By Ralph Greco, Jr.
Most of us have heard (and love or like to various degrees) Elton John’s version of “Pinball Wizard,” John Lennon’s vocal-shredding on the Beatles’ “Twist & Shout,” Ike and Tina’s super sexy “Proud Mary,” the entire Medusa album by Annie Lenox — great cover versions of songs that were hits and, in some cases, surpass the originals in popularity and creativity. And while it can be debated infinitum just what makes a great cover version great (strict adherence to the original verses an artist infusing something wholly new into a classic?) there are a whole host of covers, done by bands famous and not, that deserve repeated listening. And in one or two case below, one could even argue that the songs covered aren’t truly ‘rock and roll’ in the truest sense of the definition. But the bands performing them are! Some obscure, others not so, I know the ten tunes that follow will not be the last accounting of this type. I just feel these covers might not be ones anybody has heard all that often…but damn well should!
1) Two of the members of this quickly formed and just-as-quickly disbanded trio come from a band known for their read on famous tunes (Vanilla Fudge, that is): Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice joined up with Jeff Beck way back in 1973 for the short-lived Beck, Bogert & Appice project. This amazing group produced a self-titled album, featuring a blistering cover of Stevie Wonder's “Superstition.” Sure, we have been treated recently to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ version, but one might want to look at the BBA's take on this classic — it is out and out heavy!
2) “Pinball Wizard” isn’t the only time Sir Elton John has covered someone else’s material. You might be familar with his version of the Beatles' “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” the song I want to highlight here is John's remake of “Honky Tonk Women,” featured on the live album, 11-17-70. What makes this version of the Stone’s classic so perfect (and 11-17-70 so special) is that this is a live recording of John way back before he had a big band, or even a guitarist! With only Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsen (drums) for support, the listener is taken back to John;s initial run through America before the baubles, beads, bespeckled bombast and, most importantly, the hits that would mark most of his incredible career. Not to be overlooked, Murray and Olsen’s harmonies are spot on.
3) This next one is a true ‘prog rock’ fans' pick: Yes' version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” I had the pleasure of seeing Yes perform this song during their most recent tour and it was as still fresh as it is on the record. True, it is a much longer version than Paul Simon ever intended — at least the full 10-minute version that appears on Yesterdays. Don’t settle for the four-minute single unless you are looking for a collector'[s item! Blistering guitar from Steve Howe makes this a stand-out track.
4) This next one is from The Waterboys’ CD The Live Adventures Of The Waterboys where they perform a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” I don’t know where your views fall in regard to the purple-no-name one but “Purple Rain” is a classic anyway you cut it. The Waterboys’ take on it is simple, straight ahead and slightly fun.
5) Beck’s take on Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs.” Again, another obscure tune to be covering, but Beck is just quirky enough to pull it off.
6) On Heart’s Magazine album, Ann Wilson gives a blistering vocal performance of the Harry Nilsson hit, “Without You” (originally written and performed by Badfinger). This album fell through the cracks, partly due to a contractual dispute with Mushroom Records, Heart's first record label. But one listen to Ann and Nancy’s harmonizing, and you’ll run screaming from Mariah Carey’s version next time you hear it!
7) Yes makes it on here twice, but this time it is for another band doing a cover of a Yes tune. The California Guitar Trio, a group of guitar virtuosos, manage a spot-on instrumental version of “Heart Of The Sunrise” that will simply knock you out. How these guys manage to catch every nuisance of this complicated classic, with just three acoustic guitars, is beyond me.
8) Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon’s “Sweet Emotion.” This is the most recent recording on this list, appearing as it does on the recently released CD, Sixty Six Steps, a superb collection, marking the second collaboration between the former Phish bass player and legendary singer/acoustic guitar virtuoso. Their funky, sly version of Aerosmith’s classic tune is as odd a turned-around cover as you’ll ever hear.
9) This is a strange one, not because of the song itself or the artist who covers it. Rather, because the artist is covering a song he originally played on. This gets a little complicated, but on Steve Hackett’s 1996 album, Genesis Revisited he does just that…revisits Genesis songs enlisting the help of Chester Thompson, Ian McDonald, Jon Wetton and others. And while the disc includes such Genesis classics, such as “I Know What I Like,”“Firth of Fifth” and “Los Endos,” it is the first track here (the same track that opens Genesis’ first live LP actually) “Watcher Of The Skies” (with Wetton on vocals no less) that makes my list. It’s not a wholly new version of the song and here we have Hackett playing on it again as he did way back when, but there is something so powerful about this version (as well as the original) that you understand at once why Hackett ‘revisits it’. Steve’s reasoning for the revision: “A song like 'Watcher Of The Skies' on record, for instance, never felt like it had the power of the time we first rehearsed it in the Reggio Emilia Palasport in Italy when I heard the Mellotron introduction from the shower rooms one floor down.”
10) Not so much as for what he does with the tune but that he did it at all considering his mortality was ‘knocking at the door,’ Warren Zevon’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” will send chills up your spine every time you hear it. On Zevon’s The Wind, his final album, just try and get through this one knowing that Zevon is literally singing with his last breath.