Best Cover Songs of Rock’s Early Years

27 Jun

The best cover songs pay homage to the original while the band doing the ‘cover’ puts their own distinct stamp on it.  In the early days of rock, this meant that the first rock ‘n roll artists were taking Rhythm and Blues songs and making them their own.  Then during the 1960’s, a second generation of musicians covered songs by the original rockers.  The following are The Hangover’s best from the advent of rock through 1970.

Elvis Presley, Hound Dog

Elvis took a shuffling Big Mama Thornton blues song and made it jump with pace and attitude.  It became one of the biggest hits of early rock and roll, charting at number one for 11 weeks in 1956.  The song is also listed at 19 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time.  The song gave proof that there was room to interpret rhythm and blues in a new way, and sold four million records in its original release.  The song lives today on as a classic.

The Beatles, Twist and Shout

The Beatles took a lively R and B song by the Isley Brothers and completely re-energized it.  The music is more upbeat, the vocals suggest an unleashing of passion, and the overall vibe is one of breaking loose.  The Beatles always-excellent harmonies rise and drive toward John Lennon’s let-loose scream.  The song conjures images of ’60’s youth shaking their way out of the ultra-conservative 1950’s.  It is rock and roll in its purest form.

Jimi Hendrix, All Along The Watchtower

Hendrix takes a Dylan classic and puts his own guitar-driven signature on it.  The music is more electric and urgent, while maintaining a mystical quality.  The Hendrix version is faster and the beat is heavier, with a bottom-ended base. Hendrix’s vocals are solid, but it is his guitar that’s on fire, giving the song its edge.   This version of the song became more popular than the original and was Hendrix’s only Top 4o hit in the US.  That Hendrix so skillfully delivers the high-minded Dylan theme in his own style makes this a brilliant cover.

The Kingsmen, Louie, Louie

One would have to be somewhat of a musicologist to know that Louie, Louiewas not a Kingsmen original.  It was written by Richard Berry and recorded by his band The Pharoahs as Doo Wop, with clear vocals and well-timed harmony back up.  But it was the Kingsmen who took it off the street corner and brought it to the garage.  The Kingsmen, with three chord electric crunch, sloppy drums, and some indecipherable vocals, made this the greatest garage rock song of all time.  It’s now synonymous with kegs, colleges, and good times.  Uncomplicated and uncompromised. 

The Rolling Stones, Not Fade Away

The  Stones covered two artists with one take.  They took Buddy Holly’s song and applied the Bo Diddley beat to it, making it seem like a Stones original.  The Holly song is brilliant on its own, but by applying a chugging Bo Diddley bounce, the Stones took it to a higher plane than if they had just done a typical rough-and-ready Stones treatment.  It was a brilliant way to glorify two of the artists who influenced the Stones.

The Who, Summertime Blues

Many experts (as well as The Hangover) consider Live at Leeds to be one of the great live albums of all time.  The brilliance of the concert is en-capsuled in the Who’s version of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues.  Pete Townsends’s power chords storm through the song with John Entwistle’s booming bass and Keith Moon’s havoc-wreaking drums.  Roger Daltrey’s vocals are strong and rollicking.  While Cochran’s original stands as a young man’s protest, the Who’s version is an electric good time.

Infame Hall of Fame (but still a great) Cover Song

The Beach Boys, Surfin’ USA

While the lyrics are Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, the music is strictly Chuck Berry–Sweet Little Sixteento be exact.  The Beach Boys recorded Surfin’ USA as an (unauthorized) “tribute” to Berry, taking his music note for note while failing to credit him as a songwriter.  When Berry threatened a law suit, he was then listed as the songs composer and received most of the royalties.  No one from the early days of rock and roll had more of their songs covered than Chuck Berry.  He was, and is, a master songwriter.


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