Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite cover of a one-hit wonder?
There have been plenty of songs released over the years that celebrate the iconic fashion statement that is the blue jean. Neil Diamond is “Forever In Blue Jeans”; however, I have seen him live five times or so and I have never seen him wearing Levis. Mel McDaniel’s baby has got her blue jeans on, and even the seamstress for Elton’s band, the blue jean baby, L.A. lady herself slips them on from time to time. But, pound for pound, the diamond in the blue jean rough for me is the David Dundas ode to the blue jean, “Jeans On.”
There is no messing around here. It’s the weekend, David wakes up in the morning light, pulls on his blue jeans, calls up his girl and tells her to get her own jeans on be ready to roll. With money in his pocket and a tiger in his tank, there is nothing to stop them from hitting the open road in the sun and the wind and the rain.
The Dundas song, with its hooky melody and relatable lyrics, is almost the very definition of an earworm. Trust me, once you give this one a fresh listen you will not be able to escape hearing this one internally for hours, perhaps even days. Peaking at number 3 in the U.K. and number 17 in the U.S., the song was pretty much a one and done Halley’s Comet for David Dundas, as far as American ears were concerned anyway.
Not many cover versions of this little ditty appear in the wild; however, the bellwether example is courtesy of Keith Urban from his 2002 record Golden Road. In the early ’80s, before he became Mr. Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban was just starting to peak on the country scene. With his guitar-playing prowess combined with some classic rock sensibility, his sound was unique and perfectly suited for crossover appeal. The twang that Urban offers on his version of “Jeans On” is perfectly suited for placement on his album and going back and forth between versions, they both seem to carry the same DNA, which doesn’t always happen in a cover song. The song becomes special at about the 1:35 mark when Keith shouts out to the band “Here We Go, Mama” and they let the guitars down the talking. (This live version is pretty good too.)
The Modern English song “I Melt with You” wasn’t actually a hit per se, never making it into the top 75 of Billboard’s Hot 100. But come on – it was a hit, and we all know it. The movie Valley Girl used it to score the falling-in-love montage – not a part of it, the whole damn song – and while that grounds it firmly in the ’80s, it’s transcended its decade with its regular airplay and its use in multiple commercials selling anything from crackers to cars.
The Nouvelle Vague version moves away from the headlong apocalyptic rush of the original, and its slow warmth is a perfect match for Silja’s vocals, couched in the promise of seduction. But most of all, I just think it’s beautiful. It feels to me like looking at a new world with the one you love, awestruck by the beauty of it all and ready to be a part of it. The future really is open wide here, and I love that.
Dexys Midnight Runners sits atop VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the ‘80s for their 1982 smash “Come On Eileen.” In the late ‘90s, the ska outfit known as Save Ferris earned the one-hit wonder moniker too by scoring a minor hit with a horn-powered cover of the song. The cover appeared on the band’s 1997 debut album It Means Everything. The record itself contains many excellent tracks that capture the spirit of ska’s third wave, even if they did not light up the charts. The band expertly fuses elements of ska, punk, jazz, and R&B, putting them light-years ahead of many of their peers in terms of sound quality. The album is anchored by vocalist Monique Powell, whose powerful voice radiates above the music. With “Come On Eileen,” Save Ferris dropped the acoustic instruments and Irish grooves in favor of ska-style guitar licks and blazing horns. The resulting cover captures the raucous good-time vibe of the original, while still embodying much of what defined ‘90s ska.
This song could also have been a response to a prior Q&A, What’s a song that you didn’t know was a cover song? So it is nice to get a chance to write about it now.
Back in my college radio days (1979-1982), I was exposed to all sorts of music, but there were always going to be gaps, and I didn’t have Allmusic or Google to help me fill them in. When I first heard the Inmates’ song “Dirty Water” in 1979, I immediately liked its raw energy. It had a retro-garage band sound, with a bit of early Stones, and it was, it seemed, about the dirty water of the Thames and London. I remember playing it pretty often, never once mentioning that it was, in fact, a cover of a song by the Standells originally released in 1965, which was about the Charles River and Boston. Because I had no idea that it was a cover.
The Standells were actually from Los Angeles, and the song is actually not particularly positive toward its subject city, having been based on an experience of songwriter/producer Ed Cobb and his girlfriend with a Boston mugger. (A few trivia asides: (1) The leader of the Standells was Larry Tamblyn, the younger brother of actor Russ Tamblyn, who was, among other things, Riff in the movie version of West Side Story and Dr. Lawrence Jacoby in Twin Peaks. (2) Lead singer Dick Dodd was a former Mouseketeer who was a dancer in the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie. (3) For brief periods, both Dewey Martin, later of Buffalo Springfield, and Lowell George, later of Little Feat, were in the Standells. And the band appeared on The Munsters.)
“Dirty Water” flowed up the charts, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 8 on the Cashbox charts and No. 1 on the Record World charts and then pretty much seeped away. However, despite the negative references in the song about Boston’s bad water, frustrated women, and Strangler, the Boston Bruins began playing the Standells’ version in 1991, 1997 or 2007 (or some other year), depending on what source you read. The Red Sox also started playing the song, as did the New England Patriots and the Celtics at various times.
This has led to a revival of interest in the song, and it has become often covered (and stolen—the Buffalo Sabres play a version substituting the Niagara River). Boston-based Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys, big sports fans themselves, cover the song, as has former Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo, a fair rocker in his own right. Other bands often play it it when appearing in the city, including local boys Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen (who, as you might be aware, is from New Jersey) with Bostonian Peter Wolf, Dave Matthews Band, and Steely Dan.
After their “Dirty Water” success, the Standells had a few singles that nudged into the Billboard Hot 100, but nothing that would move them out of the one-hit wonder category. The Inmates’ version spent 10 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at Number 51, and the band had a UK Top 40 hit with a cover of Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Walk,” apparently making them an OHW, but not for “Dirty Water.”
Evan and Jaron are identical twin brothers who released three albums as a duo. Their song “Crazy For This Girl” reached 15 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and obtained a coveted spot on the soundtrack of Dawson’s Creek. There is an order of magnitude difference in the play count between “Crazy For This Girl” and their second-most-played song, “The Distance” which only reached #108, failing to claim “hot” status. Luckily, this setback didn’t hinder the brothers. It turns out they are multitalented: they can sing country, they can invent, and they can manage (oh, the intrigue).
Pancho’s Lament replaces the orchestral intro and dreamy vocals of the original with just a lone violin and a bit of conga flair. An acoustic guitar takes over, with the violin asserting itself occasionally. Instead of the chorus kicking in with traditional boy-band guitar and percussion, it remains tempered with the syncopated beat still emphasized by the conga. To me, this slightly out-of-place percussion represents the endearing nostalgia we get when revisiting this one-hit wonder. Background vocals still give us the duo vibe, but we miss some of the call-and-response synergy that only brothers can provide.
Back in the nascent days of cable tv in the ’70s, when it was known around these parts as “Cablevision,” acquiring content appears to have been a challenge. At least I assume it was, because to my kid eyes it always seemed like they were showing the same cruddy movies every single day with little to no variation. As a result I thought this cable thing was overrated and just plain sucked. Then, out of the blue, something happened that radically altered my opinion. A movie came along that I loved so much that I wanted to see it all the time and their inability to fill the air with massive amounts of new stuff meant I could. The movie in question: the now bona fide cult classic of suburban teen ennui and Matt Dillon’s film debut, 1979’s Over the Edge. It felt like an epiphany. It was the very first time I’d seen “myself” in an actual movie. The kids were the same age as me and my friends, they looked like us, talked like us and and got up to the same stupid, semi-illegal stuff we did to kill time (although we never went through with the plans to burn the school down like the kids in the movie did because we were all talk). Anyway, I loved it.
Over the course of the film, tension between the kids and the adult authority figures grows until it ultimately explodes into a violent and deadly confrontation.The closing scene shows the aftermath with the kids who were caught and arrested for their part in the mayhem, being taken away on a school bus heading to “The Hill”, some sort of juvie-reform school type place. The sun is going down, streaming through the bus’s windows onto the faces of the kids, and though it’s by no means a happy ending, the scene is imbued with hope. And that’s solely down to the song soundtracking it, Valerie Carter‘s languid, gorgeous cover of The Five Starirsteps’ “O-o-h Child.” The scene and the song literally meld together as one, and the whole thing is kinda perfect.
The Five Stairsteps were a family group featuring 5 of the 6 kids in the Burke family, and they enjoyed great success in the R & B charts. They only ever managed to land one song in the pop Top 10, but oh man, was it a good one. Released in 1970, “O-o-h Child” was and is an incontrovertible classic. With its urgently sunny horns and hopeful core message, it remains the perfect listening salve for anyone having a hard time. Yet somehow, in 1977, Valerie Carter made this seemingly perfect song even better.
While most of Carter’s career was spent singing back-up for people like James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Christopher Cross throughout the ’70s and ’80s, she did record two promising solo albums during that time. Her first and best, Just a Stone’s Throw Away, featured her version of “O-o-h Child” as its lead track. Unlike the original, the mood on Carter’s is not one of horn-fueled urgency but of tentative consolation. The song unfolds slowly as her warm and soaring voice gradually ascends, its full power unleashed in the climactic last verse. The whole thing exudes a soulful ’70s Southern California sun going down vibe and features an especially handsome and breezy guitar solo in the bridge. I hate the word sublime, but you know what, the whole thing is utterly sublime. By the way, Jackson Browne wrote a song about Carter in 1980 which pretty much sums it up and says it all: it’s called “That Girl Could Sing.” Let “O-o-h Child” serve as eternal confirmation of that.
Fun fact 1: Over the Edge director Jonathan Kaplan wanted The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” to soundtrack the film’s last scene, but ultimately couldn’t do so because the licensing rights to the song were too expensive. And I am truly grateful for that. The lyrics of “Baba” are so ridiculously on the nose in relation to the film’s plot (“They’re all wasted!”) that playing it over that last scene would’ve had the effect of a bull in a china shop. With that in mind, I want to offer a hearty, belated thanks to the record company or publishers who put it out of financial reach for doing the right thing. Oh, and to the music supervisor genius with a heart of gold full of soul who rewarded us with Valerie Carter: I think you rule.
Fun fact 2: Kurt Cobain loved Over the Edge, in fact there is a sequence in the 2015 documentary about his life “Montage of Heck” referring to this. According to Cobain, the film “pretty much defined my whole personality” (he added, “I wanted to be a vandal and hold everyone hostage”).
I wanted to pick a more recent one-hit wonder, but the catch there is that you can’t guarantee the act will be a one-hit wonder. For instance, though Foster the People are yet to have a second Top 40 hit, they got close once (“Sit Next to Me,” #42). They also have a number of recent singles that have done well on rock radio, for whatever that’s worth. It seems reasonably likely another one will cross over sooner or later. But, for now, in terms of cultural saturation, one hit is it: 2011’s “Pumped Up Kicks.”
And what an odd song to become your big hit. Written from the point of view of a school shooter, the extremely serious subject matter contrasts rather sharply with the bouncy chorus. Perhaps no surprise, then, that most of the covers – and there were so many covers that year – slow the music down to better match the mood. That includes Chamberlin’s melancholy folk-rock take, which brings a gentle Lauren Canyon strum to the proceedings. Singer Mark Daly’s falsetto can ably handle the chorus’s sudden high notes though, and whoever they have on whistling duty nails it.
Like Eric Clapton might say, see if you can spot this one.
Tony Levin is probably best known for being a member of the reunited King Crimson in the 1980s (and since 2013), or for his role as Peter Gabriel’s bass player. But he’s also led a few groups, including his own.
The story goes that the first time his band played their cover of “Tequila” live, Levin asked the audience to shout out the name of the song when they figured it out and nobody did until they spoke the one and only lyric. The first time I heard it was on Pieces of the Sun, so I sort of knew what I was getting into, but I still didn’t see this coming.
This is about as deconstructed as a hit song can get – aside from the lyric and the second saxophone break, it feels like an entirely different song. Levin’s solo music often inhabits a space somewhere between art rock, prog rock, and jazz fusion, and this cover definitely leans a little bit towards the jazz fusion side, but there’s still a distinct Latin vibe to their radical rearrangement. But the song is more relaxed, as if they’re sipping instead of shooting the titular beverage.
I must admit that I’ve listened to this cover far more than I’ve ever heard the original, because I love how transformative it is. It’s as if Levin and his band took the original merely as loose inspiration for a track that conjures up a mysterious but welcoming bar on a distant beach somewhere, rather than the full-on party of the original.
While tribute and homage have their places, the most interesting cover versions are the ones where the performers put their distinctive mark on it. That’s why my favorite one-hit-wonder cover is “Walking On Sunshine” by San Diego pop-punkers Spazboy. The original version, from the 1983 debut album by Katrina and the Waves, is okay, but lacks the musical tweaks and stellar production that turned the 1985 re-release into the hook-filled, karaoke-friendly piece of ear candy that we all know and love. Spazboy’s take is everything a punk song ought to be: loud, short, stripped down, irreverent, and fun.
This version is stripped of all but the essentials — you won’t find any horns, lead guitar or gratuitous vocal repetition. They start off with just bass and drums for the entire first verse, no guitar until the chorus. The bass playing is outstanding, and is reminiscent in sound and style to the playing of Joe Jackson’s long-time bassist, Graham Maby. Then, after an hellacious pick drag, the guitar joins in for the chorus, and stays for the rest of the party. When they get to verse two, they pick up the pace ever so slightly. They blow through verse two, then call it quits, with the entire song clocking in at just under two minutes. (The 1985 version is twice as long.)
Oh, and I said irreverent. At the end of verse two, after singing the line “Baby I just want you back, and I want you to stay,” the singer very clearly says “Blaah,” as if the whole idea nauseates him. You gotta love the punk irony. Spazboy is still active, although they don’t play out often. Check them out.
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