Cover versions, pt 1: of Joni Mitchell, bad and brilliant

I’ve grown to love Joni Mitchell’s music; it’s a gradual thing where you discover that she just couldn’t do a bad song. Well, she could, but then she did a great one to make up for it. And the other thing is that people do really rubbish cover versions of her songs, in general. Which is what has made the release of an album of cover versions of Joni Mitchell songs – A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (iTunes Store) or the website itself, where you can listen and compare the songs. Oh dear.

For example, Bjork says “The first record of hers I discovered was Don Juan’s Daughter; I was around fourteen, fifteen and I knew it by heart (still do, every instrument, every noise, every word).”

Except as Andy Kershaw apoplectically pointed out on the BBC’s Front Row arts program, it’s called Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. And Joni’s version is just miles better.

OK, so kd lang has a great voice and has done some nice versions on 49th Parallel. But in general, covers of her songs just go nowhere because they don’t have her swooping voice.

Except for Nazareth’s version of This Flight Tonight. You’ve not heard of it? Not surprising. It was in 1973. I remember it really well because I was just a kid, really into the charts, and the sound of it (and the drumming pattern, which is what I was into those days – four on the hi-hat per beat sounded so radical) is just amazing. It really sounds like being in a tiny crate of a plane in the blackness with the lights down below. And very heavy.

To quote Nazareth’s history site:

it was their knack of coming up with totally fresh covers of strong songs written by other people that broke them abroad. They became huge in Canada after This Flight Tonight soared up the singles charts there, whilst reaching number 11 in Britain. Taken from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 Blue album, Nazareth’s version – produced by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover as part of the Loud’N’Proud sessions – is more than a re-working. What they’ve done is taken the song from its folk-ballad roots right through to heavy metal. Small wonder then that Joni Mitchell both was stunned by and loved this version, reportedly even calling it a Nazareth song from then on.

Here it is on iTunes – thanks, macuser.

The weird thing is that the Joni Mitchell original (at the iTunes Store) does sound rather watered-down compared to the Nazareth one, which has all sorts of weirdness going on in the background. There’s only a small number of cover versions which are better than the original. And there’s only a miniscule number of people who ever do a better version of a Joni Mitchell song. But this, amazingly, is one.

Travis did a good cover of “River”. But I can’t think of any others where the cover is better than the original apart from Nazareth’s. Any offers?


  1. How about Ziggy Stardust by Bahaus cf. Bowie ?
    a TOTP appearance around 1983 was fantastic.

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