Reading Bill DeMain’s excellent introduction to Classic Rock Magazine’s feature on Rock’s Greatest Cover Versions (CRM # 298 – March 2022), it dawned on me that 95 percent of musicians get their start playing cover versions of other people’s music. The other 5 percent (and that may actually be an overly generous slice of the pie) might go right to performing their own material, but even they had to be sneaky about it. Most venues hiring bands wanted ‘hits’ to entertain their patrons, so bands wanting to perform their own songs would employ a variety of tricks. Playing a snippet of a popular song inserted into an original was not uncommon. So was announcing, “Here’s a Rolling Stones song,” before playing one of the band’s own songs. If the club owner was not paying attention and/or their clientele was buzzed enough, a band might get away with it (or they might suddenly be unemployed). Even the biggest names in the music industry (I will let you construct your own list here) got their start playing covers and as we shall see, many continued the practice long after they had their own catalog of songs to perform.
In the fifty plus years I have played in bands (off and on), only one of them attempted to write an original tune. My old guitar player Barry says he does not remember this at all, but I do. Early on, before we had played a paying gig, our line up had gelled and we had a name. Barry said he had been inspired to write a song to match our new, heavy sounding name (Sledgehammer). He had a chunky riff we started to jam on, words for at least one verse, and a tag-line/title promising, “We’re gonna knock down the opposite wall.” It sticks in my mind because my comment was, “Hey, we could have used this with my last band, too,” which happened to be called Knockdown. Barry said he wasn’t satisfied with it and needed to write a couple of more verses. We never went back to it and, as far as Barry not remembering it at all, I assume the song was never finished. We were more than happy to spend our time polishing covers of other band’s music, which in the end, is enough to keep most semi-professional bands working.
In the period after World War II, it was a common practice for record labels to blatantly copy hits from other labels. If a song was popular, a label would rush its own artists into the studio to do a cover version. It was not uncommon to see the same song title on sale by different artists from multiple labels side by side in the record racks. This method sold a lot of records, but I can not be sure how much of the profits made it back to the original artists and/or songwriters. Music publishing was a rather ruthless business run by enough shifty, shady characters in the early days, it is a wonder some musicians could even make a living. With that said, most musicians made their living playing live shows back in the day and viewed any record sales (or airplay) as a form of public relations they didn’t have to pay for. As long as the practice brought people out to their shows, they could live with it. Very few artists had control of their publishing and recording deals back then. The same kind of applies today. Musicians don’t profit much when music is being traded for free on the internet. If they are lucky, the wider exposure will help them attract larger audiences for their live shows and perhaps spur sales on digital music platforms that do charge.
Among the famous musicians who cut their teeth playing covers, DeMain mentions, “David Bowie playing everything from Elvis tunes to Slim Whitman’s China Doll as a member of the Kon-Rads; Bruce Springsteen in The Castiles playing Purple Haze and Suzanne at school dances; Steven Tyler’s band The Strangeurs having business cards promising ‘English Sounds, American R&B’ which meant everything from Bits and Pieces to She’s a Woman; and Bluesology pianist Reg Dwight (en route to being Elton John) singing Jim Reeves songs, Cliff Richard songs, anything that was popular.” Even The Beatles populated their first five UK-released albums (before Rubber Soul) with them; 20 of the 69 songs (28 percent) they put down being covers. The Rolling Stones ratio was even higher with a 70/30 percent split between covers and originals. How about Van Halen’s Ice Cream Man? Yes, it is a cover of John Brim’s 1953 track that was little known nor remembered until David Lee Roth’s over the top version appeared on VH’s debut album (along with their cover version of The Kink’s You Really Got Me) in 1978.
Bob Seger had a hit song right out of the box with Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, but he had little success selling records or retaining a label afterward. In the period before he began his run of top selling albums, he was touring with the organ/drum duo Teegarden & Van Winkle. When I saw them perform at Northern Michigan University, they started the show with Seger playing an acoustic set, followed by the T&VW set. They finished up with a third set playing as a trio. Their heavy dose of cover tunes included classics like Who Do You Love and If I Were A Carpenter. Years later, they released an album of mostly covers (in 1972 – a release I missed) and then it was reissued by Capitol Records as a CD (in 2005 when I finally caught up with it). The title, Smokin’ O.P.s, was taken from a slang phrase for those who smoke other people’s cigarettes (which explains the packaging that made the album look like the iconic Lucky Strikes logo). Here, the meaning was a little different: Smokin’ Other People’s Songs and yes, the album featured mostly covers of songs written by other artists. Two tracks were Seger originals (Someday and Heavy Music) but the rest came from the likes of Bo Diddley, Stephen Stills, Tim Hardin, Leon Russell and Chuck Berry.
Bill Haley and the Comets are usually credited with the first true rock and roll hit (a topic open to some debate by music historians), but even Rock Around The Clock was a cover. It had been released by Sonny Dae & His Knights in 1954, but with a much jazzier arrangement. Haley’s version hit No. 1 on the U.K. and on American charts a year later. It remains the most widely known out of the fifty or more covers of the song that have been released since. Two other artists who pushed rock and roll records to the fore-front of the music industry in the 1950s were Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Both wrote their own songs and the number of cover versions spawned by this pair over the last seventy years is truly astounding. There are more than 200 versions of Berry’s Johnny B. Goode alone. Sampling part of a tune became vogue in the late 1980s and into the 1990s and should not be confused with a band doing a full on cover version of a song. Regardless, James Brown’s beats and licks have appeared on more than five thousand recordings, but that is another story for another day.
Classic Rock Magazine devoted forty pages to the topic of Rock’s Greatest Cover Versions. What follows are a few of the back stories that made these songs hits or misses for the bands that covered them. We will avoid the ridiculous ones like William Shatner’s mangling of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and try to stick to songs that improved in value as covers.
In 1982, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts had a chart smashing hit with I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll and over the last forty years, she hasn’t gone out of her way to correct the liner notes of the many compilations crediting her for the song. Jett had in fact heard the song seven years before her version climbed the charts when a US/UK band based in London (The Arrows) performed their song on their eponymous TV series. The monster riff and lyrics were penned by The Arrows’ bassist/vocalist Alan Merrill and guitarist Jake Hooker. Hit making producer Mickie Most from RAK studios had asked them to write, “A rousing, three-chord anthem in the vein of Summertime Blues or Wild Thing.” The original lyric, ‘Put another coin in the jukebox baby,’ was changed at Most’s suggestion (“No, make it a ‘dime in the jukebox’, because you’re American”) but when Most used it as a ‘B’ side, it went mostly unheard. Most’s wife suggested re-cutting the tune as an ‘A’ side single, but even after it got them noticed enough to get on TV, the song still didn’t sell. Merrill later said underpromotion by the label and a legal dispute with their management kept the single from wider airplay or record sales.
After the band split under less than happy circumstances in 1977, Merril went on to play with Meatloaf and around 1978, he recalls meeting Jett several times when he lived on the same street as her office. She told him when she first heard the song on TV while touring England in The Runaways, she sent a roady out to buy the record. She later tried to get a version on tape with an unlikely band of musicians including former Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Merrill was a member of Rick Derringer’s band when he reconnected with Jett in Florida as her second attempt was climbing the charts (this time recorded with The Blackhearts). Both agreed the second time might be the charm and the song might actually become a hit. They remained friends in spite of The Runaways biopic that left the impression that I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll originated with Jett. In the movie, Kristen Stewart (who played Jett in the flick) is shown brooding in her room, obviously deep in thought. As the song plays in the background, she appears to get an idea and before long is standing on her bed rocking to the song she had apparently ‘written’ during this scene. Before he passed away in 2020, Merril stated, “I didn’t get rich on I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll until it was covered by Britney Spears,” but he himself never tired of performing the song: “I don’t tire of it, because I never sing a song the same way twice.” I am sure the royalties didn’t hurt, either.
The Clash’s EP The Cost of Living came out in 1979 and featured a song many mistook to be another typical British punk song. In truth, Texas guitarist/songwriter Sonny Curtis penned I Fought The Law in 1959 when he was all of twenty one. The now 84 year old Curtis explained how the song came to be: “I was sitting in my living room, about three in the afternoon, in a little town called Slaton, Texas, outside of the city of Lubbock, where Buddy (Holly) and a whole bunch of us started out. It was a real windy day, which happens a lot in west Texas. The sand was blowing outside. I picked up my guitar and I can’t imagine where the idea came from, but I just started writing this song, I Fought The Law. It only took about twenty minutes. You can tell that it didn’t take a rocket scientist to come up with those lyrics, but it’s my most important copyright.”
Curtis never wrote the song down and it remained in the back of his head for future use. He had re-joined The Crickets before Holly died and they were on the way to New York City to record when he sang a snippet of I Fought The Law in the backseat as they searched for songs to record. The band rearranged the tune a bit in the studio but like, I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll, it ended up as a ‘B’ side and the story could have ended there. Other regional bands tried their hand with the tune (like Paul Stefen & The Royal Lancers from Milwaukee), but none were able to get the song to break nationally. Only Bobby Fuller’s version was able to crack the Billboard Top 10 in 1966 but his mysterious death (he was found dead in his car a few months after the song peaked) added a layer of ‘bad luck’ to the song that would last until The Clash took a stab at it.
The Clash had a jukebox in their rehearsal room and one of the songs they heard from it frequently was Fuller’s version of I Fought the Law. They put their own spin on it and if Curtis had thought Fuller’s version had helped him pay some bills, The Clash’s reworking must have seemed like pennies from heaven. According to CRM contributor Henry Yates, “The Clash changed [Fuller’s clean cut delivery]. Faster, leaner, curl-lipped, and now with that rabble-rousing guitar riff replacing the benign opening strum [of Fuller’s take], the track’s riotous gallop was only underlined by the section at 2:10 where the instrumentation drops out, then rumbles back to life with Paul Simonon’s bass line. Adding a welcome twist of darkness was Strummer’s habit of swapping ‘left my baby’ for ‘killed by baby’ (as heard on the live version from London’s Lyceum Theater).”
What does Curtis really think about The Clash version? “I sorta have a bone to pick with The Clash,” he says now. “I think the song would have been even more famous if they would have gone on TV and played it. But they eschewed some of the top TV shows, because they were sorta anti-establishment. But I’m not mad at The Clash. I’m really proud they cut my song, and I love that version of it. It just had the feel.”
In Part 2 of Cover Me, we will look at more tales of songs we have grown to love even if they were covers. Before that, I will leave you with a twist on the whole topic of covers. When guitarist Jeff Beck teamed up with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice (both from Vanilla Fudge), they recorded one album and many assumed they would be the next super-group power trio. Beck, Bogert, & Appice made some waves with their self titled release and the standout track Superstition. It didn’t dominate the airwaves as it should have, however, as Superstition had been released five months earlier by Stevie Wonder. Are you confused yet?
Stevie Wonder recorded most of the instruments for his albums himself, but he was known to bring in guitar players to the sessions. He had heard Jeff Beck express admiration for his work so Beck was invited to take part in the recording of Wonder’s Talking Book album. They crafted an agreement where Wonder would return the favor and write a song for Beck to use on his new BB&A album. The track in question was, naturally, Superstition. Beck began playing the opening drum beat over which Wonder improvised the clavinet riff that became the backbone of the song. The rough demo they created that day was eventually polished into the finished track. The song was intended for the debut BB&A album. BB&A were supposed to get first crack at releasing the single but their album ended up being delayed for a variety of reasons (which was fine with Motown’s Berry Gordy). Gordy had predicted the song would be a big hit so he made sure it was quickly released as the lead single for Talking Book in October of 1972. Superstition shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 by January of 1973 (Wonder’s first number one hit since 1963). The song garnered two Grammy Awards (Best Rhythm & Blues Song and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male) while spurring massive sales for Talking Book. All of this put a bit of a damper on the BB&A single when it was released in March of 1973 and no doubt confused some of the record buying public: Why would they release another version of Wonder’s hit so soon after it had hit No. 1 on the charts?
My question is this: Wonder wrote Superstition for Beck but released it first and had a big hit with it before BB&A got their record released – so which version is the ‘cover version’? Stay tuned for more tales about cover songs in Part 2.
Top Piece Video: Okay, I could not find a live version of BB&A doing Superstition, but I found a more recent BB&A (Bonamassa, Bogert & Appice) performing a spirited version – sorry JB, best we could do – Bogert is in fine funky voice!