Song covers can be amazing or can go terribly wrong, but even when I hate a cover, I’m intrigued by different interpretations of the same material. To me, song covers are the most accessible form of art imitation. Movies and television shows can be remade, but the time and money poured into those projects mean few interpretations will ever get to us. In art and literature, plagiarism is so hard to avoid. You can be inspired by previous work, borrow from source material, and play on archetypes, but to avoid being unoriginal, so much must be changed. Song covers can be done by any musician willing to jump into the process, and give us an entirely different experience of the same song. So, with that, here’s my roundup and ranking of covers of “The Guns of Brixton.” I hope to make cover roundups a recurring feature here!
In 1979, The Clash released “The Guns of Brixton,” a song about the building frustrations over bleak economic circumstances, racial tension, and police force in the London district of Brixton. In 1981, the tension erupted into full-fledged riots, about which you can read a great retrospective here.
The song has since been covered by a multitude of artists. Below are my rankings:
Gold Medal: Jimmy Cliff just kills it. This cover is the most similar to the original without feeling like an imitation, and given the contextual significance (Cliff having played Ivan in “The Harder They Come,” to which the song gives a hat tip) makes it the obvious standout for me. Rancid’s Tim Armstrong is featured on the track, which feels overly appropriate for a Clash cover. 🙂
Silver Medal: Disclaimer: I’m a sucker for a hurdy gurdy. I love the moodiness in Arcade Fire’s cover. The anger feels a little forced, but the overall brooding in their version gets under my skin in the best way possible. It feels like something big and bad is right on the horizon. Hey, that’s what the song is about!
Bronze Medal: Calexico’s cover is creepy in a completely different, ghoulish way. I’m not crazy about the vocals, but I love the music – which is how I feel about Calexico in general.
Now to revel in the original.
Take issue with my rankings? Should The Clash stand alone? Comment below!