Staff Top 10
Top Ten Cover Versions That Alter the Meaning of the Song

cover versions were originally an industry tool used to put a white face on black music. Hacks-for-hire like Pat Boone would record watered-down versions of the latest "race records" to sell them to a white audience that would otherwise never be exposed to them, thus covering another segment of the market (hence the term). Nowadays artists sing cover songs to work up the crowd in concert, to make an ironic comment about the original, to augment their own flimsy catalogue, or simply because they like the song in question.

Sometimes a love song is just a love song, but sometimes, when placed in a new context, a song can take on new layers of meaning that previously did not exist. It could be a reflection of another era. It could be a gender-switch. It could just be the tone of the singer's voice, adding or removing a tinge of sarcasm to reverse the original's intent. What follows are a few such revelations.

Camper Van Beethoven, "Wasted" (Black Flag)
From manifesto to piss-take. "Wasted" was the Flag's defining statement of purpose, the rallying cry of spoiled suburban youth, the disappointing fulfillment of the California dream, a pointless tale of a weekend spent doing less than nothing. Many bands covered it, but none mocked its sentiments as openly as Santa Cruz wise-asses Camper Van Beethoven. From the ivory towers of their sleepy state university college-town they gazed down upon all the aimless youth, atrophying across the uninspiring sprawl of Los Angeles, and snickered.

Johnny Cash, "Hurt" (Nine Inch Nails)
Trent Reznor is that gothy kid you knew in high school who was always trying a little too hard to seem creepy. One day he's carving some girl's name into his arm and showing everybody the scabs; the next he's getting sent to the guidance counselor after triggering a red flag with his uncomfortably autobiographical story for creative writing class about a teenager who commits suicide. When he sings about hurting himself, no matter how affecting the melody, you know he's just trying to get attention.

Johnny Cash has been many things throughout his career: wanderer, outlaw, lover, preacher. In his final incarnation, on the albums he recorded with Rick Rubin, he was the Dying Man. When Cash sings about hurting himself, he's not doing it for your benefit, he's doing it to see if he can still feel; to see if he's made it one more day; to make sure he's still alive.

Slayer, "Guilty of Being White" (Minor Threat)
It's all about where you aim your rage. "Guilty of Being White" is one of the most difficult of Ian McKay's lyrics to rectify from a political standpoint. The song works because he is examining his own liberal guilt, turning his rage inward as he tries to come to grips with the responsibility he feels as a member of the privileged class for those less fortunate through no fault of his own. Slayer, on the other hand, are simply lashing out at a presumed accuser, adding nothing to the dialogue. The lowest form of anti-PC backlash.

Cowboy Junkies, "Sweet Jane" (The Velvet Underground)
Cat Power - Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)

I'm counting these together because they're remarkably similar cases. Each was originally a rousing rave-up by a sixties act with a male singer. On their respective covers, the volume and tempo are turned way down and a female vocalist takes over. The similarities don't end there, however. On both covers, the meaning is altered in large part by rearranging the lyrics: the opening verse is dropped completely, and the song leads off with lines from elsewhere in the original, invariably shifting the song's focus.

On "Satisfaction," Jagger famously opens with a declaration of his (sexual?) insatiability, while Chan Marshall, who never sings the song's title in her version, mumbles about how commercials on the radio make her feel inadequate. Where Jagger is defiant, Marshall is humble and self-critical.

As for "Sweet Jane," Reed opens with Jack, standing on the corner, and sings of a young couples day-to-day struggles. The Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmons removes Jack from the song completely, skipping directly to Jane's inner turmoil and foregrounding the emotional core of the narrative. To Reed, these lines were simply fodder for a middle-eight singalong, an intermission in the story; it takes a woman to truly understand the character and to properly play the part.

Eric Clapton, "I Shot the Sheriff" (Bob Marley)
Clapton, for all his reverence towards tradition, always seems to water down the many songs he's covered over the years, selling the blues to a privileged white audience and inadvertently casting himself as the last of the original cover artists. Bob Marley issued a cry of resistance from the ghettoes of Kingston, Jamaica, a refusal to submit to the horrors of institutionalised authoritarian brutality. Clapton delivers a version almost devoid of meaning, earns himself a number one single on the Billboard charts, and offers little more than race-card fodder for future debates over the morality of rappers who rhyme about killing cops.

The Staple Singers, "Uncloudy Day" (traditional)
Written in the late 19th century by Ohio preacher J.K. Alwood, "Uncloudy Day" is an uplifting hymn of hope for the next world typical of Midwestern American Protestantism. Recorded by a number of well-known acts including Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Jordanaires and, most notably, Willie Nelson, to whom the composition is often miscredited, the song is usually accompanied by a toe-tapping country beat and a joyful chorus. The Staple Singers took it down South, soaked it in the mud of the Mississippi and stripped it way down, leaving only a trembling guitar and ominous voices. Imbued with the righteous anger of the raging civil rights movement, the song is no longer a promise; it's a warning.

Rocket From the Crypt, "Chantilly Lace" (Big Bopper)
The Big Bopper's best known hit, "Chantilly Lace" is a charming novelty record with a great singalong chorus and little else. The "verses," such as they are, consist of a one-sided telephone conversation between the bopper and his paramour in which the two of them plan their rendezvous and activities for a date that evening. She's obviously a chatty little thing, as the Bopper's contributions to the dialogue consist largely of "But...", "Baby I...", and the like. On the chorus, he manages to get a few words in edgewise, and uses the opportunities to remind his date how he would like her to dress and act. A product of a bygone era, both musically and thematically, if there ever was one.

RFTC's somewhat unsettling retelling is not exactly a cover in the traditional sense. Instead, the original song is sampled whole, while a voice (presumably that of Rocket frontman John "Speedo" Reis) plays the Bopper's date, speaking over the pauses in the original verses to fill in the other half of the dialogue. In the new version, Bopper's supposed date sounds more like his cellmate, as he subtly hints at an evening of debauched sado-masochistic thrills. You can almost see the rotting teeth in Reis's ominous grin as he growls, in response to the Bopper's protestation that "I got noooo money, honey," "We don't need money for what we're gonna do." Then the chorus comes along and Reis saws away at his guitar, drowning out any objections the surprised and nervous Bopper may have to the idea.

Pet Shop Boys, "Go West" (The Village People)
The Pet Shop Boys have always had trouble resisting an opportunity for cheap laughs in the face of sentiment; the instinct to block tears with bitter chuckles has long been a favourite defense of the oppressed, and the Boys' irony-drenched still-lifes of gay life in repressive English society is a classic example. But when crooning a true gay anthem like the Village People's "Go West" (as opposed to simply pissing on an easy target like the blandly asexual "Where the Streets Have No Name"), ice-queen Neil Tennant suddenly betrays an unexpected vulnerability hiding behind the song's goofily robust baritone choir. Where the Village People sang of their era's sincere vision of a gay utopia in San Francisco, a society of unfettered acceptance and belonging, the Boys know better. Theirs is a world in which the naive dreams of the disco era have given way to an age of cold intolerance, legislated sexuality and brutal "hate crimes". As Neil looks back on the hopeful promises of the post-Stonewall world, one in which eventual mainstream assimilation seemed a foregone conclusion, he sounds, dare we say it... sentimental?

Rage Against the Machine, "Beautiful World" (Devo)
Devo spent a sizable percentage of their creative energies indicting the listener for one crime against intelligence or another. "Beautiful World" is typical of that sentiment, as the narrator cynically lists all the things that you, ignorant listener, can enjoy because you are lucky enough to be blind to the horrors of modern life. Not so our narrator, who is enlightened enough to see the world for the shithole that it is.

Rage put most of their energy into trying to change the very condition Devo scoffed at: their audience's blissful slumber. "Beautiful World" seems an odd choice for a band so sincere, and hearing it is quite a shock. Tom Morello, alone and gently strumming his guitar, whispers a desperate plea for sympathy into your ear. The sentiment remains: you just can't see what I see, the horrors of the world around us. But rather than mocking the listener, Morello casts a forlorn gaze heavenward and asks, "Why me?"

Aretha Franklin, "Respect" (Otis Redding)
The absolute all-time classic case of a song turned right on its ear. Otis struts through the house, insisting on subservience from his woman, braying about how he busts his butt every day, morning till night, and expects his dinner to be steaming from the table when he walks in that door. But when Aretha sings those very same words, the song suddenly becomes a rallying cry for those very same put-upon wives, who stand up and demand domestic equality on no uncertain terms with the very same lines, word for word. Honey, this ain't your house, it's our house. Get used to it.

By: Bjorn Randolph
Published on: 2004-10-15
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