Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.
Yes, you read that right, Arena Rock. Okay, class, settle down.
The term “Arena Rock” is both a straightforward musical description and an insult. On the one hand, it is a genre name used to describe the radio-friendly, coliseum-filling rock sound that began infiltrating the pop charts in the mid-70s and ultimately came to dominate the next decades’ FM radio playlists. On the other, it is a pointed putdown, meant to suggest supreme bombast, disgusting commerciality, and the worst kind of mass appeal.
Of course, as the name implies, many, many people love Arena Rock. The play counts across the streaming services for legendary perpetrators like Boston, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Foreigner are staggering. Songs like “More Than A Feeling” and “I Want To Know What Love Is” have racked up millions upon millions of plays, and in the case of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” billions. And it’s not just your Dad or your Uncle Joey–or, okay, me sometimes–hitting play on songs like these. Based on these numbers, it appears it’s freakin’ everyone. Billions!
Before we go any further, let’s note that Arena Rock is not the only term for this particular genre. If you are a picky nerd like me, you might be more inclined to refer to them as “AOR,” the excellently memorable acronym for “Album-Oriented Rock.” Because while that term originally defined a particular radio format, by the early ’80s it had come to represent a very specific sound and style of music, i.e. the precise sort the aforementioned bands were making. I admit to preferring “AOR” over Arena Rock because it’s a little less broad and is marginally cooler. Also, it has an over-confident and ridiculous superhero quality to it, which is entirely appropriate given what it represents. But hell, call it whatever makes you comfortable: Arena Rock, AOR, Classic Rock, even Dad Rock, they all apply. Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it.
Arena Rock songs take place within a mythical universe where every living being is in high school and the only time that matters is “tonight.” It is not Arena Rock’s job to enlighten or serve up valuable life lessons. Its primary purpose is to celebrate being horny and/or high, bitch about how boring this town is, and ineloquently remind people that they need to rock every hour, of every day. Of course, like life itself, it’ll occasionally get sad ‘n’ dark and there will be expressions of doomed love (“you’re tearin’ me apart”). And sometimes it’ll brag about or blame its imaginary partner in crime, the devil. But no matter where it roams, it never loses sight of its primary goal, which is to rock you tonight Cleveland-Philly-NYC.
The Arena Rock sound is typified by fat, infectious guitar and/or synth riffs, king-size choruses, and colossal hooks, served up in the most over-the-top manner possible (especially when the song is a ballad). These songs are the kind of songs that exude enough melodic and emotional bigness that they can fill every corner of whatever space they happen to be playing in, no matter how cavernous or unglamorous. Neither coy nor intellectual (“You’re not shy, you’ve been around”), they are embarrassingly straightforward about how they feel (“I’ll show you sweet delight”) and are designed to attack and consume the dumbest, most defenseless, and least discerning musical nerve-receptors of the human brain (“Stroke me”). They are the sonic equivalent of sucking down a Big Gulp™ in a 7-11 parking lot on a hot day in 1981. Arena Rock songs are all about living in the moment and “feelin’ satisfied.”
Yes, I know–what about the clothes? When playing live back in the day, Arena Rock bands were not only expected to bring it musically but to raise the roof in a sartorial sense as well. Bearded guys in silk kimonos. Jumpsuits open to the navel. And hair, lots and lots of glorious hair. True confession: I spent more time as a kid pondering Boston drummer Sib Hashian’s afro in the band photo on the back cover of their 1976 debut album than I ever did admiring the front with its iconic upside-down guitar logo. That was just a painting. Sib’s ‘fro was real. (See pic above.)
From its absolute, unwavering earnestness and perpetual “heart-on” to its fashion sense and excessive light show, Arena Rock is unequivocally, and certifiably bonkers.
Seriously though, do you know what the number one craziest thing about Arena Rock is? It is the fact that its virtues and flaws are exactly the same. The pros and cons reside in a single column. What makes it ridiculous is also what makes it awesome.
If you dislike Arena Rock or AOR, I don’t expect any of the wickedly cool covers I am about to share to change your mind. But I do hope, at the very least, they trigger a bit of newfound respect for the original songs themselves. And who knows, maybe after hearing these covers you’ll be inspired to throw a friendly head bob Arena Rock’s way the next time you pass it in the high school hallway of your soul, just to say “hey, we’re cool,” even if you have no plans to hang out with it regularly.
And now in the words of Loverboy’s all-knowing singer-sage, Mike “it’s a bandana, not a headband” Reno, Come on baby, let’s go!
Cigarettes After Sex – Keep On Loving You (REO Speedwagon cover)
The ascent of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You” to the top of the U.S. pop charts in March of 1981 was one of Arena Rock’s true watershed moments. Even though the band had a fervently loyal fanbase, stellar live reputation, and were the recipients of steady airplay on FM stations throughout the latter half of the ’70s, until that moment, they’d never infiltrated the mainstream pop charts in a significant way. “Keep On Loving You,” their ominous-sounding earworm of a power ballad, changed all that. The song was a sore-thumbed fox in a Top 40 henhouse dominated by sweet, sweet love (courtesy of lady faves like Air Supply and Kenny Rogers). Yes, there was an actual moment in pop history when REO were the toughest kids on Casey Kasem’s playground.
Handsomely ethereal indie band Cigarettes After Sex’s 2015 cover is a dreamy, slow-motion beauty reminiscent of both Mazzy Star and Chromatics. Greg Gonzalez delivers a hypnotically lovely vocal that somehow manages the trick of being both supremely sensual and completely aloof. To achieve maximum eeriness and teariness, play it with the lights out.
Fun Fact: There were a few Cigarette fans on YouTube who didn’t initially realize the “Keep On Loving You” was a cover and in their comments praised the wrong band over how genius it was. Still, it’s probably best not to tell anyone who doesn’t know at this point. If you discovered the new song you were obsessed with was a 40-year-old midwestern power ballad that your parents used to furiously make out to in Dad’s first car when they were 17, it might kill the vibe. And the fact is, while these particular commenters may have credited the wrong source, they were right about one thing; the song is kind of genius.
Anita Athavale – Subdivisions (Rush cover)
First off, Rush fans, I come in peace. I don’t want to fight, I just want to share something awesome. I am aware that some of you might be offended to hear Rush referred to as an Arena Rock-AOR band. Their bookish, esoteric themes and virtuosic musicianship mean they are usually filed under “progressive rock” thus regarded as being “smarter” and more serious than something like, say, Journey. I get that completely. But FM radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s didn’t make that distinction. It was common and normal to hear Rush songs rubbing shoulders with Journey songs over the airwaves (and MTV). And to be honest, Rush songs like “The Spirit of Radio” and “Closer To The Heart” were not a million miles away from the Journeys and Styxs of the world.
Then there’s the fact that the actual arena venue, a.k.a. the coliseum/civic center/garden, is where Rush shone their brightest and built their reputation as musical giants. While I offer my humble apologies to any didacts or narpets I’ve offended, please know that all this justification is being done in the service of something magnificent, that being Anita Athavale’s brilliant cover of one of the greatest Rush tunes ever, ever, 1983’s “Subdivisions.” Anita strips the fatly synthesized anthem of teen ennui and alienation to its bare bones, reinventing it as a naked, piano-pounding power ballad. There are a fair number of “Subdivisions” covers in the world but none come close to this truly magnificent cover, one of my all-time favorites.
Kelly Clarkson – More Than A Feeling (Boston cover)
American Idol alumnus Kelly Brianne (who just this week changed her legal name from Kelly Clarkson, though she’ll still go by Clarkson professionally) famously begins her daily talk show with a feature called “Kellyoke” where she performs a truncated cover of a song requested by an audience member. While the song selection leans heavily toward pop, R&B, and country hits of the 2000s, every now and then Kelly steps outside the corny Now That’s What I Call confines and performs tracks that are more off-brand and actually kind of rock. Over the past few years, she’s expertly tackled tunes by cool modernists like The Pixies, Radiohead, and The Cure, as well as some Classic Rock evergreen-ers by artists like Cheap Trick and Aerosmith.
Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” is one of the most famous and beloved songs within the Arena Rock-AOR canon. It has become so synonymous with the genre’s big-chorused bombast that it’s nearly a punchline at this point. But it’s also exceptionally wistful and sad for a stadium anthem. And the late Brad Delp’s jaw-droppingly amazing vocal performance has come to feel particularly poignant since his passing in 2007. Very few beings have the pipes to do this song justice (understatement), but Kelly does, and dammit to hell, she totally tears it up. The way she delivers “my Marianne walking away-ay” is kind of sick. She should record a full studio version of “More Than A Feeling.” Hell, she should be fronting an Arena Rock band. Wow, just plain wow.
Sebadoh – Cold As Ice (Foreigner cover)
If there were a Mount Rushmore of Arena Rock (which would have to be massive as all the seminal bands had a minimum of 5 members), Foreigner would assuredly be part of its crowded facade. Part of the initial wave of Arena Rockers who infiltrated and injected a bit of “toughness” into the pop charts, Foreigner are responsible for some of the best-known and most enduring Arena Rock songs in history. Who among us hasn’t played that one air guitar to “Jukebox Hero,” pole-danced to “Hot Blooded,” crooned dramatically at a stoplight along with “I Want To Know What Love Is,” or cried on the train as “Waiting For A Girl Like You” played? Right, so I may possibly have done a couple of those things, but we all know I’m not alone. You know you have Foreigner skeletons too (and hey, it’s okay).
Though credited to Sebadoh, this cover of 1977’s “Cold As Ice” is actually a solo performance by band leader Lou Barlow, recorded at an XFM radio session in 2000. This cover is dusty and quiet, but retains all the melody of the original. Turns out the Beatlesque bouncing ball of bitterness sounds pretty damn good when stripped to its bones; it seethes even harder than the original.
P.S. Lou also did a super-fine and breezy cover of Ratt’s sleazy spandex classic “Round And Round” which you can and should check out here.
Keep Shelly In Athens – (Don’t Fear)The Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult cover)
I grew up on Long Island during the ’70s and ’80s and can confirm that despite what history might suggest, hometown boy Billy Joel was not the most beloved and popular artist from the area. Or rather, he wasn’t with the younger population. Back then the biggest signifier of appreciation was a band tee-shirt, and in all those years, I never saw one single kid in school wearing a Billy tee-shirt. Not one. Because, you know, kids wanna rock.
While Twisted Sister, the Good Rats, and Zebra were all hugely popular local heroes, no LI band had as many devoted acolytes as Arena monsters, Blue Oyster Cult. With their vaguely satanic name, pseudo-mystical lyricism, and multi-pronged guitar attack, they ticked all the boxes for kids wanting to rebel. And in contrast to Billy J, their curvy-cross logo was everywhere, grafittied on the wall behind the junior high, on countless binders ‘n’ lockers, and most significantly, on the backs of innumerable denim jackets as worn by the most infamous neighborhood dirtbags and burn-outs around town.
BOC offered the perfect mix of elements for both alienating Mom and Dad (and “the man”) and soundtracking fun, illegal activity. They just plain rocked. And they were responsible for not one but two irrefutably evergreen Arena Rock classics.
1976’s fatalistic and fabulous “Don’t Fear the Reaper” has been honored with an immense number of covers (with “another 40,000 coming every day”), but there’s something about this 2020 take by Keep Shelly In Athens that sets it apart. It is Fleetwood Mac in outer space, all languorous delays, metallic electro grooves, and Stevie-style witchy wonder. In a word, otherworldly.
Unruly Helga – Burnin’ For You (Blue Oyster Cult cover)
As today’s topic is Arena Rock, it’s only fitting that we do a mini, radio-style “rock block.”
Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You” may have stalled at #40 on the U.S. Pop chart in 1981, but its primary guitar riff (by Donald Roeser, a.k.a. Buck Dharma) continues to live on in the hearts and minds of all who have been exposed to its siren call. Calling it “memorable” or “sticky” would be seriously understating its insidious, superglue, barnacle-strength power.
Deena Kamm a.k.a. Unruly Helga’s soulful cover from 2007 is a stunner. It unfolds like a firework, simmering slowly before exploding into a showcase of complete vocal kick-assery. Kamm damn near steals the song.
Rise Against – Anyway You Want It (Journey cover)
When it comes to Journey covers, there isn’t a lot of middle ground. On the one hand, you have the acolytes, who tend to be so faithful to the originals that their covers often amount to nothing more than karaoke. Then there are those who take the insufferably ironic approach, donning wigs while performing songs in a “comedic” fashion. Like it or not, Journey songs, and the “Separate Ways” video, in particular, lend themselves pretty easily to that kind of mockery.
All of this underlines why this cover of “Any Way You Want It” by veteran melodic hardcore punksters Rise Against rises above so many of the rest. Released as part of the band’s Long Forgotten Songs: B-Sides & Covers 2000-2003 compilation, the band injects the song with some pleasingly hellbent heaviness. It sounds more ballsy and destructive than it ever has in its whole life, due in no small part to vocal shred-master Tim McIlrath’s impassioned performance.
Sidenote: This. I just wanted to acknowledge what we are all thinking every time “Any Way You Want It” fills the air. I see you.
Karine Hannah – Jump (Van Halen cover)
David Lee Roth has said that the lyrics he wrote for “Jump” were inspired by two specific things: (a) witnessing a troubled person poised on the ledge of a building, and (b) a stripper. (So many facets to Diamond Dave.) Which is to say, while “Jump” is empathetic and tough-loving, it is also brazenly lookin’ for some. If this song was a person, there’s no doubt it would be cool with however you wanted to interpret it (bud-dude-boss-mama). In other words, whatever you think “Jump” is about, is exactly what it’s about (“can’t you see what I me-eeean!“).
Powerhouse vocalist Karine Hannah’s 2022 cover masterfully captures all the desperation, wanting, and euphoria living in “Jump.” The combination of grand vocal and shy piano is surprisingly moving, and depending on where your head is at when you hear it, might even make you feel a little…misty. Magically suited to both school dance and honky-tonk bar near closin’ time, it’s a full-on tearjerker with a smile on its face.
Sidenote: Karine kicked out another cool Arena-centric cover recently which we wrote about here.
Maniacal 4 – Jane (Jefferson Starship cover)
This may be a generational thing, but I prefer Jefferson Starship to Jefferson Airplane (not gonna talk about the latter-day incarnation known as “Starship”). I know, you’re horrified. It’s just that the cluster of AOR classics they released from 1979 to 1983 (“Find Your Way Back,” “Stranger,” “Winds Of Change,” “No Way Out,” “Sara,” and today’s cover star, “Jane”) are so infectiously FM-radio rockin’, so sticky and singalongable that I can’t help it. Yeah, best not to dwell, let’s just focus on sweet “Jane.”
“Jane” is admirably adventurous for an Arena Rock/AOR song. It begins with a wonderfully delicate Supertramp-style keyboard intro before shifting into full-on rock mode, with lots of chunky riffing, soaring vocalizing, and fiery cowbell action. The bridge sounds like it comes from a completely different song, a disco-reggae one to be exact, and though its presence makes no logical sonic sense, it somehow works. “Jane” is weird but also kinda great.
When I first heard this 2013 cover by trombone quartet Maniacal 4, it made me laugh. Not only because I couldn’t believe it existed, but because the song was treated with such enormous warmth and reverence. While it sounds like the kind of thing you would hear playing over a scene that takes place in a tropical bar in an early ’80s low-budget crime drama, it is played so earnestly and with such skill that it’s nearly impossible not to be charmed by it.
Tori V – Hold On Loosely (38 Special)
The fact that 38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely” only got as high as #27 on the Billboard pop chart in 1981, is no reflection on how great a tune it was and still is. From its instantly recognizable opening riff to its unforgettable chorus, it is a first-ballot, full-on Arena Rock classic. For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that this song was co-written by Jim Peterik of Survivor, who also co-wrote “Eye Of The Tiger.” Just thought you should know.
While up-and-coming singer Tori Viccica, aka Tori V, has released a couple of EPs of original material, she’s also kicked out some pretty fine covers of the Arena Rock variety. Her acoustic take of “Hold On Loosely” is, to put it plainly, absolutely smokin’. Hearing the song stripped down and owned by someone who wasn’t even alive when it was first released is exhilarating. As a general rule, I don’t love hearing pronouns altered in covers, but this is one of those cases where it doesn’t detract from the overall fun, fire, and feeling on display. Smokin’.
For the unexpurgated story of how Arena Rock/AOR finally wore me down after years of active disdain and took up permanent residence in my heart, please head to my nerdy blog to read “The Girl Can’t Help It.” Hold on to the feelin’ and check it out here.