Covering songs can be testy ground for musicians. Do you stay true to the original? Or do you make the song your own? Developing on a classic can put musicians in a world of hate from fans hell-bent on the original. But sometimes cover versions gather so much steam the original becomes lost save to a few hardcore fans that, “prefer the original… man”. We get it. Take your one-off limited edition LPs and your full-face back tattoo elsewhere.
For the most part, the original performer or writer went under the radar during their tenure, so when a celebrated musician releases their cover version, they were always going to attract more commercial awareness out of it. Sometimes the original is nigh forgotten simply because a new generation of listeners hear the song for the first time through the cover. In rare occasions, the coveree does such a great job that original is slowly phased out, case and point: Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower”. Dylan actually plays Hendrix’s version,
“Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way”.
With that said, here are ten covers that you may have not realised were actually originally written by someone else.
I Fought the Law — The Clash — The Crickets
When punk came kicking and screaming into Britain from over the pond in the 1970s, the Clash were a figurehead of the spit-washed UK scene. “I Fought the Law” is and was a Clash classic though it was actually written by Sonny Curtis from the rock and roll group, the Crickets.
“I Fought the Law” was popularised by the Bobby Fuller Four after they covered the Crickets’ song. The Crickets’ original never actually charted, but thankfully, the song saw the light of day with the Bobby Fuller Four who scored a hit with the cover.
The Clash’s iconic and grittier incarnation of, “I Fought the Law” launched an overseas recognition after it charted in the US — it was their first US single.
All the Young Dudes — Mott the Hoople — David Bowie
Fans of 1970s glam rock will no doubt be aware of Mott the Hoople’s classic, “All the Young Dudes”, but the song was in fact written by Ziggy himself, David Bowie.
After falling on hard times commercially, Mott the Hoople were on the verge of breaking up the band. As a fan of their image and music, Bowie took it upon himself to save the band from their foreseeable disbandment. Bowie came to the band offering them his song, “Suffragette City” which had not yet been released by Bowie. Mott the Hoople clearly lacked the prescience Bowie had because they refused the song! Undeterred, Bowie went away to write, “All the Young Dudes” for them — this time they conceded.
“All The Young Dudes” was thankfully a hit for Mott the Hoople in 1972, but the song did not stop the band’s eventual demise. Mott the Hoople broke up a few years after the song’s release though fortunately they left us with a Bowie inspired classic. What more could you expect from the Thin White Duke?
Cocaine — Eric Clapton — J.J. Cale
J.J. Cale was an important figure for the world of rock blues despite being relatively unknown commercially throughout his career. Cale was a guitarist’s guitarist, which is perhaps why Clapton covered his song, “Cocaine” in 1977.
“Cocaine” is a staple of Clapton’s solo career and his version is not far removed from Cale’s 1976 original, why build on a classic? Unfortunately, Cale’s original did not make much of a storm. It took Clapton’s cover to propel the song into legendary rock and roll status.
Regarding Cale as something of a personal hero, Clapton also covered his song ,”After Midnight”.
Whiskey in the Jar — Thin Lizzy — Unknown
As with many folk and blues songs, “Whiskey in the Jar” has its roots in folk oral tradition therefore its original writer is unknown. What we do know is that Thin Lizzy released a thoroughly V8 and rock-fuelled version of the song in 1972.
Traditional songs take on a life of their own in history. Verses are added here and there by various performers and before long they enter the public domain without any knowable ownership. “Whiskey in the Jar” is too a part of that tradition. The song dates back to the 17th century written about a highwayman named, Patrick Flemming. Flemming’s various murders and crimes made him a fitting character for songwriters and the song has since become a staple of folk music — who said that crime doesn’t pay? It pays the troubadours at least.
Thin Lizzy’s cover of “Whiskey in the Jar” furthered the song’s iconic status though the music is most definitely a far cry away from any 17th century version.
Step On — Happy Mondays — John Kongos
Indie legends of Manchester or Madchester, Happy Mondays scored a number of hits in the UK during the 1990s, but their acclaimed floor-filler single, “Step On” was actually a cover of “He’s Gonna Step on You Again” by John Kongos.
The record label, Elektra was set to release a compilation album of current Elektra artists covering past artists as a forty-year celebration of the label. Happy Mondays duly got the call receiving Elektra’s back catalogue to choose a song to cover. After listening to all of two songs on the tape, Happy Mondays settled on Kongos’ 1971 hit. So impressed by their version of the song, they opted to release the song as a single rather than contribute it to the compilation album.
What could have been a throwaway song became a UK classic for Happy Mondays despite their apparent unawareness of John Kongos.
Love Buzz — Nirvana — The Shocking Blue
As homage to their influences, Nirvana released more than a few covers during their time. Artists like the Velvet Underground, Lead Belly and David Bowie all got the Nirvana treatment in deference to the role they played on the band. Preceding that theme was Nirvana’s release of, “Love Buzz” which was actually a cover of the Shocking Blue song of the same name.
The Shocking Blue were a psychedelic pop band from the Netherlands who had relative success throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The 1969 song, “Venus” was perhaps their most well-known song, but little did they know that twenty years down the line their music would be an unlikely inspiration for Nirvana.
Featuring as a single from Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, “Love Buzz” took the original song and injected it with steroids. It’s inimitably Nirvana despite being a cover.
Hanging on the Telephone — Blondie — The Nerves
Songwriter and member of the Nerves, Jack Lee was the original brainchild behind the Blondie hit, “Hanging on the Telephone” released on the critically acclaimed 1978 album, Parallel Lines.
In 1978, Jack Lee was at a financial crossroads. The Nerves disbanded two years prior though not before recording, “Hanging on the Telephone”. As luck would have it, Debbie Harry got on the blower to Lee to ask if Blondie could record the song. Not leaving Harry on the line, Lee agreed, and Blondie duly recorded the song.
“Hanging on the Telephone” went on to be a hit for Blondie despite doing very little for the Nerves.
Real Wild Child — Iggy Pop — Johnny O’Keefe
The song, “Real Wild Child” by the godfather of punk, Iggy Pop, released in 1985, first emerged in 1958 in the form of, “The Wild One” by Johnny O’Keefe.
Pop’s version of the song is by no means a faithful rendition of O’Keefe’s rock and roll original, instead, Pop opted for a typically ’80s rendition of the song. However, except for a few changes here and there, Pop kept most of the original lyrics.
“Real Wild Child” seemed made for the performer known to have once vomited on his audience, but O’Keefe beat him to the punch.
Alabama Song — The Doors — Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
The Doors’ “Alabama Song” is a drunken favourite of bars and pubs across the globe, but the song actually dates back to 1925.
“Alabama Song” is the lovechild of esteemed poet and playwright, Bertolt Brecht and composer, Kurt Weill. Initially, Brecht wrote the lyrics in a poem in 1925, but the poem was released two years later in his collection, Hauspostille (Manual of Piety). Brecht then collaborated with Weill on a short opera, Mahagonny-Songspiel (Little Mahogany) in which the song was performed on stage by singer and actress, Lotte Lenya.
Lenya later went on to release the recording of the song on her own in 1930. In 1966, the Doors released their version of the song much to the delight of drunkards in need of slurry sing-song.
Ring of Fire — Johnny Cash — June Carter and Merle Kilgore
Johnny Cash is quite simply a legend. He bridged the gap between pop music and country music showing the world that the two were not mutually exclusive. The man in black had a renowned music career with various hits like, “A Boy Named Sue” and “Folsom Prison Blues”, but his iconic, “Ring Of Fire was actually a cover.
Singer and wife of Johnny Cash, June Carter originally wrote the tune, “Ring Of Fire” along with songwriter, Merle Kilgore. The pair gave the song to June’s sister, Anita, who released the song in 1963. The song did not fare as well as expected, so the song was given to Cash to cover one year later. As wise decisions go, this one proved to be up there with Petrov not dropping the bomb… Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but still, the song has since become an all-time classic.
Johnny Cash tells a different story to the origins of the song claiming that he penned the song with Kilgore but let Carter have the credit because, “she needed the money.” The claim is shaky at best, regardless; Cash was not the first to record the song.