Ah, the beloved cover version. The modern idea of a cover is much nicer than the disingenuous spirit of its beginnings. Early 20th century record companies had musicians “cover” a commercially successful tune, hoping to cash in on the tune’s success. Back then record distribution was highly localized, so a locally popular artist could quickly knock up a version of a hit song from somewhere else and reach an audience before the original was widely available, and highly competitive record companies were quick to take advantage of this.
Nowadays of course, the motivation is (mostly) artistic and the many species of the cover have grown into a cornerstone of pop and rock. One such breed is taking something old and giving it an update – for example the various takes (by Elvis Presly, John Wesley Rye, Pet Shop Boys and more) on Brenda Lee’s ‘You Were Always On My Mind’. Sometimes the cover version is an improvement on what came before but from time to time you’re left wishing the original was untouched because the result is an abomination (Miley Cyrus’ attempt at ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ anyone?). Another notable cover breed is taking a great (or awful) original song and doing something totally different, for example Talking Heads’ brilliant new wave interpretation of Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’.
Below you’ll find a mix of 20 incredible, under-the-radar soulful folk and rock cover versions on vinyl. From Fleetwood Mac covering the Beach Boys in an intimate setting to Robert Wyatt’s super re-interpretation of Chic, you’ll find details on each record individually as you scroll down. The mix and words have been put together by Zach Cowie (aka Turqoise Wisdom), an L.A. based digger / DJ and co-producer of Light In The Attic’s Country Funk series. Enjoy!
Andy Cabic from the group Vetiver turned me on to this breezy rendition of a rock n’ roll classic. Andy’s on a late ’60s A&M kick lately and has become KING of the breeze! We decided this one could easily be mistaken for a deep Spiritualized jam if your upstairs neighbour was blasting it (cool neighbour!).
Fleetwood Mac ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’ from Fleetwood Mac Live (Warner Bros, 1980)
Here we find the ‘Mac playfully dusting off the chops with an early Beach Boys cut during an intimate gathering of their friends & road crew whilst backstage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. If I had a time machine I’d be backstage with them, filling my ears with the sounds and my stomach with the undoubtably extravagant hummus tray.
Francoise Hardy ‘Suzanne’ from Alone (Reprise, 1970)
My first Scott Walker album was Scott, I found it at Reckless Records in Chicago when I was a very young person after hearing Jarvis talk about him in an interview. It’s a US white label promo formerly belonging to a radio station. The vinyl was in great shape but the cover definitely wasn’t – it had station call letters stamped on the front as well as the giant word “NO” written multiple times in sharpie across the cover… I guess the station director didn’t ‘get’ what he was going for but I sure did! I’ve since upgraded to a stone mint UK 1st pressing but I still keep the old sharpie one on hand because it’s hilarious. Oh, this song is from his second record and it’s a brilliant cover of a brilliant Tim Hardin song (…he didn’t have many that weren’t brilliant!).
Fairport Convention ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from Fairport Convention (Polydor, 1968)
If I had to take the words of just one songwriter to a desert island they would be Joni’s. I’ve been listening to her songs my whole life and I’m still unlocking them to this day. This cover is from an often overlooked Fairport album. It’s their debut with Judy Dyble handling lead vocal duty just before Sandy stepped in. (By the way – Richard Thompson was 18 when they recorded this track…what a top fact to make you feel like you’ve done absolutely nothing with your life!)
Prelude ‘After The Goldrush’ from After The Goldrush (Accord / Island, 1973)
Another cover Andy from Vetiver turned me on to years back… he even does it himself on Vetiver’s Things Of The Past covers album (which I HIGHLY recommend!). Ronnie Lane post-Faces is one of the coolest under-told stories in rock ‘n roll. Everyone should see the documentary The Passing Show asap.
The Pentangle ‘Sally Free And Easy’ from Solomon’s Seal (Reprise, 1972)
Loads of folks recorded ‘Sally Free And Easy’ but this laid-back The Pentangle version will always be my favorite. Bert Jansch was/is the greatest. Please read/listen/watch here if you’re new to his name.
Shirley Collins & Davy Graham ‘Reynardine’ from Folk Roots, New Routes (Decca, 1964)
If you can’t tell by now, I’m a huge fan of English folk music. It was quite common for the revival acts of the ’60s / early ’70s to offer their renditions of traditional English tunes like this classic. My grandma used to play this kinda stuff for us when we were kids. The Internet summarizes this one as: “reynardine is a werefox who attracts beautiful women to him so that he can take them away to his castle. What fate meets them there is usually left ambiguous”. I summarize it as a completely weird thing for a grandma to play for her tiny grandchildren.
Kenny Vance ‘Dirty Work’ from Vance 32 (Atlantic, 1975)
I don’t know much about Sommer besides this album, his tunes on the excellent Hot Parts soundtrack and the fact that he played at Woodstock…but I DO know this Simon & Garfunkel cover of his always delivers!
Harpers Bizarre ‘Witchi Tai To’ from Harpers Bizarre 4 (Warner Bros, 1969)
Monsters of mellow Harpers Nizarre + sax-man Jim Pepper’s magnum opus = definite desert island cover song. I recommend it on 45. Take extreme caution if you’re spinning it from the LP and remove the needle the second this tune ends or you’ll be blasted by an unbelievably dorky version of ‘Hard To Handle’ which may leave you sterilized.
Yo La Tengo ‘Hanky Panky Nohow’ from Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo (Matador, 1996)
I still love Yo La Tengo but during my teens they were my *favourite* band and were unknowingly responsible for me becoming a record collector. I obsessively researched (pre-Internet, mind you!) every single song they covered on their Fakebook album, on B-sides, and in live shows – before I knew it, I had the seeds of what would soon become an all-consuming record collecting problem. This one isn’t from Fakebook (which still sounds perfect, btw) but ‘Andalucia’, another John Cale cover from his essential Paris 1919 album is.
This Mortal Coil ‘Song To Siren’ from It’ll End In Tears (4AD, 1984)
In my opinion this is the greatest cover song ever recorded…jeez, it’s one of the best songs ever recorded PERIOD – cover or not! We’ve all heard this rendition of Tim Buckley brilliance before but I couldn’t make a covers mixtape without including it. Like Yo Aa Tengo, This Mortal Coil were crucial in my youth for deepening my knowledge through researching who they covered. Oh, definitely read the new 4AD book called Facing The Other Way. So good.
Robert Wyatt ‘At Last I Am Free’ from Nothing Can Stop Us (Gramavision, 1982)
Robert Wyatt could not be a cooler dude. The fact that he was bumping Chic records and decided to cover this deep cut is almost too rad for me to process! There is no other artist I’d rather watch a documentary about. The BBC did a nice quickie a few years back…but I’m talkin’ about a PROPER feature here!
Kate Wolf ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ from Give Yourself To Love (Kaleidoscope, 1983)
We did it! Okay, let’s close out this mix with inarguable proof that a great cover can totally change the way you feel about a song. Did you ever think you’d ever find yourself wanting the biggest dad-jam of all time to never stop!? (Spoiler: the first time I heard this tune I had no idea that it was live until the audience started clapping at the end). Kate Wolf is/was total perfection.