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Why Are These Hit Songs Rarely Covered?

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When an artist releases a song that climbs the charts, it’s a sure bet that in the future it will be covered by other bands.  Examples include any song by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, and so on.   Did you know there are over 200 covers of “Bohemian Rhapsody” released after Queen first released it in October 1975?

Other times an artist releases a song previously covered and their version becomes the definitive release.  A good example is “They Long to Be (Close to You),” recorded by The Carpenters in 1970.  The song was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and previously released by Richard Chamberlain (the actor, in 1963), Dionne Warwick (1964), and Dusty Springfield (1967) to name a few.  But despite it being released by over 380 other artists, it’s that Carpenters version that everyone accepts as The One.

Search through some of the most popular songs from the 1960s thru the 1980s and you’ll find that most have been covered and re-released hundreds of times.  A song like “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell has been covered over 200 times. Oddly, there are popular songs that have only a few official covers. Below are five examples of hits few other musicians had the interest to try their hand at.

Juke Box Hero (1981), Foreigner.  The classic guitar power chord song inspired so many kids to pick up the guitar.  Done wrong, the show-tune style lyrics would have sounded schmaltzy. But Lou Gramm’s ability to go from singing under his breath to building to the fist-pumping words, “be a Juke. Box. Hero” that really drives home the drama.  Can you think of any other band that could have pulled this off? There have been only eight covers of this song released.

Sara (1986), Starship.  A beautiful ballad by Starship (nee’ Jefferson Starship, nee’ Jefferson Airplane) that became one of the best-selling singles that year, peaking at Number One.  Whether it’s lead singer Mickey Thomas’ beautifully high vocals or just the perfect pacing, there have only been two cover releases of this song.

Pulling Mussels from a Shell (1980) – Squeeze.  This is the song that introduced Squeeze to US audiences. The title is based on the British slang phrase for “sex” and relates an account of Squeeze band member Chris Difford’s recollection of going to camp as a youngster. Its unique lyrics and pacing have made it difficult to do justice to, which is why it’s only been covered six times since its release.

 

What You Need (1985) – INXS. While it cracked the top 5 on the US Billboard chart, it’s only been covered by three bands.  Michael Hutchence had a unique style, and INXS’ combination of synth, guitars, and drumming makes it challenging for a group to put their twist to it.  Consequently, this tune was only covered three times.

Rock Lobster (1978) – B-52s.  The biggest hit for the quirkiest of 1980s bands, “Rock Lobster” takes advantage of the band’s unique talents, from Fred Schneider’s outrageous rap/singing to Kate Pierson’s and Cindy Wilson’s fantastic harmonies.   And this makes it hard to replicate, therefore hard to do a comparable job in a cover version – though it’s a standard for any local covert band setlist.  The song was only covered nine times.

-Will Wills

Photo: Lou Gramm of Foreigner (Wikimedia Commons)

 

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7 comments on “Why Are These Hit Songs Rarely Covered?

  1. Mark Hudson

    Note: “Soft Cell’s Tainted Love” is itself a cover. Written by Ed Cobb, it was first recorded by Gloria Jones (who later married Marc Bolan) in 1964.

    • Will Wills

      Very true – I was surprised how so many songs that were popular in the 70s and 80s had their roots long before that.

  2. Andru J Reeve

    So “Rock Lobster” was covered ONLY nine times? That seems like about nine cover versions more than I would’ve guessed.

    • Agreed! I haven’t heard any of them. If any artist could pull off a credible cover of Rock Lobster I’d be quite impressed.

  3. Stupid question: is there a database where you can see how many times a song was covered? Interesting article!

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