The number one problem with song covers is that, like any translation of a text, you’re always going to lose a bit of the original meaning in the process. This was probably BBC Radio 2’s greatest issue in its latest two-disc compilation of classic ‘80s covers, Sounds of the ‘80s. After all, the ‘80s were a pretty flippin’ epic period for music. It’s a musical period that people still relate with today, more so than say, the psychedelic LSD-ladened sounds that came out in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Why, because dancing and all-consuming sadness are basically modern Western society’s two favourite things (and we don’t have the time to join communes and do shrooms anymore).
Certainly, the ‘80s is an era that people of all ages tend to feel protective about. So it goes without saying that artists who decide to cover classic ‘80s songs are automatically setting themselves up for failure. Besides, the pure emotion that characterized ‘80s music means that there is an overwhelming likelihood that the cover will be totally lackluster in comparison. This is certainly the case for Sounds of the ‘80s. Observe it in The Script’s excruciatingly predictable Disney-esque cover of ‘Drive’, Christina Perri’s unenthusiastic ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’, James Blunt’s sappy, quivering cover of ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’ (typical), the saccharine country-pop cover of ‘Head Over Heels’ by sister act Miller’s Daughter as well as Ward Thomas’ ‘Man In The Mirror’… You get the drift. A lot of these covers, while being generally average listening, most importantly seem to miss their original raison d’être.
For example, when Christina Perri sings ‘If I could turn back time’, you’re unable to visualize her stomping around in leather boots, straddling a giant cannon in sheer passion. Train doesn’t sound like they really want to know ‘Who’s gonna drive you home’, Ward Thomas isn’t really ‘starting with the man in the mirror’, heck, they don’t even care about changing the world (they are country pop stars after all). Even Ed Sheeran delivers a campfire song version of ‘Atlantic City’ that would make Bruce Springsteen cry tears of sorrow. There is a general lack of connection between the lyrics and the performance on this album, which makes for both infuriating and tedious listening.
On the other hand, you also have unfortunate instances where the artist did a relatively good job of covering a song, only the result still isn’t as punchy as the original. Just look at Dido’s ‘Small Town Boy’, Caro Emerald’s jazz-pop version of ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, Sam Smith’s ‘How Will I Know’, Gabrielle Alpin’s ‘That’s All’. While you can hear genuine enthusiasm about the lyrics and themes in these songs, the end product seems to be missing a key ingredient. On one Guardian profile of featured album artist Miller’s Daughter, the writer notes that the sisters ‘don’t have a countercultural bone in their bodies’ – and the same can probably be said for 90% of the artists on Sounds of the ‘80s. Perhaps on an ideological level, this is where some of the magic is lost. This compilation is like the reverse Pleasantville, where super conventional characters enter into a world of rebels and promiscuity. Of course, Madonna is the mayor.
But hey, it’s not all negative. There are two standout tracks on disc two that are absolute bangers, and maybe even make the whole experience worthwhile. Ultimate super babes Kylie Minogue and Dolly Parton set the world aflame in their renditions of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ and ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’ respectively. Minogue transforms Kim Carnes’ raspy, haunting version of ‘Bette’ into a dance-y synth pop dream, complete with soaring ‘Woo-oh’s on a backing loop, while still maintaining Carnes’ hushed sensuality. Then straight afterwards, Parton shreds on her cover of Bon Jovi’s glam metal ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’, accompanied by Bon Jovi’s own guitarist Richie Sambora. The production is epic, with bashing drums and crashing symbols, growling vocals, and decadent guitar solos. All you can think about the whole time is that Parton, a 68-year-old woman, is rocking out harder than all of her younger contemporaries on the album.
All in all, BBC Radio 2’s Sounds of the ‘80s generally reinforces the ancient Western proverb that says: ‘‘A Remake Is Never As Good As The Original’. But perhaps this is detracting from what a covers album is really meant to do. Which is… who actually knows. Of course, no one is under the illusion that label-initiated compilation albums of cover songs were meant to be subversive or even good – rendering this entire critical analysis somewhat pointless.