“The medium of reinterpretation” as HEAVEN 17 and BEF’s Martyn Ware once put it, is an important creative opportunity that can widen a musical audience and expand the aural palette.
This was most evident in 1981 when SOFT CELL’s cover of ‘Tainted Love’ became ubiquitous as Synth Britannia’s first true crossover record, reaching No1 in UK, Germany, Australia and Canada while also breaking the US Top 10 a year later.
A disgruntled rival musician had told Marc Almond only a few months before that “You couldn’t make a decent dance record if you tried”, but make one he did!
Written by Ed Cobb, ‘Tainted Love’ was recorded by Gloria Jones (partner of the late Marc Bolan) and became a Wigan Casino favourite on the Northern Soul scene. As a fan of that scene, David Ball knew the song and took it into haunting electronic torch territory. Segued with a Motown cover ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ on an extended version, it became one of Sire Records biggest selling 12 inch singles in America.
It was to be a double edged sword though as the coupling of two covers made SOFT CELL minimal money despite the record selling millions. Thus successful cover versions generally only make the original songwriter any dough. Although often perceived as a sign of creative desperation, a fair number of cover versions are genuinely recorded as a labour of love.
So what of the other great synth reworkings? The covers in The Electricity Club’s listing are predominantly conventional songs reworked in a synthpop manner. And in several cases, the reworks have been so distinct and definitive that it is often forgotten they are actually covers! Restricted to one song per artist moniker, they are presented in chronological order.
VISAGE In Year 2525 (1978 – released 1983)
ZAGER & EVANS’ pessimistic ditty was perfect fodder for VISAGE’s first demo in 1978. Steered by Midge Ure using his freshly acquired Yamaha synths and punctuated by an incessant Roland drum machine, ‘In The Year 2525’ was perfectly resigned aural dystopia. Steve Strange’s deadpan fronted the sombre tone perfectly but Ure’s vocal backing and counterpoints added some musicality. But when Ure presented the demo to his then employers at EMI Records, it was rejected! Remixed later by John Hudson, it was finally unleashed for public consumption in 1983.
Available on the CD ‘The Face’ via Universal Records
YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA Firecracker (1978)
One of first Japanese bands to have a Top 20 hit single in the UK was YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA in 1980. ‘Firecracker’ was a cover of a 1959 composition by Martin Denny but actually released as ‘Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)’. Recorded in 1978, the parent self-titled album was noted for its use of the then brand new Roland MC8 Micro-Composer to control the synthesizers. The result was a clean, exotic pop sound that was unusual, even in the synthpop heartland of Europe.
Available on the 2CD ‘Yellow Magic Orchestra’ via Sony Music
GARY NUMAN On Broadway (1979 – released 1980)
Written by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil, a quartet who between them have written some of the greatest pop songs in history such as ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, the original by THE DRIFTERS was a favourite in the Webb household. So the former Gary Anthony James Webb did a live machine music rendition on 1979’s ‘The Touring Principle’. However, the star on this magnificent reinterpretation of ‘On Broadway’ is not GARY NUMAN himself, but guest keyboardist Billy Currie of ULTRAVOX with his screaming ARP Odyssey solo.
Available on the CD ‘The Pleasure Principle’ via Beggars Banquet Records
TELEX Rock Around The Clock (1979)
On paper it shouldn’t have worked; a funereal take of the song that heralded the mainstream birth of Rock ‘N’ Roll smothered in robotic vocoder. And it caused much head scratching when it actually became a UK Top 40 hit although one person who must have been listening was Daniel Miller who borrowed the concept and created THE SILICON TEENS. Belgian trio TELEX always had a sense of subversive irony about them. This mischief came to its head with their Eurovision lampooning number ‘Eurovision’, which they actually entered for 1980 Eurovision Song Contest!
Available on the CD ‘Ultimate Best Of’ via EMI Belgium
THE HUMAN LEAGUE Only After Dark (1980)
An all synth rework of Head Spider Mick Ronson’s guitar dominated cult favourite, the metronomic tension was enhanced on THE HUMAN LEAGUE version by the metallic sequence of a Roland System 100 while monophonic synth lines complimented the futuristic atmosphere. Oakey impressively bellowed away while Martyn Ware provided some sprightly vocal support. ‘Only After Dark’ had been due to be released as a single but was cancelled in favour of a reissue of ‘Empire State Human’.
Available on the CD ‘Travelogue’ via Virgin Records
JAPAN All Tomorrow’s Parties (1980)
Said to be Andy Warhol’s favourite Lou Reed composition, this interpretation of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND’s Nico-led cult classic was turned from a Teutonic funeral march into a looser, synth assisted beat ballad in the vein of ROXY MUSIC. Bryan Ferry himself had a go at ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ in 1991 but it strangely lacked the panache of the Lewisham boys proficient but understated interplay. Demo-ed under the supervision of manager Simon Napier-Bell in 1979 to herald the muzak direction that JAPAN were to become ultimately associated with.
Available on the CD ‘Quiet Life’ via BMG Records
THE FAST SET King Of the Rumbling Spires (1981)
A speeded-up, manic darkwave rendition of an early Marc Bolan composition, this was the one of the best tracks on the ‘Some Bizzare Album’ after DEPECHE MODE, SOFT CELL, BLANCMANGE, THE THE, B-MOVIE and ILLUSTRATION. The screeching synths and aggressive, unorthodox vocals are all over in a matter of a couple of minutes in a sharp, seek out and destroy mission. THE FAST SET disappeared having only ever released one proper single ‘Junction One’ on Axis Records which also featured another Bolan song ‘Children Of The Revolution’ on the flip.
Available on the CD ‘Some Bizzare Album’ via Some Bizzare Limited
BEF feat GLENN GREGORY Wichita Lineman (1982)
‘Wichita Lineman’ was one of Jimmy Webb’s great narrative songs like ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘Where’s The Playground Susie?’ which were made famous by Glen Campbell. Although included for the ambitious ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction Vol1’ project, BEF’s recording is a HEAVEN 17 track in all but name and was originally recorded by the other Glenn as his audition for the ‘A Clockwork Orange’ inspired pop combo. The chilling electronic arrangement takes on an even darker turn as a magnificent cacophony of sound invades the climax.
Available on the download album ‘1981-2011’ via Virgin Records
NEW ORDER Turn The Heater On (1982 – released 1986)
Reggae artist Keith Hudson’s ‘Turn The Heater On’ was a favourite of Ian Curtis and recorded by his former bandmates for their second John Peel session as a tribute to the late vocalist of JOY DIVISION. Bernard Sumner’s melodica drones gave a claustrophobic dub laden vibe alongside Stephen Morris’ white noise rimshot while Hooky actually played bass as opposed to his trademark higher register six string. Adding Gillian Gillian’s ARP string machine for an appropriately frozen effect to match to the title, this was a highly enjoyable oddity in the NEW ORDER cannon.
Available on the CD ‘The John Peel Sessions’ via Strange Fruit Records
MIDGE URE No Regrets (1982)
A cover of a cover, ‘No Regrets’ was written by Tom Rush and became a comeback hit for THE WALKER BROTHERS in 1976. During a break from ULTRAVOX, Ure took a busman’s holiday to create this synth heavy rework. But that wasn’t all that was heavy… out of nowhere came a blistering guitar solo that would have made Eric Clapton proud and a doubled Linn / Simmons pounding for the overdriven climax. Possessing high and lows in a way that previous versions never had, the diminutive Glaswegian successfully made ‘No Regrets’ his own.
Available on the CD ‘No Regrets’ via EMI Gold
BLANCMANGE The Day Before You Came (1984)
There once was a time when it was not cool to like ABBA and covering their songs was certainly not on many artists’ agenda. But BLANCMANGE changed all that with their version of what many regard as the last ABBA song. Combining that noted Swedish melancholy and melodicism with the artful quirkiness of Synth Britannia, ‘The Day Before You Came’ fitted well with Neil Arthur’s deep melodramatics. Add in the mystique of the Indian sub-continent, courtesy of Pandit Dinesh’s tablas and Deepak Khazanchi’s Santoor and it was pure heaven.
Available on the 2CD ‘Mange Tout’ via Edsel Records
ERASURE Gimme Gimme Gimme (1985)
They did the ‘Abba-esque’ EP and the mid-career crisis ‘Other People’s Songs’ album but ERASURE’s best cover was done right at the beginning with this Hi-NRG romp in the big shadow of Divine. Turning ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ into the ultimate gay anthem, the progressively faster ending made for an appropriately thrilling climax. Following not long after BLANCMANGE’s cover of ‘The Day Before You Came’, the seeds of an ABBA revival were now well and truly planted.
Remix version available on the 2CD+DVD ‘Wonderland’ via Mute Records
DEPECHE MODE Route 66 (1988)
Written by Bobby Troup and covered by artists such as diverse as Nat King Cole and The Rolling Stones, this perhaps signalled the start of DEPECHE MODE’s fixation with a more blues based sound. While still largely guitar driven, the rhythmical structure was driven by drum machine and sequences while the instrumental break of its parent A-side ‘Behind The Wheel’ made a guest appearance during the middle eight. It was perfromed as an encore during the ‘World Violation’ tour in 1990, but with Dave Gahan on lead vocals instead of Martin Gore.
Available on the CD single ‘Behind The Wheel’ via Mute Records
JIMMY SOMMERVILLE From This Moment On (1991)
Often having his biggest hits with covers, be it with BRONSKI BEAT, THE COMMUNARDS or solo, you could be forgiven for thinking Sommerville was some kind of falsetto karaoke machine. But for the most part, his reinterpretations were good. One of his lesser known but equally impressive covers was ’From This Moment On’, a throbbing contribution to the AIDS charity album ‘Red Hot & Blue’ of Cole Porter standards. With a snatch of ‘I Feel Love’ thrown in for good measure, this was one of the best recordings from the collection which also featured U2, ERASURE and NENEH CHERRY.
Available on the CD ‘Red Hot & Blue’ via Chrysalis Records
PET SHOP BOYS Go West (1993)
Originally performed at The Hacienda in 1991, it had been due to be released in Christmas 1992 but Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe bottled it when it was pointed out a VILLAGE PEOPLE cover version would look like the duo were aping ERASURE’s ‘Abba-esque’. ‘Go West’ was based on Pachebel’s ‘Canon’ and its elegiac quality was bolstered by PET SHOP BOYS’ synthesized arrangement, particularly poignant with AIDS still very much in the news at the time. Meanwhile the ‘Oklahoma’ male choir styled key change gave the song a lift that was never apparent in the original.
Available on the CD ‘Very’ via EMI Records
DUBSTAR Not So Manic Now (1995)
Originally a little known song by indie act BRICK SUPPLY, DUBSTAR made ‘Not So Manic Now’ their own with the Northern lass earthiness of Sarah Blackwood providing the chilling commentary of an attack on a helpless pensioner. Stephen Hague’s wonderful production fused programmed electronics with guitars and cello in fine fashion while the incessant rhythms drove the song along without being obtrusive to the horrifying story.
Available on the CD ‘Disgraceful’ via Food Records
GOLDFRAPP Yes Sir (2003)
Made famous by sultry Spanish vocal duo BACCARA, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory’s take on this cheesy but enjoyable disco standard came over like The Cheeky Girls at The Nuremburg rally! Now that’s a horrifying vision! All traces of ‘Yes Sir I Can Boogie’ apart from the original lyrics were rendered missing in action as the stern Ms Goldfrapp played the role of the thigh booted dominatrix on this highly original cover.
Available on the CD single ‘Twist’ via Mute Records
MARSHEAUX The Promise (2007)
‘The Promise’ was originally recorded by WHEN IN ROME, a vocally strong male UK trio who desperately needed a stylist! Despite this, it was a hit everywhere except back home in 1989. Greek synth maidens MARSHEAUX are well known for their various synth covers but their take on ‘The Promise’ retained the expansive atmosphere of the original. But their wispy feminine overview gave the original’s dramatic Ultravox fronted by The Walker Brothers template a more seductive air of resignation.
Available on the CD ‘Peek A Boo’ via Undo Records
ONETWO Have A Cigar (2007)
In this Pink Floyd Goes To Hollywood styled rework, Claudia Brücken revisited her ZTT routes with this powerful and danceable version of Roger Waters’ commentary on music business hypocrisy. ‘Have A Cigar’ showed a turn of feistiness and aggression not normally associated with the usually more serene timbres of Claudia Brücken and Paul Humphreys’ ONETWO project. But by welcoming pleasure into the dome, they did a fine cover version.
Available on the album ‘Instead’ via There (There) Records
CHINA CRISIS Starry Eyed (2008)
Liverpudlian easy listening crooner Michael Holliday was the second person to have a UK No1 written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the first being Perry Como with ‘Magic Moments’. His second UK No1 penned by Earl Shuman and Mort Garson was a romantic guilty pleasure. CHINA CRISIS pledged their Scouse Honour with this jaunty synth / drum machine driven rendition of ‘Starry Eyed’ layered with melodic guitar and harmonious vocals from Messrs Daly and Lundon. Their first recording since 1994, the reverbed bass warbles balanced out any perceived cheesiness.
Available on the CD ‘Liverpool – The Number Ones Album’ via EMI Records
LITTLE BOOTS Love Kills (2009)
LITTLE BOOTS gave a dynamically poptastic rendition of Giorgio Moroder and Freddie Mercury’s only collaboration from 1984, retaining its poignant melancholic quality while adding a vibrant and danceable electronic slant. The recreation of Richie Zito’s guitar solo on synths was wondrous as was the looser swirly groove. While Victoria Hesketh didn’t have the voice of Mercury, her wispy innocence added its own touching qualities to ‘Love Kills’.
Available on the CD EP ‘Illuminations’ via Elektra Records
DURAN DURAN Boys Keep Swinging (2010)
No strangers to raiding the Bowie songbook having previously tackled ‘Fame’ in 1981, DURAN DURAN however blotted their copy book with their 1997 covers LP ‘Thank You’, a record so bad that fans dubbed it ‘No Thank You’. They refound their stride with the return-to-form album ‘All You Need Is Now’. Just before the release of that, this superb reinterpretation of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ reconnected them to their New Romantic roots with washes of Nick Rhodes’ swimmy Crumar string machine, held down by a danceable beatbox and John Taylor’s syncopated bass runs.
Available on the CD ‘We Were So Turned On: A Tribute To David Bowie’ via Manimal Vinyl
LADYTRON Little Black Angel (2010)
This frantically paced DEATH IN JUNE cover was recorded for LADYTRON’s ‘Best Of 00-10’ collection and could have been easily mistaken for one of their own compositions. The antithesis of the midtempo atmospherics of ‘Gravity The Seducer’, this cutting four-to-the-floor romp was the last of LADYTRON’s in-yer-face tracks in a wind down of the harder ‘Velocifero’ era. ‘Little Black Angel’ bore no resemblance to its folky acoustic laden original which seemed to have borrowed heavily from Lee Hazelwood.
Available on the CD ‘Best Of 00-10’ via Nettwerk Records
MIRRORS Something On Your Mind (2011)
On their only album ‘Lights & Offerings’, MIRRORS revealed an interesting musical diversion with this haunting take of a rootsy country number originally recorded by Karen Dalton. Written by the late Dino Valenti of psychedelic rockers QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE, ‘Something On Your Mind’ was a touching ballad with its tortured yearning suiting the quartet’s pop noir aspirations. Ally Young told TEC: “The song is beautiful… our version is so different. It was very nice for us to be able to apply our aesthetic to someone else’s song.”
Available on the CD ‘Lights & Offerings’ via Skint Records
OMD VCR (2011)
Indie stoners THE XX had a minimalist approach to their sound which Andy McCluskey told TEC was “really quite impressive”. This bareness made their material quite well suited for reworking in the style of classic OMD. ‘VCR’ had Paul Humphreys taking charge of the synths while McCluskey dusted off his bass guitar and concentrated on vocals, just like in the old days. McCluskey added: “People go ‘how did OMD influence THE XX?’… but have you listened to ‘4-Neu’? Have you listened to some of the really simple, stripped down B-sides?”
Available on the CD EP ‘History Of Modern (Part I)’ via Blue Noise
Text by Chi Ming Lai with thanks to Ian Ferguson
1st February 2014, updated 3rd March 2017