27 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…

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)

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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Great Opening Lines In 1980s Songs

As we’ve said before, the 1980s produced some fine lyricists. You couldn’t move for decent wordsmithery. But interesting lyrics came from the damndest places. 

What was that Trevor Horn maxim? A good pop song should be like a good story, such that the listener is always asking: what’s going to happen next?

And, like a good story, pretty much every good song starts with an intriguing opening line or two. As the proverbial cigar-munching music-biz mogul might say: ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar, kid…’ So here are some great opening lines from 1980s songs, lines that hopefully satisfy Horn’s requirements.

Everything But The Girl: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

Associates: ‘Club Country’

‘The fault is/I can find no fault in you’

 

Wet Wet Wet: ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’

‘I was living in a land of make believe/
When my best friend wrote and told me that there may be a job in the city’

 

Lou Reed: ‘How Do You Speak To An Angel’

‘A son who is cursed with a harridan mother or a weak simpering father at best/
Is raised to play out the timeless classical motives of filial love and incest’

 

Steely Dan: ‘Babylon Sisters’

Drive west on Sunset to the sea/
Turn that jungle music down/
Just until we’re out of town’

 

Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’

I’ll have a shower then call my brother up/
Within the hour I’ll smash another cup’

 

Joni Mitchell: ‘Chinese Cafe’

‘Caught in the middle/
Carol, we’re middle-class/
We’re middle-aged/

We were wild in the old days/
Birth of rock’n’roll days’

 

The Smiths: ‘Reel Around The Fountain’

‘It’s time the tale were told/
Of how you took a child and you made him old’

 

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

Miller Time in the bar where all the English meet/
She used to drink in the hills/
Only now she drinks in the valleys’

 

Love And Money: ‘Hallejulah Man’

On the blind side and down the back ways/
The roots of sadness crawl/
When you can’t get what you need/
You feel like taking a torch to it all’

Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’

When routine bites hard and ambitions are low/
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow’

 

The Teardrop Explodes: ‘Reward’

Bless my cotton socks/I’m in the news’

 

Tom Waits: ‘Swordfishtrombones’

‘Well, he came home from the war with a party in his head/
And a modified Brougham DeVille and a pair of legs that opened up like butterfly wings’

 

Prefab Sprout: ‘Moving The River’

‘You surely are a truly gifted kid/
But you’re only as good as the last great thing you did’

 

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions: ‘Brand New Friend’

Walking in the pouring rain/
Walking with Jesus and Jane/
Jane was in a turtleneck/
I was much happier then’

Siouxsie & The Banshees: ‘Cascade’

Oh the air was shining/
Shining like a wedding ring’

 

Bob Dylan: ‘Jokerman’

Standing on the waters casting your bread/
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing/
Distant ships sailing into the mist/
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing’

 

Robert Palmer: ‘Johnny And Mary’

Johnny’s always running around trying to find certainty/
He needs all the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely’

 

Prefab Sprout: Talking Scarlet

You hide under the eiderdown/
All you can’t sweep underneath the carpet’

 

The Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar/When I met you’

 

Talking Heads: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
Might end up in the hospital’

 

Scritti Politti: ‘A Little Knowledge’

Now I know to love you/Is not to know you’

 

The Smiths: ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’

Sweetness, I was only joking/
When I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head’

Any more for any more?

Magick Moments: Siouxsie and the Banshees In The Early ’80s

Siouxsie_and_the_Banshees-3

Steve Severin, Siouxsie, Budgie

One of the nice things about immersing oneself in ’80s music is rediscovering stuff you’d once dismissed or were too young to really investigate. I must have been vaguely aware of Siouxsie’s music at some point in the decade, but she didn’t really appear on my radar until I started to get interested in the Sex Pistols around the early ’90s (she was famously in the studio during the Pistols/Bill Grundy ‘swearfest’ and even had the misfortune of being ‘propositioned’ by the semi-sloshed presenter…).

Siouxsie in New York, 1980

Siouxsie in New York, 1980

But now it’s time to confess: I almost wish I had been a Goth in 1982/1983. In these days of twee, over-sharing singer-songwriters and soul-deadening ‘rock’ bands, what is immediately appealing about Siouxsie and the Banshees is their absolute earnestness, the total lack of irony. They mean it, maaaan! These days, pop bands flirt with magickal images, shamanistic sounds and boundary-pushing lyrics, but the Banshees really were dark and truly an alternative (or reaction?) to shiny, aspirational Thatcherism. The song titles said it all: ‘Halloween’, ‘Nightshift’, ‘Voodoo Dolly’, ‘Arabian Knights’.

They also flew in the face of punk, totally rejecting the ‘DIY’ ethos. As bassist Steve Severin told Simon Reynolds in the excellent ‘Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews And Overviews’, ‘I never understood where that do-it-yourself ethic came from. It was so patently obvious that not everybody could do it. You had to have a modicum of talent and an original idea. But for one moment, the floodgates opened and everyone had their five minutes, put their single out, and then disappeared back to what they were destined to do in the first place.’

The Banshees began the decade with three classic albums of their kind: Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (best album title ever?). It was no accident that they all featured one of the great British guitarists in John McGeoch, master of inventive chord voicings and creative layering. The era spawned a raft of great singles: ‘Spellbound‘, ‘Happy House’, ‘Christine’, ‘Slowdive’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Israel’, ‘Dear Prudence‘. Even as the post-punk era turned into fully-fledged Goth, they always retained a pop sensibility.

By 1982, though, it has to be said that they had also turned into a truly Bacchanalian outfit, with copious drug use, booze breakdowns and all kinds of weird rituals. McGeoch was sacked after collapsing onstage in Madrid, apparently as a result of an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown. (He re-emerged with The Armoury Show before becoming a member of PiL between ’86 and ’92. He died in 2004.)

The Cure’s Robert Smith filled in on guitar when McGeoch left, as he had at various times between 1979 and 1983 (Polydor Records apparently tried and failed to ‘merge’ The Cure and The Banshees towards the end of this period). He later said of his tenure in the Banshees: ‘It allowed me to go mad for a period of time. I had no responsibilities. I just had to turn up and play the guitar. Severin and I became good friends. Our friendship was based entirely on altered states. I’ve never felt as bad in all my life as when I was in the Banshees. I reached a point of total collapse in 1983.’

Siouxsie herself has revealed that she was on an LSD jag around ’82 and ’83, particularly inspiring the songs on Dreamhouse. Recently, she told MOJO magazine: ‘I seem to remember “Cocoon” being written whilst I was tripping. I was in a rented flat and if I didn’t have a notebook I used to write on the wallpaper.’

The band’s early ’80s period was also musically very influential. There were those effective, trademark tempo changes – usually a slowish intro that suddenly gathers momentum in the verse. As far as I know, no rock bassist had used a flanger pedal before Severin. Budgie came up with some arresting tribal rhythms and all their guitarists pretty much wrote the post-punk rulebook. As Robert Smith once said, tongue firmly in cheek: ‘I just used to turn all the effects pedals on – your basic Banshees sound.’ And Siouxsie is always such a powerful vocal presence. You can hear her sound in everyone from the Cocteau Twins and Lush to PJ Harvey and Florence And The Machine.

So here we are. The Royal Albert Hall, 30th September 1983. Siouxsie in her Goth Princess pomp, Robert Smith (who, despite everything, is obviously an excellent guitarist), Steve Severin and Budgie. Almost wish I’d been there. Were you there (as Shaw Taylor used to say)?