Cover versions of the 80s and 90s
Can you imagine the music business without songs that have been covered by different artists? Yes, many new releases are fresh, original songs, but many are also reworked versions of someone else’s former hit – or miss. Some cover versions of the 80s and 90s are fresh and original, doing something new with the tune. Rarely a track will even become almost unrecognisable. Other covers are just a rehash, and barely indistinguishable from the original.
New money for old rope
A typical example of the latter is ‘Uptown Girl’, first recorded in 1983. It is something of an anthem of my youth. The uplifting melody and simple premise are very appealing. It was a big hit, making the top 20 bestselling singles list – of the entire decade. To date, well over a million copies have been sold worldwide.
‘Uptown Girl’ was covered by Westlife, who released it in 2001. Now, I can see why Westlife would want to record it, it’s a great tune. But why would we want to buy it? I have no idea. The song is sung in the same way as Joel’s original, yet the vocals and backing music seem to me to be lacking in a certain something. Precisely that which made the original Joel version sing with quality.
Why cover a song, if you’re not going to do anything new with it? What’s the point? For Westlife, the point, presumably, was money. Maybe, they’d also lay claim to attempting to bring a great song to a younger audience. Fair enough, I guess. That doesn’t quite cut it for me… But perhaps that’s my problem, not theirs.
What we know and love
We all seem to claim that the music we grew up with was the best – well, my parents certainly did, singing the praises, in particular, of the Beatles and Deep Purple – among many others – all of whom came from the swinging sixties and glaring, flare-clad seventies. Apparently, my Dad saw Jimi Hendrix perform in Newcastle in the early 1970s. Really? He barely mentions it…
I favour the eighties and nineties, no doubt because I grew up with the music of those decades. Florence and the Machine’s 2009 cover of ‘You Got the Love’ annoyed me intensely; from the get-go I much preferred Candi Staton’s version from 1986. I was 12 in 1986; by 2009 I was 35.
Too old for very much new music perhaps, by then, let alone for substandard (as I saw it) new versions of the tunes that accompanied me, like old friends, through puberty, school, exams and university. Then into the grown-up worlds of work, travel, relationships and flat sharing.
Cover versions certainly don’t have to be good to be successful. Robson and Jerome’s version of ‘Unchained Melody’ had some sort of appeal that is invisible to the naked, suspecting eyes of many people, yet it was the top-selling single of 1995. ‘Good’ is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
No offence Robson, who’s from my own stomping ground – I do love your ‘Tales from Northumberland’, but that hit was just altogether too cheesy for my tastes. But give me pudding over a cheese-fest any day. Each to their own.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate all cover versions. I am fond of Alien Ant Farm’s 2001 cover of Michael Jackson’s 1988 hit ‘Smooth Criminal’. It’s a far rockier, grungier version, and I like both more-or-less equally. Both have their own merits, and Alien Ant Farm made the song their own by covering it from a whole new angle.
What? That’s a cover version?
Only relatively recently, did I discover that The Communards’ chart-topping hit, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ was not an original. The song was in fact first recorded in 1975, and was a hit both then and shortly after, in 1997. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ version, the original, reached the top 10 in both the UK and America, peaking at numbers 5 and 3 respectively.
Thelma Houston’s rendition was far more popular across the pond than here in Britain; it failed to reach our top 10, peaking at number 13 here, while in America it made number 1. I’m not familiar with the earlier versions, but The Communards’ cover is an absolute triumph. Praise be to the Reverend Coles and Mr Somerville.
The late, great George Michael even experimented with covers. He sang ‘Killer’, which had previously been a huge hit for Adamski and Seal, in 1991 at Wembley. It was also later released as part of the ‘Five Live’ EP, along with Michael’s rendition of ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ and two duets – ‘Somebody to Love’ with Queen, and ‘These are the Days of our Lives’. Again with Queen, and also featuring Lisa Stansfield.
All but the latter appeared on ‘Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael’, as well as ‘Don’t Let the Sun go Down on Me’, another duet, this time with Elton John. Michael also, of course, could be said to have covered one of his own songs, when he recorded ‘Freedom ’90’, following Wham’s ‘Freedom’ in 1984. Though the 2 songs are very different, both in terms of tune, lyrics and subject matter. The ’90 in the second title was added to differentiate between them.
Move on over, Valerie
Not a lot of time separates The Zutons’ ‘Valerie’ and Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson’s version, but the renditions are very different indeed. I’m a fan of both the 2006 original and the 2007 cover, so perhaps all is not lost. I didn’t stop liking all new music after the 1990s ended. In fact I liked the cover very much, too. It would be very hard to pick a favourite: both The Zutons’ and Ms Winehouse’s renditions feature in my personal music collection.
As for a song that sounds like it must be the original, I can’t think of a better example than The Mike Flowers Pops cover of ‘Wonderwall’. Even Noel Gallagher was reportedly asked by the media whether he had indeed penned the ditty. The cover is in the easy listening genre and, although I grew up during the 1990s indie, ‘Madchester’ and Britpop years, I do respect the Flowers version. Simply because he dared to put his own spin on a veritable pop classic from one of the UK’s biggest bands ever.
Not all cover versions are released as singles, or make it into the charts, of course. Many covers have a place in popular culture, and our lives, though other means. One of the very best covers I’ve ever heard was an uptempo, swing rendition of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, which featured on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017, performed by Dave Arch’s orchestra. ‘Wonderful!’, as Brucie himself would have proclaimed.
In the press recently, I read an interview with a semi-professional heavy metal guitarist, who claimed that one of his band’s stock covers was Britney Spears’ ‘(Hit me) Baby One more time’. The mind boggles.
Are cover versions a good or a bad thing? It very much depends on the rendition – and the listener. If I really like the artist, then I’ll probably like the cover. I was never going to dislike George Michael singing any decent song, for example. The best covers, I think, are those that do something fresh and new with the original material. After all, isn’t that what being an artist is all about?
I list my cover versions of the 80s and 90s hits and misses in my post on The Best Cover Songs.
Note – This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy via these, I may earn a small fee. This has absolutely no effect on the price you pay. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.