Classic ’80s Songs You Didn’t Know Were Covers

You’ve known them for decades . . . or have you?

Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper perform in 2017

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Since the beginning of recorded music in America, the cover song has been a staple of both artists’ repertoires and the recording industry. Traditional folk and blues tunes got reinterpreted and became sensations. Obscure songwriters paved the way for more visible performers to have big hits. Crooners like Frank Sinatra popularized tunes by other artists, and so on. Forty years ago, the end of May 1982 saw a young act surge with their latest single, but much of their similarly young audience had no idea that the song itself wasn’t new. With Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” as a starting point, here are 15 80s classics you didn’t know were covers.

1. “I Want Candy” (1982) – Bow Wow Wow

Original artist: The Strangeloves (1965)

“I Want Candy” (Uploaded to YouTube by BowWowWowVEVO)

Sex Pistols impresario Malcom McLaren put together New Wave act Bow Wow Wow in 1980. Annabella Lwin, then 13 years old, was on vocals and was supported by members of Adam and The Ants, notably guitarist Matthew Ashman. The band started to get noticed in the U.K., and the four-track The Last of the Mohicans was released in the States in May of 1982. The group’s cover of “I Want Candy” only made it to #62 on the U.S. Hot 100, but the video found heavy rotation on nascent MTV, cementing it as a symbol of the era in the minds of 80s kids.

2. “Angel of the Morning” (1981) – Juice Newton

Original artist: Evie Sands (1967)

“Angel of the Morning” (Uploaded to YouTube by JuiceNewtonVEVO)

Written by Chip Taylor, “Angel of the Morning” is one of those songs that has been covered by a seemingly endless list of artists. While Evie Sands committed the first version to wax, the first hit take was by Merrilee Rush & The Turnabouts in 1968; the Rush version even got a Grammy nomination. However, the most successful take was by country and pop singer Juice Newton; Newton’s video was played on MTV’s first day of broadcasting, and her recording went to #1 on the adult contemporary chart, #4 on the Hot 100, and #22 on the country charts. The single sold over a million copies in the U.S. and also received a Grammy nod. Newton’s version has popped up in numerous films, including the hilarious opening credits of Deadpool.

3. “Always Something There to Remind Me” (1983) – Naked Eyes

Original artist: “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” by Lou Johnson (1964)

“Always Something There to Remind Me” (Uploaded to YouTube by Chrysalis Records)

Naked Eyes were a synthpop duo that were classed as part of the New Wave acts that arrived from England. Their breakout hit, “Always Something There to Remind Me,” made it to #10 on the U.S. Hot 100. The original song by Lou Johnson, which had one extra word in the title, was written by the classic songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Johnson’s version was a mild hit; Sandie Shaw took the song to #1 in several countries, but couldn’t crack the Top 40 in the U.S. Naked Eyes took it to its highest spot to date, and then took their own self-penned follow-up, “Promises, Promises,” to #11.

4. “Cum On Feel the Noize” (1983) – Quiet Riot

Original artist: Slade (1973)

“Cum On Feel the Noize” (Uploaded to YouTube by QuietRiotVEVO)

Quiet Riot singer Kevin DuBrow famously objected to covering Slade’s upbeat rocker. He was determined that the band distinguish themselves by writing everything for their third album (and American debut), Metal Health. But producer Spencer Proffer thought that the song could be a good tune for the band. After resolving to give it a try in the studio (and do it badly so it wouldn’t get on the album), drummer Frankie Banali, guitarist Carlos Cavazo, and bassist Rudy Sarzo kicked into the song . . . and it rocked. The musicians locked in and nailed it, much to DuBrow’s dismay. The band put the song on the record, and it went nuts in the U.S. Going all the way to #5 on the Hot 100, “Noize” sold a million copies, drove Metal Health to 10 million albums sold, invigorated Slade’s popularity in America, and brought the L.A. metal scene to American awareness. Not bad for a song the band didn’t want.

5. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1983) – Cyndi Lauper

Original artist: Robert Hazard (1979)

“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Uploaded to YouTube by Cyndi Lauper)

Robert Hazard was a stylistic chameleon whose material ranged from Dylan-esque folk to New Wave. His “Girls” wasn’t a hit single, but Cyndi Lauper fixed that. For her solo debut, She’s So Unusual, Lauper did a version that leaned in to the synthpop/electrorock of the day. The bass and keyboards were provided by, respectively, Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of The Hooters; the pair arranged and played on the whole album, and Hyman co-wrote “Time After Time.” “Girls” was a smash, going to #2 in the U.S. and selling a million copies. As the first of Unusual’s six singles, it powered the album to 16 million copies sold worldwide and established Lauper as a major star of the video era.

6. “The Tide Is High” (1980) – Blondie

Original artist: The Paragons (1967)

“The Tide Is High” (Uploaded to YouTube by Video Hits)

Blondie emerged from the punk scene at New York’s CBGB’s to be one of the most popular bands in the world. They’d already turned one cover into a hit with their 1978 take on The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.” But true to their genre-shifting abilities, the band embraced a rocksteady tune by Jamaican artists The Paragons. Rocksteady was the stylistic predecessor of reggae, and Blondie took that vibe and melded it to their occasional synthpop inclinations. The result was a song that went #1 around the world.

7. “Gloria” (1982) – Laura Branigan

Original artist: Umberto Tozzi (1979)

“Gloria” (Uploaded to YouTube by RHINO)

It would be easy to get an entire article out of the covers — and songs that became covers — that populate the late Laura Branigan’s catalog. She and her team had a knack for finding hit songs in other languages and reformulating them into English, as they did with “Self Control” and this tune. She also recorded several songs co-written by Michael Bolton and other composers that would later become bigger hits for other artists (notably Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live without You,” Cher’s “I Found Someone,” and Celine Dion’s “Power of Love”). For “Gloria,” Doug Morris of Atlantic Records recommended the Italian tune, and guitarist Trevor Veitch rewrote the English lyrics. Branigan took the song to #2, selling a million copies along the way.

8. “Bette Davis Eyes” (1981) – Kim Carnes

Original artist: Jackie DeShannon (1974)

“Bette Davis Eyes” (Uploaded to YouTube by Kim Carnes)

It’s hard to find a bigger early ’80s hit than Kim Carnes’ take on “Bette Davis Eyes.” Her version went to #1, stayed there for nine weeks, took a one week break for “Stars on 45,” and went back to #1 for four more weeks. It was Billboard’s #1 song for 1981. Though Carnes has been a versatile singer-songwriter for her entire career, smoothly moving between genres, collaborating with the likes of Kenny Rogers, and even singing on “We Are the World,” “Eyes” was her commercial peak. The hit did not go unnoticed by Davis herself, who wrote a nice note to Carnes on the song’s success, and sent her flowers when she won two Grammys for the tune.

9. “Alone” (1987) – Heart

Original artist: i-Ten (1983)

“Alone” (Uploaded to YouTube by thebandheart)

The original version of “Alone” was written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, who recorded as i-Ten; the duo would also write major hits like “Like A Virgin” and “True Colors.” The song was picked up for use on the short-lived TV sitcom Dreams in 1984, where it was performed on-screen by John Stamos and Valerie Stevenson. In 1985, the band Heart released a massively successful self-titled album that saw the group making use of a number of outside songwriters. As they worked on the follow-up Bad Animals, they brought in other outside material, including “Alone.” Re-engineered as a heavy power ballad, the song employed Kelly on harmony vocals to back Ann Wilson’s vocal pyrotechnics. The result was a U.S. #1 that pushed the album to three million copies sold.

10. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1981) – Joan Jett and The Blackhearts

Original artist: The Arrows (1975)

“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Uploaded to YouTube by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts)

While on tour with The Runaways, Joan Jett saw The Arrows perform the song on TV in the U.K. She initially recorded it as a B-side with Sex Pistols members Paul Cook and Steve Jones. In 1981, she did a version with her own band. That was a wise choice, as it went to #1 for seven weeks. While Jett considers “Bad Reputation” to be her signature song, there’s little argument that her Arrows cover is her most well-known song worldwide.

11. “Tainted Love” (1981) – Soft Cell

Original artist: Gloria Jones (1964)

“Tainted Love” (Uploaded to YouTube by Soft Cell)

It’s two covers in one! Soft Cell did two versions of “Tainted Love;” the first, straightforward version was released as a regulation single, with singer Marc Almond nailing the vocals on the first take. A second 12” record version had the song segue into an additional cover, “Where Did Our Love Go?” by The Supremes. The standard synthpop version was a major hit, going Top Ten around the world and #8 in the States. Over the ensuing decades, the song has thrived as a regular inclusion on film and television soundtracks, typically used to evoke the early ’80s.

12. “That’s What Friends Are For” (1985) – Dionne & Friends

Original artist: Rod Stewart (1982)

“That’s What Friends Are For” (Uploaded to YouTube by Dionne Warwick)

Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager wrote “That’s What Friends Are For,” and Stewart’s version was included on the soundtrack to the 1982 comedy Night Shift. Frequent Bacharach collaborator Dionne Warwick wanted to release a single to raise money for AIDS research, so the songwriters worked on a new second verse and Warwick recruited Gladys Knight, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder to participate. In addition to vocals, John plays piano and Wonder plays harmonica. Their version raised $3 million for AIDS research by being a staggeringly successful hit. It was the #1 song in America for 1986 and won two Grammys.

13. “Saving All My Love For You” (1985) – Whitney Houston

Original artists: Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. (1978)

“Saving All My Love For You” (Uploaded to YouTube by Whitney Houston)

Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. were two members of successful soul group The 5th Dimension. The married couple recorded the album Marilyn & Billy in 1978 and included this song by Gerry Goffin and Michael Masser. Masser was part of the production team for Houston’s debut album, which would also include his song “The Greatest Love of All.” Released as the second single from Whitney Houston,  “Saving All My Love For You” made Houston a star. It was the first of seven straight #1 songs for the artist and earned Houston her first Grammy.

14. “Got My Mind Set on You” (1987) – George Harrison

Original artist: James Ray (1962)

“Got My Mind Set on You” (Uploaded to YouTube by George Harrison)

Maybe it’s appropriate that a former Beatle should have hit cover of a ’60s tune. “Got My Mind Set on You” was Harrison’s third and final solo #1 in the States, and the only one that he didn’t write. The bass and keyboard on the song was performed by Harrison’s long-time friend and Traveling Wilburys bandmate Jeff Lynne of ELO. The song was seen as something of a solo comeback for Harrison, and went on to sell a million copies in America.

15. “China Girl” (1983) – David Bowie

Original artist: Iggy Pop (1977)

“China Girl” (Uploaded to YouTube by David Bowie)

Can you cover yourself? Leave it to David Bowie to find a way. Bowie and his friend and frequent collaborator Iggy Pop co-wrote “China Girl” for Pop’s 1977 album, The Idiot. Bowie decided to record his own version for his 1983 album, Let’s Dance. Nile Rodgers of Chic produced and arranged the song; Rodgers and blues-rock legend Stevie Ray Vaughan provided the guitars. “China Girl” was the second single from the album to be a Top Ten hit. The album itself remains Bowie’s greatest commercial success, selling more than 10 million copies around the world.

Featured image: Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper during a 2017 performance in Wantagh, New York (Shutterstock)

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