So what makes a cover version superior to the original? Is it down to approaching a lyric from a different perspective? Perhaps giving a modern voice to an old familiar or maybe it's just a great song connecting with a great artist in a unique way; a coming together of two great components to make something better than the sum of their individual parts. Here is a countdown to my all time favourite cover songs of the 80s.
10. David Bowie - China Girl
Perhaps known for being a massive Bowie hit in the summer of '83, China Girl is actually an Iggy Pop song (albeit co-written by Bowie) from his debut solo album "The Idiot" back in 1977. David’s version was arranged by legendary musician and producer Nile Rogers who purposely gave it an over the top pop sound as a contradiction to what he felt was a song written about hard drugs. It's much likely closer to the truth that this track was inspired by Kuelan Nguyen, a Vietnamese lady who Iggy Pop was infatuated with at the time. Whatever the muse, this track stands testament to the makings of a great cover version.
9. Motley Crue - Smoking in the Boys Room
Perhaps what makes this cover work so well (apart from the cheesy 80s back to school style video) is the silliness of it. Here is a band whose least concern is getting caught smoking in the toilet, I'm sure getting busted shooting up in the bathrooms would have been a greater concern. Motley Crue take a classic Rock n Roll tune and add a 80s rock twist but leave all of the humour for what makes for a pleasing cover.
8. Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me - Roger Daltry
Apart from being in one of my all time favourite 80s films "The Lost Boys", this cover version is an emotional take on a classic Elton track. Rogers’s voice soars over the slow burner in a way Elton’s simply couldn't manage however credit where credit is due to Elton for his great take on Pinball Wizard the previous decade.
7. Higher Ground - Red Hot Chilli Peppers
Whilst perhaps few at the time would notice the significance of this cover, by a band synonymous with fusing funk, soul, rap and rock together, now this cover is regarded as one of the very best of all time. Flea's opening statement of fast slap bass which approximates Stevie Wonders famous clavinet sets the tone as the band romp and roll through this funky ditty without ever sounding tired.
6. You Can't Hurry Love - Phil Collins
This song holds two accolades for Phil. It's his first number one record as solo artist and coincidently it was the first track on a brand new compilation album called "Now That's What I Call Music". It's a faithful homage to a stunning song from Motown gods Holland-Dozier-Holland and Phil does his upmost to be respective while having a damn good time in the process.
5. Heart - Alone
When Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly under the name I-Ten produced an album in 1983, Alone was the only song truly worthy of note. This longing for love tale of unrequited love hardly set the charts on fire upon its release in 1983 however when Heart covered it in 1987 it was a hit all over the USA. What Heart managed to give the track with the original lacked was passion, some sky high backing vocals and some atmosphere which sadly lacked the original. A slight lyric change on the chorus and a slick MTV friend’s video and the rest is history.
4. Red Red Wine - UB40
These Birmingham reggae mainstays had already had huge success before their 4th album Labour of Love was conceived. In essence it's a covers album and possibly the cream of the crop was their take on Neil Diamond’s anthem. An instant hit in the U.K, it took two attempts for the US to catch on before it went number 1 there too. The best accolade for the band is that Neil diamond later borrowed segments from this cover and added it back into his version when playing live.
3. Always on my Mind - Pet Shop Boys
On the tenth anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, the Pet Shop Boys appeared on a TV special paying homage to the King with a synth pop arrangement of one of his biggest hits. People really loved it so they recorded it, released it and had a global hit even taking the much coveted Christmas number 1 spot in 1987. It's worth noting in the interests of the blog that technically Elvis wrote very few of his songs (arguably none as he used to insist on receiving writing credits in exchange for singing them) so strictly speaking his songs were nearly all cover versions.
2. Tainted Love - Soft Cell
Soft Cell was a duo consisting of vocalist Marc Almond and multi instrumentalist David Ball and whilst they had been around since the late 70s, it was their synth pop version of this old Northern Soul hit that truly put them on the global map. This was a number one in the U.K. (reaching number 8 in US) and is still a dance floor anthem to this very day.
1. Georgia on My Mind - Michael Bolton
Okay just hear me out on this, It takes heart and soul (and hair) to pull off this timeless hit made famous by Ray Charles. Michael ups the ante line by line, lulling the listener into a false sense of peak before delivering that thunderous yet angelic final chorus leaving the listener with the sense of "what the hell happened" and more goose bumps than the children's horror section of the library. Michael is kind and faithful to the arrangement but with a vocal this ethereal, for me no other 80's cover comes close.