Coversongs: ‘It takes a muscle’ by Spectral Display

I had NO idea that M.I.A.’s amazing version of “It takes a muscle” was a cover song. Even on Wikipedia, the first sentence to the song is “is a song by British recording artist M.I.A.” and only then says that it’s a cover. In my opinion, that’s shoddy since it should say: “is a song by Spectral Display, more known for the cover version by M.I.A.”

M.I.A.’s version is lovely because she amped up the slight reggae feel of the original and performs it in a nearly playful way which makes it a cute, fun love song to relax to. It also works quite well on the dancefloor when everybody is already super drunk because you can just sway forth and back for a couple of minutes. I like that the cover kept a little of the 80s vibe but modernized it. It’s a gorgeous cover version.

Spectral Display are from Dutch and the song was released in the early 80s and is a super weird, chill reggae-synth love song that is honestly, it’s own gem. I absolutely adore M.I.A.’s version but this original is such a beast! It’s really stripped down during the verse and then during the chorus a synth wall creates this dramatic feeling and then the song goes into this absurd synth solo (which only ever can be absurd).

This version is a lot more melancholic and feels almost surreal which I guess fits the feelings when you’re falling in love. It doesn’t feel playful but rather heavy, even a little sad. This and the cover show how you can shift the whole mood of a song with slight changes in the production, it’s fascinating, really.

Spectral Display were founded in 1980 by keyboarder and producer Michel Mulders and discovered Henri Overduin who wrote the lyrics (which are genius) and sang the song. As far as I can tell, they only released two albums, their self-titled debut in 1982 and “Too much like me” in 1983.

There’s a ridiculously horrendous homepage out there, saying that the band is back (dated: 2012) and they are working on new music.

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Cover me: “Without You” by Badfinger

The history behind Badfinger and one of the greatest, most dramatic love songs ever written and performed is a sad tale of the horrible, not very good music industry. In 1970, Badfinger released “Without You”, one year later, Harry Nilsson covered the song brilliantly which is nowadays probably the version most music fans think is the original. But then in 1994, Mariah Carey, diva and voice extrodinaire, sang a version that is THE VERSION and will forever be the greatest version of all.

Badfinger could have lived from the royalties till eternity but then some unfortunate lawsuits financial and managerial issues led to one of the members to commit suicide in 1975. 1983 another member committed suicide and at that point the band still couldn’t get all that sweet money whenever the song was on the radio or in a movie.

Now, the original is beautiful and has a completely different vibe than Mariah’s version which goes to show that a good song can change shape according to the artist and be amazing whatever you do with it (the best example for this is a weird reggae version of Britney Spear’s song “XY” which is better than it should be).

You can hear that Nilsson’s version was the one that Mariah was inspired by, a bit like everyone covers Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in the Jeff Buckley-version even though Cohen’s version is equally amazing but a little edgier. Nilsson is an amazing performer because he simply sounds authentic in all his emotions.

Say what you will about Mariah, this woman was an integral part of the sound of the 90s, next to Whitney, Toni Braxton and that’s it, sorry, those three were the trifecta of “I can’t believe their voices”.

And even though aspiring singers would take the wrong cues from her dramatic performances (those runs, all those runs on “American Idol” were always unnecessary), she created a (back then) modern version that brought a little more church choir into the mix which is never a wrong thing (give me a gospel background choir anyday, anytime, anywhere).

Cover me: The Police and “King of Pain” by Alanis Morissette

First things first: “King of Pain” by the Police, released in 1983 on their album “Synchronicity” is a perfect song. The simple percussion at the beginning, Sting’s voice having this weird echo as if he’s singing from the other side of the room and then this dirty piano and the key change towards the chorus that doesn’t even feel like a chorus before everything gets into focus.

The amazing thing about this song – a real skill of the Police – is a really sad song that at first glance does not sound like a sad song but immediately feels like one. It’s the best example of that weird juxtaposition that so many 80s songs had, with those danceable beats and deep, sad truths.

With that being said, Alanis Morissette’s cover version (recorded for her Unplugged session) is a beautiful cover because it does two things:

It strips the song down but it keeps the structure.

It keeps the melody, my god, it keeps the f***ing melody. Do you know how many musicians cover a song in a “naked” version and then completely butcher up the melody? I’ve written about it over and over again, that’s how many. She plays a little bit with it by the end of it but that’s about it.

I also really like how Alanis manages to turn this specific 80s-sounding song into a song that has a distinct sound of the 90s with the jazzy piano and of course her voice which is part of the 90s musical canon.

Cover me: ‘Only You’ by Yazoo

Look, it might be that I heard the Flying Pickets first with their version of “Only You”. It might even be that I really loved that version and put it on all my mixtapes. But as soon as on some 80s sampler or the other Yazoo turned up and Alison Moyet drowned everything in her soulful voice, I was done with the Flying Pickets (and you know how much I love a cappella).

Margaret Thatcher supposedly liked this song version.  

This is one of those instances that completely obliterate the popular version as soon as you hear the original. Because Alison sings it so sweetly and the synth-sounds by songwriter Vince Clarke give this the weird 80s polish that exemplified great vocals back then. I really love love songs that cling to the fraying ends of a relationship. There’s so many beautiful songs out there (many of them dealing with metaphorical ghosts) and this is yet another example that the time before the break-up can be just as heartbreaking as the break-up itself. There’s an interpretation of this song floating in the web, that Clarke wrote this mainly as a way to deal with his departure from Depeche Mode but as all great songs go, it is about what you hear and feel when you hear it. And thanks to Moyet, that’s a lot.

That outfit is a statement. I don’t know whether I agree with the statement but it is a statement nonetheless.

PS: At some point I should write about Vince Clarke who is also the main composure of Erasure’s songs since 1985 and therefore has written some of the greatest bops of the 80s including his stint with Yazoo.

Coversongs: “I’ve got my mind set on you” James Ray vs. George Harrison

This song was such a gigantic part of my childhood because my parents loved everything involving ELO and especially in the 80s, Jeff Lynne was the Timbaland/Pharrell/Dr. Dre of pop music: he was EVERYWHERE and everything sounded like an ELO-song (which is fine with me). So, it’s no wonder that “Got my mind set on you”, performed by George Harrison sounds like a long lost ELO-song.

FYI: I did an entry on this song before, back in 2013! I am such an idiot that I didn’t check. However, I won’t delete either, let the archives know that I can’t even remember things from 5 years ago …

This video has it all: shoulder pads, a business-in-the-front-party-on-the-back haircut, Sherlock Holmes’ living room, a dog, dancing muppet furniture and George Harrison singing a love song but really not looking like he’s singing a love song but rather selling kitchen ware catalogs from door to door and of course an amazingballs dancing interlude that obviously isn’t done by Harrison but is all the more charming for it.

Honestly, I love this song and this version. The song lyrics are the kind that sound really cute and lovely if it’s the right person (I wager that Harrison is the right person) but could end up super creepy if a random dude decides to sing it to you after you met once at speed dating.

Ok, so the original song was written and composed by Rudy Clark, who also wrote a bunch of other amazing songs (mainly “It’s in his kiss” which is a big favorite of mine …

… and “Good Lovin'” which is an amazingly fun little bop).

“I’ve got my mind on you” was first performed by James Ray with a very lush orchestration and boy, it’s a completely different song. I gotta say, as much as I love Lynne and Harrison, I feel like Ray puts a little more feeling in it and there’s a twinkle in his voice that alludes to the song’s message of: Boy, I am willing to work hard to impress you.

Now, let’s acknowledge the fact that there are a lot songs out there that promote guys not giving up and not hearing a simple “no” and instead going along until their “lucky lady” has to go the route of restraining order. BUT because there’s this gigantic bit about the singer being down on his luck and seeing somewhat of a ray of sunshine in that significant other in this song, it feels a lot less stalkery and more like someone willing to put in the work for love. And yes, I will stick to that interpretation because I love both versions and don’t want to cancel either.

James Ray, by the way, did unfortunately never hear Harrison’s version. Shortly after his chart success with a few singles (many written by Clark), he died from a drug overdose. But Clark got to cash in on the success of Harrison’s version, at least, as far as I know, he is still alive (according to Wikipedia).

James Ray has a lot of that swagger and ease in his voice and it reminds me of Amy Winehouse who also sounded so effortlessly and glided through her songs in this elegant, smooth way that is just such a joy to listen to.

Cover song history: Robert Hazard ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ owned by Cyndi Lauper

Cyndi Lauper is not just a musical icon because she broke all our hearts with her beautiful song “Time after time”, no, she’s also one of THE best cover artists I’ve ever seen, heard and build a shrine made out of petticoats for.

Case in point: I still find out that certain songs she made her own actually were originally by another artist. Her cover of “When you were mine” is iconic because Cyndi did not change the gender of the Prince-song and therefore made it a favourite among the LGBTQ-community. Then she picked up “I drove all night” and turned this Roy Orbison classic into a cool and a lot sexier 80s hymn. And then she miraculously turned the somewhat offbeat “All through the night” by Jules Shear into a longing ballad that has to be heard through a car radio. Her touch is truly magical.

And still, I did not know that one of her biggest hits was a cover song. True Color me surprised!

Robert Hazard (born as the less dangerous Robert Rimato) was a musician who mainly played and wrote country songs but also tried out electro-pop, folk and for whatever reason (it was the 80s!) reggae.

His original song has a great sound but his intentions were a little – well – sleazy. The song originally was about the kind of fun men imagine “girls” are having in the bedroom (men included) and looking back at it now with Cyndi’s all-encompassing version stuck in my head, it’s nearly impossible to imagine this song as a weird pulpy dream by a dude.

(also, the first comment on this YouTube video is by Clive Preston who – apparently – played the guitar on this song. For all the horror that lurks in YouTube comments, there are very rare gems hidden)

So, what did Cyndi do? Initially, she wanted to skip the song. Having experiences with awful men herself, she shuddered at the thought of singing something like that but her manager believed that she could turn the meaning around and make the song her own. And so she did with the help of some much needed changes of the lyrics (in this case, the changing of the gender DID improve the song mightily).

That’s how effing great Cyndi is, who else can basically midas-touch a creepy sex-song into a feminist anthem? She also doubled down with the video which is all petticoats, wild hair and introducing “not giving a shit”-dancing to the world.

Cover me: 21st Century ‘Remember the Rain’ covered by Kadhja Bonet

If I interpret her interview in The Guardian back in 2016 correctly, Kadhja Bonet does the orchestra arrangements on her music herself. That is important to know because the arrangements on her cover version of 21st Century’s “Remember the Rain” – a soft soulful ballad with a punch in the chorus – are absolute heaven.

The original is lovely because that young voice and that chorus (including the spoken word) is weirdly cheesy but in a good way. It’s always weird hearing those super young singers sing songs about broken hearts but man, they really sold it.

But then there’s Kadhja Bonet’s version and it’s so amazing. She takes this song that in its raw production is so charming and sweet and turns it into a glamorous, dramatic, epic, orchestral masterwork, all with a voice that is in contrast to 21st Century’s vocals absolutely in control emotionally, like a woman who thinks about a pain long ago that still hurts but now is part of her allure.

Think of those songs they would play in an old spy-movie at the end, when the protagonist eventually has to walk into the sunset on his own because he’s simply one of those guys who can’t be close to anyone. That’s the kind of gravitas the song brings with it. There’s a purely instrumental part near to the end when you even get a flute solo which brings me so much joy that I can’t properly describe it.

Bonet’s cover is one of those songs that sneaks up on you because it sounds so easy-going yet decadent, so soft and rich that it takes a few listens to realize how perfect everything comes together, how many details create this picture perfect piece of art.

I mean, that’s one hell of a cover song. I am absolutely overwhelmed.