The 10 Most Haunting Cover Songs
Detail from Arnold Böcklin's self portrait (1872).
It may have been the late great Mississippi John Hurt who said, “Songs are like butterflies; you can’t pin them to a board. They have to be able to fly free to share their beauty with the world.” The reference was in regard to a newfangled technology known as sound recording. Thankfully, Hurt condescended to allow some of his performances to be captured and preserved so that the beauty of his music could entertain and inspire people for generations. Later, of course, rock and rollers like Jimmy Page would go on to borrow and adapt the music of innovative blues men like Hurt and turn their music into something quite different. It is in situations like these wherein performing the work of another artist can make a recorded song continue to thrive. Furthermore, covers can also change the mood of a song dramatically.
Given the proximity to Halloween, we thought we’d take a look at a few songs that have been made-over to sound more haunting. Here is the Weekly’s list of Haunting Covers.
10. Home on the Range - Neil Young
Neil Young has peppered his country / folk / hard rock career with work on various film soundtracks. In 1980, Young performed some music for the Where the Buffalo Roam soundtrack. The film was the first semi-biographical movie about the adventures of outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson; its title is a reference to Thompson’s occasional partner-in-crime and muse, the attorney / activist Oscar Acosta who had written a book called Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, which is about his role in the Chicano Movement. Young’s acapella performance of Daniel Kelley and Brewster Higley's western folk song is a wistful tribute to the spirit of misfit freedom fighters, who are aware of the odds which they fight against yet refuse to go out without a fight.
9. Guns of Brixton - Nouvelle Vague
While we’re on the subject of fighting against the man, “Guns of Brixton,” conjures the classic image of police officers kicking in someone’s door. Though the imagery from this Clash song is a nod to the Jamaican gangster film The Harder They Come, a film whose soundtrack is reputed to have made reggae music popular for the rest of the world, the narrative is still fairly universal. When the French cover band Nouvelle Vague provided the song with a new jazzy arrangement, the images became more evocative of a dreamlike scene from a 20’s era gangster vignette.
8. Mad World - Michael Andrews and Gary Jules
Continuing our trend of songs which varyingly represent struggles against an oppressive world, “Mad World,” which was written by Roland Orzabal and originally performed by his band Tears for Fears, does a good job of suggesting that death is a decent option in a world of futility. However, when the song was covered as part of Michael Andrews’s ethereal soundtrack for the film Donnie Darko (with vocal performance by Gary Jules), its new arrangement made the music seem just as fragile as the lyrics — a feat not so depressingly executed with the original arrangement.
7. Life on Mars? - Seu Jorge
Before we start getting into a few love songs, we thought it would be nice to throw one more number about life’s banality into the mix. David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” may not have gotten as much airplay as some of his other popular songs, but its comment on modern life is more apt now than it was when he first recorded it in 1971. Essentially, it is a surreal tale of how popular entertainment has become a fundamental part of reality. For the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, director Wes Anderson had actor / musician Seu Jorge perform a dozen or so Bowie songs, in Jorge’s native Portuguese, as incidental music in the movie. The key strength of Jorge’s minimalist cover is his voice, which pares Bowie’s original powerhouse arrangement down to a mournful lullaby.
6. Fever - The Cramps
As the previous entries on this list have demonstrated, there is certainly no shortage of melancholic topics. That being said, even life-inspiring emotions like Love and its cousin Lust can come to haunt a person. This, of course, is the topic of Eddie Cooley and John Davenport’s song “Fever.” Though it was first recorded by Little Willie John, in 1956, and has been recorded by many artists since, Peggy Lee’s 1958 recording is probably the most well-known. That being said, when The Cramps took a swing at it on their debut LP, Songs the Lord Taught Us (1980), their restrained psychobilly treatment provided the song with a bit more of a chilling feeling than any version prior or since has conjured.
5. Only You - The Joker
This entry on our list threatens to go beyond the realm of haunting and enter straight into the realm of twisted. Actor Mark Hamill voiced the character of The Joker in the 2011 video game Batman: Arkham City, and over the end credits of the game, Hamill’s Joker sings The Platters’ “Only You (And You Alone).” The original 1954 recording of this song has its own wistful sound, but when performed with a leering tone — complemented with a few cackles — by a character who is known to be a homicidal maniac, it is hard to deny this rendition a spot on a list of haunting covers.
4. Que Sera Sera - Pink Martini
To listen to Doris Day singing Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’s “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” it is hard to imagine the song without a sense of chirpiness. Even when Ned Flanders (from The Simpsons) sings it to himself while awaiting death via a meteorite, the song maintains a feeling of optimism. Then along came Pink Martini’s version, which rendered it as a gloomy and perhaps delusional anthem. This entry narrowly beat Pink Martini’s cover of “Brazil” for this spot on our list. Both covers are on the band’s album Sympathique, a record that maintains a sense of mystery through both its quiet and its bombastic moments.
3. How High the Moon - Pat Suzuki
Here’s an oldie by Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton whose early recordings by the likes of Benny Goodman (1940), Ella Fitzgerald (1947), Stan Kenton w/ June Christy (1947), Les Paul and Mary Ford (1951), and others showcased a fairly swank and swinging number. It wasn’t until Japanese American singer Pat Suzuki covered it in 1959 that the innately haunting lyrics of “How High the Moon” were complemented by an equally haunting musical arrangement and vocal performance. The song was featured in the films Biloxi Blues and Eat a Bowl of Tea.
2. For What It’s Worth - Malia J
For this entry, Neil Young is on the opposite side of the mirror. That is, “For What It’s Worth” was written by Stephen Stills and performed by Buffalo Springfield, which is Young’s old band. The song was written as a protest against a curfew imposed on young concert-goers in Los Angeles, in 1967. As performed here, Malia J’s airy rendition is representative of a current trend in horror film advertising. It is, in fact, currently being used as the soundtrack for the Lights Out trailer. Removed from the context of the overall narrative of the song, several phrases sound particularly chilling when performed with a dark-sounding, minimalist synthesized or string accompaniment.
1. Sympathy for the Devil - Jane’s Addiction
Jane’s Addiction’s cover of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil” [simply listed as “Sympathy” on the first Jane’s album] has the distinction of having some of the least intelligibly sang lyrics on this list. When lead singer Perry Farrell starts to really get into his work, enunciation takes a back seat to his impassioned wailing. That being said, it is in the more softly sang passages of this cover that Farrell’s voice is the creepiest. Guns N’ Roses also performed a cover of “Sympathy,” but Axl Rose’s performance does not provide any depth to the lyrics, which are meant to suggest that the Devil is not an external entity. It is in Farrell’s childlike and innocent intonations that the song’s suggestion of the true origin of evil is revealed — it is right here, in our own hearts.
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