Sep 202019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.

just like starting over covers

In October of 1980, John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” was released as a single, serving as a harbinger for his first new album in five years. The critics were not about to swoon over his return; while it was nice to see him making music again, some scorned his contentedness and the song’s studio-bound ’50s sound; one British mag went so far as to headline their review “Get Down Lazarus.” Which Lennon did, to what must have been tremendous mortification on the headline writer’s part.

Lennon’s death virtually guaranteed a number one song; “(Just Like) Starting Over” reaped the morbid benefits. To this day, it serves as a bittersweet epitaph, and about as untouchable by cover artists as a song can get. What’s the point? It’s its own tribute, and bettering it is a thankless task.

But that doesn’t mean nobody’s tried…
Continue reading »

Apr 192019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.

Harry Chapin

No number one hit says “massive guilt trip” like Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” It’s become a shorthand reference to neglectful father-son parenting, featured in popular culture from Simpsons to Shrek the Third, and Stevie Wonder only wishes he prompted as many phone calls just to say “I love you.”

It started off as a poem by Sandy Chapin, Harry’s wife, inspired by the relationship between her first husband and his father. “He came home and I showed him the poem, and he sort of brushed it aside,” she said. But a year later Harry had become a father, and found himself living the life his wife had written about; he wrote music and a chorus, and David Geffen selected it to be a single. “You can’t do that; it’s ridiculous,” Sandy told him. “That song will only appeal to 45-year-old men, and they don’t buy records.” Harry himself wanted to re-record the song, saying “It’s terrible, just terrible. It’s much too fast a tempo.” Both of them were proved very wrong, as the song went to #1 in December 1974.

Continue reading »

Mar 262019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

love will never do covers

We continue our week-long series of features on every 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with one of the biggest pop singers of the past thirty years: Janet Jackson. She’s sold over 100 million records, has an entire Wikipedia page devoted to everyone she’s inspired, and – most importantly for this series – had ten #1 hits. So, to tweak the usual “Covering the Hits” formula a bit, I limited the randomizer to one of those ten. And it picked “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” the Rhythm Nation 1814 standout that turns 30 this year.

Despite being a smash at the time and a hit with an enduring legacy (Pitchfork named it the 27th best song of the 1980s just a couple years ago), “Love Will Never Do” has been covered less than you might think. Once you eliminate the million sound-alike covers and karaoke instruments, Spotify only boasts a handful of covers, and YouTube not many more. But we dug deep, to bring you the best covers out there. Continue reading »

Feb 082019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.

party doll

“I really don’t remember writing ‘Party Doll,” said Buddy Knox of Happy, Texas. “But I did, out on the farm, behind a haystack.” It was 1948, and Knox was fifteen at the time. Eight years later, he became the first artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era to write his own number one song. It took a lot of people, famous and not, to get it that far.

Knox went to West Texas State University, where he formed a band with two friends, Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier, and saw both Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison play. They both recommended he take his songs and his friends 90 miles west to Clovis, New Mexico, to record with producer Norman Petty. Knox’s sister and two of her friends sang backup vocals; a more capable bassist replaced Bowen, and since Lanier didn’t have a full kit, he beat on a box stuffed with cotton (a sound that would later appear on the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away”).

The three were content with the acetates of “Party Doll,” but a farmer named Chester Oliver asked to press 1500 copies to sell around town on his own label, Triple-D Records. One copy made it to KZIP in Amarillo, Texas, where DJ Dean Kelley turned it into a regional hit. Lanier’s sister contacted Morris Levy of Roulette Records; he signed them and released the record nationwide. Ed Sullivan had him on his show, exposing “Party Doll” to the whole of the US, and the rest is history.

But the history of “Party Doll” covers was just beginning.

Continue reading »

Jan 042019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

love is blue covers

For this feature, we use random.org to pick a random number that corresponds to one of (currently) 1,082 number-one hits. I rolled #199, and grew quite excited as I began scrolling through the list. #199 falls in 1968, smack in the Beatles heyday, just following recent chart-toppers like “Penny Lane” and “All You Need Is Love.” Other iconic standards of the era from “Respect” to “Light My Fire” lie right around #199 – and #200 is “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” A golden era for the Hot 100’s pole position.

Well, not entirely. As you might guess from the mustacheoed photo above, #199 bucks the trend a bit. Rather than getting a cutting-edge classic pushing rock and pop music forward, I landed on the easy-listening instrumental “Love Is Blue,” as performed by French conductor Paul Mauriat. It inexplicably topped the carts for five weeks – that’s a week longer than “Dock of the Bay” would! It does make Mauriat the only French lead artist to ever top the Hot 100, which I suppose is something. Continue reading »

Nov 232018
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

madonna music covers

The first Madonna song I remember hearing is “Music.” It topped the charts in September 2000, when I was 13: peak Top 40 radio age. I suppose I must have heard “Like a Prayer” or “Borderline” somewhere before – or her more recent hits “Ray of Light,” the Austin Powers 2 song “Beautiful Stranger,” and, inexplicably, an excruciating “American Pie” cover – but “Music” was the first I registered as a Madonna song.

It offered a lousy introduction to Madonna. From the cloying “Hey Mr. DJ” opening, I hated it. It presented a rhythmic jumble, an obnoxious hook, and lyrics that seemed dumb even to a 13-year old. An actual verse: “Don’t think of yesterday / And I don’t look at the clock / I like to boogie-woogie / Uh. Uh.” (Admittedly, the same complaints could all be made about her much-derided James Bond theme two years later, and I love that song). It took a year or two more before I saw the “Material Girl” music video on some VH1 Best of the 80s countdown and became a fan. Continue reading »