Under The Covers
Three Cover Songs I Like Better Than The Original Versions and a Brief Summary of the Peculiar Stories Behind Them
Though, there is nothing quite like an original work of art, be it in film or music — it’s a truly remarkable thing when another artist can take a piece of work adored by millions and not only introduce it to an audience who may not have otherwise had the privilege of enjoying it.
Alhough rare, it’s an even more extraordinary thing when an artist can remake that piece of work in such a way that the same people who revered the original version as a favorite decide they like the cover or remake better. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of remakes of movies. I like my classics left alone, with a few exceptions to the rule (Scar Face was a remake, after all).
However, I love a great cover song. It amazes me how much one artist’s rendition of a song can differ from the original version. Two songs with the same exact lyrics, that have two completely different feels or auras to them. Below is a list of my three favorite cover songs, the artists they originated from and any interesting tidbits you may have not known about either.
Spoiler alert: Did you know Sinead O’ Connor claims Prince once punched her in the face?
Hurt: (Nine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash)
I picked Hurt to open with because it really is the heart and soul of this article and what inspired it. Though the subtitle claims I like the cover version better, with this one it depends on what day you asked me. In fact some days — it would depend on the time of day you asked — as both versions have a place forever reserved close to my heart.
What I find most interesting about this song is the fact I’d consider both versions favorites, despite the fact I didn’t grow up a Nine Inch Nails or a Johnny Cash fan. Though I considered myself open minded when it came it music, I admittedly listened primarily to rap and hip hop.
Nine Inch Nails were just a bit too dark and loud for my liking. I never gave them a fair shake growing up. Johnny Cash is one of those legendary artists you can’t really learn to appreciate until your 21st birthday. What’s funny about this song is I actually heard Johnny’s version before I ever heard the original by Nine Inch Nails. I somehow enjoyed Johnny’s rendition for years before I managed to stumble upon the original.
When I finally did, as much as I liked it — I ignorantly and incorrectly presumed Nine Inch Nails was covering Johnny Cash’s song. I was shocked to learn Nine Inch Nails released Hurt in 1994 and that Johnny covered it in 2002. Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor was first approached about a possible Cash cover of Hurt by legendary producer Rick Rubin.
In fact, it was Rubin’s idea for Johnny to cover the song to begin with, as he was a friend and collaborator with both artists and at the time had been encouraging Cash to step outside his comfort zone artistically. Reznor said though he was flattered, he didn’t initially see the artistic value in a Cash remake. He reluctantly agreed, though says it felt “invasive” the first time he heard the cover. Invasive because it was one of the most personal songs he had ever written, one he wrote at a time he says he was “In a very dark and black place” due to drugs. He compared listening to it for the first time to “watching someone kiss your girlfriend”.
However, the song eventually grew on Reznor and he would go on to call the fact a legend like Cash covered a song he wrote “one of the greatest honors of his career”.
The music video Johnny shot for the song is as heart wrenching as his version of the song itself. Johnny would later be quoted as calling Trent’s lyrics to Hurt “The best anti-drug song of all time”. Both versions are amazing in their own right and I highly recommend listening to both if you’ve never heard them.
Simple Man: (Lynyrd Skynyrd/Shinedown)
Plainly put, in my humble opinion Simple Man is one of the greatest songs ever written. The lyrics themselves have always had a way of producing vivid imagery within me as I listened. While your average classic rock fan would consider it sacrilegious to claim Shinedown’s version is the better song and I can’t definitively say so in good conscience considering they didn’t write it — I do like Shinedown’s cover better than the original itself. They match the songs powerful lyrics with an energy Lynyrd Skynyrd’s laid back southern rock style just doesn’t bring to the track.
Though as I said, credit must be given where it’s due — Ronnie Van Zandt and Gary Rossington of Skynyrd wrote what I consider one of the most moving songs ever — I simply feel Shinedown brings a more appropriate energy to the track. It’s like they tried harder or something. However, what you won’t find on Shinedown’s rendition is the amazing guitar riffs and solos that Skynyrd gives you in the end of the original. I don’t think anyone would make the claim Shinedown is the better band, to say so would be almost blasphemous. But listen to both tracks, remove the sentimental bias and honestly tell me you don’t like the cover better.
Nothing Compares 2 U (Prince/Sinead O’ Connor/Chris Cornell)
I saved this one for last, not because it’s the best song of the three but because it’s got the best story behind it, as well as three different artists who all made fantastic versions of it, in their own way.
Though it’s Prince’s song, as he wrote it and first performed it, I was born in 1987 and did not grow up a Prince fan. I grew up hearing Sinead O’ Connor’s version as a kid, as she made it famous and her version had much more commercial success than Prince’s version did. It was just one of those songs you can’t appreciate as a kid, perhaps because you know you’ll be berated if you tell your buddies you like it. Plus to be honest, there’s just something about Sinead O’ Connor that makes it hard to take her serious — despite how powerful her rendition of the song may be. Many consider it one of the greatest breakup songs of all time.
Which brings us to the bizarre story she told in 2014 about her and Prince’s not so pleasant run in, back in the early 90’s after her version took off.
She claims Prince “summoned her to his house” because he didn’t appreciate her using foul language in her interviews, nor comments where she was critical of him. She claims to have told him to “fuck off” and that a violent confrontation ensued. One in which her and Prince exchanged punches, she spit on him and eventually led to her “running to escape from his house in Hollywood at 5 in the morning”.
The story is as strange as O’ Connor herself has revealed herself to be over the years but that doesn’t mean her story isn’t true.
Shortly after the tragic death of iconic rocker Chris Cornell in May of 2017, SiriusXM radio released a video of him covering Nothing Compares 2 U during a visit to their studio. Cornell’s pain seems to bleed through his version — both visually and acoustically. Perhaps it’s the fact Cornell tragically took his own life that gives his live rendition such a dark and powerful feel. I’ve embedded the video below for anyone who may have never heard his version, one I consider to be by far the best of the three.
Again, in my opinion it just comes down to the energy Cornell brings to the track. I just feel his cover conveys the appropriate mood and feel of the song’s lyrics, as to where both Prince and Sinead O’ Connor’s version take on an almost cartoonish feel.
Though there’s many other covers I enjoy, I chose the three I featured in this article because of how much the various renditions of them differ. They all convey their own feel. I tried to pick songs where I enjoy both the original and cover.
Nothing Compares 2 U was the exception, as I must admit for a long time, I thought it was Sinead O’ Connor’s song. Another reason I picked this song to include on the list, is the fact a late rock legend came along and in my opinion, put both Prince and O’ Connor’s version to shame. Sure, I have my favorites but as we all know, music is completely subjective and I’m sure plenty of people feel completely different about the various originals and covers I mentioned.
In addition to the Cornell video I’ve embedded above, I’ve also included a Spotify playlist below that includes all six songs covered in this piece. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have over the years. I don’t know where I’d be in life without music.