
Let’s tackle some low-hanging fruit first: Beatles. Christ, people — stop covering Beatles songs. You can count on one hand the number of good Beatles covers which exist, and still have enough fingers left for the shocker. Sometimes, Beatles covers even succeed in making me angry. U2’s version of Helter Skelter from Rattle & Hum certainly did. If you’re gonna attempt a blistering track with a famous riff, here’s an idea — PLAY THE GODDAMNED RIFF! I’m looking at you, Adam Clayton.
Most people believe the entire soundtrack for the insanely bad 1978 RSO production of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a write-off. Aerosmith’s cover of Come Together makes a lot of lists like this one, but I actually like their version. In fact, for what the film was — basically a Broadway musical — most of the songs can be forgiven for being camp and disco-flavoured. But one of them stands out as being ghastly bad, and that’s Alice Cooper’s cover of Because. I can’t get through it. It makes me feel something which can best be described as shame and embarrassment but in the form of a physical rejection. A full-body dry-heave of loathing. Alice — Vince… come on. It’s a beautiful nine-part harmony vocal. John, Paul and George x 3. Nine.
Instead, Cooper gives us a needlessly creepy spoken vocal. The words aren’t scary. This is just weird. “Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry,” is NOT scary. It would be like getting Vincent Price to “sing” Rubber Ducky, with crashes of thunder and the distant screams of horrified women. Seriously. What the hell is this?
I once sat in as a bass player with Glass Tiger lead singer Alan Frew at a charity show. The one song I didn’t have to play on, thankfully, was his cover of Imagine. I think I went right outside, actually. But here on this list, I’m going to include the cover of the hands-off John Lennon anthem by Napanee’s Avril Lavigne. It’s just not believable. It’s not a song for her persona/brand. Maybe she could have tried Beautiful Boy (Sk8r Boi) instead.
These types of covers are what I’d call face-palms, compared to the U2 hair-pullers or Alice Cooper head-tilters. So, what would you call Rockwell’s version of Taxman? Some sort of combination of the three, I’d say. Makes no sense.
So that’s The Beatles Dept. Moving on now to the “NO! STOP! GOD, NO! OH GOD!” category. Even if you are a talented Black vocalist, not just anyone should attempt Billie Holiday’s peerless Strange Fruit. Certainly not anyone white. The song’s graphic lyrics — from apoem by Abel Meeropol — are about the lynching of Black Americans. The song is a declaration and many consider its release as marking the beginning of the civil rights movement. But Sting won’t let any of that stop him. Yes, Sting.
Similarly, there’s something gross about Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies performing this lyric:
“Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight-up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud.”
But, OMG yes, Canada’s answer to The Wiggles covered Public Enemy’s Fight The Power.
Almost as bad: Duran Duran’s decision to also cover Public Enemy. No joke, they did 911 Is A Joke. If there’s one thing Duran Duran have always stood for, it’s the injustice facing people in poor neighbourhoods who say emergency services take longer to get to them than to calls in more affluent neighbourhoods. Never mind the fact that DURAN DURAN ARE FROM THE U.K. AND IT’S NOT EVEN 911 IN THE U.K., IT’S 999!!! Nick Rhodes was a rich kid, for gawd’s sake.
Oh, I hate this. Why did I do this?
Seeing as I’m already angry, I guess it’s as good a time as any to mention Rod Stewart’s cover of the stark, lonely Tom Waits masterpiece Downtown Train. Stewart’s version is a pop ballad and became a major hit, proving that people will show up to dance at the euthanization of a pet, so long as the vet has shiny pants. Fall Out Boy covered Love Will Tear Us Apart, and for this they are all going to hell. Anyone who has heard Kid Rock and Nickelback’s cover of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting has already been there.
I used to host an all-request radio show on community radio. I had a list of “Don’t You Dare” songs. If anyone requested a song which was on my list they were instead treated to Revolting Cocks. Top of that list? American Pie. So how do you think I feel about Madonna’s baffling cover of it? Well, about the same as I would feel if Take That covered Smells Like Teen Spirit:
Now you know why guitar shop staff always seem pissed off. Let’s shat on the Nirvana classics some more. How about Puddle of Mudd’s cover of About A Girl? At first I thought this was a joke. Every time you watch this, you get a polyp.
Unlike Puddle Of Mudd, Michael Bolton can actually sing. Nobody can argue that he can’t. But the problem is what he sings. The phrasing and vocal inflection in Otis Redding’s bona fide classic Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay are impossible to recreate. It is one of the best examples of a soulfully evocative song. It is human and moving because of Redding’s delivery. So I get a little ashen when along comes Bolton to put this classic in the microwave for 4:19.
Similarly, Winger somehow took all the edge off Purple Haze. I’ve heard 15-year-olds in music class play a more convincing rendition of this. They somehow make one of the coolest songs of all time annoying. Different style of music, but Fine Young Cannibals kind of did the same thing to The Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen In Love.
Remember Susan Boyle? She was that Britain’s Got Talent contestant who we were all supposed to love because — wait, what? — she looked like a regular person, yet somehow had extraordinary vocal ability. What’s next? Dogs and cats sleeping together?
So, Boyle becomes an instant celebrity and is given all these famous songs to crush with her incredible voice. Except, maybe someone shouldn’t have given her Gram Parsons, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s beautiful, hard-miles love song Wild Horses. It is not meant to soar, it’s meant to saunter and sway. You don’t eat cigarettes, you smoke ’em.
Here’s a playlist of these and more to suck on:
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.