Jun 232023

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

1970s one hit wonders

Last month, we presented covers of one-hit wonders of the 1950s and the 1960s. And we’re back to do it again!

This month, we’ll tackle huge hits by not-so-huge bands from the ’70s and, next week, the ’80s. Today, covers of classics like “Spirit in the Sky,” “Black Betty,” “Why Can’t We Live Together,” and “Video Killed The Radio Star” (I would have thought that one was ’80s given the famous MTV connection, but it came out November 1979). Then next week we’ll dive into perhaps the greatest decade for one-hit wonders cover.

A quick disclaimer: It’s fun to argue about what constitutes a one-hit wonder. We do it too! But, for these purposes, we just followed Wikipedia, whose page on U.S. one-hit wonders compiles a bunch of newspaper and blog lists in one place. If you have gripes with what songs get included — and there are some legitimate gripes to be had, for sure — take it up with Wikipedia. Our goal is to focus more on sharing some killer covers rather than relitigate whether Men Without Hats’ “Pop Goes the World” was a big enough chart success to disqualify them.

20. Cindy Wilson & Kate Pierson — Ain’t No Stopping Us Now (McFadden & Whitehead cover)

This cover isn’t about quality or masterful reinterpretation. Its merit lies in the overall feeling it evokes and the fantastical scene it’s capable of painting. The no-frills description is that it’s the B-52’s Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson covering McFadden & Whitehead’s 1979 inspirational disco banger for a Whoopi Goldberg movie from 1996 called The Assistant that no one remembers. While it is never less than a complete joy to hear Kate ‘n’ Cindy trading verses, the stylistic disconnect between their vocal approach and the of-its-time ’90s R&B backing track make the whole thing sound weirdly off-kilter and even a little cheap. Yet there is something indescribably heartwarming about it. To unlock its secret magic, close your eyes and picture yourself in the backseat of a flaming red Mustang convertible. Kate Pierson is driving and Cindy Wilson is sitting shotgun. You are cruising on a desert highway on a beautiful breezy summer day. The radio starts playing McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” and K ‘n’ C start spontaneously singing along in their singularly spectacular style. That’s what this cover sounds like, and that’s what makes it so damn sweet. – Hope Silverman

19. Doctor and the Medics — Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum cover)

“Spirit in the Sky.” Now, there’s a catchy song about preparing yourself for death and having a friend in Jesus which proved enormously popular with the goth crowd before being ranked with Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as a funeral favorite. There’s a song, too, with an unusually naive yet inspiring gospel quality and the absolute mother of all fuzzy guitar riffs.

American psychedelic singer Norman Greenbaum, of course, wrote it and had the original hit with it in April 1970 (#3 in the US and #1 in the UK), before quitting music and becoming a sous-chef. British indie outfit We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, with their obvious penchant for distortion pedals, subsequently covered it in mock-Siouxsie and the Banshees style in 1986 (not a hit, but a lot of fun). But it was Doctor and the Medics, fronted by a heavily made-up singer seemingly out of Rocky Horror Picture Show, who took it to #1 in the UK for three weeks that same year, making it a chart topper for two one-hit wonders. The theatrical London band left the song pretty much unchanged as a proto-T. Rex stomper. But they brought the bass and the glam and an eccentric cast of characters in the video, making it impossible to resist. – Adam Mason

18. Joan Osborne — Why Can’t We Live Together (Timmy Thomas cover)

Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” was inspired by his horror in hearing Walter Cronkite’s nightly reporting of the death toll from the Vietnam War. He recorded the song as a “one man band,” using an early rhythm machine and organ, playing guitar with his left hand, and his foot playing “bass.” Its spare arrangement highlighted Thomas’ soulful, passionate vocals and the song’s antiwar message, making it a hit in 1972. Joan Osborne reacted to the September 11, 2001 attacks by releasing an album of “comfort food”—covers of (mostly) R&B songs, including “Why Can’t We Live Together.” Her approach is very similar to the original, although it sounds like there are some real drums and percussion on the track, and some subtle sax accents. But the song’s message remained appropriate. – Jordan Becker

17. The Power Station — Get It On (Bang A Gong) (T. Rex cover)

The great T. Rex is not a band that these days seems like a one-hit wonder. What “one-hit wonder” can inspire a tribute album like this? But they technically were in their day, judging by the U.S. charts at least, which is all the excuse we need to share a great cover of Bolan & co. This one comes from ’80s supergroup The Power Station: Robert Palmer on vocals backed by Duran Duran’s John Taylor (bass) and Andy Taylor (guitar) and former Chic drummer Tony Thompson. Come for the fun cover, stay for the extremely ’80s music video. They even performed this one on Saturday Night Live! – Ray Padgett

16. The Wrong Trousers — Video Killed The Radio Star (The Buggles cover)

It sounds like a ChatGPT prompt gone awry: “Write me a cover of the Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as performed by teenagers playing an upright bass, mandolin, and harp.” Hard pass? No way! San Diego trio The Wrong Trousers went viral back in 2007 for their live twee indie cover and, incredibly, it holds up. Whether it’s the frenetic if imperfect YouTube video or the crisp studio version, this was a group that brought a smile to a lot of faces. Just a group of talented kids playing a one-hit wonder on classical instruments and having fun doing it. – Mike Misch

15. Show of Cards — Magnet and Steel (Walter Egan cover)

Walter Egan’s 1978 U.S. top ten pop hit/soft-rock classic “Magnet and Steel” is about an obsessive crush. And the object of his unbridled affection is someone that thousands, perhaps even millions, of humans have experienced amorous feelings for: Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks.

Lindsey Buckingham and Miss Stevie produced Egan’s debut album, Fundamental Roll, singing and playing on nearly every song. It was during this recording that Egan’s crush took root, specifically after she’d stood across from him dueting on a track called “Tunnel Of Love.” On his drive home that night he saw a license plate that read “NOT SHY” and a few hours later “Magnet and Steel” was born. Egan recorded the song in 1978 for his sophomore album titled, what else, Not Shy, and again Lindsey and Stevie assisted with the production. They even sang backup on “Magnet and Steel,” which is about as meta as it gets.

In a 2017 interview with The Tennessean, Egan said his relationship with Stevie was in fact “semi-requited” and that “for the month of December 1976 I think I had her attention.” Alas, it didn’t last and Egan’s heart was ultimately crushed by his crush. But with roughly 18 million streams on Spotify as of this writing, “Magnet and Steel” lives on.

Show Of Cards’ 2009 cover sees the band reshaping the song from a ’70s AM radio nugget into a sultry singalong that’s a little alt-country and a little vintage Linda Ronstadt with a smidge of Cowboy Junkies thrown in for good measure. Lead vocalist Karen Cardozo serves up a stellar vocal full of languorous desire and the fiery feedback fueled coda is just gloriously wicked. – Hope Silverman

14. Bronski Beat — I Love the Nightlife (Alicia Bridges cover)

Infidelity is one of the great catalysts for art. From the disco genre we have the sublime “I Love The Nightlife (Disco Round),” written and performed by Alicia Bridges. The protagonist, in seeking nightlife and “ack-shun,” proves more than able to cope with their errant partner. It is clear who is actually in control here. Or so it seems from the lyrics and Bridges’ dexterous voice. When you look at videos from the period it appears that Bridges is somewhat uncomfortable. Which she was. Having modelled her delivery and look on Elvis Presley and other R&B legends, she did not appreciate the diversion into disco suggested by her producer. She has never made another Disco record, or bothered the charts again. But her hit is a lasting tribute to the wronged lover.

Bronski Beat never suffered from lack of commitment in their frontmen. From their lacerating and lyrical debut album Age of Consent, they had a huge hit with the much covered “Smalltown Boy.” Jimmy Somerville’s trademark falsetto carried the song and story of that landmark. After Somerville left in 1985, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek continued their Hi-NRG project with different lead singers. By 1995 they had alighted on Jonathan Hellyer as the frontman. Hellyer has an amazing vocal range and adaptability and he brings that to their version of “I Love The Nightlife.” There is less contempt in Hellyer’s version but the notice that he will go out and enjoy himself is still very clearly delivered, in tones reminiscent of Bridges herself. This version also changes “sweet, sweet love” to “silly love,” an indication that control is, once again, in the hands of the singer. – Mike Tobyn

13. Mick Jaroszyk And Burn This Song — Black Betty (Ram Jam cover)

I always associate this song with reckless driving, that guitar riff like a dramatic shifting of gears. If a song can have racecar energy, this one does in both original and cover form. This cover shares the kick drum/high hat combination that keeps the pace, but it ends up running a shorter course than the original. If you are looking for more pauses from recounting the tales of Betty for mini-jam sessions, then this cover only delivers so many, clocking in at about half the length of its predecessor. – Sara Stoudt

12. Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs — Go All The Way (The Raspberries cover)

People say a song is “Beatlesque” without ever defining what they mean by it. But we know it when we hear it, and “Go All the Way” easily passes the Beatlesque test. Eric Carmen’s minor masterpiece brings other bands to mind as well–the opening guitar riff echoes The Who, the chorus is very Beach Boys, and Carmen’s vocal on the verses nods to…someone. Elvis? Orbison? The one band that doesn’t come to mind when you hear this song is The Raspberries.

Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet released their rendition on Volume 2 of their Under the Covers series. As a male/female vocal duo they can play with the song’s hidden-in-plain-sight plot twist: it’s not the boyfriend pleading for sex, it’s the girlfriend. That twist was considered truly twisted in the early 70s; the BBC worried where this sort of thing could lead, and banned the song immediately. – Tom McDonald

11. Golden Smog — Fooled Around and Fell in Love (Elvin Bishop cover)

A staple of classic rock radio, Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” was originally sung by band backup singer Mickey Thomas, who later went on to help destroy any vestige of quality left in Jefferson Starship. This version, which was regularly trotted out by Golden Smog, an “alt country supergroup” featuring members of The Jayhawks, Wilco, Soul Asylum and other bands from the Twin Cities area, is from a 1998 show on the band’s home turf at the First Avenue in Minneapolis. It is sung by Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, who gives it a full-on ironic cheesy lounge singer treatment. Soul Asylum’s Dan Murphy’s guitar solo and the violin from guest Jessy Greene are also highlights of this otherwise pretty faithful cover. – Jordan Becker

10. Brooks & Dunn — My Maria (B. W. Stevenson cover)

The late B.W. Stevenson may not be a household name, but long before alt-country was an official category, the singer/songwriter could have been a poster-child for the genre. A major label country singer in the early ’70s, Stevenson expertly fused country and rock sounds, all while sporting an epic beard. Stevenson had one major hit in 1973, “My Maria,” a song he co-wrote. His career faded in the late ’70s and he passed away a decade later. But his lone hit experienced a revival in the ’90s when the duo Brooks and Dunn covered the track for their 1996 album Borderline, taking the song to number one on the country charts. The duo did not veer far from the original: listening to the two tracks back to back, they’re almost indistinguishable. Ronnie Dunn’s voice has more twang than Stevenson’s, and the arrangement is a bit more lush. But the track was perfect for two singers’ voices to trade off vocals during the chorus, almost as if Stevenson had written it with them in mind. The cover endures today as one of Brooks and Dunn’s most played tracks on Spotify, keeping Stevenson’s name alive well into the digital age. – Curtis Zimmermann

9. Judith Owen — Play That Funky Music (Wild Cherry cover)

How the hell can such a cheesy song be just so darn catchy? Ridiculously of-the-time in content and presentation, it ought to have fallen flat on its face, with the Cherries, as nobody called them, being about as funky, in appearance, as were David Gates and Bread. Borderline offensive lyrics, I always thought, wondering quite what all the “Black Boys” might be thinking about the song, never having the nerve to ask. Judith Owen is a Welsh singer with quite a line in subverting the genre of any number of songs, often presenting them in a nominally jazz club setting. Here she strips it right down and back, vamping it up like a sultry mama, resulting in, actually, a very credibly soulful version. Of course, she accepts the hokum of the words, with the video eking out far greater self-awareness than, probably, the original ever deigned to. – Seuras Og

8. Letters to Cleo — Cruel to Be Kind (Nick Lowe cover)

The video for this killer cover of Nick Lowe’s technically biggest hit–emphasis on the “technically” there, since I’d imagine “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love & Understanding” is his best-known song due to the Elvis Costello cover–immediately places this cover in its context. It was recorded for the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and performed by the band in a notable scene. But even if you haven’t seen the movie, or couldn’t care less about high-school rom-coms, this is an extremely fun and energetic power-pop cover of a ’70s classic. – Ray Padgett

7. L’aupaire — Dancing in the Moonlight (King Harvest cover)

If you need the perfect song for a winding-down summer evening, this cover’s slower pace and deeper backbeat should be a serious contender. The dreamy guitar line remains, but this version is unhurried; it’s playing not to wind us up for more dancing but rather to mellow us out. As the song goes on there is an even more laid-back interlude towards the midpoint of the song, before the lyrics return, that lets us fall into a dream a bit before the percussive beat turns campfire-drum-circle sounding to close. – Sara Stoudt

6. The Armoires — Yellow River (Christie cover)

Originally written for The Tremeloes, a band that rose to the top of the charts with the Cat Stevens cover “Here Comes​ My Baby,” “Yellow River” released April of 1970 by the band Christie briefly reached #1 in the U.K. and settled in at #23 on the Billboard charts. The song has no shortage of admirers, with the one-hit wonder band Jigsaw performing a dutiful version, R.E.M. providing an out-of-character rendition, and Elton John lending his piano to the song that can be found on his Legendary Covers album. But none of the aforementioned versions can hold a candle in the wind to the heartfelt take on the song recorded by Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko and their band, The Armoires.

Originally selected for the compilation We All Shine On: Celebrating the music of 1970 from SpyderPop Records and released on their 2021 album Incognito, Rex has a serendipitous relationship with the song. His father Jim Broome recorded a version of “Yellow River” with his back-in-the-day band, Thunderhill. Unfortunately, as Rex and his father were discussing the song, they ultimately discovered that that it likely was recorded over during the mixing process for another song, lost to the Rock and Roll gods forever.

Now, playing it forward, the song is reinvented in its purest perfect pop form by one of the only bands in the game today that could truly do it justice. Years in the making, this father semi-collaboration has seen the light of day with everything coming together at about the 2:23 minute mark when Jim Broome sings the title at the beginning of the play-out, and it’s almost like it is 1970 all over again. Keeping the essence of the song close to the original vest while at the same time moving the vocal a bit more front and center in the mix, the added buoyancy makes this tribute from a son to his father one for the ages. – Walt Falconer

5. The Presidents Of The United States Of America — Video Killed the Radio Star (The Buggles cover)

Presidents of the United States of America (PUSA) unleashed a million-peaches-sized can of goofiness on the world of alternative rock back in 1995 when their triple-platinum debut released. Although they are probably best known for their cover of “Cleveland Rocks” (can confirm: Cleveland rocks) for The Drew Carey Show, they were rocking covers from the start. Their debut included two covers, including one of an MC5 song. In 1998 they released “Cleveland Rocks,” “George of the Jungle,” and a cover of the one-hit wonder “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The PUSA cover has that heavy, late-‘90s modern rock sound, but otherwise it’s very similar to the original. It’s got the pop sensibility of the original but with the quirkiness you’d expect from a trio consisting of both a bassitar and a guitbass player. PUSA were the most prominent of the “grunge” bands who seemed on a quest to make rock fun again, and this cover is a great example of how they did it. – Mike Misch

4. Tori Amos — Ring My Bell (Anita Ward cover)

Tori Amos turns a disco hit into a sultry jam with this cover. She really leans into the come-hither energy of the “ring my bell” innuendo and manages to do so with both a classic piano and rock electric guitar in the background. Amos adds her own original lyrics before the final chorus. For example, “I’m getting over my four leaf clover” is a mystery line waiting to be solved. If the four leaf clover represents “faith, hope, love, and luck” (thanks internet), is this moment in the song a repudiation of lost solidity in favor of an impermanence that ultimately helps us move on? – Sara Stoudt

3. Veruca Salt — My Sharona (The Knack cover)

“My Sharona” is a power-pop classic. It was written years before it was recorded by the 25-year-old Doug Fieger about the 17-year-old Sharona Alperin. For Fieger, it was love at first sight, and not only did Sharona inspire many of his songs, she became his girlfriend for four years. The whiff of taboo underage love helped the song get noticed, but it also fed the Knack backlash (as did the near-constant radio airplay). For what it’s worth, Alperin seems to revel in the attention: she’s the model on the risqué single cover, and the website address for her high-end real estate agency is mysharona.com.

Veruca Salt’s cover, in an interesting twist, is sung by a woman, and is moodier than the original. Veruca Salt, who grafted elements of grunge onto more conventional pop, achieved quick success and were then critically attacked for their perceived careerism. One can imagine them seeing the Knack as kindred spirits. – Jordan Becker

2. Bananarama — Venus (Shocking Blue cover)

Bananarama had been performing Shocking Blue’s “Venus” in their sets, and now they wanted to record it on one of their albums. But none of their producers cared for the idea of turning the 1970 chart-topper into a dance song. Nevertheless, they persisted, and when Siobhan Fahey suggested giving it the hi-NRG sound of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” the song took on its own finery. And what finery! No longer the vaguely mysterious story of a goddess on a mountaintop (or “goddness,” as Mariska Veres accidentally put it), the song pumped and pumped, built around that one true thought: she’s got it. It led to Bananarama’s take going to number one in almost as many countries as Shocking Blue’s, and to this day people are surprised to learn that it was in fact a cover. – Patrick Robbins

1. Sade — Why Can’t We Live Together (Timmy Thomas cover)

Like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, Timmy Thomas’s timeless and haunting plea for peace completely transcends the tumultuous event (Vietnam) that it was originally written about and remains as powerful and poignant today as it ever was. Sade covered the song on the band’s 1984 debut album Diamond Life, where it was boldly positioned as the LP’s closing track. It may have seemed like an unexpectedly downbeat way to end things at the time, but the choice foretold so much about where Sade was heading sonically for years to come.

Sade’s cover is what you might call “faithful plus.” The Sade version features an extended intro that adds nearly an extra minute to the original’s running time. By the time Sade herself busts in, the moody mood has been immaculately, perfectly set. Where Timmy’s vocal is fiery and beseeching, Sade’s is cool and seething. The original’s distinctive Lowrey Organ sound is forsaken for an equally magnificent foundation of sleek keys, guitar, and subtly funky bass. It’s a stunner. It’s a heartbreaker. – Hope Silverman

Check our complete One Hit Wonders covers series here!

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  2 Responses to “The Best Covers of 1970s One Hit Wonders”

Comments (2)
  1. The hands down greatest Video Killed the Radio Star cover has got to be the Japanese sister duo Charan-Po-Rantan’s on their cover album Karimono Kyousou. It has accordion. It has horns, strings, a harpsichord instead of the iconic piano. Heck it has an entire marching band in for the chorus! This is the “2nd Symphony” that “they” rewrote. Quite possibly my favourite cover.

    And the album has a Japanese cover of Shampoo’s Trouble as dessert. What more can you ask for?

  2. The PUSA Video Killed The Radio Star cover was done for the soundtrack of The Wedding Singer.

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