As covers go, it’s the best kind: more or less unrecognizable, unless you’re really paying attention.
The backstory of Ibeyi’s retooling of Black Flag’s “Rise Above” is that siblings Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz had never heard the original version of the hardcore-defining landmark. While working on the duo’s new album Spell 31, producer Richard Russell showed them the lyrics. Using a drum loop from the Díaz sisters’ father Miguel ‘Anga’ Díaz (who worked with Buena Vista Social Club), Russell and Ibeyi got busy.
Reflecting on the session, Ibeyi says, “We read the lyrics and we immediately felt their relevance to how we felt about the world in its current state. We got to work on the melody and had the full song done in 5 minutes.”
Actually, make that “most” of the full song was done. When fellow producer Jorja Smith heard Ibeyi’s “Rise Above”, he suggested bringing in rapper BERWYN to write a verse. The MC’s contribution updates the Black Flag anthem with references to George Floyd and standing tall in a world that seems even more fucked than it was in the ’80s.
“Jorja Smith heard the track and told us we had to get BERWYN on the song,” Ibeyi says in its statement. “We had him by the studio to listen to the full album. I left to make tea, upon returning to the studio BERWYN had already written his verse for 'Rise Above,' before he had even finished listening to the album. We knew we had something special.”
By “special”, the Díaz sisters mean a cover where, instead of belligerent outrage and raw fury, we get space-ping synths, skittering drums, and vocals that stick the landing between enchantingly ethereal and soothingly haunting.
Or, in other words, the best kind of cover: one where an admiring artist is inspired to do something new and daring (you know, like Pink Mountaintops' recent redo of another Black Flag landmark, “Nervous Breakdown") rather than serve up a carbon copy that adds less than nothing to the original.
Here are six other covers which rather than slavishly aping the source material, add something new to the conversation. All are more than worthy of a mixtape that kicks off with Ibeyi covering “Rise Above”.
Original: Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Cover: Crash Vegas
Tackled by artists ranging from country king Johnny Cash to alternative footnotes Everclear, “Pocahontas” is often cited as one of Neil Young’s greatest deep cuts. On the Rust Never Sleeps original, the Godfather of Grunge goes (except for occasional bird-call sounds) strictly acoustic, telling a story that flits from the carnage caused by the colonial forces arriving in North America to a world of Astrodomes to distant memories of buffalos being massacred “kitty corner from the bank”. There’s no shortage of devastating lines in “Pocahontas”, starting with Young, in a mix of observational detachment and shell-shocked restraint, singing “They killed us in our teepees/And cut our women down/They might have left some babies/Cryin’ on the ground”.
Toronto’s Crash Vegas sticks close to the spirit of the original for the first minute of “Pocahontas”, going a little harder and heavier on the acoustic six-string. But then the drums kick in, and the electric guitar pyro starts, at first subtle and then full Crazy Horse grunge. What makes the song Crash Vegas’s own however is the gorgeously wavering, empathy-drenched vocals of singer Michelle McAdorey. Sometimes a woman’s perspective changes everything. Listen to her sing “They might have left some babies/Cryin’ on the ground”, and admit that as great as the original is, the Crash Vegas version might, impossibly, be even greater.
Original: Hüsker Dü
Before Hüsker Dü crashed the mainstream with 1984’s landmark punk opera Zen Arcade, the Minneapolis trio was already working to push the boundaries of punk rock. Go back and listen to 1983’s Metal Circus, which cannonballs from broken-bottle pop (“It’s Not Funny Anymore”) to sludge-jacked psychedelia (“Out On a Limb”) and landspeed-hardcore (“Deadly Skies”). But the EP’s most devastating track was “Diane”, in which Hüsker Dü songwriter/timekeeper Grant Hart set the story of murdered St. Paul waitress Diane Edwards to proto-grunge guitars and coffin-thump drums. It’s fucking harrowing.
Therapy? covered “Diane” in 1995, but instead of overworked distortion pedals and splintered drumsticks, the Irish alternative upstarts built the song around the cellos, black-earth mournful one second and elegantly regal the next. Singer Andy Cairns meanwhile comes off like someone being forced to recount the most horrific story he wishes he never heard. Which might very well be the case.
Original: Velvet Underground
Cover: Cowboy Junkies
When they weren’t singing about heroin, whip-toting S&M orgies, heroin, sex operations gone wrong, and heroin, the Velvet Underground were also capable of songs that radiated pure joy. Think about the sun-flooded “Sunday Morning”, endlessly lovely “Pale Blue Eyes”, and inspirationally swaggering “Rock and Roll”.
Once the opening 12 seconds of free-form psychedelia is out of the way, “Sweet Jane” off Loaded finds often-misanthropic singer Lou Reed sounding nothing less than thrilled to be alive. Listen to how joyful he seems at the beginning of the song when singing “Jack is in his corset, Janey’s in her vest/And me, I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band”. And think about how you never pass up the chance to do “Sweet Jane” at karaoke, mostly because you and your friends live for the “La, la, la, la la la/La, la, la, la la la” part at the end.
The brilliance of the Cowboy Junkies take on “Sweet Jane” is the way the song is not only at first unrecognizable, but how it’s been refashioned into something that’s magnificently downbeat without coming across as dark-hearted. Forget being a celebration of heavenly wine and roses or people who like to go out dancing, the Junkies’ rendition is for when the last of the partiers have cleared out at 3 a.m., and the only thing you want to do is smoke cigarettes by candlelight, a glass of bourbon in hand, and the stereo on low. Sometimes melancholy just feels right.
Original: The Guess Who
Cover: The Butthole Surfers
In one corner, a turbo-charged slab of ’60s-scuzzed Canadiana that’s been a rock-radio staple for six decades. In the other, um, the hypnotically druggy drum beat, screamed-through-a-megaphone gibberish, and a drug-casualty guitar line that suggests there actually is a thing as too-much acid, especially when it’s brown.
There was a line of thinking in the’80s that the members of the Butthole Surfers weren’t so much weird as much as possibly insane. Records featured wrong-on-every-level fuckery like “22 Going on 23”, “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave”, and “I Saw An X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas”.
Concerts, meanwhile, featured graphic medical penis-surgery videos, flaming drum kits, nude go-go dancers, and more often than not, blood. As Dean Ween once sagely noted, the craziest thing about the Butthole Surfers was that they could, on any given night, make you feel like you were in actual hell. And then went double if you happened to be heinously stoned when it was time to assault the audience with the opening drums of “American Woman”.
Original: Edwin Starr
What made D.O.A.’s take on “War” so shocking was that it sounded like nothing the band had ever attempted before. In 1982 the iconic West Coast punk squad was in transition, with endlessly inventive drummer Chuck Biscuits replaced by his more steady powerhouse brother Dimwit, and former Subhuman Brian Goble on bass following the departure of gold-star showman Randy Rampage. In other words, after years as top-dog in the Vancouver punk underground, D.O.A. suddenly had something to prove.
They group did just that with a reworking of the Edwin Starr number-one “War”. The Motown original was all polyrhythmic drums, blazing horns, and soul-king vocals, with Starr coming on like a man who worshiped at the Church of James Brown. Razor-burn guitars are the primary musical weapon in the D.O.A. version, with singer Joe Keithley’s gut-punch growling punctuated by the outraged and unhinged R&B screams of guitarist Dave Gregg. Anchoring everything is Dimwit’s rumble-in-the-jungle drumming—solid and heavy-hitting. Hardcore-soul works as a fitting description for the cover, that doubly impressive considering that, before “War” on War on 45, anyone trying to label D.O.A. stopped at plain old “hardcore”.
“Eight Miles High”
Original: The Byrds
Cover: Hüsker Dü
When the Byrds released “Eight Miles High” in 1966, radio programmers across the world were quick to ban the song for glorifying drug use. Because, you know, no one, with the possible exceptions of Wavy Gravy and Timothy Leary, was doing drugs in the ’60s. The fabulous thing about “Eight Miles High” was that it was endlessly trippy, that having everything to do with the sitar-like 12-string guitar work and paisley-heaven vocal harmonies. And, of course, lines such as “Eight miles high, and when you touch down/You’ll find that it’s stranger than known”.
If the Byrds helped set the table for the summer of love, Hüsker Dü turned “Eight Miles High” into an exorcism for an ’80s marked by the collapse of American social systems, nuclear Cold War fears, the rise of the PMRC and the religious right, and hair-farmers in pink Spandex. The glorious shit-storm starts with 20 seconds of full-bore Bob Mould guitar violence and Grant Hart’s tribal-war drums. From there, one had best track down a lyric sheet because Mould spends the song’s entire four minutes screaming like a man taking a hydrochloric acid bath. Savage, exhilarating, and essential. Like “Rise Above”—both the Ibeyi and Black Flag versions—only thrillingly different.