That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Funny things, songs. Some don’t even get heard, never leaving their creators’ rooms (or their heads); others seem to spread like a special kind of virus, played at parties and bedrooms and bus stops and supermarkets everywhere until they’re inescapable, a global pandemic without cure. (Yes, “Despacito,” I’m talkin’ to you.)
Regardless of their popularity or lack thereof, all songs are an attempt to crystallize a feeling and then share it with the world. And every once in a while, having completed a sort of emotional circuit, a song returns to its owner, carrying back far more than it left with.
Here’s the story of one which did just that.
In early 1964, Ray Davies was all of 19 years old. Having left behind art school and his dream of becoming a painter, he wasn’t sure what to try next. Lacking any better ideas, he decided to start an R&B band with his younger brother Dave.
We won’t delve deeply into the Kinks’ story here, though it’s quite the whopper: Public indifference, smash hits, fistfights, mental breakdowns, and questionable comebacks.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. In some regards, Davies made for an odd frontman. A self-conscious singer and performer, he later recounted in the Guardian:
My producer and I were walking down Oxford Street, and he said: “This will be the last time you walk down this street without people talking to you.” I asked him why. He said: “This [the just-recorded “You Really Got Me”] is going to be No 1.” I didn’t really understand what he meant. I thought I’d remain anonymous.
But celebrity, for better or worse, was destined to be Davies’ lot. “You Really Got Me” would launch the Kinks from a middling slot as barely competent R&B bashers into the very vanguard of the British Invasion. By stripping rock and roll down to a single riff and a single emotion (that would be lust, for those keeping score at home), Davies and company tapped into a blazing-hot live wire. In the words of a later admirer, it was the moment rock and roll became rock.
Taken aback by the massive success of the single, Pye Records ordered a rush-release LP to capitalize on their investment. The band were hustled into the studio, where they laid down an album under the tutelage of American producer Shel Talmy. Buoyed considerably by the nakedly aggressive tone he achieved with “You Really Got Me,” Talmy would go on to work with a Who’s Who of superb acts in England, including the Who, the Easybeats, and Davy Jones (soon to be better known as David Bowie).
One of the six Ray Davies writing credits on the Kinks’ debut album (which, aside from that one hit single, is singularly underwhelming) was a song called “Stop Your Sobbing.” Was it a breakup song? Was it comfort for a friend unnerved by the Davies’ sudden fame? If the meaning behind the lyrics is unclear, the music itself is largely unmysterious.
If songs like “You Really Got Me” were a look forward to what was to come—a killer, distorted riff married to direct and unequivocal lyrics—then “Stop Your Sobbing” hearkened instead back to the light and innocent ’50s pop so dear to Ray Davies’ heart. More finger-snapper than rocker, the song isn’t quite a throwaway, but it offers none of the incisiveness Davies would bring to such later works as “See My Friends” and “Well-Respected Man.”
Fast-forward nearly 15 years. The Kinks, improbably, had endured, though not in their original form. Adopting a slick and radio-ready hard-rock persona, the band had gained legions of fans, particularly in the lucrative US market, while alienating nearly all of their old ones. As punk and its more commercial cousin new wave shouldered onto the airwaves and record shelves, many of those old fans looked back wistfully to the band’s early catalog instead.
One of these was a plucky, caustic woman from Akron, Ohio named Chrissie Hynde. Infatuated with rock and roll—though, by her own reckoning, possessing minimal musical talent herself—she moved to London in 1973 to embed into the nascent hard rock and punk scene, first as a music journalist and eventually as a musician in her own right.
Ping-ponging between Europe and the US, Hynde despaired of finding a scene which spoke to her musical sensibilities: Hard, fast rock rendered with unvarnished, unapologetic emotional honesty. Electrified after witnessing a Sex Pistols concert in 1976, she relocated to London once more. There she endured multiple tragicomic brushes with near-fame before finding her essential musical collaborators in drummer Martin Chambers, bassist Pete Farndon, and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott.
Though she had penetrated the very nucleus of the punk scene, Hynde still loved the sounds and themes of the ‘60s: Flower power, the British Invasion, girl groups. And in “Stop Your Sobbing,” a song which had attracted little to no attention upon its initial release, she heard the potential for something more emotionally resonant, a hook on which to hang the simultaneously tough and tender sound of her as-yet unnamed band.
Having cut a demo tape including a rough version of “Stop Your Sobbing,” Hynde took a copy to her friend Nick Lowe. As with so many stories of rock and roll, it’s difficult to know what happened next. Writing in her memoir, Hynde recalls his excitement as he misidentifies the source of their cover: “I definitely want in on this Sandie Shaw song!” In another, he agrees to help produce a single, but then flees after losing faith in the band’s commercial potential.
Regardless, Lowe did help them record what would become their first release: “Stop Your Sobbing” b/w “The Wait.” If the Kinks’ version was an uneasy bridge between ‘50s pop and the sound of ‘60s girl groups, it now became something else entirely. Now there was no mistaking the song’s message—pull yourself together; I need you to be strong—or the hard resolve behind the singer’s words.
Even at this early stage, the band were already firing on all cylinders. Honeyman-Scott’s pealing, insistent chordings in particular gave their cover of “Stop Your Sobbing” an urgency utterly absent in the original. As bassist Farndon would later explain, it was an attempt to marry the tough sensibility of girl groups like the Shangri-Las with the energy of the Who.
But while Hynde insisted her band—now named, of course, the Pretenders—was not merely “The Chrissie Hynde Band,” it was her voice that reached out of the speaker to grab listeners’ undivided attention. Walking the hard edge between vulnerability and strength, Hynde invested “Stop Your Sobbing” with emotion and urgency, making clear that, while she had something to lose, she wouldn’t forfeit her independence or her agency to just anyone. It’s a taste of the same perspective she’d bring to tracks such as “Kid” and “Lovers of Today,” achingly tender ruminations on love observed with a street-smart and unsentimental eye.
It’s intriguing to learn that, after pursuing celebrity for so long, Hynde was ambivalent about fame. As she later related to the Guardian’s “Observer” column:
It’s never been my goal to have a #1. The thing with getting to the top of the charts is that the only place you can go is down. I prefer to stay in the background a bit. Maybe I’m a bit of a spoilsport, but I tend to feel uncomfortable in the limelight.
Remind you of anyone?
Like Ray Davies, Hynde found it challenging to adapt to sudden fame. When the Pretenders hit New York in 1980, she finally got the chance to met “Stop Your Sobbing”’s creator at a nightclub. As Davies explained in an interview in the Daily Mail, Hynde wanted perspective on the jarring experience of becoming a celebrity in the blink of an eye: “She couldn’t take the sudden fame that had come to her, and I think she saw me as someone who had done all that rock ’n’ roll stuff and understood it.”
As it happened, the meeting between these two shy, immensely gifted songwriters developed into something more than mere commiseration. If neither Hynde nor Davies sought the limelight, the romance that followed their encounter was a painful confirmation of its pitfalls. In short order, they found themselves tabloid fodder; the birth of their daughter Natalie in early 1983 only intensified the public’s curiosity.
By that point, though, it was already all over. Davies would never even meet Natalie until she was an adult. The relationship had deteriorated into drunken fights, broken furniture, an abortive civil ceremony. In 1984, Hynde abruptly married Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, putting a definitive end to her partnership with Davies.
From one perspective, the relationship was a painful and abject failure. Publicly at least, its two protagonists now speak of it only in caustic put-downs, if at all. But seen from another, it was a fascinating call and response played out over decades. Young Ray Davies, standing uncomfortably on the very fault line between fame and anonymity, released a sonic message in a bottle, a song which caught an even younger Chrissie Hynde’s ear half a world away and helped inspire her to begin her own musical journey.
The recognition of her own native talent would bring its own complications, of course, and Chrissie Hynde would never enjoy a simple relationship to the celebrity it brought her. But her interpretation of Ray Davies’ “Stop Your Sobbing” was a perfect moment in pop, an inspired reading that added resonance and depth to an otherwise unexploited song, and launched a singular talent out onto the world.
And that’s just about the most we can ask of a cover song, isn’t it?