I am a lifelong music fan raised and residing in Toronto. I want to pay tribute to the music I love and am still discovering, so this site is for sharing my thoughts, memories, and playlists of the bands, genres, and songs that have meant so much to me.

And yes, this site is named after my lifelong favourite song, Ceremony by Joy Division and New Order.

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Cover Songs: Volume 1

Cover Songs: Volume 1

Click below on the streaming service of your choice to listen to the playlist as your read along.

Here at Ceremony, a general rule I apply to profiles is to omit cover songs. I prefer to focus on artists’ original work and how their music developed over a career. The result is that some great tunes get passed over and in some cases an artist’s best known songs. Cover songs are, however, an age old part of music and a fascinating study on how music can be applied to a song. There are thousands of cover songs out there, even just within the modern rock genres. Therefore, this is the first of what will be occasional playlists and examinations of some of my favourite cover songs over the years.

Covers are an important part of music. Artists inevitably start by playing others’ music while they develop their own sound and begin writing their own songs. Early in a career covers are invaluable for live shows to fill-out set lists. They also serve as tributes, indicators of influence and appreciation from a singer or band towards the artists and songs that have inspired them. Covers can be strategic to bring attention to a new act by playing something already familiar and popular in order to draw listeners to new act’s original material. For fans, it can be fun to hear a song in a different way, or to hear their favourite artist play a song from a different genre, or to be introduced to little known songs by hearing a new version of it. In a live show, a cover can offer a surprising and rare opportunity to hear something different from a performer, though at times I’d rather hear their music since that’s what I paid to hear.

Given all these purposes and approaches, let’s first look at the art of the cover song. I have broken them down into different types.

The Playlist - Song \ original artist (year) & cover artist (year)

  1. Superstar \ The Carpenters (1971) & Sonic Youth (1994)

  2. Dreaming \ Blondie (1979) & Smashing Pumpkins (1996)

  3. I Go to Sleep \ The Kinks (1964) & Pretenders (1981)

  4. Hello, I Love You \ The Doors (1968) & Adam Ant (1982)

  5. He's Gonna Step on You Again \ John Kongos (1971) & Happy Mondays (1990)

  6. Dancing with Myself \ Generation X (1980) & Nouvelle Vague (2006)

  7. Dear God \ XTC (1986) & Sarah McLachlan (1995)

  8. Walk on By \ Dionne Warwick (1964) & The Stranglers (1978)

  9. Thunder and Rain \ Graham Parker & the Rumour (1977) & Ellen Foley (1979)

  10. Got the Time \ Joe Jackson (1979) & Anthrax (1990)

The Straight-up Cover – This is probably the most common type of cover song you’ll hear. The cover changes very little of the original and is usually within the same genre. There can be no change whatsoever other than perhaps a change in instrumentation and is really just an artist’s own performance of the original song. I acknowledge this type in the spirit of tribute but find little artistic merit in these versions. You won’t find too many of these on my playlists since usually the cover just makes you want to hear the original instead. Straight-up covers don’t provide value by offering a new perspective or experience with a song. I think a live straight-up cover makes sense as a treat for fans during a concert, but I have never fully understood why artists put these on their albums unless it was to attract attention from fans of the original. One exception is if the artist has little original material of their own, and then in that case the performer better have a lot of talent in order to match or even exceed the original.

The Modernization Cover – This entails a straight-up cover that updates an older song. This is very common when contemporary artists cover old R&B and blues songs, or an early classic rock or pop song. Again, very little is changed from the original, but the modern instrumentation, production, and musicianship may give the song new energy, a fuller sound, or a more polished result than the original. I am more accepting of these because sometimes a great song can get lost in time or lose its lustre compared to modern music, and a fresh update on it can breathe new life into a worthy tune.

The Tempo Change Cover – This is a very common type of cover, especially over the past thirty years with the rise of ‘unplugged’ performances. Slowing a song down or speeding it up is an easy way to reinterpret a song and can result in some interesting results. Often, it’s an easy reach and can be a lazy way to cover a song without putting much thought into it, but in other cases it may be required if the cover artist’s style is better suited to the tempo change. There have been examples where a tempo change would have seemed inconceivable for a song, and the change is enlightening. Also, a good song is a good song, and changing its pace can reveal how much this is so by showing how good it is at any rate. Of course, the opposite is true, and sometimes the pace change can come off poorly, especially if the original didn’t have the structure to support the new tempo, so this isn’t a guaranteed win and can make an artist look bad by offering a different version of a song just for the sake of it.

The Genre Cover – Another very common form, and a natural result when artists of one genre draws from another. Usually there’s not a lot changed in the original in terms of melody, rhythm, or tempo, but the translation into the new musical style results in a completely different take on a song. This also has an element of surprise since it can be unexpected for an artist to play a song of another genre, especially if the genres are musically distant. The result can sometimes be more of a novelty than an interesting musical endeavour, but quite often the results are exhilarating. Many a song I’ve dismissed has been re-evaluated after a great cover by an artist or in a style I like. A benefit can also be the exposure of listeners of one genre to the music of another, which I think is always a positive thing. In modern rock, heavy metal, EDM, and other contemporary styles this is very common as rock, folk, country, and pop songs of the early eras of rock can be presented in very different styles.

The Reinvention Cover – This is my favourite type of cover and entails a reinterpretation of the original to an extent in which it’s practically a new song. There are bonus points if it’s barely recognizable as a cover song. To me, this is an artist being an artist, bringing their skill and talent to bear while still paying tribute and drawing on the work of others. What is important is that the essence of the original remains in the cover. If a song had a great melody, rhythm, phrasing, or overall vibe that made the original what it was, then a reinvention that removes those components will undoubtedly result in a lesser work. Nothing irritates me more than a reinvention that makes me long for the original or the desire to plug my ears so not to hear the ruination of a beautiful, original work. Why cover a song if you’re not going to stay true to it? Go write a new song instead. Otherwise, stick to the original but by all means, make it your own.

So those are, broadly, the types of cover songs I will be referencing in my playlists. What is not included are parodies (so no Weird Al songs), samples, the use of a component of an original song in a new and different song (so no “Ice Ice Baby”), or remixes or mash-ups. While large portions of an original song may be used, if the result is a new song and possibly entirely new lyrics then it’s not a cover, at least not for the purposes of these playlists and reviews.

Naturally a cover song can draw on several of the above at once. A genre cover may also change the tempo, reinvent the original, and modernize its sound all at the same time. The above list of types will help discuss cover songs and their quality within these standard forms, whether drawing on one or many.

Let’s get into our first playlist of covers, including some of my all-time faves.

Superstar \ The Carpenters (1971) & Sonic Youth (1994)

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Some songs have been covered many times, and this is one such song. Indeed, even the Carpenters version was a cover, but I use it since it’s the best known version and considered a staple of their archive. The song was written by Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett and Leon Russell in 1969 and originally titled “Groupie (Superstar).” It was first issued that year as a B-side to the Delaney and Bonnie single, “Comin’ Home” and then was covered several times over 1970, including by Cher and a version by Joe Cocker with Rita Coolidge on vocals on his legendary live album, Mad Dogs and Englishmen (which was organized by and performed on by Leon Russell). The Carpenters put out their version the next year, taking it to #2 on the US Charts. Richard Carpenter was inspired to do it after hearing an up-and-coming Bette Midler perform it on television.

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In 1994 there was a tribute album to The Carpenters, If I Were A Carpenter. It featured many modern rock artists doing fantastic renditions of Carpenters songs, including this one by Sonic Youth. Tribute albums are rich sources for good cover songs (and of course, many awful ones). I think this was a brilliant cover and was a genre cover, a reinvention, and a modernization. Everything great about the original was held fast, especially the tense, wonderful phrasing and build-up to the chorus. The sweetness of Karen Carpenter’s voice as well as the strings and horns of the original were replaced with the faraway vocal of Thurston Moore’s (a change in gender on vocals is often an intriguing alteration) and the song took on a dreamy, almost gloomy sound, with an ominous piano and sparse acoustic guitar offering a whole new vibe in place of the almost saccharine arrangement of the Carpenters’. An occasional electric guitar gave it a dangerous, modern rock edge. This was everything a cover song should be.

Dreaming \ Blondie (1979) & Smashing Pumpkins (1996)

Blondie and Smashing Pumpkins are both modern rock acts, but from different eras and of very different styles. Still, it’s easy to see how the Pumpkins would have been inspired by the music of Blondie, and therefore a tribute was wholly understandable. Smashing Pumpkins have proven quite adept with covers over the years, first drawing attention with a live cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” which was included in their album of B-sides and demos, Pisces Iscariot, and then offered up an entire CD of covers within their box set, The Aeroplane Flies High, from which the “Dreaming” cover appeared. Don’t be surprised to see more from this set in later playlists because they were all very good.

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The original was pure Blondie, a power-pop romp that mixed their rock sound with keyboards, a formula that paved the way for the new wave and post-punk acts that followed. It was a large song, with booming drums from Clem Burke and Debbie Harry’s voice soaring over the pounding rhythm underpinned with her own harmonies.

Billy Corgan and the Pumpkins reinvented the song, offering a cover that wasn’t just different than the original but different than the standard Pumpkins fare. Their version was slow, stripped down to just a simple electronic beat, light guitar, subtle, almost spoken, lyrics, and sound effects to give the song a sparse, ambient feel completely different than the original. The melody of the original was held, and it was the only thing that tipped you that this was a cover. By offering up an alt-electronic version of the song, Smashing Pumpkins paid tribute to the spirit and influence of the original by offering a modern take on the new wave sound. It was an impressive cover in many regards.

I Go to Sleep \ The Kinks (1964) and Pretenders (1981)

Pretenders are a band that have done many great covers over their career, so we’ll hear more from them on these playlists for certain. “I Go to Sleep” was their second cover of a Kinks song after starting their career with a cover of “Stop Your Sobbing.” It was on their second album, Pretenders II, went to #7 in the UK, and was one of the band’s top performing singles in their early career.

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Ray Davies of The Kinks and Chrissie Hynde of Pretenders were in a relationship for many years and had a daughter together, so her twice paying tribute to The Kinks was not surprising. While “I Go to Sleep” was written by Ray Davies, The Kinks never recorded or released the song. It was instead put out by the band, The Applejacks, in 1965. The Kinks did a demo version that was later included in compilations, so that’s what I’ve used on this playlist. That version was bare, as demos tend to be, but even The Applejacks version held to the early British pop sound of simple instrumentation and straightforward delivery of the song.

What is evident with this song is its beautiful pacing, melody, and phrasing. Hynde and Pretenders held true to this while giving it a modern update, drawing on the piano of The Kinks’ version but with an acoustic backing for a fuller, broader feel. The chorus in the second half was delivered as a crescendo, providing a release to the tension of the song’s structure. An exquisite French horn from guest performer Jeff Bryant gave the song the perfect melancholy touch to complete the mood.

Hello, I Love You \ The Doors (1968) & Adam Ant (1982)

This song was on The Doors’ third album, Waiting for the Sun, giving them their second #1 single. It was a song the band had written and recorded as early as 1965 but not released until 1968. It captured the sound, attitude, and energy of The Doors. Their signature organ sound was layered over the bass, guitar, and basic drum beat while Jim Morrison provided his customary charisma and swagger.

Covering such an iconic song and band can be daunting, but for modern rock artists working in a different genre there can be the freedom of employing a different feel to it. Adam Ant included his cover on his first solo album, Friend or Foe. It wasn’t a single, just an interesting track to close off the first side of the album and his take on the The Doors fit perfectly on the album. The fuller instrumentation, a rolling bassline, horns, a slightly quicker tempo, and Ant’s typically distinct vocal gave this version plenty of personality. Ant took the song and made it his own, allowing enjoyment of it to be distinct without harming the appreciation of the original.

He’s Gonna Step on You Again \ John Kongos (1971) & Happy Mondays (1990)

This was a great example of how a cover can expose the audience of one genre to the music of another. While the original had some success, it was a song most likely going to be lost in the sands of time before Happy Mondays shone a light on it. I think this was also one of those occasions in which many wouldn’t know this was a cover at all, so purely did the Mondays’ version fit into their repertoire.

John Kongos was a South African performer that moved to the UK and had a couple hits in the UK and Europe. “He’s Gonna Step on You Again” was a hit in 1971, reaching #4 in the UK and the top ten in Australia, France, and South Africa. This was his first hit and had a fun, rhythm-based, psychedelic guitar vibe to it with female harmonies behind his vocal and sampled loops of African drumming. It was a song of its time and indicative of the variation occurring in rock music in the early ‘70s. The song was subsequently covered by others over the years, most notably by The Party Boys in Australia who had a #1 hit with their straight-up version in 1987.

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In 1990 the Happy Mondays were an emerging act that was part of the growing Madchester scene in England. Already known for indie and club hits such as “24 Hour Party People, “Wrote for Luck,” and “Lazy Itis” from their first two albums, the band hit it big with their stupendous album, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. Their cover of John Kongos was titled simply, “Step On,” and was a reinvention of the original. Keeping the rhythm foundation and basic vocal melody, the song was a fantastic groove of drum, piano, and bass, catchy guitar licks (some sampled from Kongos’ original), typically stoned-out Madchester vocals, and punctuated with a soulful backing vocal from Rowetta. The Mondays also added the oft-repeated line in their version, “You’re twistin’ my melon man.” It was such a fresh take on the original it hardly seemed like the same song and helped propel the Mondays and the Madchester scene to international success.

Dancing with Myself \ Generation X (1980) & Nouvelle Vague (2006)

Nouvelle Vague almost deserves its own category for cover songs and it will be difficult for me to not include many of their tracks on these playlists. The band’s name is French for ‘new wave’ and indicates the subject matter for the band’s music, which is almost entirely bossa nova (also ‘new wave’ in Portuguese) covers of 1980s new wave songs. Many might dismiss Nouvelle Vague as a novelty act, a one-trick pony solely based on genre covers, but that ignores the fantastic versions Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux have created of many iconic songs. They have a shtick, but it’s a really good one.

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“Dancing with Myself” was Generation X’s last single before Billy Idol went solo and had a hit with his own version of the song. The hard rockin’, punk-styled original was a fantastic song that ran at a wonderful, furious pace with great, hook-filled guitar licks and concluded with a rollicking bassline that gave it an extra zest. Idol’s signature, sneering lyrics matched the song’s energy and gave us the memorable line, “If I had the chance I’d ask the world to dance.”

Nouvelle Vague completely reversed the song’s feel while holding true to the song’s core elements – the steady pace and vocal melody. The driving bass of the original was delivered by plodding stand-up bass and piano, and Phoebe Killdeer’s vocals drew from the original but matched the new version’s bouncy, jaunty rhythm, sprinkled with acoustic guitar and a xylophone. Instead of a defiant, sneering punk song it was now an introspective, aloof, jazzy tune that matched the lyrics beautifully, “There was nothing to lose and there was nothing to prove when I was dancing with myself.” I think this was one of Nouvelle Vague’s best and most inventive covers and came with a fantastic video to capture its mood (on the YouTube playlist).

Dear God \ XTC (1986) & Sarah McLachlan (1995)

I was once a Sarah McLachlan fan, but not so much these days as her music has devolved into mostly emotionally wrought, moaning affairs. However, she surprised me with this cover song on her 1996 release Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff. It originally appeared on the 1995 tribute album, A Testimonial Dinner: The Songs of XTC.

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“Dear God” was a song set aside by XTC both as potentially controversial (it’s not too kind to God and religion) and for not fitting on the album, Skylarking. After American radio DJs started playing it when it was issued as the B-side to the single, “Grass,” the band released it as a single and included it on future pressings of the album. The expected controversy ensued but didn’t stop it from being a reasonable hit for the band and one of their most beloved. It was a wonderful mix of Partridge’s unique vocals and wonderful guitar playing.

McLachlan’s was mostly a straight-up cover, but her version leveraged her smoother style for an effective re-take on the original. She replaced the guitar for the most part with strings (though the original had some strings too, but not as layered as Sarah’s), giving it her usually demonstrative style, but she kept Partridge’s angry vocal delivery over the final part of the song to provide a different delivery to her typical style. Her version was moodier, slower, and offered greater variation between verse and chorus. It almost had a jazz feel with the distant drum beat. Sarah has a great voice and I always like it when she uses it to full effect, and not just to moan her way through. In this case I was happy to take her vocal over the child’s part in the original, despite it being one of the more interesting aspects of the original.

Walk on By \ Dionne Warwick (1964) & The Stranglers (1978)

This is another of my favourite cover songs and one that was so good, it obliterated the original (though I’m sure fans of the original likely disagree since they wouldn’t be punk fans). In 1963 prolific songwriters Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics) wrote this song for Dionne Warwick. Warwick’s version, released in ’64, went to the top 10 in the US and UK and was her second big hit. It was mostly an interplay of her vocal with the piano, punctuated with the occasional trumpet and underpinned with a scratch guitar, with the breaks dramatically offered with strings. It was typical of Bacharach’s smartly written, easy listening music.

The Stranglers were one of the earliest and most original of the UK punk bands, notable for their heavy use of organ riding shotgun over guttural basslines and Hugh Cornwell’s resonant vocals. For them to cover a Bacharach/ David song was surprising, to say the least. They released it as a non-album single in 1978 and it went to #21 on the UK charts. Their version was testimony to what a solid song the original was – which wasn’t surprising since Bacharach and David were consummate writers – but The Stranglers’ lengthy version with the extended organ interlude made the song something incredible. Perhaps inspired by Isaac Hayes’ 12-minute, R&B version in 1969, The Stranglers extended take on the song allowed fans of their sound to hear it like never before.

The Stranglers delivery provided a menace to the lyrics that wasn’t captured in the original. When Hugh delivered the opening lines, “If you see me walking down the street / And I start to cry each time we meet / Walk on by, walk on by,” the delicacy of Warwick’s delivery, almost divorced from the pain and vindictiveness of the lyrics, was replaced with an angrier edge that suggested ‘walking by’ wasn’t just to make the ex-lover feel guilty, it was perhaps for their own safety. The cover version was faster, angrier, tight within the band’s mold, broke convention with punk’s typically short song durations, and gave The Stranglers and punk fans an epic song of their time. It also allowed modern rock fans like myself to go back and appreciate the original, something I would never have done otherwise.

Thunder and Rain \ Graham Parker & the Rumour (1977) & Ellen Foley (1979)

This is what will be a rare straight-up cover for these playlists, but Ellen Foley had a knack for taking others’ songs and making them her own, especially on her great album, Night Out, from which “Thunder and Rain” appeared.

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Graham Parker was mostly an underground artist in the UK, playing pub rock that helped spawn punk and power pop. After a couple albums with his band, the Rumour, they had some success with the album Stick to Me in 1977. This was despite the master tapes for the album being damaged and all the songs having to be re-recorded hastily with Nick Lowe producing. Instead of a large, string-filled sound the album was stripped down, raw and edgy. “Thunder and Rain” wasn’t a single but was indicative of Parker’s song writing talent and penchant for expansive songs, even if his original didn’t quite deliver on it, you could hear the ambition.

Ellen Foley fully delivered on that ambition. Her voice was meant to be backed by a full rock ‘n roll sound. Her debut album, Night Out, was a collection of covers clearly chosen to give opportunity for her voice to be unleashed after being mostly buried behind Meat Loaf (with the exception of her higher profile cameo on “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”). Assisted by producers Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople) and Mick Ronson (David Bowie), Foley delivered an amazing list of songs from the likes of The Rolling Stones (“Stupid Girl”), from a pub-rocker similar to Parker, Philip Rambow (“Night Out” and “Young Lust”), and a couple of songs co-written with Fred Goodman, “We belong to the Night” and “Hideaway.” On “Thunder and Rain” she delivered a straight-up cover of Parker’s song, still fresh from only two years prior, but with a bigger rock sound provided by Hunter’s backing band of the time. The female and powerful vocal gave the song a new dimension that Parker could never achieve.

Got the Time \ Joe Jackson (1979) & Anthrax (1990)

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Joe Jackson was another pub-rocker directly influenced by Graham Parker. He was part of a less aggressive, more rock oriented version of punk that helped modern rock branch away from punk. His debut album, Look Sharp!, was a fantastic LP and included “Got the Time” as the closing track. It was about as urgent and punk as Jackson could get with its raw, strumming guitar and propulsive drum beat.

Heavy Metal and punk may seem to have more in common than not, with the aggression, heavy guitars and heavy bass and drums, but while they might nod at one another in respect (not always), they’ve travelled their own paths stylistically and musically. Grunge music created a convergence of these genres and that’s where this cover came into play. Anthrax was a metal act already well-established by the time of their fifth album, Persistence of Time, in 1990. The band was coming off the success of their breakthrough album, 1988’s State of Euphoria, and being carried by the mainstream following of heavy metal and rock in the US over the last half of the ‘80s. Grunge brought a new form of rock that mixed punk with forms of metal and classic rock, and it seemed less puzzling then for a band like Anthrax to cover the smart-punk of Joe Jackson.

The result was a genre cover, modernization, and amazingly an increase in tempo of Jackson’s original – though fans of thrash metal wouldn’t be surprised since that was the norm, it was only us modern rockers that weren’t used to such a frenetic pace. The heavy drumming, powering bassline, and head-banging guitar power chords satisfyingly brought the song to a new, glorious level. If you ever need an energy boost, turn to this song.

I’ve mentioned that cover songs can bring fans of one genre to another, and this was the case as I bought Anthrax’s album in order to have this song and then went on to buy their compilation, Attack of the Killer B’s, to obtain their collaborative effort with Public Enemy on the rap group’s song, “Bring the Noise.” I listened to the rest of Anthrax’s music on those albums and some of it was ok, but most of it was beyond my interest since I was never a heavy metal fan. Yet this Anthrax cover remains one of my favourites.


So, there’s a start to exploring some of my favourite covers songs over the years. More playlists will follow to see how modern rock has worked from material of other times, genres, and artists to fashion some of the greatest songs of the modern rock era.

Cover Songs: Volume 2

Cover Songs: Volume 2

Overlooked: Meat Beat Manifesto

Overlooked: Meat Beat Manifesto