Rock & roll, like all of American culture, is built upon theft.
White stealing from black, who steal back from white, who steal back from black, & on & on until the concept of authenticity is left behind as an empty joke.
Not coincidentally, some of the finest rock songs are covers — many of which have become so popular that they eclipse the original versions. It's kinda like Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" theory about how William Shakespeare is so influential, he swallows the entire canon of everything that came before him. Thus, perhaps a hundred bands have covered Richard Berry's old B-side "Louie, Louie" before the Kingsmen got to it, but you'd never know — virtually every recording since has been a reaction to the Kingsmen, not to Berry. (I'd wager to bet that even the ones that aren't are purposely trying to sidestep the Kingsmen to get to Berry, which would still be a reaction — albeit indirect — to the Kingsmen, but I digress.)
In compiling this list of the greatest cover songs, I went for the old "anxiety of influence" bit — songs that swallowed the canon that came before them.
As always, I had to set up at least one major guideline: In this case, both the original & the cover had to be within the rock & soul genre(s). If I hadn't done this, virtually the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue (along with some of the best parts of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, & arguably any white person who ever picked up a guitar & played a song in the twelve-bar blues format) would be fair game. That seemed unnecessary — and tedious. By the same rationale, a song like Janis Joplin's "Me & Bobby McGee" is out because it's a cover of a Kris Kristofferson's country original; same goes for the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," because its based on a Pete Seeger folksong.
The whole blues cover concept itself could be its on list (or several — one for Delta blues, one for electric blues...). But for now, I'm gonna to stick with this list, from rock to roll, from roll to soul, from soul to rock. With lotsa weird twists & turns in between.
5. "Blue Suede Shoes."
Original: Carl Perkins, 1956 (#2 Pop; #2 R&B; #1 C&W)
Cover: Elvis Presley, 1956 (#20 Pop)
Elvis has long gone down in popular memory as "the boy who stole the blues" — the quintessential young white kid (Huck) who took the music of an older black generation (Jim) & rode the raft of success downstream to wealth & fame. But like so many things associated with Elvis, the simplest parts of the story become the most complicated. Yes, Elvis "stole" the music from black blues singers, but also white blues singers, & in this case, white "Blue Suede Shoes" singers. A natural hit by his once Sun label-mate Carl Perkins, Elvis's version would be among his finest recordings. In fact, growing up in a post-Elvis world, it is hard to hear any version other than Elvis's, which has so eclipsed Perkins that I have never once heard Perkins' version (or any of his other songs for that matter) played on oldies radio. In covering it, Elvis somehow seemed to erase Perkins, at least in popular knowledge.
Ironically, the reverse was true about the song initially. Not wanting to eclipse his old label-mate, Elvis purposely did not release the song as a single, instead issuing it as a lead track on an EP (which still made it to #20 on the singles chart). Meanwhile, at the time Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" chased Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" up the charts — with publicity largely funded by the money Sun Records made from selling Elvis — until "Heartbreak Hotel" edged it out from the top spot. But ever since, it's been Elvis's song, & it's easy to hear why — his rocks where Perkins' simply waddles & struts. Hearing them side-by-side, Perkins' version sounds like the safer, country music of rock & roll's past, while Elvis's races ahead full-throttle into the wild, driving sound of rock's future.
4. "Louie, Louie"
Original: Richard Berry, 1957 (Did not chart)
Cover: The Kingsmen, 1963 (#2 Pop)
In our politically-correct, post-global cultural economy, there's a story we like to tell ourselves that has become such a cliche, it was mocked in the old Rutles: All You Need Is Cash mock-rockumentary almost 35 years ago: Rock & roll passes from the older black generation to the younger white one, & if the newer version is more, well, rocking, the old one can be held up as purer, more—here we go—authentic. But what if this story isn't true? What if the black music is the nebulous template & it requires the white music to improve upon & fully realize it? Well then, my friend, I would say you have entered the realm of "Louie Louie." As previously noted, "Louie Louie" was written by Richard Berry, who initially released it as a fine, if unremarkable, B-side. & it sounds like it. One of a thousand filler songs that took no time to write & were thrown in at the end of a session just to make sure the disc had a flip.
But jump a few years ahead to the Kingsmen version & you have the perfect/imperfect garage-rock/proto-punk masterpiece: Recorded in one take by a band led by the singer (who garbles the lyrics beyond recognition such that people thought he was swearing) & the drummer (who can't land the groove such that it sounds like the whole thing is one sloppy fill, a frustration which, by the way, does culminate in a swear—check the just-barely-audible "fuck!" at the 0:56 mark), all straitjacketed by the classic organ riff that is just junky enough to all but preface the punk barre-chord, but just arty enough to be channeled by Frank Zappa every time he sought to invoke everything amazing (which is to say, stupid) about rock & roll. The Kingsmen record is one of the few rock songs I can never grow tired of hearing; for Richard Berry's original, however, I have to make an effort to get through it a single time.
3. "Twist & Shout"
Original: The Isley Brothers, 1962 (#17 Pop; #2 R&B)
Cover: The Beatles, 1963 (#2 Pop)
So much has been attributed to the Beatles & Elvis (& rightly so), it's easy to forget that they were also each the finest cover act of their respective era. Give something to a pre-army Elvis or a post-George Martin Beatles & yer almost guaranteed to get a cover that's better than the original. (The only exceptions are when Elvis tries to cover Little Richard, which, outside of a smoking "Ready Teddy," never seem to go well, & when the Beatles reach beneath their normal gold standard & do some ill-conceived girl group kitsch or a Larry Williams song.) But for those looking for the best of the best, there is no outdoing their cover of the Isley Brothers' "Twist & Shout." It seems strange now to think it, but the Isleys' original was a blatant play into the pop industry machine, in this case, combining Chubby Checker's runaway hit "The Twist" (which itself was a cover of an obscure Hank Ballard B-side) & their Isleys' own signature tune, "Shout! (Parts 1 & 2)." It would be like if Roy Orbison released a song called "Oh, Do the Locomotive, Pretty Woman."
Heard in this context, the Isley Brothers' "Twist & Shout" makes sense, it sounds fine. But fast-forward a single year & you have the difference between a tidal pool & a tidal wave. Long used as the Beatles' live closer, it somehow only crossed their minds to record it when a final song was needed for their debut LP. It was the end of a long day, & John Lennon, who sings lead on the number, was on the verge of having his voice give out on him completely. So they gave him some warm milk, set everything up, & got it. They tried to do a second take for safety, but John's voice gave out almost immediately. No worry, the version they got — itself a one-take wonder, like "Louie, Louie" — is as good & rockin' as their finest (which is to say, rock & roll's finest) music ever was.
2. "All Along the Watchtower."
Original: Bob Dylan, 1967 (Did not chart)
Cover: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968 (#20 Pop)
Less than 50 years after the fact, the 1960s already feels like a time in which gods roamed the earth. The chief songwriter was Bob Dylan. The chief instrumentalist was Jimi Hendrix. & it is here, on "All Along the Watchtower," that they effortlessly become one. By the time the Byrds' broke through with their #1 cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1965, it was already becoming a cliche for rock bands to do acoustic Dylan songs & turn them into "folk rock." Dylan always hated the term, & usually disavowed any association with it. In fact, Dylan rarely had anything nice to say about the scores of people covering his songs — the (in)famous exception of his high praise for Johnny Rivers' "Positively 4th Street" notwithstanding (which itself kind of says it all, doesn't it?) — in part, one might expect, because they almost always drastically altered his sound (& if there's anything that Dylan's proven during the last 15 years or so of his "Never-Ending Tour," it's that he's more than capable of drastically altering his songs' sound by himself, thank you very much).
The glaring exception to this rule is Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower." Interestingly, even though Dylan wrote it after his initial acoustic/folk phase, it came from his proto-country rock "comeback" album (his first of about 37), John Wesley Harding. On Dylan's version, you can hear a fable just weird & unfinished enough that only in repeated listenings does its simplicity grows complicated, its singularity becomes universal, & its parable turns biblical. Dylan released his version in late 1967; about 12 minutes later, Jimi Hendrix bought a copy, heard it, & began covering it, turning it from a hickory wind, piney-wood folk tune into a cutting-edge psychedelic experience. Dylan himself was just as floored by it as anyone else — after hearing Hendrix's cover, he realized that that was the way it was supposed to sound & never played it again without an electric guitar. Let's see if Johnny Rivers can match that.
Original: Otis Redding, 1965 (#34 Pop; #4 R&B)
Cover: Aretha Franklin, 1967 (#1 Pop; #1 R&B)
Reinvention runs deep in American society; as our cultural heritage goes, the only things deeper are freedom & liberty. We're a country built upon the idea that one's position in life is never concrete but rather always in flux — it's why we love our rags-to-riches stories, romanticize about the open road, & often believe that our best natural resources may just be ourselves. It's how Abraham Lincoln could tell the boy that he currently occupies this big White House, how Bill Clinton can say that the God that he believes in is a God of second chances, the line connecting Melville's The Confidence-Man, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, John Voight in Midnight Cowboy, Eddie Albert in Green Acres, Bob Dylan in his early interviews, & the runaway slave, among a thousand other cultural artifacts. Is it any wonder that some of the finest American music comes from cover versions?
Case in point: "Respect." Perhaps no other cover song has so fully taken over its original in terms of sound & story — all the more surprising given that the original, like the cover, is a full classic, rendered by a true legend. Strip these similarities away though, & you are left with two very different songs. Otis Redding's original is a tough, strutting groove, revived by jackhammer drums & a vocal that's pitched somewhere between a scream, a beg, & a moan. This is the sound of a man who wants respect from his woman, but knows that the fact he has to ask for it in the first place already says it all. It is a strictly secular tale, which is to say a sexual tale, pent-up & distracted, bursting at the seams. He doesn't sing the song as he throws himself into it, face first, like a fool diving into a concrete sidewalk.
Aretha Franklin's cover, recorded just two years later, tells a completely different story. Unlike Redding's barking & pleading, Franklin remains poised, evaluating the words as she sings them. It is clear that, like the woman Redding sings to in his song, she has the upper hand. But there is something else even stronger — & stranger — going on. Without altering nearly any words of the original, Franklin's version transcends the secular (which is to say, sexual) tensions of Redding's original, & crosses the divide from private to public, from personal to universal. Her song becomes less a tale of woe than a stirring conviction of strength, easily carried by the cool confidence of her voice & the energy of the singers backing her up. It is no longer a song about a woman, but rather the woman, that is, about a movement congealing & finding its voice in a song that could make everybody sing, make everyone dance, make everyone relate. "Respect" is a testament not only to Franklin's own considerable talents, but things that she had far less control over — timing, politics, & way the world looked in 1967.
This is all just to say that if a man's lament about the sexual frustration of being mistreated by a woman can in turn become the quintessential song for women's rights & equality, then I can think of no greater transition possible in the shared dialogue of popular music. For these reasons, it remains the finest rock & roll cover song of all-time, with virtually nothing that can touch it.