Some songs make an artist instantly recognisable.
Such as hearing the rebirth and re-release of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’. We hear that song, and we know it is Kate, it has become a signature song for the artist, one which makes us not need to ask “who is that singing?” A lot of songs which are instantly recognisable and make you name the artist straight away, may not be a song they wrote, in fact some may have been released before. But because the artist had a massive hit with it, it became associated forever as a song by that artist.
For example; Robert Hazard wrote, recorded and released what became Cindy Lauper’s signature hit ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ in 1979 – a whole three years before Cindy’s version would turn her into a global star. Tiffany’s major hit in 1987, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, was originally recorded by Tommy James and the Shondells, reaching number four in 1967 on the US charts. Both these tracks have become signature tunes for the artists, but even though they made them their own, they did not start out life that way.
Below is a playlist of songs which have become famous by other artists, even though they did not compose or originally release them. In fact almost all were not written with the artist that made them famous in mind. Still the creativity used to turn these songs around and mould them into their own vision is something that has to be admired.
Bruce Springsteen – Blinded By The Light
To start with, ‘Blinded By The Light’ was a colossal hit for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1976. It took the number one spot on the US singles chart and went Top Ten in the UK – instantly becoming Manfred’s most recognised song. But it was originally recorded by the Boss, and tucked away on his Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. debut album from 1973. Worth noting: this created Springsteen’s biggest hit as a songwriter.
Gloria Jones – Tainted Love
What broke the duo Soft Cell and put them at the top of the charts in 1981, was a cover. In 1965, Gloria Jones, one time partner of the late Marc Bolan, recorded this track written for her by Ed Cobb the American songwriter and producer. This version is the re-recording Jones did for the Vixen album in 1977, perhaps closer to what inspired Marc Almond and David Ball.
Ednaswap – Torn
This earworm of the nineties was played to death and turned Neighbours actress Natalie Imbruglia into a chart sensation. At the time, not many realised that the song ‘Torn’ had already seen a release. Firstly sung in Danish by Lis Sørensen and retitled ‘Brændt’ (Burned), second time out by the composer’s (Scott Cutler) rock band from Los Angeles Ednaswap.
The Arrows – I Love Rock N’ Roll
In 1981, when Joan Jett And The Blackhearts hit the top of the US charts with ‘I Love Rock N’ Roll’ nobody thought for a minute it was not the self-penned proclamation of angst. It stood at the top of those charts for several weeks, and became Jett’s biggest hit. Surprisingly it was already a release by English rock band The Arrows in 1975.
Nine Inch Nails – Hurt
Some many tears were shed when Johnny Cash sang the emotional lyrics to this. A man at the end of his life had the perfect vehicle to sum up the heartache, and joy he witnessed. It was neither written for Cash, nor was written with him in mind. The track was written by Trent Reznor and released on the Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral album in 1995. The version Cash did won a Grammy for its video, along with a CMA award for single of the year.
Jackie DeShannon – Bette Davis Eyes
In 1981, Kim Carnes went to number one in 21 countries, including the US with her version of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’. Along with this she picked up a Grammy along the way for Record Of The Year. Unknown to many, ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ had already seen a release seven years prior when composer Jackie DeShannon (and Donna Weiss) released it on her New Arrangement album.
J.J. Cale – Cocaine
Well this may come as a surprise to some as this track became a summary of Eric Clapton’s life when he recorded for the ’77 Slowhand album. J.J. Cale wrote and recorded the track originally, releasing it on his 1977 album Troubadour. Although an anti-drug song originally, when Clapton played it, that message became somehow lost.
Bob Dylan – All Along The Watchtower
This is an example of taking the bones of a track and reshaping in your own image. When Dylan stuck his foot on the brakes of his sixties career, he released John Wesley Harding in 1967, a return to his folk roots. Within six months, Jimi Hendrix rebuilt the track into a sonic tour-de-force that has since formed the backdrop to so many Vietnam War movies. Dylan in the seventies re-shaped the song around the Hendrix version, creating a cover of a cover.
King Harvest – Dancing In The Moonlight
That song by Toploader, which even today is still a regular radio staple, is actually a very old track from 1970. Originally written by Sherman Kelly for his band Boffalongo, the track was later recorded and released by King Harvest due to the connection to Kelly’s brother, Wells being the drummer in that band. Of course it broke the Top 20 easily for King Harvest upon release in the US, even going Top 5 in Canada.
Bruce Springsteen – Because The Night
Finishing as I started with this curious track. Curious for two reasons; firstly Patti Smith is one of the greatest songwriters of the past fifty years and she can write lyrics, secondly at a time Springsteen needed a chart hit, he gifted one to Smith.
Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded the track for the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album in 1977. Due to the Boss being unhappy with the track, the mutual producer Jimmy Lovine stepped in and suggested letting Smith record it. She did, adding some of her own lyrics and it became her biggest hit.
Listen to the complete playlist of originals of famous covers below: