Cover songs, we know them, we love them, or we hate them. Some of the most popular songs of all times are actually cover versions of previously recorded numbers. The Whitney Houston hit “I Will Always Love You” for example is a Dolly Parton original. The beloved song “Hallelujah” that Jeff Buckley made famous was originally by Leonard Cohen. The list goes on of course, but we’re not here today to talk about covers you know. Today’s subject is looking at ten of the most bizarre covers, good or bad, that you are ever likely to hear. So grab a drink and your headphones, we’re going on a musical ride today!
[Editor’s note: there are of course other covers not on this list that are pretty bizarre. Like everything William Shatner has ever recorded.]
1 10. Don Ho – “Shock The Monkey,” originally by Peter Gabriel
Well aren’t we just hitting the ground running with this one. Don Ho was primarily known for his song, “Tiny Bubbles” but is also sorely underrated for his representation of Hawaiian culture in music. How he came to cover this track is the result of a cover compilation called, “When Pigs Fly,” which had a wide assortment of artists performing songs completely out of their wheelhouse. This however, was the cream of the crop in my opinion. Even more surprising though, he actually does a surprisingly good version of the Peter Gabriel classic thanks to a strong arrangement with some catch percussion and strong synth lines.
2 9. Justin Hayward – “Stairway to Heaven,” originally by Led Zeppelin
If the name Justin Hayward doesn’t immediately ring a bell with you, just know that he’s the lead singer of The Moody Blues. Hayward has an incredible voice, as songs like “Tuesday Afternoon,” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” will prove. That being said, the lush, orchestral sound of The Moody Blues is really not a good fit for uh, “Stairway to Heaven.” This version is mind numbingly overblown with Hayward and the London Philharmonic Orchestra giving the song a pomposity that would be akin to Frasier and Niles Crane trying to do a duet of Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s “Picture.” It’s worth listening to once just for the novelty of it but that’s about it.
3 8. Pat Boone – “Holy Diver,” originally by Dio
In 1997, Pat Boone released an album called, “In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy” where he proceeded to lay down covers of a dozen songs taken from the hard rock genre. There were a few tracks from here that could’ve made it onto this list, but I wanted to single out his version of “Holy Diver” for two reasons. One is that it’s honestly better than it has any right to be. It remains an insanely guilty pleasure for me. Also, and this is probably the best part, if you listen to the backing vocals you can clearly hear Ronnie James Dio himself appearing on the song. The fact that Dio was in on the joke enough to actually appear on the record is amazing. Oh, and the drum track is really strong; gotta love that swing/jazz big beat.
4 7. Michael Chiklis – “Fame,”originally by David Bowie
I bet you didn’t even know Michael Chiklis had an album. Chiklis is actually a drum enthusiast but sticks to vocals and songwriting on his debut record. Most of the songs on the album are originals, but he sneaks in a cover of David Bowie‘s “Fame,” because, why not? It’s a version of the song… I can tell you that much. It’s not awful; Chiklis has a passable voice, even though there’s a lot of studio production going on here to fill out the backing vocals and such. Basically this is just here so the next time you go back to rewatch “The Shield” you can picture Vic Mackey belting out some glam rock.
5 6. Frankie Goes To Hollywood – “Born to Run,” originally by Bruce Springsteen
Well here’s a combination that shouldn’t work, the guys who sang “Relax” and “Two Tribes” breaking out perhaps Bruce Springsteen‘s most iconic song. Vocalist Holly Johnson manages to belt it out with a degree of sexual tension that gives the song kind of its own feeling and the instrumentation is shockingly strong. The rumble of the bass guitar in place of the sax solo is propulsive and the lush production keeps the entire track pulsing with energy. Most of the thanks to that has to go to producer Trevor Horn who has almost never subscribed to the idea of “less is more.” Hey, in this context it works and as a Springsteen die-hard, I’m almost ashamed to admit it.
6 5. Tom Jones & The Cardigans – “Burning Down the House,” originally by Talking Heads
Take a moment to imagine what Tom Jones might sound like if he were singing the Talking Heads classic, “Burning Down the House.” Really think about it. I’m happy, or sad to say, this sounds pretty much exactly like what you think it might. Having come out in 1999, the production is VERY indicative of that time, as is the presence of The Cardigans to that extent. It is overproduced, over sung, and sounds like a gimmick to breathe new life into an old career. Which, in fact, it was. And in many countries it actually succeeded to do so on their respective charts.
7 4. Duran Duran – “911 Is a Joke,” originally by Public Enemy
Of all the entries on this list, Duran Duran’s cover of “911 is a Joke” is perhaps the most infamous. For starters, 911 doesn’t exist in Duran Duran’s native UK, their number is 999. Also, Public Enemy was trying to make a statement about the blight of blacks in America being discriminated against even when it comes to an emergency response system. It’s HIGHLY unlikely that a bunch of pretty white boys from England are going to understand that plight. Now, in fairness to them, the whole point of album “Thank You” was for the band to cover some of the artists who greatly inspired them. Bassist John Taylor for example freely admits to the music of Chic and bassist Bernard Edwards as a massive influence on his musical taste, so I don’t doubt at all that they listened to and enjoyed Public Enemy, but this may not have been the best way to express that appreciation.
8 3. Fine Young Cannibals – “Suspicious Minds,” originally by Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley was no stranger to covering other people’s songs and giving them his own spin with that legendary voice he had. But when you’re going to cover “The King,” you better bring your A-game, and that’s exactly what Fine Young Cannibals did. Their 1985 debut album contains an absolutely blistering cover of “Suspicious Minds” that succeeds at being unique to themselves while also being true to the spirit of original. The horn section, strings, and powerful backing vocals give this track a powerful punch that accentuate singer Roland Gift‘s distinct voice. A tremendous amount of credit though has to be given to bassist David Steele who lays down a frenetic performance that is slick, funky, and brings everything together.
9 2. Bruce Willis – “Secret Agent Man/James Bond is Back,” originally by Johnny Rivers
There are so many bad ideas on this song that it’s hard to know where to start. However, the presence of Bruce Willis isn’t actually one of them. Released in early 1987, it is victim to all the excess of the decade and then some. This song is so overproduced that you have to strip away layers upon layers of “musicianship” to get to an actual song here. For starters, the track opens with what sounds like an audio drama of a secret agent sneaking up on someone and shooting them. Then there’s some radio chatter, parts of the theme from James Bond, some more sound effects, and that’s before we even get to the “Secret Agent Man” part. There are even more unnecessary sound effects, someone’s heavy breathing, excessive keyboards, guitars, backing vocalists; it’s so much and none of it works. All they needed to do was give Bruce a harmonica and a guitarist to sing along with.
10 1. Billy Idol – “Heroin,” originally by The Velvet Underground
This is the greatest and worst thing to ever happen in music. Imagine if you had to walk into a boardroom and sell this idea to someone. First, you’d have to tell them that you have an idea for Billy Idol to cover The Velvet Underground’s intensely powerful song, “Heroin.” Then you’d have to sell them that it’s going to be a seven minute techno song with a ton of keyboards and samples. Oh, and it’s also going to contain a line from Patti Smith‘s “Gloria,” and it’s also going to be the central song on a concept album about cyberpunks. All of that is going to be Billy Idol’s version of “Heroin,” and there’s also going to be a bunch of remixes for the single, because… of course. This is one of the crown jewels of bizarre covers and once you hear it, you will never forget that you experienced it. Its been in my head for years, and now you all get to have it in yours too. Was the entire point of this list just to build to this point to make you all a party to this? Yes it was. You’re welcome.