Jealous Guy and 21 more cover versions that were better than the originals
Way back in March 1981, a swoony cover of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy became the first number one hit for art-school rockers Roxy Music.
Roxy’s interpretation poured a shot of heady glamour into the original, catapulting it onto a thousand low-lit dancefloors. There are a lot of us who reckon it’s the best version of Jealous Guy, despite the original having been written by a legend.
It underlines (in swirly script) the golden rules of cover versions:
Done badly, they’re mere karaoke.
Done well, you have a refreshing alternative — like choosing cherry coke for a change or taking a different route home.
And on the rare occasions they’re done brilliantly? You may never hear the original in the same way again (or even want to hear it at all).
Here are 21 more cover versions that give the originals new life, and sometimes leave them in the dust.
1. Heartbeats — José González
This cover is so good that I listened to both this and the original version by the Knife for ages before I realised it was the same song. I KNOW. I still can’t quite believe the González version isn’t the original.
2. I Heard It Through The Grapevine — The Slits
A sparse, pulsating reimagining of the song made famous by Marvin Gaye (although the Miracles and Gladys Knight recorded versions before Gaye claimed it). The Slits turn this easy-breezy soul groover into a dark, moody stomp that sounds like the Shangri-Las on downers.
3. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction — Devo
Only Devo could take a thrusting rock ‘n roll song, strip out the sex, and turn it into the robotic lament of a human slowly malfunctioning inside a hollow shell of consumer culture.
Am I right?
4. Killing Me Softly With His Song — Fugees
Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel take the haunting Roberta Flack original and turn it inside out and upside down, like three Willy Wonkas let loose on a classic boiled sweet. Flawless and visionary.
In fact the Fugees would have changed more (allegedly they wanted to rewrite the lyrics to make the song about poverty) but the original songwriters refused. I’m sure they’re not complaining about the royalty cheques though…
5. Always On My Mind — Pet Shop Boys
Tennant and Lowe put the coolest of spins on a song that had already been a hit for Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. While the other versions wallow in their sentimentality, the Pet Shop Boys keep it restrained and ice cold. A masterclass.
6. Wuthering Heights — China Drum
There have been A Lot of punk covers of classic pop songs in the last 25 years, but this remains one of the best. Taking on a song as iconic as Wuthering Heights is a bold move for anyone, but punk rock underdogs China Drum pretty much nail it.
OK, it probably doesn’t top the original, but I defy anyone who’s not Kate Bush to do a more rousing rendition.
7. I Will Always Love You — Whitney Houston
We remain divided on which version is best (I’m firmly #teamwhitney), but even Dolly Parton admits Whitney Houston made this song completely her own. This genius, smash hit version takes the bittersweet country soul of the original and blasts it into power ballad hyperspace.
8. Hurt — Johnny Cash
A shattering reinvention of a Nine Inch Nails song recorded by the country legend just a year before he died.
Cash turns the cold, industrial original into something desperately, devastatingly human. Stunning.
9. Proud Mary — Tina Turner
Originally recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival as a middling rock song, Tina and Ike turned Proud Mary into a soul smash. There’s no way you’re channeling a bunch of white dudes with moustaches when you’re belting this on karaoke. Tina owns this track.
10. Stayin’ Alive — Tropical Fuck Storm
I don’t think I ever really heard the lyrics to this BeeGee’s song until I came across this cover by Aussie punks Tropical Fuck Storm. Their version is muscular, menacing, and would probably kill you if it had to. I have a newfound respect for the original now — and surely that’s cover gold.
11. He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) — Hole
Even Carole King, who co-wrote the song, backed away from it after the Crystals recorded and released it. Their Spector-produced version appeared to be both passive observation and terrifying endorsement of domestic abuse.
In Hole’s hands, the lens shifts. Courtney Love manages to inject some feminism back into the song, shining a light both on the fucked-upness of its inception and the horror of the subject matter. No mean feat.
12. Live and Let Die — Guns ‘n Roses
A great example of a song that feels like it could have been written for the cover artist. Let’s be honest, when Paul McCartney delivers the punchline “live and let die” in the Wings version, it might as well be your nan singing it.
This song was destined for Axl’s street cat yowl.
13. Gloria — Patti Smith
Does anyone need to hear the Van Morrison version ever again after they hear this? Nope, not me. Patti’s version builds to a joyously chaotic runaway train of a climax. A kitchen disco staple in our house.
14. With A Little Help From My Friends — Joe Cocker
We could easily have a whole separate list of brilliant Beatles covers (in fact here’s one I wrote for Louder) because they wrote great songs but, let’s face it, they weren’t always the most emotive.
This is a great example of a Fab Four song getting a royal boot up the bum. The Cocker version is positively dripping with soul, turning what was a pleasant ditty into a spine-tingling force of nature. Disclaimer: may also give warm fuzzy feelings to fans of The Wonder Years.
15. Lake of Fire — Nirvana
Couldn’t have this list without something from Unplugged In New York on there, right? Take one magnetic performer, add a fairly pedestrian blues-rock number by the Meat Puppets, get raw, explosive magic.
16. How Can You Mend A Broken Heart — Al Green
Another Bee Gees song transformed by a mesmerising reinterpretation. Those mournful strings are like a sob running underneath Green’s lush, understated vocals. Excuse me, I appear to have a little dust in my eye…
17. Sea of Love — Cat Power
This charming take on the Phil Phillips doo-wop original has become quietly famous in its own right. Twinkly, twee, and sweet without becoming saccharine.
The first dance of choice for many an indie wedding.
18. Hangin’ On The Telephone — Blondie
We all know this was a cover by now, yes? Took me years to figure it out. The original by The Nerves has a nerdy power-pop charm, but it can’t hold a match to Blondie’s rip-roaring take.
19. Easy — Faith No More
Is this version truly great, or am I just adrift in a wave of nostalgia for a youth misspent in rock clubs in the 1990s? No prizes for creativity here — it barely deviates from the Commodores’ original — but it does it justice.
Always makes me wonder what other metal singers are hiding remarkably versatile voices behind thrashy guitars and songs called Jizzlobber.
20. Valerie — Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse
Picking songs to cover is an art, and Ronson has it nailed. Valerie is a great example of an artist looking for raw material he knows he can push to the next level.
Would we even remember the Zutons original now if this version hadn’t been such a smash?
21. Mrs Robinson — Lemonheads
Aaaand it’s a feelgood number to end on. What might feel like a slacker whip-through of a hallowed classic represents something magical for the Empire Records generation. Lazy sunny days, cold beer, fuzzy guitars.
Yeah we all love Simon and Garfunkel but be honest — you’d rather go to the pub with this version than the original, wouldn’t you? Stick well and truly removed from arse. Doo-do-do-do-doo.
This is my 40th article on number one singles. Each week I write about a song that was top of the UK singles charts in that week.
My writing streak crashed in March 2020 at article #39, because, well, global pandemic. Now I’m picking back up a whole year later in a bid to complete the full suite of 52 prattlings that was my original goal.
Return of the Mack! Here it is! Once again! Top of the world!
You can find out more about the Write 52 project that this was inspired by right here.
Me? I’m a copywriter who just writes about music for fun. If you like my style, you can hire me to write stuff for your business over here.