Jul 052023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Progressive rock band Yes was at the top of its game in 1974 when their keyboardist Rick Wakeman abruptly departed. The band invited an obscure pioneer of electronic music, Vangelis, to replace him. Vangelis shunned the offer, preferring to stay home and compose film scores. Or maybe certain members of Yes shunned Vangelis–accounts differ. In either case, the synth maven hit it off with Yes co-founder, singer, and lyricist Jon Anderson. They collaborated intermittently in the following years, finally forming Jon and Vangelis in 1980.

By the time the second Jon and Vangelis album dropped in 1981–The Friends of Mr Cairo–their individual fortunes had reversed. Vangelis was having a breakout year. He had a smash hit in “Chariots of Fire,” a selection from his sweeping, grandiose full-length score for the film of the same name. The song swept through popular culture, and the film itself went on to win Academy awards for Best Picture and Best Music. By then Vangelis was already at work on the Blade Runner soundtrack. If he noticed that the new Jon and Vangelis album barely sold, and the release of its single “State of Independence” fell flat, it probably didn’t worry him.

Anderson, on the other hand, was adrift. He’d quit Yes the year before; the Yes camp had come to seem demoralized, its music played out, cast aside by punk and new wave and disco movements. Anderson needed the new music to succeed. He asked a well-placed friend in the business to slip a copy of the Mr Cairo album into the hands of hit-maker Quincy Jones–anything to give the album a boost. Jones was soaring on the success of Off the Wall, Michael Jackson’s breakthrough album, and was preparing for its follow-up, Thriller. The unlikely gambit worked: the producer heard “State of Independence” and thought of Donna Summer.

Summer was in limbo at that point, much like Anderson, with a downward career spiral beginning to form. The Queen of Disco had switched to the newly-formed Geffen Records label in 1980, and distanced herself from disco. But her rock-oriented Geffen debut failed to meet sales expectations. In a further shock, the label shelved her follow-up album rather than release it. Now Geffen insisted Summer drop her longtime creative partners and work instead with Quincy Jones.

Summer recalled that “State of Independence” moved her with its spirituality, its political vision, its sense of hope and inclusiveness. She and Jones may have been intrigued by the way the song coupled organic world music rhythms and highly-synthesized dance club pulsations. It featured anthemic African-sounding chants (actually nonsensical vocalizations), Caribbean steel drums, and a jazz saxophone weaving throughout the song’s various elements and sections. The music embodied the diversity the lyrics celebrated. Jones and Summer may have felt this unusual mix was the fresh new blend her career needed.

Jones took charge of the recording as only he could. To recreate Vangelis’s lush soundscape he called back key players from the Off the Wall sessions—the line-up included bassist Louis Johnson and Toto members Steve Porcaro and David Paich on synths. (They were to stay on for the Thriller album, too.) For the track’s chanting and backing vocals, Jones went big, recruiting the era’s brightest stars into his choir. Here’s a partial list of the ensemble: Diane Ross, Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Michael Jackson, Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and Stevie Wonder.

Does any of this sound familiar? It was here that Jones formed the basis for his landmark “We Are the World” production in 1985. All he did with that effort was to add even more stars to the All-Star constellation: Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Tina Turner all came on board. Who knew the world’s first multi-platinum single, one of the top ten best-selling tracks ever, owes so much to a struggling disco queen, a fading prog rocker, and a mononymous synth wizard?

In his 2018 Vulture magazine interview, Quincy Jones asserted that Michael Jackson’s monster hit “Billie Jean” was a rip-off a Summer’s “State of Independence” (which MJ himself appeared on). “The notes don’t lie, man,” said Jones. (Jones made a lot of outlandish claims in that notorious interview, and had legal entanglements with the Jackson estate regarding royalty payments.)

The Donna Summer version of “State of Independence” quickly became the definitive version of the song. And yet, by Summer’s own lofty standards, her “State of Independence” single was not exactly a major hit. It was a solid one, however, entering the Top 20 charts in the U.K. Remarkably, Summer was able to duplicate its success 14 years later with a remixed version released in 1996. On the streaming platforms you’ll find a thicket of remixes, edits, extended remixes, and other alternate versions of the song. The 7-inch versions, the 12-inch ones. The Drum & Vocal Dub. The DJ Dero Vocal Mix. The Jules & Skin Dub Remix. The original 1996 remix is bound to be in there, somewhere.

A song’s importance and success gets measured not only in sales and chart positions but in cultural impact, influence, and longevity. By these measures, this is not just one great cover but one of the great covers.

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