Music Blogs

Top 5 Tom Waits covers

  • By AndyVale
  • 9 August 2012

After teasing an announcement for the last week or so, Tom Waits unveiled his new video for 'Hell Broke Luce' yesterday. As with most things Waits it was met with fawning adoration, cautious curiosity or outright disgust depending on who heard it. I thought it was alright.

Tom Waits is one of those artists that can be a bit difficult to get into. His vocal style for much of his career has been a gravelly scowl, his instrumentation can be eclectic and he has no stand-out hits. You could legitimately make two completely different, strong "best of" collections and it wouldn't be clear what the better group of songs is.

If the whole Tom Waits hype has passed you by (it's only been going for 40 years) then I thought I'd write something to help you get into him. However, I did that on Facebook once and nobody showed any interest. So I thought I'd try something different.

There are many elements of his music that don't sit well with everyone, but even the harshest critic would admit that in terms of pure songwriting Waits has dug up more than his fair share of gems. As a result, his back catalogue has been pillaged by artists looking to drop a respectable cover. Bruce Springsteen, Norah Jones, Johnny Cash, Tori Amos, Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Patty Smyth, Joan Baez, Joe Bonamassa and many many more have all recorded his songs or played them live. Scarlett Johansson even did a whole album of his songs.

So I thought it would be fun to trawl through the archives and find the best five Tom Waits songs that have ever been created. Go:

5. Meat Loaf - Martha

Tim Buckley's version of Martha in 1973 was the first cover of a Tom Waits song by a well-known artist. Unfortunately, it's crap so I'm not including it. Fast forward 22 years and The Loaf had a go on his Welcome to the Neighbourhood album.

His quivering operatic vocals take the novel-like feel of the original and turn into an oscar-worthy piece of cinema. Also, unlike Buckley's version it includes the ambiguous heart-wrenching final line.

4. Bomb the Music Industry - Anywhere I Lay My Head

There is a studio version of this track, but I thought I'd post up this stumbling, ranting mess of a live clip. It's loud, incoherent and looks like it's being played at the back of a bowling alley or a youth club. Lurching into the surrounding crowd it's pretty much impossible to tell who is in the band and who isn't as everyone yells the lyrics with equal conviction and ferocity.

Then the musical outro sounds like a dying NES and I'm pretty sure there's a Space Invaders or Galaga sample thrown in. People bow and everyone is happy.

3. The Ramones - I Don't Want To Grow Up

The Ramones give their no-nonsense spin on this one and make it sound like one of their own while keeping the intended playfulness of the song. However, as it's on their fourteenth and final album the song takes on an element of sadness. They did grow up shortly afterwards and most of them are now dead, but we still have the music.

To return the favour Tom also covered two Ramones tracks later on, including a wistful version of 'Danny Says'.

2. Rod Stewart - Downtown Train


Now we've got that out of the way, here's why I think Rod's shiny and radio-friendly 80s cover is worthy of such a high place. Almost everything that's good about Tom's version isn't here. There's one thing that remains though, one pivotal factor that takes what was otherwise a forgettable effort and makes it so noteworthy (to me) in the vast canon of Waits covers.

Rod's voice captures the optimistic desperation of the original. Amidst the cheesy, dated production and overblown pomp, Rod still gets the point of the song. Stewart alone nails the intrinsic value of the song while it soars off into the outer exosphere over everything else's head. This duality is in itself a beautiful thing, highlighting the difficulties of combining the emotive artiste with the record selling goliath that they have to work with.

1. Camille O'Sullivan - A Good Man Is Hard To Find

In this version Camille embodies the gleefully distant character that Tom seemed to be singing as in his original version. On top of that it's beguiling, entertaining and sounds like it fell right out of a wartime dance hall.

So those are the OFFICIAL best five Tom Waits covers. But if you think you know better then feel free to contest the decisions in the comments box below.

Also, don't forget to look up the originals too!

Andy is a Supajam writer who has been a small-fry at numerous Commerical, BBC and Student radio stations over the last 6 years. He is also a music promoter in the South-East of the UK. He has a website where he interviews musicians with only one question, and he is currently typing in third-person. You can tweet abuse at him if you fancy letting off some steam.