On Valentine's Day, Frank Ocean released a gorgeous cover of "Moon River," as made famous by Audrey Hepburn in the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s and, boy, did it floor me. Not only was it a highly creative and interesting spin on a classic, but it definitely has taken on a form totally outside of the context of the original—a crucial piece of criteria for a good cover. Frank’s version was so good that it inspired this series, “Under the Covers," where each week I will review three covers and give a verdict on whether I prefer the original or the cover. So without further ado ...
"California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas
The Mamas and the Papas' catchy, timeless hit, “California Dreamin’”, has been one of the most popular songs out there to cover since its release in 1965. There has been a tropical house version, an Icelandic cover, a punk interpretation, John Mayer covered it on the Conan O’Brien show, and the legendary Beach Boys even released it as a single in the 80s, to popular acclaim. The most striking and exciting cover that I have come across, however, is Eddie Hazel’s version off his only album Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs. Hazel, along with George Clinton, is the genius behind the emotional Maggot Brain, the dance hit Free Your Mind, and the psychedelic Cosmic Slop—Funkadelic’s three most guitar focused and creatively ambitious albums. Unfortunately, due to an altercation with an airline hostess and drug possession, Hazel was shortly imprisoned and was replaced, thus missing out on the commercial success of the now iconic One Nation Under a Groove. While George Clinton and co. were propelled into the mainstream and found their place on white radio, Hazel recorded Game: an album predominantly made up of covers and showcasing his talent on the guitar. The standout single is “California Dreamin'”, where the acoustic, floaty arrangement of the original is replaced by a crisp piano line, hard hitting slap bass and, of course, Hazel’s signature guitar work. After listening to this it should come as no surprise that many guitar aficionados sneak Eddie Hazel into their Top Ten lists as a sleeper pick and that I, as an enormous Funkadelic fan, much prefer this version to the original.
"Hey Jude" by The Beatles
It's hard to hate a song like “Hey Jude." The wonderfully simple piano line, McCartney’s catchy lyrics, the lush backing vocals from Lennon and Harrison, and the truly infectious “Na na na na” at the coda all make for an excellent road trip singalong or self indulgent rendition in the shower. The enduring charm of the song is that you hear it once and you think, “I could sing that." If only that were the case with the Wilson Pickett version. Only a year after its release, the soul legend took one of the songs of the decade, threw a funk groove on it, added an enormous horns arrangement and enlisted the legendary Duane ‘Skydog’ Allman to play the guitar. Where McCartney’s vocal line was warm, comforting and easy to join in, Wilson Pickett goes absolutely ham, really pushing the limits of his vocal range to deliver a truly exhilarating and striking version of a song known for its absolutely universal appeal. In lieu of the famously long coda at the end of the Beatles version, Pickett’s borderline–screaming vocals make way for Duane Allman to deliver a scorcher of a guitar solo—so good that Eric Clapton, upon hearing it, immediately recruited Allman to Derek and the Dominoes. I love both versions, but Wilson’s incredible energy and vision to transform this song take the cake on this one.
"Valerie" by The Zutons
In 2007, Mark Ronson, pre–“Uptown Funk” megafame, released an album of covers called Version. The theme of which was a retro–inspired sound which Mark Ronson describes as “Motown/Stax”, the two huge soul hit–factories of the sixties. The biggest hit was a cover of The Zutons’ "Valerie," with a star turn from Amy Winehouse at the top of her powers. Ronson’s arrangement is perfect for Winehouse’s jazzy style, allowing her to improvise and leave no doubt in the listener’s mind as to her talent. This particular song’s popularity truly has eclipsed that of the original and its an absolute classic, but The Zutons’ original version is heavily slept on. Where most of the tracks off Version were all brought back in time some 40 years, the original version of "Valerie" also a distinctly retro sound, albeit from the 70s. The Zutons are a great, fun throwback to classic rock acts like T Rex and Norman Greenbaum with a huge focus on higher pitched harmonies above overdriven guitars, playing songs you can really dance to. While the Ronson version is a fantastic arrangement, I actually prefer the groove of the original song and the single saxophone that cuts through as opposed to a whole horn section.
That’s all for this week—look out for Musiq Soulchild, Mac DeMarco, and the age long debate over the original "R E S P E C T" on the next Under the Covers.