And what do you think is the “real” version now?
We asked people which cover song they heard first, when they learned it was a cover song, and whether they think of the cover or the original first.
Maria Bustillos, writer
Hrm, definitely “Kill the Wabbit” from the Looney Tunes cartoon feature, “What’s Opera, Doc?” as a very wee young ‘un. I had no idea whatsoever for ten years or more, I’m sure, that Elmer’s furious hunting-song was set to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries.” We didn’t listen to opera at home; my cocktail-era parents were more into Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra et al., plus Latin dance music.
I will have been in junior high school when musician friends began turning me on to opera and classical music. What a shock!! Akin to learning, not much later, that ‘d-droogie doan crash here’ had its origins in A Clockwork Orange. The goofily benign influence of Bugs, whose grace under pressure has ever made him my particular role model, has prevented my making any kind of serious study of Wagner for a whole lifetime. All I will ever hear is “Kill the Waaaaaaahbbbiiit, Killlll the Waaaaaaaabit”, etc.
Nicole Cliffe, co-founder of The Toast
Sheryl Crow, “Sweet Child of Mine.” For the first two years of my daughter’s life, I thought it was so empowering and feminist-y for my husband to sing what I FULLY BELIEVED to be a Sheryl Crow song to his child before bed every night. Then one day I commented on it, and the illusion died. It’s still Sheryl to me.
Kelly Conaboy, writer at The Hairpin
Patti Smith’s “Gloria” isn’t strictly a cover. It takes its name and chorus from the Van Morrison song, but otherwise it’s mostly a Patti Smith original, and that is why it is fine and perhaps even correct and cool (!) that as a 13-year-old I thought “GLOOOORIA! G-L-O-R-I-AYYE!” was just a Patti Smith thing, and that anyone playing that song was doing a Patti Smith cover.
I don’t think I realized “Gloria” wasn’t a wholly original Patti Smith song until a few years later, during maybe my sophomore year of high school, when I decided I should get into bands like Them in order to expand my palate from primarily ’70s and ’80s punk guitar guys to also ’60s rock guitar guys. (It retracted soon after, but then, the next year, expanded again to include Radiohead.) Who knew “Gloria” was a Them song, originally? Not me. I assume after finding this out I thought something like, “huh, I guess this song is this guy’s.” And the rest is rock ’n’ roll history.
“Gloria” still seems like just a Patti Smith song to me, which is the correct way to think about it.
Michael Depland, music editor of Uproxx
Growing up in Texas in the ’90s, I was exposed to two different golden eras of music from two genres that couldn’t be more different. As a young black kid in Houston, my radio dial was tuned to R&B/Hip-Hop radio as the tide started to turn for the once-suppressed genres becoming the mainstream, but as a curious listener — and simply by proxy — I was also aware of country music during its most popular time too. Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg were running on MTV 24 hours a day, and Garth Brooks was being certified Diamond and playing Central Park — the ’90s were a culture shock to a lot of folks.
Anyway, it was in this time that there was a strange cultural exchange between R&B stars and Country stars performing the same songs. As a sappy young boy, wanting to know what love was (wanting it to be shown to me), I was obsessed with “I Swear” by All-4-One. I had it taped off the radio and would run it back again and again, just knowing some day I’d find that someone. My older sister, however, loathed the song, because she was only familiar with the original version sung by country star John Michael Montgomery. She was forced to slow dance to it at a summer camp and deeply hate the song, not seeing what I heard in it. And this was not the only All-4-One song that the group cribbed from more pastoral pastures: Another huge hit single from them, “I Can Love You Like That,” was also a John Michael Montgomery song. And this had happened the other way around too with the classic Babyface-esque soul ditty “Nobody Knows” by the Tony Rich Project, an R&B act from Detroit, getting covered in the same year by Kevin Sharp and becoming a Billboard Country Songs №1 for him.
To an adolescent me, it was a shock to learn these songs were all covers in some way at first, but then it served as a epiphany. When you’re young, especially grade school age, there’s such a rush to judgment; everything (and unfortunately, everyone) that’s different sucks. That’s the breaks when you’re a kid. But when I learned and heard these two entirely different acts sing this song, I understood that we all want the same thing: we all get our hearts broken, and we all whine to a woman who probably doesn’t want us anyway. Country stars could have a little soul and soul singers could have a little country to them too. It made me feel a little more connected to those who I normally wouldn’t have, and we could all sing the same song with the same feelings and emotions behind it.
“I Swear” will always be by All-4-One for me (the runs are still magic and incredibly fun to sing alone in your car or at karaoke), but “I Can Love You Like That” is owned by John Michael Montgomery. It’s funny how much they owe each other in terms of success, and even funnier that most of their fans haven’t the slightest clue.
Jason Diamond, sports editor of Rolling Stone
I found this pile of dubbed cassettes scattered all over the ground near my school when I was 15. It was a lot of stuff I didn’t care about like Brian Johnson-era AC/DC and Whitesnake, but there was also this one tape case with BOWIE written on in red marker, but no track list inside. I knew a bunch of songs, like all the Ziggy Stardust tracks and some of the Berlin trilogy stuff, but there was this one song about a girl named Emily and weird lyrics about how there is no other way that I didn’t necessarily love, but would get it stuck in my head at the most random times.
I had no idea it was a cover, so about a year later while in a record store, I heard the same song and asked the guy behind the counter if it was Bowie because I wanted to seem like I knew my shit. He replied in that way so many record store workers did when you asked them a question. “Uh, it’s Pink Floyd,” he told me without making eye contact. I laughed and mumbled something like “Pink Floyd sucks, hippie” under my breath because I was 16 and thought I was really cool, but in retrospect, I think that I was there to buy the new Screeching Weasel.
Little did I realize that not only did a lot of Pink Floyd’s albums not suck, but that the song was originally from the band’s first album with Syd Barrett as the chief songwriter, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. An album I would probably put in my top 20 favorite records ever if you put a gun to my head. So I’m sorry to that record store dude for calling him a hippie.
Jen Doll, author of ‘Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest’
The first song I heard as a cover was on this weird tape (TAPE!) I would listen to in my car on the way to school. It was a mix tape of “alternative music” (purchased in a store, billed exactly like that) and one of the songs was Dinosaur Jr. doing The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” and I had no idea at the time that it was a cover (I was a Pixies teen, not a Cure teen), all I knew was from the blurry melodious beginning to the sudden cliffhanger of an end, it SPOKE TO ME.
I don’t know when I figured out it was a cover, I presume someone was like, “Oh, is this a Cure cover?”, and I was probably like oh hahaha yeah of course it’s a cover duh, because it wouldn’t have been cool to act like I didn’t know, because it’s The Cure for goodness sake, and their version is great too. I still like the Dinosaur Jr. cover best, though.
Carrie Frye, editor
The first time I remember this happening — knowing a song really well and later learning, “That’s a cover and, by the way, the original is pretty famous” — was with Joan Jett & the Blackheart’s version of “Crimson and Clover,” which came out when I was in elementary school. I don’t recall the circumstances but I do remember, when I finally heard the Tommy James & the Shondell’s original, thinking that it sounded way too slow and…unemphatic, like it was being beamed from some distant galaxy and was reaching me with weaker rays. (I don’t feel that way now.)
Emily Gould, writer and author
This doesn’t seem like it could possibly be true, but I heard the Smashing Pumpkins version of “Landslide” before I heard the original. My friend Normandy gave me the cassette single of it as a Bat Mitzvah present. I thought it was great and I listened to it over and over, lying on the floor of my bedroom with my head close to the boombox speaker. I really loved Smashing Pumpkins when I was 13, in part because I thought for a long time that Billy Corgan was a girl. This confusion was based mostly on the way he sings “my belly stings” on “Today.” I thought it was feminine, like, menstrual. I guess I thought a lot about menstruation at that time in my life
I liked Smashing Pumpkins a lot less when I found out he was a guy, though I still think Gish is a great album. And now of course I find Stevie Nicks’s Landslide to be the superior version; Corgan’s is so overwrought! It’s an over the top dramatic song and so it hardly needs to be sung dramatically. I’ve heard both versions WAY too often and now when I’m listening to Fleetwood Mac (the album that “Landslide” is on), I skip that track. I’d like to put this song in a vault where no one would have access to it — so you would never randomly hear it in Duane Reade and stand there thinking “Can I? CAN I handle the seasons???” — and then take it out again in, like, ten years.
My favorite thing about this ridiculous song (like: obviously children get older??) that is so dumb and so profound all at once (aging IS crazy) is that Stevie Nicks was so young when she wrote it. She was in her late 20s. She wasn’t even in Fleetwood Mac yet. So it makes sense that it’s a song about the way a young person looks around for answers but only sees her own reflection everywhere. But there’s also something prophetic about it. Time does make you bolder! Also, in some ways, more timid. And it’s never a great idea to build your life around another person, especially if he’s Lindsay Buckingham, though probably worth it for the songs.
Scott Lapatine, editor-in-chief of Stereogum
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” One of the biggest and best (IMO) songs of the ’80s and a radio staple for the past three decades, I didn’t realize it was previously recorded by Robert Hazard until 10 years ago or so. Obviously Cyndi’s is the ultimate version.
Jill Mapes, senior editor of Pitchfork
We all go through a Whitney phase, I just got mine out of the way early. She was the first pop star I ever loved, which in my book is a pretty special thing. It was 1993, I was 5, and Whitney was coming off The Bodyguard with all that “I Will Always Love You” heat. Her Dolly Parton cover broke a record for weeks at №1 on the Hot 100, so I suspect I’m not alone (at least among folks my age) in thinking it was her song. Lord knows she sang it like it was her own.
When I was maybe 14, I finally heard the original, probably in some movie I caught on TBS one Saturday afternoon. I must have been able to tell it was Dolly based on the voice, because I remember having this reaction like, Why the hell would Dolly Parton cover Whitney Houston’s super commonplace soundtrack hit all old-timey? And why’s she phrasing the chorus all weird? My dad was all, “Nah dawg, this was a hit when I was in high school.”
For a second my brain was confused about how Dolly Parton could go back in time to cover Whitney Houston — and again, what an odd choice in that circumstance — until I slowly realized that this was not, in fact, Whitney Houston’s song. In that moment I was a lot less impressed with Whitney, though in hindsight I know that is unfair. It’s not like she wrote any of her other hits, and even if she had, the №1 reason to love Whitney is that voice — her usual midrange, that soaring high end, the effortless melisma that made her “I Will Always Love You” distinct.
Caryn Rose, writer and author
I think the first cover song I ever heard — that I actively remember — was “The Loco-motion,” the version by Grand Funk Railroad. I bought the single when that record came out (I am hella old). I found out it was a cover from American Top 40, which I listened to RELIGIOUSLY. I haven’t thought of the Grand Funk version in years, not until your note landed in my inbox. LITTLE EVA 4 EVER.
Tom Scocca, executive features editor of Gawker Media
I have lived on cover songs, from early childhood through the most wrought-up high-school years to middle age. If I get my hands on a guitar now, what’s left of the memory in my fingers will most likely start fumbling not directly through my favorite band’s songs but through either one of their covers of a cover, or another of their covers of a cover. The charged relationship between source and interpretation makes music that can fill me with joy, or with the burning opposite of joy, or with a furious awe at the possibilities of this world. Sometimes I have fallen in love with a cover only to later have the glory of the original overwhelm it; sometimes I love a cover because it destroys the mythology of the original and salts the earth.
But nothing ever hit me the tenth and final song on the second and final album by the band Squirrel Bait, a bunch of teens from Kentucky who’d already broken up by the time I learned about them in the late ’80s via a short review in the Trouser Press Guide (“immense sonic overload”), which was how a person learned about bands then. On the CD package, the name of the track was “Tape To California (Ochs),” a mangling together of the title and songwriting credit that certainly seemed to imply it was some sort of cover. Every song on the record had been exciting but this was something else, desperate and thundering, with haunting melodic lines and strange little hesitations before the drums jumped out ahead of the beat and sent the band stampeding in the chorus.
Information was hard to come by, though, and I’m not sure how long it took or how many dozens of times I’d blasted the song before I had a clean mental citation that the original was “Tape From California,” a 1968 track by the doomed counterculture hero Phil Ochs. Obviously the real thing was something I needed to hear, but it was not until the age of YouTube that I got around to hearing it. It was more than twice as long as the version I knew — in addition to revving it up, Squirrel Bait had chopped out multiple long verses — and the mystical, nigh indecipherable broken lyrics were sung plainly and intelligibly, in storytelling mode, and I could barely stand to listen to it.
I understood, and still understand, that by my own lights the Phil Ochs original has impeccable credentials, not the least of which is that Squirrel Bait had picked this song of all songs to cover, and got the results they did. But when I play it, all I can hear is the rocket boosters of the cover version igniting, the memory of the drums throbbing with the need to go fast and loud and out of here. “Sorry I can’t stop and talk now,” the song itself says. “I’m in kind of a hurry, anyhow.” When Squirrel Bait says it, they mean it. They’re gone.
Maria Sherman, writer
This might not be the first instance of hearing a cover and not realizing it in my development — that’s kind of the great thing about the way music morphs with time, the way new artists can breathe life into new sounds — but I distinctly remember my brother blasting Alien Ant Farm’s rendition of “Smooth Criminal” and thinking it was an original. Their cover of the Michael Jackson classic actually topped the Billboard Modern Rock charts and was featured in ‘American Pie,’ if you were a riff-lovin’ teen in 2001, chances are you loved this song.
I actually brought this up on Twitter last year and was surprised to learn I’m not the only one who held this belief — Devon Welsh, formerly of Majical Cloudz, is an AAF purist, too. When I hear the song now, I think of both simultaneously…and how funny it is that a short-lived nu-metal band can exist in the same thought as MJ.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper, writer
This is a great question though one that I’m loath to answer because I find my answer to be so embarrassing: Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World.” Nirvana’s Unplugged album was a Big Deal when I was growing up. The music video for this song was an even bigger deal: a pained and beautiful Cobain swaddled in a frizzy cardigan singing “I never lost control” was so heady that it never occurred to me that it wasn’t an original track. It seemed so confessional and autobiographical.
A decade went by until I “discovered”the Bowie original. I was floored by how sterile and strange it sounded, especially with the drag of the rasp stick (a sound usually reserved for a samba!) and Bowie’s higher pitched and more far away vocals. This version sounded much more like a character Bowie was playing, a persona, or more like a narrator. Ultimately just removed. I love both versions but it will always play as Nirvana song to me because the stripped-down richness of the unplugged version and the emotional impact it delivered.
Lindsey Weber, writer
One of my favorite songs I first heard without realizing it was a cover was Sam Amidon’s “Relief” — a gorgeous, string-laden song hidden amongst originals on Amidon’s album, I See The Sign (which is not, despite my thinking, a take on Ace of Base). My memory is hazy on what actually happened, but I believe that I had to change computers and lost a bunch of my .mp3s and when I went to find the .mp3 again (remember downloading .mp3s?) the new one had “(cover)” at the end. And I was like, “Wait, that’s a cover? …Of what?” and discovered that it was originally an R. Kelly song — of what Google tells me is an unreleased album called 12 Play: 4th Quarter.
It wasn’t the strangest revelation, my favorite R. Kelly song at the time was “Step in the Name of Love (Remix)” and Kelly’s of “Relief” (although far more downbeat) does mention stepping: “Now let’s step to a new tune /Cause everything is OK /You’re alright, and I’m alright /Well, let’s celebrate.” Despite that, Amidon’s rolling acoustics take it in a totally different direction than Kelly’s steady spiritual R&B; it’s easy to forget they’re actually related. Now when I hear the song, it’s pretty much always Amidon’s version — for a few reasons: to me it’s the original and, like many, my love for R. Kelly’s music will be forever conflicted. But, damn, it’s a beautiful song.