There have been thousands upon thousands of articles and lists about Prince since his tragic passing on April 21, 2016. Since then, I seem to have formed something of a repeated habit, where I stay up late at night trawling the internet, watching performances and interviews of this shining purple star, a wizard of all things plucked and strummed and sung and danced. While it’s been incredible to watch how many other artists have paid tribute to Prince by covering his songs, I’ve loved discovering the covers that he played of other artist’s tracks even more. His unique, passionate, diverse and obviously perfectly arranged takes on all manner of genres continues to remind me of the brilliance this world has lost.
David Bowie, Heroes
Prince performed this cover a number of times in between the deaths of David Bowie and of course, his own. This particular cover was recorded exactly one week before his own death – his final performance on this planet, just him, his piano and his microphone. It sweeps, it soars, and once you get past the shitty crowd members shouting at him throughout, I guarantee this falsetto-laden stunner will bring tears to your eyes.
This cover reduced me to tears a number of times after Bowie’s death. Now that they are both gone I cannot quite explain the emotion it unfolds. While there’s no full video footage of this one currently available, it is the only full version of the song I can find. You can hear snippets of other versions here and here.
Tommy James and the Shondells, Crimson & Clover
Prince performed the classic Crimson and Clover on the Ellen Degeneres show back in 2009. Perhaps one of the most covered songs in rock history, Prince’s is undoubtedly one of the best and most unique. The huge soundscape is at once beautifully melodic and aggressively grungy; while his honeyed melody in the verses simply glimmer with romance and passion, the classic call-and-response riff is explosively distorted and remarkably heavy – not something we’re typically used to from the purple one. Meanwhile, the entire track is littered with a full range of guitar licks that go between sounding like lovely Van Morrison lines and insane AC/DC rock ‘n roll. Just wow.
Led Zeppelin, Whole Lotta Love
Now this is a cover that I somehow only discovered this week. I had no idea Prince had ever played Led Zep, but holy hell am I glad I found out. This five-minute cover is one of the most wildly experimental performances I’ve watched of Prince’s. He goes all out with this psyched-out cover of the Led Zeppelin II opening track. It is nothing short of remarkable, a testament to not only his prowess, but his phenomenal diversity. From opening the track with straight up rock ‘n roll riffs and an incredible falsetto melody, it freaks out more and more as the track progresses. He toys with sound and space, distortion and reverb as though testing just how far he could push it. At the end, he lays the guitar down on its back and covers it with a handkerchief before walking away.
This might be one of the most famous of Prince’s covers, purely because of how mythically unlistenable it was for nearly eight years. In 2008, Prince played Coachella, including a cover of Radiohead’s breakout single Creep. The verses were gentle and shimmeringly contemplative, while the choruses were fucking ridiculous, screeching out those famous words with every drop of wild energy in his body, and intense guitar work to match.
The story goes that Prince, ever the technophobe, continuously banned this song from appearing online in spite of the original writer, Thom Yorke, having gone on record saying “Really? He’s blocked it? Well, tell him to unblock it. It’s our … song.” Only in December last year did Prince himself finally allow this song to surface legally. Enjoy.
Jimi Hendrix, Red House (titled Purple House)
This is another one I only discovered after Prince’s death. While many of us are familiar with the show-stopping two minute cover of All Along The Watchtower performed within Prince’s Super Bowl halftime performance in 2007, this ten-minute version of Hendrix’s sleazy blues romp is un-freaking-believable. The full band, including sax and organ solos, multiple vocalists and more, all weaved together by Prince, start of slowly and sparsely. He takes his time, creating a seductively bluesy atmosphere, lazily falling into each impasse of that familiar riff, inviting others to take the lead in between his own features. His vocal range is really pushed throughout too, bellowing out what must surely be some of the lowest notes in his range, right next to the super-high falsetto.
And the solos. Oh, my god. Even for Prince’s standards this is something else.
The Beatles, While My Guitar Gently Weeps
It would not be a list of Prince’s best covers without mentioning this song. Along with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Windwood and more, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame paid tribute to George Harrison in 2004 by bringing these artists together to perform While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
Although he remains predominantly in the shadows throughout the first half of the track, he comes out at 3:24, donning a black and red suit, Prince’s almost three-minute guitar solo is without doubt one of the best guitar solos ever, period. He demonstrates pretty much every type of guitar playing possible, from intensely fast shredding to power chords, to wailing soars, strumming, harmonics and more, and at one point even leaned backwards over the pit and was lifted back up (although he probably would have just floated up if nobody was there.) This moment truly reminded the world of his unparalleled proficiency, forever cementing his abilities as one of the greatest guitarists in history.
This one’s not really a cover, but I absolutely love this clip. Q-tip was performing his track Vivrant Thing when Prince seems to have randomly got up, grabbed Q’s guitarist’s guitar, and did his thing.
While Prince was critical of a lot of hip-hop, he knew good shit when he heard it. Reportedly a massive Kendrick Lamar fan (he was supposed to appear on To Pimp A Butterfly), you can see the pair playing together here. Meanwhile, read Talib Kweli’s beautiful recounts of Prince encounters here.
You can see and hear Q-Tip’s energy immediately shoot up when he takes to the stage, not to mention the thunderous applause and audience cheers. Although it only lasts a short minute, it is wonderful.
Finally, this is not a cover either, but I had to add it in anyway. You’ve made it this far, you deserve a little surprise. Prince was a goddamn musical god on more instruments than one, and this outrageous bass solo proves it. I’ll let it speak for itself.
Image: Rolling Stone