24 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.

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…

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)

Kicking off with an easy one, a 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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Tom Hibbert: ’80s Agent Provocateur

Maggie and Tom, 1987

Maggie and Tom, 1987

The PR boom that had swept the music business in the 1970s really hit its stride in the 1980s. MTV launched on August 1st 1981 and ensured that artists’ images were just as important as the musical package. In fact, a good image and strong video could sell an artist all over the world without any need to play live.

At the same time, the tabloid press had cottoned on to the power of music biz celebrity; columns like Bizarre and The 3am Girls, both of which featured in The Sun newspaper, were huge successes and reiterated that the public’s appetite for showbiz stories knew no bounds. PR and tabloid journalism were in their heyday, and they could make or break a career.

So thank goodness there was a writer like Tom Hibbert around. He cut through the PR schtick and exposed the chancers, pretenders and prima donnas of the ’80s for what they were, and in the process wrote some of the most pithy and hilarious music articles of all time. With his shoulder-length hair, ever-present fag/pint, disarmingly faux-naif style and penchant for obscure psych bands, he was always going to be more comfortable in the late-’60s than the preening mid-’80s (apparently he only really rated Iggy Pop, Jerry Garcia, Syd Barrett and Ray Davies from the ‘pop’ world).

Q Magazine, Issue One, October 1986

The first issue of Q, October 1986

Later, with his work on Smash Hits and particularly Q Magazine, he invented a whole new, much-imitated lexicon of music journalism. He would begin pieces with expressions like: ‘Phew, rock’n’roll, eh, readers?’ David Bowie was rechristened as The Dame, Cliff as Sir Clifford Of Richard, Paul McCartney as Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft and Freddie Mercury as Lord Frederick Lucan Of Mercury. The gentle piss-taking was quite a change from the reverential Melody Maker/Sounds era. When commissioned to write a biography of Billy Joel, Hibbert apparently wrote most of it about Joel’s almost totally unknown psych band, The Hassles, and dismissed the rest of his career in the final chapter!*

Tom hit his stride writing the notorious ‘Who The Hell Do They Think They Are’ articles in Q which generally exposed and belittled the more gullible, self-important celebs of the ’80s, usually from the world of music. He was given a right bollocking by Jerry Lee Lewis after one too many questions about The Killer’s rivalry with Elvis:

‘Don’t nit-pick me, boy! You mention Elvis to me again, you keep digging me about that and I’m gonna kill you, so help me God!’

Ringo_Starr_(2007)

He pulled off a similar trick with Ringo, ignoring instructions from the PR and asking repeated questions about The Beatles. Mr Starkey could contain himself no longer, bawling:

‘You’re talking shit!’

Tom also elicited some seriously weird recollections from Chuck Berry and Yoko, and managed to nail topless-model-turned-pop-star Samantha Fox, Bananarama, Bros and Gary Glitter with his disarming, give-’em-enough-rope-to-hang-themselves style. He flew to Brazil and tracked down notorious train robber/friend of the Sex Pistols Ronnie Biggs, and – perhaps predictably – got along quite well with him.

At the height of Q’s popularity in 1987, Tom was given the dream gig: an audience with Thatcher. She obviously thought this would be a golden chance to woo the nation’s ‘youth’ but came nicely unstuck when she gleefully revealed that her favourite singer was Cliff and favourite song ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window’. You can read the interview here.

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Tom also interviewed actor Rupert Everett in 1987, at a time when the thespian was trying to reposition himself as a credible pop singer. Hibbert’s preamble to the interview ran thus:

He wears the soiled leather jacket and the shades (on this drab and rainy day) of the rock star, but his attempt at the street-damaged look is foiled somewhat by the poise and delivery of the effete and English ac-tor. Close your eyes as he talks and you might imagine him to be dressed in a velveteen smoking jacket, and that it were a delicate ebony cigarette holder he was chewing on rather than a lettuce and tomato sandwich…

Later interviews with Status Quo, Boy George, Roger Waters, Television and Jonathan Richman make me chuckle to this day, and some of them are in this collection.

Son of esteemed historian Christopher Hibbert, Tom was born and brought up in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. His early career involved writing for home-improvement periodicals and playing guitar in a few unheralded bands. Sadly, Tom died in September 2011 at the age of just 59, his rather unhealthy lifestyle finally catching up with him. But as John Lydon told Tom during a Q interview in 1995, ‘You’re rather squalid, but I enjoy that. Ha-ha-ha-ha!’

*I need to verify that…

Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires: Second Sight

marc johnson

Released October 1987

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, November 1987?

8/10

In rock, the two-guitar setup is standard. But in jazz and fusion, not so standard. Since 1987, there have been a number of two-guitar celebrity summits (such as Scofield/Metheny, Scofield/Frisell, Stern/Eric Johnson, Carlton/Ritenour etc) but ex-Bill Evans bassist Marc Johnson’s superb ECM solo albums, ’85’s Bass Desires and Second Sight, both featuring John Scofield and Bill Frisell, quite possibly started off the recent trend.

Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson

1987’s Second Sight was considered somewhat of a disappointment on its original release, but for me this is the superior album of the two. I was a major Scofield fan when I bought it in ’87 but didn’t know Frisell’s name at all. I’m really glad it was this album which revealed his incredible playing to me.

Some of the interplay between Frisell and Scofield is nothing less than miraculous, although one could hardly think of two more different guitarists in approach. They leave each other space to play and at times even inadvertently double parts.

John Scofield, Bill Frisell

The ever-reliable Peter Erskine slightly overplayed on the Bass Desires album but here expertly marshals the material without ever being overbearing, and the compositions are so fresh, memorable and catchy.

Only the opening ‘Crossing The Corpus Callosum’ sounds like a studio jam session, but this is no ordinary jam; Scofield’s emotive bluesy cries dissolve into a fantastically-eerie Frisell ambient soundscape, leading the track inexplicably into David Lynch territory.

‘Small Hands’ and ‘Hymn For Her’ are shimmering, moving ballads, with the guitarists’ approaches meshing beautifully. ‘Sweet Soul’ is a soulful slow swinger full of fantastic Scofield soloing. ‘1951’ is a superb Frisell composition evoking Thelonious Monk’s best work. ‘Thrill Seekers’ simply swings like hell and features a classic Frisell fuzzbox solo. ‘Twister’ is great fun, Scofield’s affectionate ode to surf rock with some very funky bass and guitar interplay and a short drum solo almost as memorable as Ringo’s on Abbey Road.

As far as I know, the band toured Europe but never the UK. Would love to have seen them. The performance below is really special. No wonder Frisell is grinning like a Cheshire cat throughout.