There has been some indignation on these pages recently that some cherished British Bands were ‘One Hit Wonders’ in the US, but there is no accounting for taste. However the offence caused to Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Siouxsie and the Banshees is nothing compared to that experienced by The Jam. Multiple number-one singles and albums in the UK, and an ongoing cottage industry in the UK detailing their every move between 1976 and 1983, mean nothing to the Billboard Singles Charts. The band never got a single into the top 100. However, the kids know where it’s at. Helping spread the Jam gospel, Chicago punk trio Lifeguard bring us their cover of “In The City.”
Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
All together now:
Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh
Come on, you know the words!
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
The matching outfits. The perfectly coiffed hair. The synchronized finger-snapping. The beautiful faces. And, of course, the angelic voices. Just saying the phrase “Girl Groups” conjures images of these well-styled ladies from the past singing their hearts out, dreaming of those young boys they hoped to marry.
Many of the group names are legendary. The Supremes, The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Shirelles, and Martha and the Vandellas have been fixtures of “oldies” format radio for decades. Leading these groups were great frontwomen like Diana Ross, Ronnie Spector, and Martha Reeves, as well as Darlene Love, who sang for multiple groups unbeknownst to the record buying public. There were also countless ladies who did not become household names, such as Arlene Smith, lead singer of the Chantels, who belted out the group’s classic “Maybe.”
For the purposes of this list, we decided to focus on the period known as the “Golden Age of Girl Groups.” Though we’re calling it ’60s in the headline, it really spanned from roughly 1955 to 1970. In this era, the music was transported from the street corners and dance halls to the radio, which broadcast it into living rooms across the country. The songs blended elements of doo-wop, early rock ‘n’ roll, pop, gospel, and rhythm & blues. When melded together, it created a sound as fresh and new as the 45s and transistor radios that blasted out the music.
Most of the best-known girl groups were women of color (with a few notable exceptions, such as the Shangri-Las). These women not only topped the charts, they broke down barriers as they helped to integrate segregated audiences across the country, including the Deep South.
Behind the scenes were equally legendary songwriters, musicians and producers. You know their names, too: tunesmiths such as Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and the Motown song and production trio Holland/Dozier/Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland).
Such a shiny veneer had a dark side, though, in the form of the notorious Phil Spector. He was a brilliant producer who presided over many of the era’s biggest hits, but he was also a truly terrible human being who physically and emotionally abused his charges, including his ex-wife Ronnie Spector. He would eventually be convicted of murder and died in prison earlier this year.
The music has continued to inspire covers by both male and female artists – or boys and girls, in the parlance of the genre. Our list features covers by everyone from Aerosmith to Amy Winehouse, the Beatles to Bananarama (a girl group of another era), as well as ska bands, punk bands, indie bands, and countless Rock and Roll Hall of Famers who have covered tracks from the era.
That’s probably because the songs were so darn powerful. Love songs that captured the ecstasy and agony of teenage emotions like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Please Mr. Postman” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Party favorites such as “Dancing in the Streets” and “Heat Wave.” And songs that dealt with more complex social issues such as “Love Child,” and the disturbing “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” Such great songs inspire great artists to record fantastic covers. Here’s a selection of our favorites.
– Curtis Zimmermann
The list begins on Page 2.
Welcome to the third installment in our Best Cover Songs of Yesteryear countdown, where we act like we were compiling our usual year-end list from a year before we – or the internet – existed. Compared to the first two, this one has significantly less grunge than 1996 and less post-punk than 1987. It’s hard to have post-punk, after all, before you have punk, a new genre starting to hit its peak in 1978. And don’t forget the other big late-’70s sound: disco. Both genres were relatively new, and super divisive among music fans. Lucky for us, both genres were also big on covers.
Disco, in particular, generated some hilariously ill-advised cover songs. We won’t list them all here – this is the Best 1978 covers, not the Most 1978 covers. If you want a taste (and think carefully about whether you really do), this bonkers take on a Yardbirds classic serves as a perfect example of what a good portion of the year’s cover songs looked and sounded like:
Every so often, a figure from behind the scenes of popular music garners such renown that he or she becomes a household name: “Colonel” Tom Parker, Quincy Jones, and Carole King (as a hitmaking songwriter before she stepped into the limelight) to name a few.
And then there are all the countless others, the ones who passed through this realm largely unheralded by the record-buying public. One of these was songwriter and producer Ed Cobb, who would have turned 80 today. You may not know his name, but he left his mark on some very disparate—and uniquely compelling—byways of pop music.
Cobb’s musical career began as a member of the Four Preps, a white doo-wop group that scored two Top Five hits in 1958. The Preps’ sound was safe and family-friendly; hardly the stuff of legend. But early on, Cobb gravitated towards songwriting and production, penning soul and R&B numbers rather than the Preps’ squeaky-clean material. One of these was a little number Cobb wrote for Gloria Jones called “Tainted Love.” It didn’t make much of an impact in its first two iterations, but on its third try became a record-breaking smash, hitting #1 in 17 countries. (Of course, close readers of Cover Me will already know this story.)
But there’s more to that song’s journey. When we recently spoke with Fugazi frontman and Dischord Records co-founder Ian MacKaye about Ed Cobb – his other band Minor Threat covered Ed Cobb’s “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” – he alerted us to a yet another cover of the song:
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
There are many reasons to love Paul Weller, the primary songwriter and singer for The Jam, but here’s a reason to hate him: he claims to have written 1981’s great “That’s Entertainment,” in ten minutes, while drunk. I suspect that most of us couldn’t write a song as good as “That’s Entertainment” if we spent our entire life trying, whether or not we were under the influence of any substance.
The Jam rose to fame, at least in England, on the back of songs that were mostly angry, fast and loud. As time went on, though, they began to include softer songs, without diluting their powerful political and social point of view. What makes “That’s Entertainment” so potent is the sense of barely contained rage in its mostly acoustic, relatively quiet arrangement. The lyrics are a stream of consciousness collage of scenes from ordinary life in Margaret Thatcher’s England, a country that Weller felt was tilting strongly toward the wealthy and privileged and away from the needs of ordinary people. According to Weller, these vignettes were all visible from the bus he was on the night he wrote the song, and as a whole, they paint a picture of sadness and hopelessness.
So, Weller sings about “paint splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat,” “a freezing cold flat and damp on the walls,” and “opening the windows and breathing in petrol,” each verse followed by the sarcastic refrain “That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.” (The song was, in part, inspired by a poem, “Entertainment,” by Paul Drew, and I wonder if there is also a backhanded reference to the glossy musicals compiled by MGM in their films from the mid-1970s with the same title).