By Alli Denning, September 2, 2009
What’s not to like about a cover? You get a song that you presumably liked the first time around with the added bonus of a new look and feel. Covers of your favorite older recordings are great. It’s almost like opening up the pages of a familiar, beloved book and discovering brand new characters have worked their way into a story you thought you knew so well. Of course, that’s only when a cover is done properly – although, sometimes, a terrible cover can be just as exhilarating as a well-executed one. In that case, not only do you get to revisit the nostalgia of your youth, but you also get to complain loudly about just how much better things were "back in the day."
Either way, I have a soft spot in my heart for covers. With that in mind, I started thinking about all the 90s-era covers of great 80s songs. Remaking the music of the 80s was a logical thing to do – technology had moved on, production techniques had been improved and a raft of new styles meant that
reinterpretations of old standards could be done from a unique perspective. The music of the 80s was fantastic; it makes perfect sense to keep it alive. However, while some of the inter-decade covers might have seemed like a good idea at the time, not all of them managed to put a positive spin on a classic track. Here is the rundown on the good (and not so good) 90s covers 80s songs. Please let us know if we missed your favorite.
I Love Rock N Roll – I got this cassette for my 10th birthday from my best friend in the 5th grade. I still have it 27 years later, although it is just about played out. Joan Jett was as cool as it gets. It wasn’t until I started researching this story that I realized that the Joan Jett version of this song is actually a cover itself of the 1975 song by The Arrows. Joan owned this song, and I always assumed it was hers. As a cover, it makes my point further about the contributions that covers make to the musical lexicon – without Jett, this amazing track would have remained completely unnoticed by generations of future music lovers. Now it gets to rock stadiums on a regular basis.
On the other hand, Ms. Spears was WAY off in her 2002 cover of this classic song. I can’t decide why I dislike the Britney Spears version so much. Is it the insanely over-produced music or is it the sex-kitten mockery of a video? Or maybe it’s just the fact that when you sing about rock and roll, it helps to actually be a rock and roll artist? Either way, this is the perfect example of a fabulous and not so fabulous cover of the same song.
Original: 1975, The Arrows
Cover 1: 1982, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Cover 2: 2002, Britney Spears (ok, not technically the 90s, but let’s go with it)
LT80s Vote: Joan Jett – not even close
Bizarre Love Triangle – Here is another great example of a fantastic cover. When New Order released this song in 1986, it was an anthem of strangely isolated love, a cry from a robotic soul attempting to connect with another human – or possibly also mechanical – being. Its straight-forward dance orientation masked a deeper longing that perfectly encapsulated for many their emotional state during the technology-swamped 80’s.
The cover by Frente! (1994) is equally as good as the original. It represents a completely different take on the song. The lead singer’s voice is lovely and strong and carries the entire track, with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The Australian band managed to infuse the song with a warmth that added an entirely new dimension to it, while maintaining the same intensity as the original at half the tempo. Both versions are great, each with its own feel and personality.
Original: 1986, New Order
Cover: 1994, Frente!
LT80s Vote: It’s a tie!
Total Eclipse of the Heart – Bonnie Tyler saw the greatest chart success of her career with this heartfelt over-ballad about love in its most dramatic form. Speaking to a generation coming off the cusp of disco, Tyler managed to reach an audience bridging the gap between the endless dancing of their youth and the reality of their shattered relationships.
Nicki French on the other hand dialed up the speed, the volume and the emotion for a smart and savvy Eurodance version of the same track 11 years later. It enjoyed similar, although not quite as lofty chart success. The question of which version you prefer squarely cements your musical tastes: heartfelt, pop ballads or dynamic dance divas? I know where my allegiance lies.
Original: 1983, Bonnie Tyler
Cover: 1994, Nicki French
LT80s Vote: Nicki French – she made it fun.
Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper was as close as 80s music ever came to having a folk singing pop enchantress. Her ability to meld heartbreakingly intimate portraits of personal struggle was never better illustrated than with 1984’s Time After Time. A number one smash, its delicate arrangement lushly illustrated the pure emotion Lauper poured into the song’s vocal track. This was the song that had kids crying on the school bus after another crush had broken their hearts.
Matchbox 20 . . . err, where do I begin? Corporate rock is just never as good as the real thing, and when it’s trying to squeeze some of the remaining juice out of what is essentially the final word in 80s love songs, it can’t hope to hold a candle – or lighter – up to the original. Released as a live track, what the band doesn’t realize is that the audience is singing along because they know the words thanks to Cyndi – not out of some misplaced affection for Rob Thomas’ vocal stylings.
Original: 1984, Cyndi Lauper
Cover: 1999, Matchbox 20
LT80s Vote: Did you even have to ask? Cyndi Lauper, time after time.
How Soon Is Now? – There was a period of time in the 1990s where barely disguised covers of popular tracks were released with breakbeats and lush production filling in the gaps where previously, singers and bands had used nuance and space to connect with listeners. Such is the case with How Soon Is Now. Originally performed by The Smiths, the song became the ultimate anthem for the disaffected of the 80s generation, a towering symbol of the loneliness and isolation that many people experience despite being surrounded by millions in the city in which they live.
When Love Spit Love got a hold of the song in 1995, it really wasn’t fair – there was nowhere to go but down. It’s like trying to remake Eleanor Rigby or Stairway to Heaven, as the expectations of those familiar with the original are far too high to ever be met. It doesn’t help that the song ends up sounding fairly derivative, similar to many other tracks that came out around the same point in time. Top it off with the fact that it served as the theme song to the 90s TV witch drama, Charmed, and the cover just can’t be taken seriously.
Original: 1984, The Smiths
Cover: 1995, Love Spit Love
LT80s Vote: No question – The Smiths
Blue Monday – The biggest selling 12-inch record all time (remember those?), Blue Monday was the track that told the world that even though their lead singer might have stepped over to the other side, the remaining members of Joy Division were not going to fade quietly into the night. The track was a piece of synthesized majesty, resplendent with drum machines, oddly haunting vocals and an unforgettable chorus that got dance floors moving across the world.
When Orgy released their version of the song in 1999, it captured much of the original’s energy but redirected it in a new direction filled with metal fury. Representing the modern rock wave that had washed over radio dials by the end of the decade, Orgy also infused a healthy number of electronic elements to create a thunderous wall of sound that dared you to dance to it.
Original: 1983, New Order
Cover: 1999, Orgy
LT80s Vote: Another tie. I’ve got to admit, either version makes me turn up the radio as loud as it will go whenever I’m driving alone in the car.
Update 09.23.10: Missing You – This song is the cry-alone-at-night-because-your-first-boyfriend/girlfriend-dumped-you song of 1984. Well, it was for me anyway. This song hit #1 on the Billboard charts the week of September 22, 1984, making it a ubiquitous reminder of the agony that lost love can bring. If what you need is catharsis for your heartbreak overload, “Missing You” has it all. It presents a familiar combination of despair and anger that anyone can relate to; this is your wallow song.
The sheer number of covers done and the wide range of musical genres they have included is a testament to the quality of the song itself. For our purposes here, we will compare John Waite’s original to Tina Turner’s 1996 cover that hit #12 in the UK and #84 in the US. I’ll start by saying that I like Tina. I like her spunk, her wigs and her attitude, and yes, her legs. However, while her version is good, it falls far short of the original. It is hard to ignore the fact that her video for this song is more concerned with her legs than with whatever feeling she might be bringing to the song. The authenticity of the emotion in the original is gone; it is too much a vehicle for Tina.
Original: 1984, John Waite
Cover: 1996, Tina Turner
LT80s Vote: John Waite
Update 07.18.11: Avenues – While not technically a cover, the 1997 song "Avenues" by Refugee Camp All-Stars pays enough homage to Eddy Grant’s 1982 song "Electric Avenue" that it is fun to compare the two. And, as different as the two songs are, they have a lot in common. Both versions were featured on movie soundtracks. "Electric Avenue" played during the party scene in the movie Valley Girl with Deborah Foreman and Nicolas Cage. "Avenues" was included on the Soundtrack of Money Talks with Chris Tucker and Charlie Sheen. Both versions also made it to the top of the charts – the original went to #2 in both the UK and the US, whereas the newer take maxed out at #35 on the US charts. Refugee Camp All-Stars does a great job of taking a song that at the time was 15 years old and giving it new life, while creating something completely new in the process. The "Avenues" video tips its musical hat to another 80s great, Michael Jackson, with the light up floor from Billie Jean.
Original: 1982, Eddy Grant
Cover: 1997, Refugee Camp All-Stars
90s 411/LT80s Vote: Too tough to call. Each is great in its own right.
Update 10.03.11: Everything Counts – Depeche Mode’s music was angstful, kinda goth, and oh-so-catchy on the dance floor. The New Wave band put out lots of hits in the eighties, like the infectiously awesome "Just Can’t Get Enough," New Age lament "People are People," and edgy ode to S and M "Master and Servant." Their music was heavy on the repetitive synthesizer phrases and thumping bass – all the better to dance to, my dear.
In Flames covered "Everything Counts," from Depeche Mode’s album "Construction Time Again," in their album "Whoracle." Sigh. My fifteen-year-old is way into gritty metal music and tries his best to teach me to love it. So far, he’s largely failed. However, I’m certainly more appreciative of it than I used to be, so points to the teenager on that count.
On the positive side, In Flames’s cover definitely adds a new spin to the song. Depeche Mode’s polished angst is replaced with frothing wrath, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. I like the driving beat of In Flames’s version quite a bit. I can imagine, when the stars align perfectly, rocking out to it with a gleeful sneer on my face.
Original: 1983, Depeche Mode
Cover: 1997, In Flames
LT80s Vote: A respectful nod to In Flames, but Depeche Mode FTW.
There you have it. We’d love to know if you agree, disagree or love another cover that we have missed here. Comment on Facebook.