There are bad cover versions and….There are cover versions you only think are bad, because they sound wrong on paper, since they come from artists or genres who get even less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Thing is, sometimes it takes a artists and genres like those to bring a song back to life, assuming the song was ever alive in the first place – or, say, to bring supposed classics back down off Mount Olympus and into the real world. So anyway, here are 25 surprising examples of covers you’d most likely scoff at if you haven’t heard them. Your opinion may or may not change once you do. But just admit this: If they fail, at least they fail in their own spectacular way. Which is part of the fun.
25. Trio, “Ya Ya“: Same year as Devo’s redo of “Workin’ In A Coal Mine,” deadpan Deutschlanders most infamous for “Da Da Da” (which almost rhymes — they did a “Ja Ja Ja” too!) sit in La La waiting for their ya ya, who ain’t gonna show. They thereby turn one of New Orleans’ most unstoppable gumbo-r&b bounces into a minimalist Teutonic cave painting. They lederhosened Little Richard and Harry Belafonte songs as well.
24. Electric Six, “Rubberband Man”: Detroit’s zaniest disco-metal sorta-joking-sorta-not band of the 21st Century — one of the past decade’s most consistent rock bands, really, even if only one member is constant and indie websites tend to either ignore or dismiss them – locates subliminal stompology in the biggest pop soul hit ever about a short fat guy who plays music with a rubberband on his left toe. Frantic, ridiculous, hilarious.
23. Type O Negative, “Summer Breeze“: By putting heavy emphasis on the minor key, Brooklyn metal goths with an absurdly low-pitched vocalist some considered a vampire make the mellowest beach-season gold ever to contain the word “jasmine” even more bittersweet than it was already.
22. Wayman Tisdale feat. Toby Keith,“Never Never Gonna Give You Up”: These two big Oklahomans – one an N.B.A. center and power forward turned smooth-jazz bassist, one a country lugnut best known for believing a boot in Al Qaeda’s ass is the American way – were fast friends. After Tisdale died in 2009, Keith performed at his funeral, then later scored on the country chart with a heartfelt memorial called “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song),” with Marcus Miller on bass and Dave Koz on sax. The year before, Toby had guested on Tisdale’s Rebound album, reviving an old Barry White smash, of all things. And his strong-and-easy multi-layered baritone-to-bass got deep into the early-disco seduction groove: “keep on keep on whatever whatever,” “forever and ever yeah yeah yeah yeah.” Hard to think of a current r&b singer who could do it this good.
21. David Sanborn, “Bang Bang”: Slick-saxing smooth jazz sideman and Night Music TV host instigates one-man, one-song early ‘90s revival of Latin boogaloo, the wild mid ‘60s party genre that stirred funky soul and garage rock into its steaming mambos. And you can still shingaling to it.
20. Girls Authority, “Hollaback Girl”: Because some songs are more ba-na-nas when nine 11-to-16-year-old girls from Massachusetts sing (and squawk and giggle and whistle and pound) them. Especially when it sounds like the grownups they auditioned for had departed the pajama party.
19. Turisas, “Rasputin”: What self-respecting Finnish folk-metal band with their faces painted red wouldn’t want to do a song about an insane-looking turn-of-the-20th-century mystic “Russian love machine” who got called “the Mad Monk” and drank and lusted and thirsted for power and might’ve had sex with the queen, and eventually was either poisoned, shot, drowned, beaten to death or all of the above? Especially, one where a gang of burly Vikings can shout along “Rah! Rah! Rasputin”! Who cares if concocted ‘70s disco Germans made it famous (even in Russia) first?
18. A.L.T. And the Lost Civilization, “Tequila”: True Animal House rap from an L.A. “French Mexican who can get with White Russians,” dropping a hundred alcohol puns on top of a prototypical L.A. surf instrumental no doubt based on Mexican music in the first place. Up there with the best of Lighter Shade Of Brown, Mellow Man Ace, and Delinquent Habits in the delectable sub-Cypress Hill ‘90s Latin lingo sweepstakes.
17. Book Of Love, “Die Matrosen” : Bubblegum bandwagon synth-pop Anglophiles, phormed in Philly, whistle their way through an ominous and obscure post-punk B-side by the dadaistic Zurich all-female Rough Trade music-from-scratch combo Liliput (ex-Kleenex), supposedly clinking coins in cups for percussion while cooing about a fellow who blacks out in a pub then gets stood up for a date by a presumably Swiss miss.
16. Nasty Boys, “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”: Italodisco dudes take Kiss’s dance sellout song, open it up, stretch it out, and explode deep inside.
15. Black Oak Arkansas, “Jim Dandy”: Hard Chicago r&b from the second solo woman to land in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, covered by three-guitar-and-a-washboard Southern metal disreputables who’d probably be turned away at the door – rednecks known for songs about hot ‘n’ nasty hot rods, and for Satanic backwards-masking on live LPs. But metal could sure get funky back then, and they loved this song so much the singer – Jim “Dandy” Mangrum – named himself after the title. Helped that he had a Joplinesque mama named Ruby Starr to call out his name.
14. Kidz Bop, “Axel F (The Frog Song)”: 1985: Harold Faltermeyer, a Munich Eurodisco producer whose resumé included keyboards on Giorgio Moroder film scores, goes #3 in the U..S. with his proto-techno electrobeat barrage from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. 2005: Crazy Frog, an intentionally annoying animated amphibian born in a Swedish computer and averse to wearing pants, tops the pop chart in several nations across Europe and Down Under, with an “Axel F” cover that involves lots of fake reggae-toasting vocal bam-bams and repeated reminders that the artist is, in fact, a crazy frog. Humorless Americans mostly stay oblivious, but the single reaches #50 Stateside anyway thanks to tween outlets such as Radio Disney. 2006: Kidz Bop, a usually nauseating multi-album franchise concocted by indie Razor & Tie Records that involves children doing G-rated versions of current pop hits, includes an “Axel F (The Frog Song)” remake on volume 9 of its series. Irrepressible kiddies imitate the fake froggie imitating both Jamaican ring-dinging and Faltermeyer’s synths. How many records are both avant-garde and adorable at the same time?
13. Rednex, “Cotton Eye Joe”: A pre-Civil-War slave fiddle number with malleable lyrics sometimes evidently about an abortionist and/or bootleg whiskey, “Cotton Eye(d) Joe” was born with a dance attached. By the middle of the 20th Century, Western Swing bandleaders like Bob Wills and Adolph Hofner had transformed it into one of Texas’s favorite two-step selections. Scores if not hundreds of renditions were recorded; by the ‘80s, a version by Isaac Payton Sweat featuring a crowd yelling out “bullshit!” was a line-dance mainstay. But in the ‘90s, this techno-grooving Stockholm cheesabilly quintet made it their crazy own, conquering charts the world over and perhaps prepping American ears for Big & Rich.
12. Santa Esmeralda, “House Of The Rising Sun”: Leroy Gomez and his crew of machismo-flaunting flamenco-disco Spaniards charted in the U.S.A. twice – both with Animals covers. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” from 1977 was the first and bigger of the two hits (maybe the better, too, thanks to Don Ray’s brass and string arrangements), but both were fairly awesome. And this was probably the stranger of the two, given that “House Of The Rising Sun” is not just an Animals song (even though they did the best-known version), but also a traditional folk song about a New Orleans brothel that had been interpreted earlier by Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, and maybe a few of your own ancestors. Some people have theorized the song actually dates back four centuries before that, to England, where the whorehouse was in Soho. This wasn’t even the first disco version – the Don Ray/Cerrone-connected Eurodisco act Revelacion had done it in 1977. But Santa Esmeralda (also fond of covering ‘60s punkers like “Gloria” and “Hey Joe”) gave it just the right amount of chest hair.
11. Tanya Tucker, “Tear Me Apart”: Foxy Detroiter Suzi Quatro always had more than a pinch of rockabilly in her proto-Joan-Jett glam rock (she played Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days, after all), so maybe it wasn’t all that bizarre when country diva Tucker – recording since she was jailbait, but now all grown up at 21 – hooked up with British glitter svengali Mike Chapman herself, and tried to make a rough-voiced rock’n’roll move by borrowing this raving bruiser about being a tough-as-nails Texas queen. Way past time Miranda Lambert revived it, wouldn’t you say?
10. Chi Chi Faveles and the Black and White Band, “Cocaine”: J.J. Cale, who wrote “Cocaine,” recorded it in 1976; Eric Clapton covered it on Slowhand in 1977. But they were both sniffing on Tulsa time. An environment where their subject matter made more sense at the end of the ‘70s is highlighted by this eight-minute “medley”’s midsection, titled “Discocaine” on the album, which aerates the music’s nasal passages in ways those sleepy blues-rock cowpokes never could. Sounds more dangerous, too – just like the picture of Chi Chi herself, zonked out and tied up with her microphone chord in one disco’s swank rest room (powder room?) on the LP’s back cover, or whoever that is with a plastic bag over his head on the front. All of which matches “Cocaine”’s lyric, which (like the Memphis Jug Band’s “Cocaine Habit Blues” or Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines”) are as much warning as endorsement: “Don’t forget this fact, you can’t get it back.” Anyway, this cut gave a Grace Jones-worthy center to one of the all-time weird disco-meets-rock LPs – even weirder given that its other songs were all co-written by a pre-new-wave Lene Lovich.
9. Boney M, “Heart Of Gold”: The world’s greatest wedding band, as critic Frank Kogan has called them, had only one hit in the United States: A cover of the Melodians’ Harder To Come/Psalms 137:1 reggae “Rivers Of Babylon” that got to #30. But like soccer, they were massive most everywhere else on the planet – second only to Abba among ‘70s Europopsters. And oh yeah, their producer was Frank Farian, later the mad brain behind Milli Vanilli. On their albums, they turned Roger Miller, the Yardbirds, the Creation, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Creedence, Cole Porter, Little Willie John, the list goes on and on, into Sprockets-and-soul harmonized West Indies disco. It always sounded beautiful, in “what were they thinking?” ways. Particularly here, maybe – though who knows if any Boneys had ever actually been to Hollywood and Redwood.
8. Barbara Mandrell, “Woman to Woman”: Countrypolitan future network variety show host with more than her share of teased blonde hair covers #1 r&b phonecall to the other woman, “rapped” (in the ‘70s sense) intro and all; gets a major country hit out of it. And she totally pulls it off — it still feels like Southern soul. Babs came off perfectly comfortable doing Denise Lasalle’s “Married But Not To Each Other” and Luther Ingram/Millie Jackson’s “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right,” too – whole lot of cheatin’ goin’ on, back in those selfish ‘70s.
7. Generation X, “Gimme Some Truth”: “I’m sick to death of reading things by stupid little puh-puh-puh-puh-puh-punk rockers”: One of the most pre-fab of early bandwagon bubblepunk bands speed up Lennon’s Imagine tongue-twisting (“No short-sighted yellow-bellowed son of Tricky Dicky is gonna Mother Hubbard soft soap me…”) into a street anthem, with gang shouts and everything. And though it’s probably impolitic to admit this, Gen X’s version basically renders the sainted original useless mush in comparison. Then their singer grew up to be Billy Idol.
6. Tiffany, “I Saw Him Standing There”: In the late ‘80s teenybop-pop rat race, Tiffany played the low-rent Tonya Harding to Debbie Gibson’s well-bred Nancy Kerrigan, and here’s where her thrift-shop trashiness truly hit paydirt. Princely technovamps and American Graffiti guitars (dive-bombing astoundingly when her heart goes boom) can’t hold our redhead down; she belts as raw as a Runaway (which was kind of what her mom acted like she was at the time), and everything goes everywhere, especially her high notes. Then, at the end, she throws a tantrum.
5. Laibach, “Life Is Life”: “Live Is Life,” by Austrian pop-rock group Opus, was one of the mid ‘80s’ hugest continent-spanning Europop hits, an optimistic and unabashedly life-affirming English-as-second-language chant tailor-made for soccer stadia. But it took the stentorian, sinister, and industrial-tooled Slovenia fascism parodists in Laibach to turn it (as “Life Is Life,” or “Leben Heißt Leben”) into a true stein-clanking anthem for good patriotic Aryan boys everywhere to goosestep to in their brownshirts: “It’s the feeling of the people. It’s the feeling of the land. We all give the power, we all give the best…and everyone lost everything, and perished! With the rest!” The track came out on an album called Opus Dei, a reference to the secretive far-right Catholic Church organization and to Opus themselves. And Lord, those rousing trumpets – Arbeit macht frei!
4. Divine, “Walk Like A Man”: Yelling in a Motörhead voice over a Moroder rhythm, the gigantic drag queen and Pink Flamingos heroine turns the Italian tough-guy classic into leather-bar dominatrix gold, ironically by sounding way more manly than Frankie Valli did. “No woman’s worth crawling on the earth” never meant as much as it does here. And producer Bobby Orlando shows you why they called this stuff Hi-NRG.
3. Flying Lizards, “Money” : One of the most curious U.S. Top 50 hits of the very curious skinny-tie new wave era – a woman named Patti Paladin recites, in a stark monotone, mercenary Berry Gordy lyrics that everybody from the Beatles to the Supremes to Waylon Jennings had sung since Mississippi soulman Barrett Strong first unveiled them (“the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees, I want money”); an Irish-born experimental composer named David Cunningham, schooled in Marxist theory and sound collage, offers cavernous dub echoes, swirling sounds, stereo-demonstration samples, and blurting horn farts while, supposedly, throwing rubber toys, phone books, Chopin sheet music, and ashtrays at a piano. At Occidental College in L.A., a young Barack Obama is said to have enjoyed blasting the record in his dorm.
2. Nazareth, “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” – In early editions of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh dismissed these Scottish sons of bitches as “dog food…dreadful stuff.” But for these nine minutes, they’re smart enough to acknowledge the drone at the heart of Dylan’s music, and to give his braid-bleeding rats-on-the-floor grass-turning-black outskirts-of-town South Dakota mass murder ballad the scarifying metal-dirge treatment it deserves. Nazareth, in truth, were one of the great hard rock cover bands, and they were very fond of folk-rock – they did alright by Bonnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew,” Joni Mitchell, and Little Feat, as well. Plus – most famously, of course – the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts.”
1. Will To Power, “Baby I Love Your Way/Free Bird Medley (Free Baby)”: There is absolutely no reason this should exist, much less work, much less be on the record books as an actual number-one pop hit: Two worn-out ‘70s classic-rock warhorses mashed up into endlessly cascading adult-contemporary dance-Muzak sacrilege by a co-ed Latin freestyle-identified Miami duo led by an über-intense-looking longhair named Bob Rosenberg who is way too big a fan of Nietzsche, Odin, Thor, and the NRA’s interpretation of the second amendment for comfort. (Don’t believe me? Read his liner notes.) But 23 years down the line, it sounds every bit as gorgeous, fresh, and unthinkable as the first time you changed the station on it.