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Ten Unbelievably Strange or Ill-Advised Covers of Songs
A good cover version is an art and a science. It needs to be just distinct enough to justify its existence and just same-y enough to be recognizable. But when an artist chooses to color outside the lines, the results can be great. Can be, anyway. Sometimes they’re just confusing.
Here are ten strange or ill-advised music covers you might find surprising.
Related: 10 Strange Collaborations In Music
10 “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” –Elton John (originally by Nina Simone)
Looking into how this recording came to be raises more questions than answers. In 1970, before Elton John was a household name, he had a gig making low-budget “sound-alike” recordings for cut-price record labels wanting to cash in on popular songs by recording covers. The first question is how there was ever a market for this (though, apparently, those sound-alike factories still exist).
Why Elton John, of all people, was thought of as an appropriate sound-alike to perform a civil rights anthem about black pride will forever remain a mystery. The gender swap, however, has an explanation. The version of the song that was being ripped off was by Jamaican duo Bob and Marcia, which had been a top 5 hit in the UK. Interestingly, as this made it a male/female duet, John’s recording partner was Clare Torry, who sang on Pink Floyd’s legendary vocal-instrumental “The Great Gig in the Sky.”
9 “911 Is a Joke” – Duran Duran (Originally by Public Enemy)
There were a few bold choices on Duran Duran’s 1995 covers album Thank You, but none are quite as bold as this one. Like with “Young, Gifted, and Black,” the result is a song about the African-American experience sung by white Britons. Unlike John’s cover, no one asked Duran Duran to do this. The only question the song poses is: “What were they thinking?”
Strange for a message song that now becomes about the difficulty middle-aged white English millionaires might have in summoning emergency services in foreign cities, their version slaps. For a group that showed such poor judgment in choosing this song, they made some really good choices in making it their own. Not only did Duran Duran have to avoid the cringe of a faithful cover, but they also had to show progress from the then-dated ’80s sound that defined them. They did both, and Duran Duran’s “911 Is a Joke” is probably the least likely great song I can think of. I am not alone in thinking this as Rolling Stone called it demented genius.
8 “Unforgettable” – Jackie Chan and Ani DiFranco (Originally by Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole)
When Pigs Fly is a compilation of strange and unlikely covers, so it’s got a few entries on this list. “Unforgettable” takes first place, being sung by martial arts superstar Jackie Chan. Non-western audiences may have missed the novelty, though. Jackie Chan is, apparently, known as a singer in Asia. He’s released 20 albums since 1984 in Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Japanese, and English and regularly performs theme songs for his movies.
Strange then that on “Unforgettable,” he doesn’t quite sound like a singer, and folk singer Ani DiFranco is needed to provide relief from the roughness of his delivery. The broken English he’s famous for in his English-language films results in a distractingly halting delivery. Perhaps if he’d sung those lines in Cantonese, we’d have a song for the ages.
Ill-advised (but charming).
7 “Ohio” – Devo (Originally by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young)
When Pigs Fly chose this one as their opening statement. And while it’s a good choice—starting with a bang, that is—a little context is needed to understand why it’s so unlikely. Neil Young wrote “Ohio” as a protest song about the Kent State massacre where four anti-war protestors were shot dead, and nine others were wounded by the National Guard at protests at Kent State University in 1970.
Devo’s Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh were students at Kent State University, and Casale witnessed the massacre. At the time, he told Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough that “we just thought rich hippies were making money off of something horrible and political that they didn’t get.” Due to Devo’s strange, industrial, and impersonal sound, it’s impossible to speculate whether their recording represents any kind of personal catharsis or coming to terms with the tragedy or the song. But in 2020, Casale recalled to Rolling Stone that before firing, the guard had announced, “This is an unlawful assembly, you must disperse”—words which chillingly open their version.
6 “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” – Lesley Gore (Originally by AC/DC)
Lastly, from When Pigs Fly, we have Leslie Gore’s version of “Dirty Deeds,” which is really just notable for being a hell of a time. Lesley Gore was the teenybopper responsible for “It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry if I Want To)” in 1963 when she was just 16. On “Dirty Deeds,” she plays the role of a sweet old lady, game for something her grandkids think she won’t understand. The musical equivalent of Betty White telling a filthy joke.
The driving bass and guitars of the original are replaced by horns and piano, making it more akin to an Otis Redding R&B tune, so the track hangs together beautifully. Though, she’s not “happy to be your back door man,” and that line was changed.
5 “Changes” and “Stay Away” – Charles Bradley (Originally by Black Sabbath and Nirvana, respectively)
The career of Charles Bradley is a story in itself. Born in 1948, Bradley spent most of his life working as a James Brown impersonator, performing under the name Black Velvet, after seeing the godfather of soul at the Apollo Theatre at the age of 14. It was not until 2002, at the age of 53, that Bradley was discovered by Daptone Records co-founder Bosco Mann. And it wasn’t until 2011 that he recorded his first album. Sadly, he passed away in 2017 from stomach cancer.
His short career was bookended by two hard rock covers that are as far as you can get from James Brown. In 2011, Bradley covered Nirvana’s “Stay Away” for a Nirvana tribute album by Spin Magazine; it’s pure psychedelia, though, the liner notes note that they couldn’t have him singing the line “God is gay.” In 2016, the title track to Bradley’s third and final album was a cover of Black Sabbath’s metal ballad “Changes.” The song had gained a new life and a vastly different meaning when it became the theme song for Netflix’s gross-out coming-of-age comedy Big Mouth.
4 “I Started a Joke” – Faith No More (Originally by the Bee Gees)
Faith No More’s biggest radio hit sounds nothing like the grunge-metal sound they’re known for, and that was on purpose. As a cult act in the ’80s, they covered unhip hard rock staples like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and Van Halen’s “Jump” to annoy their art-punk fans. When this won them a heavy metal fan following, they dropped “War Pigs” in favor of a perfectly faithful cover of the fusty FM radio hit “Easy” by the Commodores, just to be contrary. “Easy” went on to be Faith No More’s biggest radio hit.
So, how were they to out-lame a Lionel Ritchie ballad?
“I Started A Joke,” like “Easy,” is perfectly faithful, not a hint of irony to it. Singer Mike Patton even assumes the soaring Bee Gees-esque falsetto. Despite that faithfulness, it would be wrong to say that Faith No More added nothing to the song. Patton’s androgynous falsetto is explicitly, confrontingly queer. The strangely effecting video, issued as a swansong after the band’s dissolution in 1998, features British drag queen (he prefers anti-drag queen) David Hoyle singing karaoke with The Office’s (UK) Martin Freeman as an audience heckler.
3 “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – Kesha (Originally by Bob Dylan)
Chimes of Freedom, the compilation of Bob Dylan covers issued by Amnesty International in 2012, had four CDs to fill. Admirably, Dylan is one of the most covered artists there is. However, with 76 tracks and source material that regularly veers into prickly and surreal territories, you’d expect things to get a little hairy along the way. But nothing else on the compilation comes anywhere close to Kesha’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
She sings it a capella (apart from a brief period with a string instrument of some sort played in a chilling minor key). At times “singing” isn’t really the word. It’s not really spoken word either…something in between. Anyway, she delivers it through sniffles, as if crying. It’s sparse and bracingly intimate. Lacking any music to break the tension, the silent pauses between verses just hang there, awkward and confrontational. It all makes sense for a break-up song, but this sort of out-of-the-box thinking is rare and so unexpected, probably because it’s so uncomfortable!
2 “Tonight” – Tina Turner and David Bowie (Originally by Iggy Pop)
One might argue that this isn’t really a cover since Bowie co-wrote it1. But recording this version of “Tonight” was such a strange decision by Bowie that it had to be here. David Bowie co-wrote “Tonight” with Iggy Pop for Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot. In the ’80s, Bowie recorded a few of the songs with Iggy Pop’s name in the credits to keep his pal financially stable. Of those almost-covers, “China Girl” was the big hit. Then there was “Tonight.”
“Tonight,” like most Iggy Pop songs, is about drugs, specifically a fatal overdose. Iggy Pop’s spoken word intro spells it out. Dropping the intro is the first and last logical decision that Bowie made on this recording, slowing it down to a chilled-out calypso croon with Tina Turner. Knowing the original and what it’s about made for an effectively chilling juxtaposition between the light sound and the dark subject matter. But as this was the peak of Bowie’s commercial period, most of the audience wouldn’t have been aware of that context (besides, you shouldn’t have to know the backstory of a pop song to enjoy it).
Strange and Ill-advised.
1 “Life on Mars” – Barbara Streisand (Originally by David Bowie)
When the original artist weighs in, calling it “bloody awful” and “atrocious,” no points for guessing that it’s going in the ill-advised column. David Bowie made those comments in a 1976 interview with Playboy magazine, in which interviewer Cameron Crowe dubbed him the “most arrogant superstar to invade the media.” He was still complaining about it in 1999 when he told VH1’s Storytellers that Streisand had covered it “during one of her lost periods.” Bowie joked that she’d had her husband-cum-hairdresser produce, arrange, and blowdry it.
Though, that last part is actually true. Streisand’s “Life on Mars” was produced by Jon Peters, her boyfriend at the time and a hairdresser with no previous experience in producing or arranging music. The arrangement is indeed horrendous, but Barbara Streisand can sing anything, and her stratospheric voice suits “Life on Mars’” soaring loping melody. One might say it’s actually halfway good (the good half, of course, being the vocals).
But arrogant or not, when David Bowie trashes something so thoroughly, it’s never going to recover. Barbara Streisand told Larry King in 1992 that Butterfly, the album which featured “Life on Mars,” was “pretty lousy” and “the only one [she] didn’t love.” But check out that album cover! It looks like something a punk band would’ve come up with.