Cover songs are great and all, but sometimes the original is still best.
The popularity of certain cover songs is well-documented. Joan Jett’s 1982 “I Love Rock 'n' Roll” isn’t just better than the English band Arrows’ mid-'70s original — it kicks its ass, steals its wallet and makes out with its girlfriend. In similar fashion, Ike and Tina Turner set gospel-sex fire to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” and Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” took Leonard Cohen’s lyrically rich prototype to breathtaking vocal peaks.
Hence the abundance of “covers better than the originals” lists online. But what about the many instances where the reverse is true? Sometimes — as Cat Stevens wrote and P. P. Arnold sang — the first cut is the deepest. Here are 10 originals arguably better than their more famous cover versions.
“Take Me to the River” (Al Green/Talking Heads)
If Al Green sung you an eviction notice, you'd probably ask for an encore. The guy has a truly heavenly voice, giving his 1974 original “Take Me to the River” sanctified lift, which producer Willie Mitchell heightened with an ebullient, Memphis Horns-goosed arrangement. Talking Heads’ 1978 rendition boasts an undeniable beat and some appealing Hammond organ filigree. Still, quirky Talking Heads singer David Byrne would probably be the first to tell you that Green’s “Take Me to the River” is tops.
“Venus” (Shocking Blue/Bananarama)
A paean to the titular Roman goddess of love, “Venus” has been a number one U.S. single for two groups, 16 years apart: Dutch band Shocking Blue in 1970 and English girl-group Bananarama in 1986. The latter version is brash, mid-'80s mall-pop. The former is hypnotic and more enduring folk-rock, with Shocking Blue singer Mariska Veres oozing Grace Slick-like cool.
“Hard to Handle” (Otis Redding/The Black Crowes)
Hard-rock guitars and singer Chris Robinson’s impressive bellbottom-blues vocals helped make The Black Crowes’ 1990 version of “Hard to Handle” a No. 1 rock single. Recording engineer Brendan O’Brien (later an A-list producer for artists like Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam) played the memorable guitar solo. Heavy MTV airplay of the “Hard to Handle” music video — depicting Robinson sauntering across stages, hotel rooms and train tracks — pushed the Crowes' debut LP Shake Your Monkey Maker to multi-platinum sales. But Otis Redding’s slinky original — produced by guitarist Steve Cropper and released in 1968, a year after the singer's death — is superior, with a funkier, more laid-back R&B groove and more timeless production.
“Mony Mony” (Tommy James and the Shondells/Billy Idol)
When eventual punk-pop badass Billy Idol got laid for the first time, “Mony Mony” was the song playing in the background. Years later Idol snarled his 1987 live cover of this Tommy James and the Shondells’ 1968 raver to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. (The peroxide-haired singer previously cut a studio version of the track in 1981.) Idol’s arena-scorching live version, propelled by supersonic Steve Stevens guitar heroics, is toothier. Still, Tommy James’ “Mony Mony” — so named because while taking a break from writing the song, James happened to glimpse at the Mutual of New York Building’s M.O.N.Y. sign — gets the overall edge for its garage-y aesthetics, day-glow keyboards and love-bead-shaking tom-tom rhythm.
“Sometimes She Forgets” (Steve Earle/Travis Tritt)
Travis Tritt’s calypso-tinged take on “Sometimes She Forgets” became a top 10 1995 hit for the dramatically coifed ’90s country hitmaker. It also pales compared to Nashville outlaw Steve Earle’s original, released a few months earlier. Tritt sang earnestly and effectively on his Eagles-esque redo. But the reedy, hard-living vocals on Earle’s mandolin-dappled acoustic version leave no doubt that the guy singing this version is the same guy who wrote it.
“Torn” (Ednaswap/Natalie Imbruglia)
“Torn” was a ubiquitous video-channel smash for Australian pixie-fox Natalie Imbruglia when it was released as the former soap-opera actress’ debut single in 1997. Imbruglia’s strummy coffeehouse-pop edition of “Torn” hit No. 1 in multiple countries, including the U.S., jetting her Left of the Middle album to multi-platinum sales worldwide. Los Angeles band Ednaswap’s 1995 precursor is moodier, but not unrecognizable from its famous younger sister. In a better world, the Ednaswap “Torn,” highlighted by singer Anne Preven’s alt-girl pipes, would have been an MTV “Buzz Bin” selection and just as famous as Imbruglia's lighter take.
“Harlem Shuffle” (Bob & Earl/Rolling Stones)
The Rolling Stones have released a stack of amazing albums, but 1986’s Dirty Work is not of them. Crappy album notwithstanding, The Stones still turned ’60s R&B duo Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” into a U.S. top 5 hit. Credit Mick Jagger’s guttural-to-leonine vocal track and drummer Charlie Watts' jazz-élan pace. The cover’s splashy live-action-and-animation music video featured Keith Richards smoking cigs and looking shadowy-cool, and was helmed by Cool World and Fritz the Cat director Ralph Bakshi and future Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. But even The Stones couldn’t buy the nightlife swelter on Bob (Relf) & Earl (Nelson)’s original, arranged by crooner Barry White and later sampled on House of Pain’s rap hit “Jump Around.”
“Killing Me Softly (With His Song)” (Lori Lieberman/Roberta Flack/Fugees)
Lauryn Hill’s vocals on hip-hop trio Fugees’ 1996 “Killing Me Softly With His Song” remake, title truncated to “Killing Me Softly,” are undeniably soulful, sensual and graceful. The Grammy-winning tune’s sitar sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” (itself sampled from Rotary Connection's “Memory Connection”) is dusky and appealing. If only someone would have pushed the mute button during mixdown on Wyclef Jean’s annoying “one time” and “two times” hype-man ad-libs. Roberta Flack’s haunting version of “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” which topped the charts in 1973, is often cited as the original version, but while it’s the most transcendent, it’s not the first. That honor goes to Lori Lieberman’s mellow folk rendition, co-written with Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and released in 1972.
“Hound Dog” (Big Mama Thornton/Elvis Presley)
This is a very close one, but we’ll take blues belter Big Mama Thornton’s lowdown 1952 “Hound Dog” over Elvis Presley’s amped-up 1956 rock redo. Thornton’s howling vocals are bawdier, the tempo sexier. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composed “Hound Dog,” and the songwriting duo’s other credits include several other songs Presley turned into hits, like “Jailhouse Rock,” “King Creole” and “Love Me.” Presley’s “Hound Dog” is kinetic, Scotty Moore’s guitar solo is a thing of rockabilly beauty and D.J. Fontana’s drums thrill. But we’ll take Big Mama’s “Dog,” by a tail.
“Cum On Feel the Noize” (Slade/Quiet Riot)
Never underestimate the impact maracas can have on a track. Take for example English glam-rock outfit Slade’s 1973 U.K. smash “Cum On Feel the Noize,” the song that later inspired Kiss’ signature anthem, “Rock and Roll All Nite.”
In the U.S., the MTV Generation (and those after) are much more familiar with Los Angeles pop-metal band Quiet Riot’s big-haired version of “COFTN,” a top 5 hit in 1983. QR frontman Kevin DuBrow was reportedly pissed about covering “Cum On Feel the Noize” and tried to sing it so badly that it wouldn’t get released. He did not succeed. DuBrow's vocals on the track were larger than life, and the single's success helped propel the QR LP Metal Health to No. 1, making it what many pop-music historians cite as the first metal album to do so in America. The misspelling-prone Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize” doesn’t sound as big or in-your-face, even though frontman Noddy Holder’s vocals are a direct predecessor of DuBrow's. Yet, Slade’s “COFTN” sounds more celebratory. And youthful. And just boogies more. Score: Maracas 1, Spandex 0.