It is unsurprising that an artist as influential as David Bowie would have many songs covered by artists in many different genres. Bowie was an artist like no other, and it takes a special touch to perfect a Bowie cover. Here are some of the most memorable covers of the legendary singer who died on November 10 at the age of 69.
Nirvana – “The Man Who Sold the World”
David Bowie and Kurt Cobain were born from the same stardust. David Bowie was rock ‘n’ roll’s original uncool cool kid, and when Bowie wasn’t a kid anymore it was only fitting that Kurt took over. The same enigmatic personality and punk rock “fuck-off” attitude that fueled David Bowie’s transcendent career was instrumental in Cobain’s shooting star moment in music. It’s almost impossible to make music in the modern era without at least wanting to be influenced by David Bowie, and Nirvana was no exception. Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold The World” stands as an eerie straightforward masterpiece that shows a more sinister side begging to be brought out by the original piece.
The lamenting lyrics sing of social alienation, and a young unsure person trying desperately to find pieces of themselves to put together the whole. These lyrics obviously resonated deep in Cobain’s soul just as they had with a young David Bowie. This understanding silently screams through Nirvana’s rendition that Kurt sings almost softly. Cobain’s crying guitar rendition in turn seemed to influence Bowie’s own performances of the song. In the years after Nirvana’s release of the song Bowie beefed up the baseline, and generally darkened his imagining of the song. These two seminal musician’s respect for each other was palpable.
As music fans, we are charged with the task of making sure great men and women are never forgotten. For the likes of Kurt Cobain and the great David Bowie there has never been an easier task. Forever weird. Forever beautiful.
Seu Jorge on The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions
Music and film have gone hand in glove ever since the days of silent movies. Bowie’s music and personae were so dramatic and involved that they couldn’t exist in a world without cinema, and this was certainly not lost on him. His work blended seamlessly with film, whether through his music or his own numerous appearances as an actor. In many great films, the music itself becomes a character — The Life Aquatic is one such film.
Seu Jorge’s stripped down, acoustic renditions of Bowie classics sung in Portuguese are an integral and unexpected part of experiencing the adventures of Team Zissou. Bowie classics like “Life on Mars,” “Starman,” and “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” are threaded into the story, all performed so wonderfully by Jorge that they are able to stand on their own as well. He plays with a casual nonchalance that conjures up the feeling of a busking street artist in a foreign country. Most of all, these covers show some of the power of Bowie’s music — it transcends language by becoming a language itself.
Smashing Pumpkins “Space Oddity”
The Billy Corgan-led Smashing Pumpkins turn out a gorgeous interpretation of David Bowie’s first big single. The space theme and aesthetic are a perfect fit for the Pumpkins’ shimmering alt-rock sound, and Corgan brings the climactic chorus to the same soaring heights of their mid-90s anthems.
Beck “Sound and Vision”
1977’s Low marked Bowie’s retreat from excess into seclusion and avant-garde. The first of his trio of collaborations with Brian Eno experimented with electronic and ambient sounds, but also stayed grounded in simple, low key pop songs like “Sound and Vision.” Beck’s wonderful reinvention of this song brings the excess back into the equation.
With a group of over 100 musicians including a string orchestra, guitar ensemble, multiple choirs, a theremin, and a marching band, to name a few, Beck turns this unassuming song into a spectacle too big to ignore. It’s impossibly baroque, a palace of sound. As astonishing as it is to watch the recording, one can only imagine it must have been akin to a religious experience to be in the audience.
Tori Amos “After All”
This cover by Tori Amos and its 1970 original are both too often overlooked, perhaps because they’re not fun songs. Bowie’s original, tucked in the middle of The Man Who Sold the World, is a creepy and morose waltz with lyrical references to occultism and Nietzschean philosophy. Amos’ rendition has a stark and somber beauty, stripped down to a minimal arrangement of only piano and vocals. Her voice carries powerfully over the low chords as she puts her signature mark on this hidden gem.
M. Ward “Let’s Dance”
M. Ward completely deconstructs Bowie’s foray into disco with his rendition of “Let’s Dance,” released in 2003 on his Transfiguration of Vincent album. Gone are the staccato guitar riffs and bombastic instrumentals, in their place a gently finger picked acoustic guitar, Ward’s scratchy vocals and a mournful harmonica solo. While Bowie may have surprised some by releasing a disco album, this stripped-down cover shows masterful songwriting is always present in the legend’s work.
The Cure “Young Americans”
The Cure retain the fundamental sound and mood of the title track from David Bowie’s 1975 album, with Robert Smith even sounding a bit like Bowie in places. In the place of the soulful arrangements that brought Bowie his most mainstream single to date are the dark new-wave sound that The Cure perfected.
Red Hot Chili Peppers “Suffragette City”
As one of Bowie’s most rollicking and straightforward punky numbers, “Suffragette City” is a no-brainer for Red Hot Chili Peppers to cover. Thankfully, the musically-gifted funk-punk group doesn’t toy with the song’s winning formula. Instead of pumping it full of slap bass and funky breakdowns, the Los Angeles group simply power through it with a punk rock spirit.
Vivian Girls “John, I’m Only Dancing”
While an all-girl punk trio taking on the stomping 1972 single “John, I’m Only Dancing” may seem like strange fit (the song is widely considered to be a about a gay man explaining to his jealous lover he is “only dancing” with a woman). But Cassie Ramone and company take the strummed acoustic guitar of the original and demonstrate how well it translates into their jangling punk style. As the song fades out with a repeated chorus, Vivian Girls manage to insert their surfy retro harmonization into the conclusion.
Aphex Twin “Heroes, Aphex Twin Remix”
Music in the modern era has gone into bizarre new territory, and a cover is often not simply a cover. Aphex Twin is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in recent electronic music, and his reworking of “Heroes” on 26 Mixes for Cash is one of the most unique and haunting Bowie tributes of all. Combining the singer’s original powerful vocal tracks with orchestral arrangements from Philip Glass’ “Heroes Symphony,” Aphex creates a beautifully weird harmony between three of modern music’s most brilliant minds.
Melvins “Station to Station”
Bowie’s influence has always been most obvious in the worlds of glam and art rock, but it extends far beyond those fields, across genres and oceans, and in this case, into heavy metal. “Station to Station” is one of his darkest and heaviest moments, an incredible piece of art that could have only come from the brink of a disaster, like Ancient Rome about to collapse. Bizarre lyrical themes and crushing guitar riffs are the perfect platform for a Melvins cover, and this one really brings out the eerily catchy dread of Bowie’s original.
Flight of the Conchords “Bowie’s In Space”
Okay, it’s not really a cover of David Bowie, but New Zealand comedy due Flight of the Conchords’ “Bowie’s In Space” is a reverential parody of the rock icon’s flamboyant style and mannerisms. Jemaine Clement detailed the history of this hilarious video and song and it’s transformation from simple joke song into an elaborate “paean-parody,” and how the band asked Bowie to appear on the show to help perform the song. While the Thin White Duke respectfully declined (he had just performed as a joke version of himself on Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras), the song does well to honor his various incarnations, from his early glam period to later eras like his look during the late 80s and Labyrinth.