31 Great Cover Versions Of The 1980s

We’ve briefly looked at crap cover versions before (though doubtless there’ll be more to come), but how about good ones from the 1980s?

It was quite easy coming up with a fairly long list. I guess the ultimate test is that at the time most people (including me) didn’t know – or didn’t care – that they were cover versions. There wasn’t a great deal of looking back in this golden period for pop.

But it did seem as if a lot of ’80s acts had the magic touch, or at least a total lack of fear, making almost everything sound like their own. Punk probably had quite a lot to do with that.

Some of the following choices get in for sheer weirdness but most are genuine artistic achievements. Recurring themes? The Beatles, Motown, Otis Redding. Probably not too much of a surprise there. And 1981 seems a particularly good year for covers.

Anyway, enough of my yakkin’. Let the countdown commence…

31. Ry Cooder: ’13 Question Method’ (1987)

Ry’s brilliant solo take on Chuck Berry from the Get Rhythm album.

30. Propaganda: ‘Sorry For Laughing’ (1985)

The Dusseldorf pop mavericks take on Josef K’s post-punk curio (apparently at Paul Morley’s urging) to produce a sweeping, majestic synth-pop classic.

29. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘Little Drummer Boy’ (1981)

28. Living Colour: ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ (1988)

27. Sting: ‘Little Wing’ (1987)

26. Randy Crawford/Yellowjackets: ‘Imagine’ (1981)

Who knew this would work? Sensitive and imaginative reading of the Lennon classic, with a classic Robben Ford guitar solo.

25. Lee Ritenour: ‘(You Caught Me) Smilin” (1981)

Gorgeous West-Coast version of Sly Stone’s pop/funk opus. Surely one of the most unlikely covers of the decade, but it works a treat.

24. Luther Vandross: ‘A House Is Not A Home’ (1982)

23. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’ (1980)

Originally a reggae track by The Slickers and first released on ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack in 1972, Martyn and drummer Phil Collins rearranged it and added some lyrics. It featured on John’s fantastic Grace And Danger album.

22. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)

Cracking version of Gloria Jones’ ’60s Northern Soul classic (written by Ed Cobb). A hit all over the world, with pleasingly remedial synth arrangement, instantly recognisable soundworld and classic intro.

21. Grace Jones: ‘Use Me’ (1981)

The Nightclubbing album featured a veritable smorgasbord of good cover versions, but this take on Bill Withers scores particularly highly for originality.

20. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1981)

19. The Replacements: ‘Cruela De Vil’ (1988)

From the brilliant Hal Willner-helmed Disney tribute album Stay Awake, you’d have been a brave punter to bet a dime on this one working, but work it does.

18. Quincy Jones: ‘Ai No Corrida’ (1981)

17. Donald Fagen: ‘Ruby Baby’ (1982)

16. Stanley Clarke: ‘Born In The USA’ (1985)

Who knows, maybe this could have provided Stanley with a novelty hit if CBS had been quicker off the mark. He references John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ in the intro while Rayford Griffin lays down seismic grooves and a funny old-school rap.

15. The Power Station: ‘Get It On’ (1985)

‘If cocaine was a sound…’, as a YouTube wag described it. This near-hysterical rave-up is mainly the sound of a fun late-night jam (Tony Thompson’s drumming being particularly notable). Also check out guitarist Andy Taylor’s little ode to Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down The House’ throughout.

14. Deborah And The Puerto Ricans: ‘Respect’ (1981)

A one-off solo single from The Flying Lizards’ singer, this Dennis Bovell-produced curio missed the charts but remains a fascinating post-punk artefact.

13. Roxy Music: ‘In The Midnight Hour’ (1980)

Roxy’s first cover version presumably raised some eyebrows but the lads pull it off with some aplomb, aided by Allan Schwartzberg’s tough NYC drum groove – and the fact that Bryan Ferry can’t resist adding some typical weirdness in the first 20 seconds.

12. Ringo Starr & Herb Alpert: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (1988)

Another once-heard-never-forgotten cracker from the aforementioned Stay Awake collection, the album version is preceded by a very menacing Ken Nordine spoken-word intro.

11. Japan: ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ (1980)

David Sylvian probably hates this but no matter. It’s hard to think of another band pulling it off. Ominous synthscapes from Richard Barbieri, a nice recorder solo by Mick Karn and brilliant ‘where’s-one?’ beat from Steve Jansen.

10. Everything But The Girl: ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (1988)

It definitely divides opinion, but certainly fits the ‘sounds like they wrote it’ criterion.

9. Bananarama & Fun Boy Three: ‘Really Saying Something’ (1982)

Penned by Motown songsmiths Norman Whitfield, Micky Stevenson and Edward Holland Jr and first performed by The Velvelettes in 1964, it’s hard not to smile when this comes on the radio. I love the way the ladies pronounce ‘strutting’.

8. David Bowie: ‘Kingdom Come’ (1980)

The Dame’s magnificent take on a little-known track from Tom Verlaine’s 1978 debut album.

7. UB40: ‘Red Red Wine’ (1983)

No apologies for including this Neil Diamond-penned perennial. Great bassline, nice groove, lovely Ali Campbell vocal performance.

6. Phil Collins: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (1981)

Phil closed his Face Value album with this oft-forgotten corker, featuring a classic John Giblin bassline (later cribbed by Pearl Jam for the opening of their ‘Once’) and cool Shankar violin.

5. Robert Palmer: ‘Not A Second Time’ (1980)

Robert adds some New Wave grit to this Lennon-penned rocker, and his singing has rarely been better.

4. Siouxsie And The Banshees: ‘Dear Prudence’ (1983)

3. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ (1982)

First recorded by The Arrows in 1975, this is simply one of the great singles of the 1980s and a huge hit to boot.

2. Hue & Cry: ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ (1988)

It shouldn’t work but it does, courtesy of singer Pat Kane’s excellent tone and phrasing. His trademark ‘na-na-na-na’s help too. I wonder what Kate thought of it.

1. Blondie: ‘The Tide Is High’ (1980)

Written by reggae legend John Holt and first performed by The Paragons in 1966, this was an inspired – if somewhat cheesy – choice for the band. It’s mainly included here for Debbie Harry’s delightfully off-the-cuff vocal, sounding like her first crack at the song.

Any great tracks missing? Feel free to chime in below.

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Three Angry 1980s Songs About Managers

Grey_Double-Buttoned_Suit_JacketManagers, eh? In 1997, David Bowie said, ‘They’re a species I really have nothing to do with’, an unsurprising position considering his disastrous earlier experiences with Tony Defries. By the late ’70s, he’d sworn off them forever.

But, in the rock and pop world, it’s almost a rite of passage to be ripped off by a manager. As the old music biz saying goes: where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.

There were certainly a number of dodgy characters hanging around in the 1980s, generally wearing cheap suits and deafening aftershave. Japan/Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell knows where all the bodies are buried: he told all in ‘Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay’, his jaw-dropping account of record business skulduggery. And Giles Smith’s hilarious ’80s memoir ‘Lost In Music‘ outlined his doomed-to-fail attempts at pop stardom whilst being hamstrung every step of the way by chronically-inept ‘career adviser’ Pete The Bastard.

Basically, for every Bruce Findlay (Simple Minds), Ed Bicknell (Dire Straits) or Paul McGuinness (U2) – the nominal ‘fifth member of the band’ – there’s probably a Colonel Tom Parker or Defries in the wings.

Here are three prime 1980s acts who turned on their ex-managers in the best way they knew how.

3. XTC: ‘I Bought Myself A Liarbird’ (1984)

For many years, songwriter Andy Partridge was unable to discuss this song due to ‘legal issues’ with the band’s former manager Ian Reid (the sticking points seemed to be a huge unpaid VAT bill and also work/life balance, or lack of it…). Partridge delivers a pretty caustic portrait of the ‘starmaker machinery behind the popular song’, as Joni Mitchell called it. XTC settled out of court with Reid in 1989.

I bought myself a liarbird
He came with free drinks
Just to blur the lies falling out like rain
On an average English summer’s afternoon

I bought myself a new notebook
Sharpened my guitar and went to look
If this biz was just as bongo as the liarbird made out

All he would say is ‘I can make you famous’
All we would say: ‘Just like a household name’
Is all he would say

Methinks world is for you
Made of what you believe
If it’s false or it’s true
You can read it in your bible
Or on the back of this record sleeve

I bought myself a liarbird
Things got more and more absurd
It changed to a cuckoo
And expanded, filling up with all I gave

I bought myself a big mistake
He grew too greedy, bough will break
And then we will find that liarbirds
Are really flightless on their own

Methinks world is for you
There’s no handing it back
If it’s false or it’s true
You can read it in your prayer book
Or on the side of a cornflake pack

I gave away a liarbird
A couple less drinks
And now I’ve heard the truth shining out like sun
On an average English winter’s afternoon

2. John Martyn: ‘John Wayne’ (1986)

This Eastern-tinged, dramatic doom-ballad was initially written as a diatribe against Martyn’s early-’80s manager Sandy Roberton. The main problem seemed to be ‘cashflow’, judging from the lyric below… After a rewrite and the adding of a soupçon of humour (as well as some of John’s ‘strangled duck’ vocals, as he called them), it also became a cheeky portrait of the type of ball-busting, all-American bullyboy represented by Duke Wayne and Martyn’s old favourite Ronald Reagan. He even managed to include a classic Pinteresque euphemism: ‘I’ll measure you – fit you up!’

You know you’ve got it coming
I’ll tell it to you straight
I’m coming for you very soon
I’ll never hesitate
I’ll measure you
And fit you up

I am John Wayne
I do believe I’m John Wayne
I am John Wayne
Drink your milk!

Don’t you dare look behind you
You know I will be there
You’ll feel my breath on your neck
Turn, face me if you dare

I am John Wayne
I believe I’m John Wayne
Get on your horse!

You felt the money flowing
You watched the beast arrive
Watch the money going away
Time to skin the lamb alive

1. Prince: ‘Bob George’ (1987)

Black Album curio ‘Bob George’ was recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound as a present for Sheila E, and premièred at her Vertigo club birthday bash on 11th December 1986. Engineer Susan Rogers explained the genesis of this bizarre, self-mocking, X-rated piece: ‘Prince felt (Billboard music critic) Nelson George had become very critical of him all of a sudden, at a stage in his career where he needed all the help he could get. (Manager) Bob Cavallo also ticked him off.’ Roots of this discord may have lain in Prince’s wish to release the triple-album Crystal Ball as the follow-up to Parade, a wish that fell on deaf ears during negotiations with Prince’s record company Warner Bros. Maybe Prince felt that Cavallo hadn’t pushed hard enough on his behalf, terminally affecting their working relationship – Cavallo was given the push just after the release of the Batman album 18 months later. (Is ‘Bob George’ also a homage to/pastiche of Miles Davis? Ed.)

Chris Rea’s On The Beach: 30 Years Old Today

chris reaMagnet/Geffen Records, released 1st April 1986

6/10

I don’t really do ‘guilty pleasures’ (some would say a love of ’80s music is a guilty pleasure in itself), but if I did, I guess this would be one.

Rea has – a little unfairly – never quite been able to escape a slightly dodgy image here in the UK, but, along with George Michael, he was probably the most popular male British singer/songwriter of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Maybe he was just too popular.

The breakthrough/breakdown was 1989’s ‘The Road To Hell’, so close to the Dire Straits sound as to be almost parody. I preferred the more laidback, distinctive Rea of the mid-’80s.

But he’s always been a solid songwriter, great guitarist and distinctive vocalist. He started out pushing the glossy AOR and light, folky pop, enjoying a huge US hit with ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ in 1978 (later claiming that early producer Gus Dudgeon had blunted the ‘bluesier’ elements of his sound). His career seemed to be hitting a cul-de-sac in the early ’80s, but On The Beach was one of the albums that turned things around, the beginning of his commercial peak.

rea back cover

It taps into the same kind of jazzy, introspective pop/soul sound that the likes of John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison were flirting with in the same period, helped by an excellent band including Fairport Convention/XTC drummer Dave Mattacks, Martin Ditcham on percussion and Max Middleton on keys. Rea also plays an impressive array of instruments himself, including fretless bass and synth.

Listening in one sitting to On The Beach again, the first thing that struck me is its almost relentlessly downbeat vibe. But the opening title track, with its lilting Latin-tinged groove and jazz chords, perfectly introduces the album’s themes of lost innocence and childhood reminiscences. The moment when Mattacks lays into his fat snare drum for the first time is one of my favourite ’80s drumming moments (but I wasn’t keen on the re-recording of the track that became a hit in 1988).

‘Little Blonde Plaits’ is a vehicle for Middleton’s expressive Mini Moog, very redolent of his atmospheric playing on John Martyn’s Glorious Fool. There’s further ethereal jazziness on ‘Just Passing Through’, featuring a really lovely vocal performance and tasty solo guitar from Rea. ‘It’s All Gone’ ups the ante with some subtle Donald Fagen-style synths and excellent lyrics, and the groovy extended outro is close enough for jazz/funk with some empathetic Mattacks drums alongside Middleton’s fine Fender Rhodes solo.

On The Beach was a decent hit in the UK, reaching 11 in the album chart and selling over 300,000 copies. After this, Rea’s music became increasingly rootsy with elements of blues, country and rock’n’roll; he started channelling Dire Straits and ZZ Top rather than John Martyn and consequently enjoyed much more commercial success.

But On The Beach‘s four or five choice tracks are still my favourite Rea moments of the ’80s.

John Martyn: Glorious Fool 34 Years On

john-martyn-glorious-foolWEA Records, released September 1981

9/10

Putting together my top 15 album list recently (and a dead laptop necessitating a break from this blog for a while) had an interesting knock-on effect: I actually spent some time listening to my choices.

Glorious Fool was possibly the one that surprised and pleased me the most (I listened to it on the original WEA cassette which sounds miles better than the CD master for some reason).

The general critical consensus is that John Martyn lost his way in the ‘80s, donning the suit, ditching the acoustic guitar and burying his music in synths, soft saxophones and stodgy productions. But it’s an overly simplistic view. I would put Glorious Fool and the previous Grace And Danger (not forgetting 1990’s The Apprentice) right up there with any of his fabled ‘70s stuff.

Certainly his compositions were more musically demanding, but John’s lyrics were still pithy and his chords as dark and rich as ever. It’s just that often he was concentrating on his singing a lot more in this period – no bad thing – and so often delegated the main harmonic accompaniment to a keyboard rather than his guitar. But he still often gave himself ample solo space on his trusty Les Paul or Strat.

John-Martyn24

The ‘80s started fairly unpromisingly for John. He was still in turmoil over the breakup with wife Beverley, and the release of his classic Grace And Danger album had been delayed for 18 months, Island Records label boss Chris Blackwell believing it to be terminally uncommercial.

It was finally released in June 1980 to excellent reviews and reasonable sales but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as John’s relationship with Island was concerned.

His new manager Sandy Roberton got him a deal with Warner Brothers and also helped put together a cracking new band including ex-Jeff Beck keys player Max Middleton, Latin percussionist Danny Cummings and hotshot Glaswegian bassist Alan Thomson.

Martyn’s mucker and partner-in-heartbreak Phil Collins also returned on drums and production. John said at the time, ‘I wasn’t married. I thought: let’s go for it, let’s make some money and make a band.’

In June 1981, they all convened at the Townhouse Studios on the Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, West London, to commence work on Glorious Fool. During the recording, John was living in the small apartment above the studio, and would often undertake vocal duties in the wee hours of the morning, slightly the worse for wear and clad only in his dressing gown!

It’s clear that John’s failed marriage is still very much the emotional currency of his songwriting. ‘Pascanel (Get Back Home)’, ‘Hearts And Keys’ and ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’ are almost embarrassingly candid in their evocation of the contrasting emotions spawned by a relationship breakdown, everything from pure love and raw lust to rage, despair, envy, pleading and desolation. Just a typical evening with John Martyn then, by all accounts…

The furious ‘Never Say Never’ kicks off with Martyn screaming ‘Shuddup! Close your mouth!’ over Collins’ trademark tom fills. Brilliant. ‘Perfect Hustler’ and ‘Didn’t Do That’ are more comic evocations of lost love, the former featuring Martyn sarcastically taunting his paramour about her suave, Latin-dancing boyfriend, and wondering if he has ‘gold teeth in’! In contrast, ‘Hold On My Heart’ is an unashamedly soft, romantic love song, the nearest the album comes to an early ’80s Collins or Genesis ballad.

Elsewhere, ‘Don’t You Go’ is a heartbreaking anti-war folk ballad, with John’s moving vocal accompanied only by Collins’ piano and ghostly vocoder. The title track takes a satirical look at the then-newly-elected president Ronald Reagan while ‘Amsterdam’ is a harrowing portrait of a close friend’s funeral in the Dutch capital (after an unrequited obsession with a local prostitute). It features a nasty, brutal groove, sort of John’s version of post-punk, and the haunting refrain: ‘The night the kid left Amsterdam…’ It’s the ‘80s flipside to ‘Solid Air’, another tribute to a fallen comrade (Nick Drake).

Another reason for Glorious Fool’s success is the sheer quality of the musicianship. Collins has never played better, coming up with three or four classic beats and demonstrating a perfect understanding of what each song requires, and the whole band can turn on a dime. They’re just as comfortable with the Weather Report-style Latin/fusion groove of ‘Didn’t Do That’ as they are with the slinky Little Feat flavours of ‘Couldn’t Love You More’, driving hard rock of ‘Amsterdam’ or ambient balladry of ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’.

The album was a reasonable success, hitting number 25 on the UK album charts and staying in the top 100 for seven weeks, and the critics were generally onside. It also made for a very interesting companion piece to Collins’ Face Value, released six months before. You don’t need me to tell you which record sold more copies, but I doubt John lost much sleep over it.

For much more about Glorious Fool and John’s stellar career, check out ‘Some People Are Crazy’ by John Neil Munro and also this excellent BBC4 documentary.