Rock’s Greatest Covers: Patti Tops the List

When Van Morrison wrote the classic Gloria as the B-side to Them’s 1964 hit Baby Please Don’t Go, he couldn’t have suspected what a kid from New Jersey would do with his song a decade later. But I suspect he was thrilled. After all, Patti Smith’s cover of Gloria on her incredible 1975 debut album Horses stands as the greatest rock cover performance (studio release) of all time.

At least, that’s my choice. You may cue up something else. But consider the guidelines: we’re talking post-Beatles, singer-songwriter era. And we’re talking interpretation, ownership, stye. And Patti’s Gloria leaps to the top. Even now, 30 years after I first heard it, the song can bring chills – that opening, the free-form poetry, the anger and sexual tension, the drive of the band, as it swings in and around Smith’s lyrical riffs. Christ, it is rock. No matter that Patti didn’t write the song – she wrote the track.

Over five and half minutes, the song presents an apocalyptic vision that unfolds in slow, throbbing chords, then picks up speed:

people say “beware!”
but I don’t care
the words are just
rules and regulations to me, me

Then, blam – the more familiar chords of Morrison’s brilliant B-side, but with lyrics he couldn’t have released in 1964 – red hot homoerotica, in this case, but you almost don’t notice it because of the momentum of the band. Took me a while when i was 14 or so to realize, hey man, that’s a girl singing about a girl:

humpin’ on the parking meter, leanin’ on the parking meter
oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
and I got this crazy feeling and then I’m gonna ah-ah make her mine
ooh I’ll put my spell on her

And onward it goes, every second fiery, living-breathing rock-and-roll. It feels incredibly live, with Jay Dee Daugherty’s singer-focused cymbals and fills and Lenny Kaye’s understated but omnipresent guitar. This song feels like it could only have been released in this performance, in this actual cut, in the recording that was made on that one day with this one band in this one studio. And to me, that’s what great covers are about: building on somebody else’s song, putting your own meat on the bones, creating a singular performance.

Here are a few more to chew on – my top 10 – of course, I want your own nominations (the Viscount gave us one last week, which tickled my post).

Gloria – Patti Smith (Horses, 1975)
Just My Imagination – The Rolling Stones (Some Girls, 1978)
Respect – Aretha Franklin (1967)
Satisfaction – Devo (Are We Not Men?, 1978)
Jolene – The White Stripes (2003)
I Won’t Back Down – Johnny Cash (Solitary Man, 2000)
I Fought The Law – The Clash (The Clash, 1979)
Oops I Did it Again – Richard Thompson (A Thousand Years of Music, 2003)
Stand By Me – John Lennon (Rock-n-Roll, 1975)
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ – New York Dolls (Too Much, Too Soon, 1974)

And that’s just off the top of my head – undoubtedly there are some I can’t bring to mind this fine Saturday afternoon. So help me out.

Oh, and here’s your bonus – Patti Smith Band from SNL in 1976 doing Gloria: