The art of the cover song is a very difficult thing to master. In fact, it should only be attempted if one genuinely has something to add to the song that wasn’t there before. These four artists managed to pull that off with flying colors. They mixed genres and styles together and transported these songs to lands that the original artists never even dreamed of.
4. Then I Kissed Her (1965)
by The Beach Boys, featured on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)
I can’t even explain the genius behind this song, but I’ll try. At first listen, “Then I Kissed Her” just sounds like a run-of-the-mill Beach Boys song. A squeaky clean romance story, no doubt involving celibate teenagers who walk around saying “golly” and “swell”. But wait. There’s more. This is actually a cover of The Crystals’ 1963 hit “Then He Kissed Me“, produced by the eminent Phil Spector. The Beach Boys put their own spin on the song by changing the gender and perspective. “Then He Kissed Me” became “Then I Kissed Her”. They told the same story, but from the man’s point of view. Check out the original lyrics:
“Well, he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance
He looked kinda nice and so I said I might take a chance
When he danced he held me tight
And when he walked me home that night
All the stars were shining bright
And then he kissed me.”
Now the Beach Boys version:
“Well I walked up to her and I asked her if she wanted to dance
She looked awful nice and so I hoped she might take a chance
When we danced I held her tight
Then I walked her home that night
And all the stars were shining bright
And then I kissed her.”
That kind of simple ingenuity gives me chills. Some of you may think this is lame, but this is the stuff I go crazy for. Anyway, not only did The Beach Boys alter the lyrics of the song in a mind-blowingly creative way, but the production almost matches that of Phil Spector himself. Of course, no one could outdo the master, but Brian Wilson came pretty close. While it may not seem obvious, this song could be seen as a precursor to Brian’s later production experiments on The Beach Boys’ 1966 magnum opus Pet Sounds. But don’t even get me started on Pet Sounds. You’ll never get me to shut up. On to the next song!
3. Only Love Can Break Your Heart (1990)
by Saint Etienne, featured on Foxbase Alpha
I’m not entirely familiar with the history of dance music. So I’m not sure if it was common practice twenty-five years ago to remix songs in dance versions. But even if it was, I don’t think anyone expected this Neil Young classic to appear in the club anytime soon. However, once the indie dance band Saint Etienne got their hands on it, that’s exactly where it was headed. By putting catchy synths and a club-ready drumbeat behind a 70’s folk song, Saint Etienne created an innovative genre-bending cover that became one of the defining songs of early 90’s indie.
2. Little Honda (1997)
by Yo La Tengo, featured on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
Come on, you didn’t think I could make a list with only one Beach Boys song on it, did you? Well, this one is actually a cover of a Beach Boys song. Yo La Tengo (pictured at the top) are an indie rock band from Hoboken, New Jersey that is known for their large repertoire of cover songs. But they always imbue their covers with a bit of that Yo La Tengo charm. In 1997, the band decided to transform The Beach Boys’ 1964 car anthem “Little Honda” into a droning shoegazer track, complete with a brutally simple and abrasive solo from lead guitarist Ira Kaplan. I’ve actually seen Yo La Tengo live when they opened for Belle and Sebastian in 2013, and let me just say that their “Little Honda” cover only scratches the surface of Kaplan’s guitar-playing ability. The man is seriously a master of his craft.
1. America (1971)
by Yes, featured on Yesterdays
Yes (no pun intended), this song is ten minutes long. Listen to the whole thing. It’s worth it, trust me. This track has some of the best guitar work in the history of rock. I have yet to hear another cover song that shows the amount of sheer ambition on display here. This cover represents a rare occurrence in rock music: the drawn-out jam session in which every second is more invigorating than the last. That doesn’t sound like a Simon & Garfunkel cover, does it? And yet, it is. Yes took a subdued folk ballad by two 60’s icons and gave it the progressive rock treatment. Except this song doesn’t sound too proggy. And that’s what makes Yes one of the better and less indulgent prog rock bands of the classic rock era. Most of the time, they kept things classy and didn’t succumb to the pretensions that their peers fell prey to. In fact, Yes’s cover of “America” sounds more bluesy in many places than it sounds like it belongs to a band who had album titles like “Tales from Topographic Oceans”. The riffs are simply incredible. Steve Howe throttles his guitar within an inch of its life, delivering these impossibly precise melodic lines that cement in my mind his status as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. But there’s one more thing that you may not have noticed about this song. Go to 1:44 in the above video, and prepare to have your mind blown. Pay close attention to Chris Squire’s bass line. Do you recognize it? Okay, here’s a hint for all of you who aren’t familiar with the work of Leonard Bernstein:
Genius. That’s all I have to say.
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