How to Cover a Radiohead Song

Radiohead, The Darkness, Cee-Lo Geen, and Weezer.

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

The Darkness’s long-awaited album Hot Cakes came out this week, and for all the reputation they’ve got as neo-glam-rock songwriters, one of the niftiest things on the record is a cover: their version of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” which they’ve reinterpreted as post-Van Halen metal. It turns out to be an entirely apt song for that treatment — Thom Yorke’s weightless high notes get swapped out for Justin Hawkins’ hammer-of-the-gods jockstrap-tighteners with no ill effects, as long as you’re not expecting the two “Street Spirits” to work the same way.
It’s not the first remarkable Radiohead cover by a long shot, and it raises the question of why, exactly, it is that there are so many. Radiohead are way ahead of a lot of their contemporaries in the “excellent cover” stakes — there aren’t nearly as many first-rate versions of U2 or Green Day by other artists, for instance. My guess is that there are a handful of reasons in play. One is that Radiohead’s songs are mutable: If you strip out most of their signature sounds, there’s still enough to them that you can build them up in some other way.

That’s true of what might be the first major Radiohead cover — the Pretenders’ tender version of “Creep,” which they were playing as early as 1995, the year The Bends came out. (There aren’t a lot of bands formed in the ’70s who would have played a song by a newish band in the ’90s, but Chrissie Hynde’s got very good taste.)

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