There are few songs more quintessentially ‘80s than A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” From the iconic synth-driven keyboard riff to the then-groundbreaking animated video, everything about it is reminiscent of that decade. In the years since it was an MTV staple, it has been covered by ska bands, punk bands, bluegrass outfits, folkies and even the likes of Weezer and Metallica. The song rejoined the animated world when it was included in the recent release of the video game The Last of Us Part II, the sequel to one of the most beloved games of the 2010s about a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by disease and zombies.
The year 2000 ushered in a tsunami of pop music as N’SYNC, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys all released multi-platinum albums. That same year, an aging British guitarist who spent most of the ‘90s chasing soft-rock glory and a septuagenarian bluesman who released his first single in 1949 had an unlikely hit record, too.
Riding with the King features the guitar-slinging duo of B.B. King and Eric Clapton playing a mix of covers and some of King’s classics. The album went double platinum and won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. An expanded 20th anniversary version of the record will be released this summer along with two bonus tracks left off the original release. One of these, a cover of the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” was unveiled last week.
1989 was a crucial time in my musical education. At age 11, I was several months into taking drum lessons when my teacher asked me a loaded question: “What drummers do you listen to?” Given that it was the ‘80s and I was deeply enthralled with metal, I rattled off a list of big-haired, double-bass drum playing thunder gods, including Anthrax’s Charlie Benante. My teacher, in what was likely a well-rehearsed speech, quickly rattled off a list of drummers I should be listening to including: Neil Peart of Rush, Bill Bruford of Yes, session drummer Steve Gadd and jazz masters Billy Cobham and Art Blakey. All great drummers, who I’ve been listening to for years – the fact that I can still rattle off the list 31 years after the fact is telling.
Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Alex Skolnick routinely straddles the line between two different musical universes. He is known to legions of metalheads as the lead guitarist for the thrash band Testament. Yet, for nearly two decades, he has had a side hustle as a jazz guitarist for the Alex Skolnick Trio, playing an eclectic blend of fusion jazz.
He credits this genre-fluid existence to a moment in the late ‘80s when he was in Ithaca, NY recording Testament’s sophomore album The New Order. According to his memoir, he and a bandmate were flipping through the channels in a hotel when he came across a PBS concert film featuring Miles Davis performing with one of his electric fusion bands. (Given the date and Skolnick’s description it was likely Miles Davis – That’s What Happened: Live in Germany 1987.) “I had to find out more about this music. It had spoken to me, in an almost mysterious way, as though it were reaching out and calling for me to come closer. … I’d soon own more Miles Davis albums than any other artist (even Kiss),” he wrote.
Already an accomplished guitarist, having studied under the legendary instructor Joe Satriani (whose former students include Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai), Skolnick wanted to expand his horizons beyond metal. So, when the recording sessions ended, he tapped several music instructors at his hometown college, the University of California, Berkeley, to help him expand his skills.
“I got into Elvis because I hated going to school, so I would play hooky a lot or cut school, and I’d stay home and watch old movies,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “I remember one day watching Jailhouse Rock. And just going, ‘Whoa.’ By the end of the movie, I was like, ‘This guy’s cool. This is what I want to do’.” He recently paid tribute to his hero by releasing an album of Elvis covers, aptly titled Danzig Sings Elvis.
Danzig first came to prominence in the ‘80s as the frontman and founder of the Misfits. He then went on to lead the band that bears his name, Danzig. With this group, he scored a series of hard rock hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s and was just as famous for his well-greased pecs as his music.
There’s nothing particularly punk or metal about the new record. It’s a collection of root-music-style covers one would usually attribute to the likes of Steve Earle or Marty Stuart. At times, it feels like Danzig is auditioning for an Elvis tribute act. He does his best to channel Elvis’ baritone-heavy vocal style. Danzig mostly eschews Elvis’ greatest hits and instead plays some deeper cuts. Given that Elvis released many covers throughout his career, a better name for this album might have been Danzig Sings Songs Elvis Covered. Although uneven at times, the record serves as a solid tribute to the man who inspired countless artists across the rock n’ roll spectrum.
“Stop” has always been one of my favorite tracks from the Spice Girls’ classic period. Originally appearing on the group’s 1997 sophomore album Spiceworld, the song was a throwback to the early Motown sounds of the Supremes. As one whose tastes always skewed retro, I liked how “Stop” highlighted the connection between the ‘90s and ‘60s girl groups. Though it wasn’t their biggest hit at the time, “Stop” has endured; it’s currently the Spice Girls’ second-most-streamed track on Spotify.
The song recently got a rock n’ roll overhaul courtesy of the Struts. The British group released a power-pop cover of the track that would have been a good fit for The Ed Sullivan Show. The band kept the song’s original pounding backbeat in place. They then infused it with hard-rockin’ guitar and lead vocalist Luke Spiller’s Mick Jagger-style vocals. With the cover, they channelled another popular ‘60s tradition: male rock bands covering girl group songs. Think the Beatles’ version of the Marvelettes “Please Mr. Postman,” the Beach Boys’ reworking of the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” or Vanilla Fudge’s take on the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
The Struts released a social-distancing friendly video “Live from the Living Room.” It featured members of the group singing, playing and dancing along to the song either alone or with one of their dogs. Sure, these are serious times, but it’s still good to “Stop” and have a little fun as well.
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