Version Tracker examines how different artists have performed the same song over the years, adapting it to suit their own needs and times.
In 1962, singer-songwriter Billy Roberts copyrighted “Hey Joe,” a grim-but-catchy folk song derived from various traditional murder-ballads, about a casual conversation between a man and his friend who’d just shot and killed a woman. The lyrics fit into a simple framework, with lots of room for improvisation and addition, but in their most basic form, they’re a lot like this:
Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that money in your hand?
Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that money in your hand?
Chasin’ my woman, she run off with another man.
Hey Joe, I heard you shot you woman dead.
Hey Joe, I heard you shot your woman dead.
Yes I did, I got both of them lying in that bed.
Roberts played the song first on the Greenwich Village hootenanny scene, and then in San Francisco after he moved out west. But before he had a chance to record and release his own version, Roberts learned that his old New York pal Chet Powers—by then renamed “Dino Valenti”—had been auditioning it around Los Angeles for bands in the fledgling folk-rock scene, claiming it as his own. Around the same time, another Greenwich refugee, Tim Rose, starting performing “Hey Joe” and saying that it was a standard he’d learned as a boy, given his own new arrangement. To this day, the actual origin and authorship of “Hey Joe” is unclear (though Roberts has the strongest claim, and generally gets the credit).
What is clear is that the song arrived in popular culture at just the right time, and resonated with a generation of young musicians enamored of old Americana and romantic gloom. In the mid-to-late 1960s, “Hey Joe” became a set-list staple in rock clubs, coffeehouses, and garages, and was so identified with the music and the mood of the era that the cover versions in subsequent decades—and there have been many—have at times seemed like an effort either to co-opt or subvert the original’s 1960s cachet.
The initial wave of “Hey Joe” popularity is largely attributable to three Los Angeles-based groups, who all recorded similarly uptempo versions around the same time. The Leaves were the first in 1965, though they were unhappy with the sound of their first attempt, and tried twice more to get it right, finally releasing their definitive take in 1966 after Love and The Byrds had recorded their own. (David Crosby had reportedly been encouraging his Byrd-mates to do “Hey Joe” since 1964, and finally won them over after they heard what The Leaves and Love had done.) The garage-rockers recording “Hey Joe” over the next couple of years—including The Music Machine, The Shadows Of Knight, and the early Chicano-rock act Los Locos—were largely feeding off the energy that generated by The Leaves, Love, and The Byrds. Following this model, the song races along like a fugitive, accompanied by slashing guitar noise and breathy vocals. It sounds exciting, crude, and appealing archaic. It’s no wonder then that by the end of 1966, “Hey Joe” joined “I Know You Rider” as a de facto part of any halfway respectable shaggy-haired band’s repertoire. Grades: B+/A-/B-
While the fast “Hey Joe” was dominating the Sunset Strip, in New York Tim Rose was playing a slower, bluesier version, which sounded more like the spooky old folk song Rose claimed it was. His kind of arrangement was better suited to The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s power-trio format, and to the explosive blues-rock sound that was emerging from the U.K. at the time—a movement that Hendrix joined when he started playing extensively overseas. Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” was his first single, and became a Top 10 hit in England. To many, it’s the definitive version—so heavy and so haunted—and the one that changed the way the song was generally performed in the years that followed. (Cher, for example, had a minor hit in 1967 with her Hendrix/Rose-styled “Hey Joe.”) Grades: A-/A
In the 1970s, Deep Purple was the prototype for a particular type of heavy metal act: ear-splitting and groove-driven. But on its debut album the band showed more psychedelic and prog-rock influences. Deep Purple’s “Hey Joe” (originally credited on the label to its members, and later changed to Billy Roberts) follows the Hendrix blueprint, though it’s in no hurry to get to work. This version has an intro and a break that bear exotic Spanish influences, with insinuating Latin rhythms running beneath noodly organ. Those superfluous (but entertainingly mysterious) touches give this “Hey Joe” a more grandiose, almost overpowering feel. Grade: B+
How ubiquitous was “Hey Joe” in the late 1960s counterculture? So much so that when Frank Zappa parodied hippiedom on The Mothers Of Invention’s third album We’re Only In It For The Money, he worked in a snotty version of the song that he called “Flower Punk,” which begins with the line, “Hey punk where you goin’ with that flower in your hand?” (The answer? “Up to Frisco.”) Before the track is over, Zappa and the Mothers work in a riff on “Wild Thing” and a sputtering spoken-word segment about how proud they are to make music for—and take cash from—“the youth of today.” Grade: B
Whether fast or slow, a lot of the early “Hey Joe”s seem to approximate the vibe of a backwoods bar, where drunken folks prod each other to make bad decisions. Wilson Pickett has the soulful rasp of a roadhouse singer, but his cover of the song—which hit the pop and R&B charts—has a classier sound, stacking organ, guitar, and horns into a hybrid of gospel, funk, and big band. Pickett also splits the difference between the slow Hendrix and fast Leaves interpretations. He and his band—featuring the Muscle Shoals session players and members of Cold Grits—closed out the “Hey Joe” decade with a version that synthesizes the best of what had come before. Grade: A-
Smith, a proto-punk poet and savvy cultural critic, made an impact in mid-1970s New York with performances that dug out the meaning of raw, primal rock ’n’ roll, by telling stories that explored the sexual and political implications cut into the grooves of a beloved old 45. Her debut single combined a rumination about Patty Hearst with a mournful “Hey Joe,” putting a familiar song in a new context and making it sound more alive and more relevant than it had in years—a new arrangement for a bleaker decade. Grade: A
During the rise of synthpop, some bands deliberately provoked skeptical older critics by rewriting rock ‘n’ roll’s sacred texts in their own style. Soft Cell’s 10-minute “Hendrix Medley” isn’t as gutsy as Devo’s robotic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—and is kind of tedious as a song, honestly—but it does show how the basic form of “Hey Joe” is flexible enough to work even with robotic rhythms and synthesizers. Some of the soul and meaning is lost, but even that’s compelling in a way, in that it raises long overdue questions of where the heart of the song really lies: in its words, its mood, or its tune? Grade: C+
Unlike Soft Cell’s wholesale 1980s-izing of a 1960s classic, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “Hey Joe” brings back the song’s grim menace by calling back to minimalist blues, European cabaret, and mid-20th century avant-garde. Appearing on 1986’s Kicking Against The Pricks—a whole album of covers, paying homage to the artists and styles that inspired Cave—The Bad Seeds’ “Hey Joe” recalls the pre-pop era that inspired Billy Roberts and Tim Rose, though not necessarily the musicians of that time. Like the rest of the album, this track is primarily a piece of theater, putting the song’s story front and center and emphasizing its bloody tragedy. Grade: B+
The two most prominent 1990s “Hey Joe” covers may have had different motivations, but they both came out sounding like products of the same era. The Offspring’s grinding, punky rendition—actually recorded twice, once before the band’s platinum-level success and once after—is in the spirit of acts like Soft Cell who’ve covered the song as a kind of bratty statement, to prove that they have as much right to it as anybody. As for Ice-T’s thrash band Body Count, the version they did for the Hendrix tribute Stone Free follows the basic arrangement and tone of the Experience, but with the arena-sized boom of the alt-rock age. Body Count’s “Hey Joe” is more respectful of its source, though that doesn’t keep Ice-T from giving the track a modern sheen. Grades: B-/C+
Murphy closed out his third (and final) pop/R&B LP with an epic seven-minute “Hey Joe” cover that asks the question, “How long will a rich, powerful comedian who can’t sing be allowed to do a painful Hendrix impression?” The answer: As long as he likes. A better question might be, “How long can an Eddie Murphy fan listen to this before bailing on it?” Take the challenge! Grade: D-
Jazz pianist Mehldau has made it his mission to relate his music to his own generation, by recording covers of songs like Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” and Sufjan Stevens’ “Holland.” Doing a number as well-known as “Hey Joe” is a riskier move, because done badly, it could sounded like toothless lounge music. The Brad Mehldau Trio though work through it nimbly, playing up the percussive elements. Ever since the 1960s boom in “Hey Joe”s, subsequent cover versions have grappled with the song as a period piece—reacting either to the decade that spawned it or to the music that inspired it—but this instrumental version is a reminder that it’s still a composition, with a sticky melody that players as accomplished as Mehldau and his sidemen can pull apart and explore. Grade: B+
Ideal cover: The ultimate “Hey Joe” would fall somewhere between Hendrix, Love, and Patti Smith, with maybe a touch of Wilson Pickett. How about one that starts fast, breaks for a spoken word segment, and then ends slower and bluesier, with a full brass section? That’d be a version that would honor the history of the song while attempting to narrow down where the tension and excitement of “Hey Joe” really lies—in what it’s actually about, or in how its story of jealousy and murder gets told?
Ideal artist: Who wouldn’t want to hear Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings bring some earthiness and musicality to one of pop’s best-known songs?