Cover Songs: Volume 3
This batch of cover songs includes several that are not available on most streaming services. Therefore, this playlist is only available on YouTube. Click on the icon to listen to the playlist as your read along.
This is the third installment of an ongoing series exploring the art of the cover song. In the first volume I outlined the various types of cover songs (Straight-up; Modernization; Tempo Change; Genre Change; Reinvention) which provides context for my discussion of the songs. If you haven’t read that, it will help to check it out first before continuing here.
In this volume we’ll again look at songs both known and obscure, or at least largely forgotten. We’ll also use some linkages to show how, at the heart of the cover, is the influence and tribute to other artists, whether in appreciation of the song itself or of the artists’ work in general, and that artists both give and take with others through their careers. Since we so rarely listen to the originals alongside to the covers, enjoy this chance to line them up together and study the contrasts directly.
The Playlist - Song \ original artist (year) & cover artist (year)
(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me \ Lou Johnson (1964) & Naked Eyes (1983)
Always on My Mind \ B.J. Thomas (1969) & Pet Shop Boys (1987)
Obsession \ Michael Des Barres & Holly Knight (1983) & Animotion (1984)
When Tomorrow Comes \ Eurythmics (1986) & Erika Spring (2012)
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) \ Eurythmics (1983) & Marilyn Manson (1995)
Slip Inside this House \ 13th Floor Elevators (1967) & Primal Scream (1990)
Blinded by the Light \ Bruce Springsteen (1973) & Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (1976)
Trapped \ Jimmy Cliff (1972/1989) & Bruce Springsteen (1981/2003)
I’m Goin' Down \ Bruce Springsteen (1984) & Vampire Weekend (2010)
Girl, You'll Be A Women Soon \ Neil Diamond (1967) & Urge Overkill (1993)
Red Red Wine \ Neil Diamond (1967) & UB40 (1983)
Morning Dew \ Bonnie Dobson (1962) & Serena Ryder (2006)
(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me \ Lou Johnson (1964) & Naked Eyes (1983)
British synth-new wave band Naked Eyes had their biggest hit ever with this song in 1983, reaching the top ten in several countries including the US but, oddly, not in their native land. It’s a great cover that incorporated almost all the styles of a cover: genre, tempo, modernization, and reinvention; all while keeping true to the original’s melody and overall feel.
This is yet another song written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, who have already established themselves in the previous volumes as frequent originators of covers by rock and modern rock acts. The song was first recorded as a demo by Dionne Warwick in 1963 but came into popular consciousness with soul singer Lou Johnson’s recording, which made it to #49 in the US charts in 1964, giving him his best result. The irrepressible melody of the song, punctuated with horns over a jaunty rhythm and backed with female soul singers and, typical of Bacharach’s music, filled with string flourishes, made the song a popular choice for others. Sandie Shaw scored a #1 hit with it in the UK later in 1964. Warwick would finally release her version as a B-side in 1968. Over the years the number of artists from all musical stripes that have covered the song has grown considerably.
Naked Eyes was a fledgling synth-pop band in 1982, a duo looking to find their place in the exploding new wave scene in the UK. Vocalist Peter Byrne had always liked this song and they recorded a demo of it while building out their material. They dropped the parenthetical “There’s” from their version. The smooth synth lines picked up on the strings of the original, electronic beats provided percussive breaks, and the horns were replaced with a distinctive, horn-like synth. While the original was lively, Naked Eyes’ version was both slightly quicker in pace, carried on a steady electronic beat for a light danceability and livened with church bells, but also leavened with a plaintive delivery that conveyed the heartbreak of the lyrics. The juxtaposition made for an entrancing composition and provided the synth-pop world with one of its biggest hits of the era.
You Were Always on My Mind \ B.J. Thomas (1969) & Pet Shop Boys (1987)
Very similar to “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” this song was a ‘60s classic covered many times (over 300 known versions) and that provided a synth-pop duo in the ‘80s with one of their biggest hits. The song was written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James, and Wayne Carson. James wrote many hits for the likes of Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley, while Carson was similarly successful in the world of country music.
B.J. Thomas was the first to record the song in 1969, a Texas-born soul and country singer who did many covers over the years and, as was common for the time, sang new songs written by others. He was best known for the Bacharach/David song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” another Mark James song, “Hooked on A Feeling,” and a cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” His version of “You Were Always on My Mind” is hard to find in his extensive streaming archive and doesn’t appear to have been released as a single.
The song came to prominence first through a country version by Gwen McCrae and Brenda Lee in 1972 and, also that year, by Elvis Presley who took it to the top twenty in the US and the top ten in the UK. The song also flourished in country music circles first by John Wesley Ryles, who hit the top twenty in the US in 1979, and then by Willie Nelson whose version reached the top ten in 1982.
The Pet Shop Boys, a duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, were riding high in 1987 on the success of their first two albums and their first #1 UK hit, “It’s A Sin” (also top ten in the US). “Always on My Mind” was their second #1 single, released in November 1987 and included on their third album, not released until October 1988. It also reached #4 in the US and #1 in several other countries to make it their second highest selling single of their career.
These versions of this song vary from mid-tempo to very slow, emphasizing the regret of the lyrics. Thomas’ version was typical of its time, employing female, soul backing vocals, strings, and a solid pop-rock rhythm of piano, bass, and drums. It’s Thomas’ smooth vocal that carried the tune, employing the power of his voice to ride over the music and deliver its emphatic moments, riding on a bed of strings. The Pet Shop Boys’ composition was much simpler, employing dance beats, synths in the fashion of orchestra hits, and Tennant’s vocal as an echoey lament worked into the mix for a fuller, wall-of-sound approach. It was much faster and modern, but a rather straightforward take on the song, keeping the strength of the original’s melody in place.
Obsession \ Michael des Barres & Holly Knight (1983) & Animotion (1984)
It’s likely that not many know Animotion’s 1983 top ten hit was a cover song. It’s a somewhat unusual situation of it being a cover of a very recent and very similar song. This will allow us to look at this dynamic over a few songs in this playlist, trying to understand why one version hit while another didn’t, despite the similarities between them.
Michael des Barres was first known as a member of the UK glam band, Silverhead, in the early ‘70s and from a solo album issued in 1980. He had also acted, appearing in a couple movies. After writing and recording “Obsession” he would go on to replace Robert Palmer as the singer for Power Station, play in a band, Chequered Past, with members of Blondie and The Sex Pistols, and appear regularly in guest spots on TV shows and in recurring roles in MacGyver and Melrose Place over the next two decades.
Holly Knight was a singer in a couple of minor ‘80s pop-rock bands, but was best known as a songwriter of Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll,” Pat Benatar’s “Love Is A Battlefield,” “The Best” which was done by Bonnie Tyler but a much bigger hit for Tina Turner, another hit for Tina, “You Better Be Good to Me,” and “The Warrior” by Scandal.
Des Barres and Knight wrote and performed “Obsession” for the 1983 movie and soundtrack, A Night in Heaven. It wasn’t released as a single and garnered little attention. Animotion was a new synth-pop band from Los Angeles formed from a previous band, Red Zone. They decided to cover “Obsession” for their first album, a self-titled release in ’84. It was their first single and reached the top ten in countries around the world, including the UK and US, setting them up for a moderately successful run over the rest of the decade with a few further minor hits. Their version of “Obsession” would also become forever known for fashionistas as the theme song for the internationally syndicated, Canadian TV show, Fashion Television. It then received additional life when included in the 2002 video game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Animotion’s version was a straight-up cover, differing little from the original. While we won’t ever know if the original would have been a hit if released as a single, if the label had felt it had that potential it likely would have been released. Why then did Animotion’s version take off? I’ll offer three reasons.
First, the production, arrangement, and mixing for Animotion’s version was far superior than the original, providing a meatier and more compelling listening experience. The energy of the song leapt out in Animotion’s version while in the Des Barres/Knight version it was practically suppressed, as if there was a desire to not allow the song to burst through. Sometimes such suppression can create an enervating tension, creating a taut listening experience, but this was not that kind of song. Even the guitar was understated in the original, as if an afterthought, when it was in a place to offer an emphatic moment of power to underscore the chorus. Producer John Ryan and the mixers and engineer’s on Animotion’s version fixed this, though I would have encouraged it to go even further into a hard rock vein, but that likely would have lessened its broad appeal.
The second reason was the presentation, which given the original had none while the second had a costumed video, a dancing blonde female (singer Astrid Plane) and square-jawed and suited male singer (Bill Wadhams), and all the flash of new wave, Animotion was an attractive package. Could Des Barres and Knight have done this? Judging by the rest of their career as performers it was unlikely they could have matched the overall presentation of Animotion.
The third reason, linked strongly to the first, was the performance. The original had a pulsating, hypnotic synth rhythm that was hidden at lower volumes but became intoxicating when cranked up. The almost spoken-word delivery of the original’s vocals gave it an edgier, alt-rock feel making the song’s theme come across as more subversive and dangerous. These are not generally the makings of a chart-topper. Yet, the song was an unabashed pop song, so Animotion’s bright synths, dancier beats, more melodic and harmonizing vocals, and higher energy took the edge off the song’s theme and made it much less unnerving. It was the making of a pop smash and, with only a few tweaks, took a little known song buried in a movie soundtrack and made it an international success and career launching tune.
When Tomorrow Comes \ Eurythmics (1986) & Erika Spring (2012)
Having looked at a couple of ‘80s new wave reinterpretations of older songs and a same-era cover, let’s look at how songs from the ‘80s came to bear on later music through a couple of hits from the Eurythmics and two very, very different takes on their music.
The Eurythmics were yet another synth-pop duo, an incredible combination of enigmatic singer Annie Lennox and the ever-creative Dave Stewart. They originated out of a late ‘70s band The Tourists before breaking away as a pair both creatively and romantically. By 1986 they were one of the best selling acts of the ‘80s with cross-genre appeal, though their progressively more pop sounding songs were leaving their new wave origins behind.
“When Tomorrow Comes” was the first single released from their fifth album, Revenge. Along with Stewart and Lennox it was co-written by Patrick Seymour, a keyboard player in their backing band at the time who also worked with The Pretenders, Culture Club, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan. The song only reached #30 in the UK to be one of the poorest results since their first album, but cracked the top ten in Australia and Sweden. It was not released at all in the US. The song was consistent with their sound at the time, having left behind the purer synth sound and having embraced a full-band, soul and R&B approach full of guitar, sax, and Annie’s ever-forceful, soulful, vocals (supported by the backing of singer, Joniece Jamison); it also didn’t hurt to have Blondie’s Clem Burke on drums. The track was an energetic pop song that included solos on guitar (Stewart) and sax (from Jimmy Zavala), a consistent beat, and solid melody.
Erika Forster is a singer from Colorado whose career started in the ‘90s as part of Brooklyn based, indie-pop band Dirty on Purpose and then since 2003 as part of another Brooklyn band, Au Revoire Simone. She goes by Erika Spring as a solo artist, having issued her first, self-titled EP in 2012 which included her cover of “When Tomorrow Comes.” It was a down- to mid-tempo synth version, using her voice in a more distant effect to give the song a broader feel. Simply done, it allowed the melody and spirit of the original to come through more strongly, stripping away the guitar, sax and pounding rhythm of the original, revealing what a lovely song it was at its essence. While mostly a tempo change type of cover, a nice instrumental break in the middle reinvented on the original to retain the contemplative feel of the cover that fit with the lyrics. It was a wonderful cover song and certainly an occasion that suggested the original was possibly overdone.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) \ Eurythmics (1983) & Marilyn Manson (1995)
This will be an abrupt shift and a marvellous way to show how cover songs can bridge genres and reveal how a good song is a good song, regardless the approach.
After reasonable success with the first album, Eurythmics’ second album started unobtrusively after the first singles, “This is the House,” “The Walk,” and “Love Is A Stranger” did progressively better on the charts but failed to take fire. Persisting with a fourth single the title track, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” was issued. It was an unlikely hit being a moody, mid-tempo ballad carried on a staccato synth rhythm, steady beat, and filled out with string-like synth lines, Annie’s wailing backing vocals, and of course her powerful lead vocal carrying a sublime melody. The video, in early ‘80s fashion was typically mysterious, symbol filled, and esoteric, but the song’s success did present the atypically short-cropped and brightly coloured orange hairstyle of Lennox to the world, giving Eurythmics its early calling card in the visually driven music universe of MTV.
Marilyn Manson is an industrial-metal band from Florida. Brian Warner and Scott Putesky formed the band in 1993 and decided to adopt stage names that combined the juxtaposing profiles of beautiful women and serial killers; Warner became Marilyn Manson (Marilyn Monroe + Charles Manson) and Putesky became Daisy Berkowitz (Daisy Duke + David Berkowitz). The intent was to convey the dualities of American society in all its forms of good and evil, materialism and criminality, and beauty and depravity. Various additional band members cycled through as the band released its first album in 1994 which failed to make an impression. In 1995 they released an EP, Smells Like Children, that included a cover of “Sweet Dreams,” which when released as a single cracked the top forty in the US in both the alternative and main charts and sent the band on its way to a long and varied career. Manson has remained its sole original member and his career, through various non-musical controversies, has been carried in large part through his cover versions of 1980s new wave songs.
Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams” was the perfect marriage in musical concept to the band’s theme of dualities. Taking a popular, new wave synth-pop song of the ‘80s led by a charismatic woman and built on contrasting views of the world (“Everybody’s looking for something / Some of them want to use you / Some of them want to get used by you / Some of them want to abuse you / Some of them want to be abused”) and presenting it as a thrashing, metal-driven song accompanied with the disturbing visuals in the video cemented the dualities theme. The original’s melody, tempo, and even its atmosphere were retained, but where it was done through tension-filled synth-lines in the original, Manson’s version did it through raw, snarling, and thrashing guitars. The other significant difference was that Marilyn Manson’s take offered only the cynical side of the song, removing Eurythmic’s hopeful refrain and adding a darker lyric. In the original the central refrain after the first chorus was a repetition of, “Hold your head up / Keep your head up, movin’ on,” while the cover version replaced it with, “I want to use you and abuse you / I want to know what’s inside / Moving on hold your head / Moving on keep your head” with the last two lines repeated several times. Thus, hope and encouragement was replaced with menace and Manson’s screaming, angry, anguished delivery matched the song better than it would have to the original lyrics. It was an impressive reinvention amidst a genre change and brought Marilyn Manson from obscurity to the leading edge of the alt-rock world for a few brief years.
Slip Inside This House \ 13th Floor Elevators (1967) & Primal Scream (1990)
Now back to the ‘60s and a transition into some classic and modern rock. The 13th Floor Elevators were a Texas band that experienced limited success but have since retained a cult following through the continued career of its singer and guitarist, Roky Erickson. Their only hit was their first single in 1966, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which was more of a regional success but managed to reach #55 in the US chart. They had a very psychedelic image and sound, advocating drug use as a means of enlightenment, and were early pioneers of the psychedelic rock movement.
“Slip Inside this House” was the first single from their second album, Easter Everywhere, in 1967. It was a lengthy, persistent rock song built on edgy, chugging guitars that underpinned Roky’s high-pitched, distinct vocals. The psychedelic vibe was achieved through a rumbling bass-line and strumming guitar rhythms – there was almost a garage rock quality to the song. The lyrics from Tommy Hall were filled with cryptic, mystic, surreal imagery and references.
Primal Scream is a Scottish band revolving around singer and guitarist Bobby Gillespie. They were formed in Glasgow in the early ‘80s and rose to prominence in the early ‘90s as part of the retro-rock wave in the UK. Blending classic rock with trippy, electronic, modern rock sounds made for several great contributions to a very strong UK music scene in the ‘90s. Not the least of their offerings was the band’s third album, 1991’s Screamadelica, one of the best LPs of its era and still Primal Scream’s top selling album of their career. Their cover of “Trip Inside this House” was on that album but first saw the light of day in 1990 as part of a tribute album to Roky Erickson, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson, one of the best tribute albums I’ve ever come across.
The Primal Scream cover is pure reinvention, to the extent that it bore absolutely no resemblance to the original. The lyrics were taken from the original, but the majority were omitted and the rest were rearranged. Otherwise, the melody was different, the rhythm was similar but built so differently it was hard to compare the two, and the vocals were completely opposite, with Gillespie’s raspy, echoey vocal at the opposite end of the spectrum from Erickson’s angular delivery. The cover also included samples of “Sex Machine” by Sly and the Family Stone and the ‘amen break,’ a popular drum sample from the 1960’s song “Amen, Brother” by funk band, The Winstons. The trippy, psychedelic cover version at least carried the spirit of the original, but with its electronic composition and complex electronic beats was so much further into the ether that it made you feel high even without the use of drugs. This perhaps stretched the boundaries of the cover song, reaching more into tribute than a proper cover, but it showed how a band could take a song and truly make it its own.
Blinded by the Light \ Bruce Springsteen (1973) & Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (1976)
This is another study of a relatively straight-up cover of a similar era song and in which the cover far exceeded the success of the original. In fact, Manfred Mann’s version went to #1 in the US, a feat Bruce Springsteen has never achieved with any of his own recordings.
“Blinded by the Light” was the very first song issued by Springsteen, being the first track on his first album and his first single. It did not chart. Those more familiar with Springsteen’s most famous works from the later ‘70s and 1980s would be surprised to hear the music on his first two albums, as I chronicle in this profile on him. His songs were lively, jazzy, and built on long ballads with as many words per single song as you’d find on an entire album later in his career. “Blinded by the Light” revealed this, throttling along at a consistent pace as energetic drums, bass, and sax tried to keep up with Bruce’s mouthfuls of colourful lyrics. It was different than the rock music of the time, melding jazz, R&B, rock, and swing into a full-band sound that few others were doing. Its vigour and pace were infectious and unparalleled in the rock world, but few noticed.
Manfred Lubowitz, better known as Manfred Mann, was a South African that started his career in his homeland before moving to England in 1961 due to his objection to apartheid. He scored a huge hit in 1964 with “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” the first of three #1 UK singles in his solo career, which also included his cover of Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo” as “Mighty Quinn” in 1968, showing covers were a favourable trade for Mann. In the US, “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” was his only #1 hit until “Blinded by the Light,” recorded with his band formed in 1971, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. That band also covered two other songs from Springsteen’s inaugural album, “Spirit in the Night” in 1975 (yes, before “Blinded…”) and “For You” in 1981.
Mann’s cover of “Blinded…” was a mix of straight-up and reinvention – a rare achievement. It retained the melody and rock structure of the original song but varied more in the rhythm, reducing the pace for long stretches and allowing Mann to deliver the lyrics more comfortably and in discernable fashion. Mann was a keyboardist, and his band’s version significantly altered the instrumentation, with the keyboards front and centre except for a lovely guitar solo through the middle. This gave the song an overall affected sound, creating swirling sounds around the melody and increased drama. Where Bruce’s version delivered an emotional punch through its freneticism, Manfred’s did so by carrying the listener through peaks and valleys in more of a classic rock style. This undoubtedly made it more inviting and accessible to listeners, who could play air guitar and bop their heads along in far more comfortable fashion. Other well-noted differences were that Mann’s version changed the lyric “cut loose like a deuce” to “revved up like a deuce” (which has famously been misheard by many as ‘wrapped up like douche’ which really changed the meaning) and added the ‘chopsticks’ piano sequence.
These are unmistakably the same song, but their presentation were remarkably different, leaving both as distinct and great, classic songs. Mann’s fit more into the prog rock style of the mid-70s, with greater flair and style, while Bruce’s original was inventive and avoided clear classification. Of course, over the years Mann’s version has been the far better known, but The Boss did okay regardless.
Trapped \ Jimmy Cliff (1972\1989) & Bruce Springsteen (1981\2003)
If Springsteen had to get used to others covering his music, and in the eyes of some, in better fashion, then it was some just desserts because he had also been doing that to others over his career; though in fairness he has only done it in concert and has never taken someone else’s song to a chart-topping result. “Trapped” is one of those examples.
Jimmy Cliff is a legendary Jamaican reggae singer, having enjoyed a long and respected career since his teenage start in the early-1960s. His career took off after moving to England in 1964 and signing with Island Records. By the 1970s his popularity had sagged but recovered when he starred in the reggae film, The Harder They Come. In the same year, 1972, he released the single, “Trapped,” which didn’t do well even when later put out as the B-side to the title track of the film’s soundtrack and its single. The song lacked the solid reggae feel of his earlier work, employing more of a jazzy, R&B and rock sound, with the exclamatory chorus underpinned with horns. The song seemed to have an unfulfilled energy, as if the recording was a demo. The song was produced by Cat Stevens and arranged by Del Newman, so they must share in the unfulfilled result. Cliff’s song was never put on an album and appeared briefly in a mid-70s singles compilation though in a slightly shortened version.
Therefore, the song fell out of sight until Bruce Springsteen came across it on a cassette tape (likely that same ‘70s compilation) he picked up in the Amsterdam airport while on tour for The River. Deciding to add it to his show, he and the E Street Band first performed it in May 1981. It returned often for the Born in the U.S.A. tour and became a beloved favourite of his fans. Website ‘setlist.fm’ indicates Springsteen has played it 249 times in his career to make it the 60th most played song in his live repertoire, though assuredly that’s an incomplete number. I’ve seen him eleven times and have been lucky to have seen him perform it twice, first at Toronto’s Skydome in 2003 and then at Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum in 2012. He’s only released the song once, providing a live version from 1984 on a 2003 bonus disc release of his greatest hits package, The Essential Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen’s version was mostly straight-up, mixed with a tempo change in places along with a slight genre change. Not surprisingly, Bruce’s version was more of a rock version, with the verses slowed down and played over a simple synth and guitar refrain, exploding into the chorus with full-band complement. In doing so Springsteen unleashed the potential of the original, making the themes of the song – frustration mixed with hope, lament and anger for an unhappy relationship – come alive as the song alternated through its moments of tension and release. Of course, it included a cathartic sax solo from Clarence Clemons, as every good Springsteen song did. It’s no wonder Bruce saw the song’s potential and not at all surprising it became a favourite of his live sets. The song was made for stadium rock and there was no better performer than Bruce Springsteen to bring it to life.
I’m Goin’ Down \ Bruce Springsteen (1984) & Vampire Weekend (2010)
Born in the U.S.A. remains, far and away, Springsteen’s biggest selling and best known album. Of the twelve songs on the album, seven were released as singles with all of them hitting the top ten in the US (though as noted earlier, none reaching #1, with “Dancing in the Dark” peaking at #2) and four doing so in the UK (where he has also done no better than #2 with 1994’s “Streets of Philadelphia”). “I’m Goin’ Down” was the third track on side B of the album, the sixth single issued, and the lowest charting, equalling the title track with a #9 placing. Over the years Bruce has largely left it behind, only having played it live 85 times in his career per ‘setlist.fm,’ these days trotting it out usually less than ten times during his usual tours of one hundred shows or more. I’ve only caught it once, in 2012, and by request for that matter, and despite seeing him on the Born in the U.S.A. tour back in ’84.
While I’ve warmed up to it, I’m not as much of a fan of Born in the U.S.A. as I am most of Springsteen’s other work. I had just fallen in love with his music over the few years prior to its release, driven mostly by the albums The River, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Born to Run (my adoration of his first two albums would come later). I liked “Dancing in the Dark” when it came out prior to the album but was disappointed when I listened to the rest of the LP and found a lot of pop songs sprinkled with country music. “I’m Goin’ Down” would have been one of those songs that fell into disfavour, with mandolin accents and Bruce’s rockabilly-meets-country vocal over a steady, driving rhythm and country-blues guitar.
Vampire Weekend is one of the more creative and enjoyable alt-pop bands of the past twenty years. Since they arrived with fanfare and success with their self-titled debut in 2008 and the single, “A-Punk,” they have gone on to have two #1 LPs in the US along with two top tens in the UK. In 2010 they started performing “I’m Goin’ Down” in concert and included a version on an iTunes Session digital EP that year. I discovered it when it was included in an episode of the HBO series, Girls, in 2014 and immediately seized on what a fantastic cover it was.
Vampire Weekend’s version retained the steady pace of the original, but stripped the instrumentation to a dominant, repeating organ riff, resonant guitar accents with a little twang, and subtle bass and drum foundation (the live, unplugged performance on YouTube that I’ve selected for this playlist uses piano – the fuller iTunes version is not available on YouTube). Ezra Koenig’s voice perfectly matched the song, with his simple delivery catching the resigned, resentful edge of the song (“You used to love to drive me wild, yeah / But lately girl you get your kicks from just-a driving me down”). While the approach of the cover was straight-up, the simplification of the delivery made for an affecting version that, along with Bruce’s spirited and rocking rendition at that Hamilton show in 2012 (which I viewed just a few feet away along the front rail in the pit), made me re-evaluate the song such that I now love the original.
Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon \ Neil Diamond (1967) & Urge Overkill (1992)
While I try to stay away from covers as straight-up as this one, it intrigues me to no end how Neil Diamond has cropped up in modern rock over the years, with this being an example of a great way to combine a modern take to provide a retro accent in a film.
My history with Neil Diamond is a bit confused. My impression of him growing up was that of a square-as-can-be singer from the past and nothing a modern rock fan like me would like. Similar to most, I knew him from his massive hits in the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Sweet Caroline” and “Song Sung Blue.” While visiting my dad in California in the early ‘80s my stepmom had the cassette soundtrack to The Jazz Singer in her car, and since it was the closest thing to rock or pop available, we listened to it a lot while driving around L.A over the several weeks of my stay. It seeped into my young ears and I became a little more favourable to the uncool Neil Diamond. I haven’t tested it in a long time, but I bet I’d have an unshakeable, nostalgic warmness to those songs, even today. Of course, his cool factor was aided by his performance with The Band at their final concert and in the film, The Last Waltz, though I understand he was considered an odd duck for that show, but has also become one of the most beloved sing-a-long choices in pubs around the world with “Sweet Caroline” – a situation that has absolutely not warmed me up to him any further.
Pulp Fiction is my favourite movie, such that I recall no other theatre experience that exhilarated me the way that viewing did (perhaps seeing the first Star Wars when I was seven came close, but that’s the effect of childhood excitement and wonder and not the cynical, slitted view of a young adult). The music, most of it taken from the ‘50s to ‘70s, was an integral part in the movie’s mystical, retro styling against modern LA. The catalytic scene was when Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) danced to Urge Overkill’s version of “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” just before overdosing on Vincent Vega’s (John Travolta) heroin, which she mistook for cocaine and snorted a large amount. The scene kicked the movie into overdrive and set up all the crazy and disturbing events that followed. The lyrics of the song, written way back in ’67 and a bit unseemly from a contemporary perspective, took on an appropriate context in the movie with the mismatched Vincent having to save the damsel in distress as well as his own prospects for survival.
Chicago’s Urge Overkill was a band that never achieved much success over a career from the mid-80s to late ‘90s, with this song on the soundtrack to one of the biggest and coolest movies of the decade being their crowning achievement. They had achieved some success with their 1993 LP, Saturation, and the single “Sister Havana.” Their Neil Diamond cover had been released prior to that on their 1992 EP, Stull, from which Quentin Tarantino plucked it and, with Uma Thurman’s endorsement, used it for their important Pulp Fiction scene. Released as a single in ’94 it would go to #59 in the US charts.
Urge Overkill was one of many formulaic grunge-pop bands of the early ‘90s – the kind of act that spelled the end of a vibrant and ground breaking genre. Their choice of the Neil Diamond cover was inspired and, in doing a near-literal reproduction of the original, provided a different and more complex song to their repertoire. It was a modernization, such that the production provided a fuller and deeper musical version than the original, though vocalist Nash Kato’s (Nathan Kaatrud) raspy, thinner vocal changed the focus of the song to the music (especially the western-styled guitar accents and lively drumming) compared to Diamond’s rich, smooth delivery that carried his version. Urge Overkill’s was also a rock version, replacing the strings of the original with acoustic and electric guitar. It was a great version, enhanced by the context of the movie, and served to make Neil Diamond appear a lot cooler than I’d previously given him credit.
Red Red Wine \ Neil Diamond (1967) & UB40 (1983)
Perhaps I should have re-assessed Diamond earlier based on this song, but while knowing this was a cover of his song since the late ‘80s, it never impressed on me enough to go back and check out his version or give him credit for the UB40 version (not having immediate access to his version via streaming sites had a lot to do with that). My instincts were correct, because as much as Diamond deserves credit for the quality of Urge Overkill’s version, for “Red Red Wine,” UB40 and an obscure Jamaican singer deserve the credit for reinventing it within this genre change.
“Red Red Wine” first appeared on Neil Diamond’s second album, Just for You, released in 1967. However, it wasn’t released as a single until 1968, being a minor hit peaking at #62 in the US, which at that point was his lowest charting single since he’d first cracked the charts the year prior – a span that included no less than nine singles (including “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” which reached #10 and came from the same album). The volume of singles issued was on account of Bang Records getting what it could from his two albums since he was moving to a new label. The label added a backing choir to “Red Red Wine” without Neil’s approval. Even so, the song was a basic crooner’s tune of the kind that proliferated during the ‘60s, trying to hold on to the old ways while the British Invasion assaulted the charts and stole the hearts of the young. It was R&B structured with strings, carried by Diamond’s strong vocals. And while I find the song a bit dull and saccharine, Diamond deserves a lot of credit for writing his own stuff, something few of his ilk could claim. In fact, he started his career as a songwriter, churning out songs and selling them to others before he made it on his own. He has done his share of covers over the years, but his hits have been his own.
UB40 has been one of the most successful reggae-pop bands ever (over 70 million records sold), and it’s all down to their cover of this unassuming Neil Diamond song. They formed in 1978 and between 1980 and 1982 they released three albums, all of which went top ten in the UK while also scoring four top-ten singles. Outside of the UK though, they were unknown. In 1983 they released the first single for their fourth album, Labour of Love, and it was their reggae version of “Red Red Wine.” It would be their first #1 single in the UK, also going to #1 or the top ten in many other countries, though only #34 in the US. The album also went #1 in the UK and #15 in the US. They would only achieve one other #1 LP in the UK in their career, and coincidentally their only other #1 UK hits would also be covers, 1985’s “I Got You Babe” and 1993’s “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You,” which also went to #1 in the US for their second and final chart topper in the US.
In 1988 the rock music scene was adrift, struggling between competing genres with nothing assertively taking hold. New wave and its pop variants had faded, rock was dominated by preening hair bands and glam metal, pop was filled with a new wave of boy bands and female, teenage sensations, and the alt-rock and hip hop revolutions were in their infancy and not yet in the popular consciousness. Radio DJs, often still in control of their playlists, looked for good music further afield and would reach into the recent past to find undiscovered gems. In June 1988, UB40 performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday which was a huge extravaganza at Wembley Stadium in London. Their performance of “Red Red Wine” spurred renewed interest in the song and helped fill the quality gap in American radio. I was going to college in New Jersey in the fall of ’88 and was mightily perplexed why the song was so popular once again. It had been huge in Toronto in ’83, but it was like that had never happened in the US as those audiences discovered the song anew. It went to #1 in the US on its second go-round.
The additional twist to this cover was that UB40’s decision to cover “Red Red Wine” had nothing to do with Neil Diamond’s version. As was common, many covers came out after Diamond’s, including two also released in 1968 by Jimmy James and the Vagabonds (#36 in the UK) and by Dutch singer Peter Tetteroo (top ten in the Netherlands). Two more versions appeared in 1969, one by southern US singer, Charles Mann, and another by Jamaican singer Tony Tribe. Tribe’s reggae version reached #46 in the UK singles chart and that was the version familiar to the members of UB40; and though the band noted the writer as Diamond, they mistook it for a Jamaican singer with a similar name.
Tribe’s version of the song had a fast tempo, carried on a thick bassline and featuring his Tom Jones-like vocals over the quickened reggae chop guitar. It carried the melody of Diamond’s version, with Tribe’s vocal mirroring the pacing but the quick musical tempo eliminating the syrupy feel of the original, undermining the sense of regret and longing in the lyrics.
UB40 slowed the song down, finding a tempo between Diamond’s and Tribe’s. The reggae chop was laid over a thick keyboard melody, giving it the band’s signature reggae-pop style. The bass and drum rhythm drew from Tribe’s version but, slowed down, had a dub feel. Ali Campbell’s vocal returned the emotional element to the song, matched by the morose keyboard line over the final part of the song. It was a song you could enjoy on the dance floor, sing along or bop to in the car, or chill out with at home. It was a hit that has sustained to this day, opening the door to UB40’s huge, international success and remaining one of the best known reggae songs ever; and it was written by the square Neil Diamond.
Morning Dew \ Bonnie Dobson (1962) & Serena Ryder (2006)
Several years ago, I was listening to a random playlist from my music library while walking home from work, which at the time started with a short stint through Toronto’s downtown mall, The Eaton Centre. A song by ‘60s singer Lulu came on, which I had in my collection via a hand-me-down 7” single from my brother. The A-side was her famous 1967 hit from the movie, “To Sir with Love,” but I was listening to its B-side, a song called “Morning Dew” (she would release it later as an A-side in 1968 but it didn’t chart highly). I noted it was a pretty good song, offering a more rocking side of Lulu.
A couple days later I was walking the same stretch of The Eaton Centre, again on my way home from work, and again heard “Morning Dew.” I was naturally struck with a feeling of déjà vu except it wasn’t quite so. It was a different version of the song, this time by Canadian singer Serena Ryder and taken from her 2006 album of mostly cover songs, If Your Memory Serves You Well. Her version also sounded great, it was bluesy with a rock edge and offset her great voice which conveyed the song’s confusion, conviction, dismay, and anger. She used a variant of the title, “(Take Me for a Walk in the) Morning Dew.” It has also been known as “(Walk Me Out in the) Morning Dew.” It was a modernization but otherwise a fairly straight-up take on Lulu’s version.
However, Ryder’s album had been covers of Canadian songs, not Brits like Lulu. So, piqued with curiosity, I looked into the song and was fascinated to learn its history. It was written by Toronto folk singer Bonnie Dobson in 1961 and released on her 1962 live album, Bonnie Dobson at Folk City. It’s this version I’ve selected for the playlist and it’s a typically delivered folk song, though there’s another version she did in 1969 with full string arrangement and pop-rock accompaniment. The song was inspired by the 1959 movie, On the Beach, and was built around a conversation between the last surviving couple after a nuclear apocalypse, in which one seems unaware of the situation while the other asserts the reality, that they can’t take a walk in the morning dew, there wasn’t a baby heard crying or a man heard moaning, and there weren’t any people at all.
As Dobson performed the song on her travels it was taken up by the folk community, slowing growing into a standard across the folk festivals and coffee houses of the time in North America. In 1964 Dobson gave permission for Fred Neil and Vince Martin to record the song, producing the first studio version. Theirs was also a folk version, with their harmonies accompanied with acoustic guitar. This was heard by Tim Rose who asked if Bonnie could add some lyrics, to which she refused. Fred Neil reworked the song with Rose and it was released in 1966 as a pop-rock version, with the same melody and some minor lyrical adjustments. It was credited as Dobson-Rose and from that time on, all subsequent covers of the song were co-credited as such despite her protests to his claim on the song. Tim Rose’s name on the song denied her the full royalties since, paying her only 75%. When she moved to England in 1969 and started performing it there, people thought she was covering Rose’s song. In some versions Rose has been credited as the only writer, casting doubt to her claim on the song at all, especially in England where Rose (an American) had originally released his version.
The song writing attribution issue was a serious one, as the song went on to be covered by a great many artists including some huge names. It became a popular song for The Grateful Dead from 1967 onward, who along with Lulu helped spread the song’s popularity. In 1968, Sugar Shack had a top twenty hit with it in Ireland, and Lee Hazlewood, Jeff Beck, and Australia’s Allison Durbin all recorded it that same year. It was thereafter done by The Allman Brothers Band, Nazareth, Australian glam band, Hush, the Irish family band, Clannad, and British blues singer, Long John Baldry. In the modern rock vein, German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten did a version in 1987, legendary electro-punk rockers Devo did theirs in 1990, while Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees issued it as a B-side to their 1993 single, “Butterfly.” In 2002, none other than Robert Plant covered it and then performed it with Dobson at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2013. In 2016, The National did it as a contribution to the Grateful Dead tribute album, Day of the Dead. There have been many more, far too many to mention, and in all the various genres the versions move along the line between the subdued, sombre take of the folk original and the rock version started by Rose. I’ve chosen the Ryder cover since it’s a rock version and to keep it Canadian.
In 2018, Bonnie Dobson was honoured at the Mariposa Folk Festival, where she had performed “Morning Dew” at its inaugural event in 1961. The song was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame as part of the event. While she still shares the royalties with Tim Rose’s estate (she decided it’s too much hassle to try and fight it at this point), there’s no longer any doubt who wrote this now prolific anti-nukes standard.
That concludes another batch of originals and covers, spanning fifty years and several different genres. I do these playlists not just because they’re fun to hear the different versions next to each other but also because it’s interesting (and, I think, important) to know where songs come from and how music and artists of different styles and forms can be reignited in completely different ways and for new audiences. Stay tuned for more since there is an endless well of cover songs from which to draw.