Wolf Parade fans — and that includes us — rejoiced when the band played a few shows this weekend. It remains to be seen whether these will turn out to be farewell performances or if they magically result in the end of the band’s indefinite hiatus, so we’ll try not to read too much into the cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” they played in Vancouver. It looks like it was a touching moment, and we love Wolf Parade, but we probably don’t need to hear any new bands tackle Dylan’s classic, which was also a big, weird hit for Guns ‘N Roses. The video got us thinking about other seminal songs that should never be covered again. Our top ten is after the jump.
Leonard Cohen — “Hallelujah” (1984)
Definitive cover version: Jeff Buckley (1994)
If we betting types, we might wager that most people who know the song “Hallelujah” don’t realize Leonard Cohen wrote it because it’s been covered so many times, and it’s been those versions that have most often popped up on movie and TV soundtracks. We like the Jeff Buckley version and understand why it’s more popular than the original, but for us, only Cohen’s gravelly growl does this dark love song justice. That’s not to say that subsequent covers, especially Rufus Wainwright’s, haven’t been good. We’re just sick of seeing a legitimately complex song become easy emotional shorthand for “a sad break-up happened.”
Frank Sinatra — “My Way” (1969)
Definitive cover version: Sid Vicious (1978)
It’s kind of ironic that “My Way” is among the most covered songs in history, seeing as it’s a song about living by your own rules. The overall effect of four decades of re-recordings is along the lines of, “I did it my way. And so did I. Me too! I also did it my way. I’m an individual just like that guy,” etc. Really, the only person who managed to make “My Way” his own was Sid Vicious, during his post-Sex Pistols/pre-probably-murdering-his-girlfriend period. Vicious starts out by mocking Sinatra’s croon, then speeds up for a truly snotty punk rendition that sounds more like a kiss-off than a tribute. So, besides the fact that no one will ever top Vicious’ version, we feel the need to mention that you probably shouldn’t cover “My Way” — for safety reasons.
Bobby Fuller Four — “I Fought the Law” (1965)
Definitive cover version: The Clash (1979)
Originally recorded by The Crickets in 1959 (after Buddy Holly’s death), “I Fought the Law” was popularized by Bobby Fuller — who died just as it was becoming a mega-hit. The song has, of course, outlived Fuller. And just as “My Way” is musicians’ default method of claiming their individuality, “I Fought the Law” has become shorthand for “I’m a bad-ass.” The Clash, who had already made a name on anti-establishment sentiments, did the song justice in 1979. Other great versions include the Dead Kennedys’ 1987 re-write that puts an anti-cop spin (“You can get away with murder if you’ve got a badge”) and references former police officer Dan White’s assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone (“I blew George and Harvey’s brains out with my six-gun”). We also appreciate Brian Jonestown Massacre’s stoned rendition. Point is, this song has been done well many, many times. Now it’s time to give it a rest.
John Lennon — “Imagine” (1971)
Definitive cover version: A Perfect Circle (2004)
Aside from being a beautiful and important song, “Imagine” is a unique expression of one man’s philosophy of life. So it’s awkward that everyone keeps jumping on this bandwagon. Are Diana Ross and Elton John really agreeing with the “Imagine no possessions” part? Are Miley and Dolly Parton actually cool with “and no religion, too”? At least A Perfect Circle, who did a vaguely orchestral version, have earned their atheist bona fides. We’ll also support the Antony and the Johnsons cover, since Antony Hegarty can’t help but imbue everything he touches with a hint of magic. Seriously, though, that’s it. This song belongs to John Lennon. Everyone else, step away.
Joni Mitchell — “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970)
Definitive cover version: Bob Dylan (1970)
Like “Imagine,” “Big Yellow Taxi” is a protest song. But there are two problems with the way musicians who want to look socially conscious keep digging it up. First of all, the references are dated. The US banned the use of DDT in 1972, “a dollar and a half” doesn’t sound like much money in 2011, and when was the last time you heard a girl call her boyfriend “my old man”? The real problem, though, is that the artists who have covered “Big Yellow Taxi” seem to be almost uniformly lame. Bob Dylan recorded a decent version the same year Mitchell released the song, with soulful, female backing vocals balancing out his searching wheeze. Since then, it’s been a whole lot of Amy Grant, Jack Johnson, and Counting Crows. If we don’t want Joni to go down in history as adult contemporary drivel, the madness must stop now.
Joy Division — “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
Definitive cover version: Swans (1988)
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a very sad song written by a very sad man who died very soon after recording it. So excuse us if we’re not totally on board with everyone from Bono to Fall Out Boy using it to prove their hipster cred. No, we don’t want to hear that awesome, new bossa nova version or the 15-minute dance remix. For our money, the only people who have earned the right to cover it are Swans — who actually recorded two takes for their 1988 EP Love Will Tear Us Apart. Michael Gira sings one in his appropriately deep and slightly creepy voice, while the other features Jarboe’s icy, goth vocal.
Nirvana — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
Definitive cover version: Patti Smith (2007)
While we’re on guys who committed suicide only to have the next generation plunder their angst, how about Kurt Cobain? If this collection of terrible “Smells Like Teen Spirit” covers isn’t enough to convince you that the song needs to be retired for its own protection, then we don’t know what is. Of course, rules don’t apply to Patti Smith, who recorded a twangy, meditative version that includes some lyrics she wrote. This is instructive: If you’re going to re-appropriate a song that criticizes groupthink, it’s probably wise to add something of your own to it.
The Rolling Stones — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)
The ultimate lament of the male libido, “Satisfaction” is ripe for both tribute and parody. And it has seen both, in spades. Back in the ’70s, Devo subverted the song with a freaked-out bass line, mechanically soulful vocals, and a hilarious video. Then there’s Cat Power’s slowed-down cover, which both ratcheted up the sensuality and flipped the script by singing the song from a woman’s perspective. Most other versions of “Satisfaction,” from Britney Spears’s overproduced nightmare to Vanilla Ice’s bubblegum rap travesty, don’t accomplish nearly as much. If all you’re trying to say is, “I’m horny,” why not write your own song about it?
The Leaves — “Hey Joe” (1965)
Definitive cover version: Jimi Hendrix (1966)
“Hey Joe” has been covered so many times that its authorship seems as fuzzy as the Bible’s. In fact, it was written by folk singer Billy Roberts and became a garage rock hit when The Leaves (followed by man of their peers) recorded it in 1965. But it was Jimi Hendrix’s slow, virtuosic take that made it a classic. Since then, it seems like every artist who respects rock history has a “Hey Joe” cover in her repertoire, from Cher’s belt-y version to Patti Smith’s, with its dramatic spoken-word preface, to The Make-Up’s extended, heavy-breathing duet. All of the above covers have something to recommend them. And yet, there are so many other fantastic and semi-forgotten garage-rock songs a new generation of musicians could be reviving. How about a few more versions of “Strychnine,” guys? Or “Mr. Pharmacist”?
Don McLean — “American Pie” (1971)
Definitive cover version: Madonna (2000)
Folk-rocker Don McLean’s epic tells the story of rock ‘n’ roll, and particularly the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Most musicians have had the humility to leave McLean’s magnum opus alone — but not Madonna. It isn’t the proliferation of covers that has convinced us this one needs to be retired; it’s the fact that Madge’s synthy, tiara-sporting version is so gaudy it makes us want to protect the song for all eternity. Seriously, Madonna: you’ve had a kajillion #1 hits, but McLean only had this one. Let him have it, eh?