Every band starts off by playing cover versions of other people’s songs – the punk and new wave bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s were no different. Here’s a bunch of songs recorded by artists from that time period.
1. Sex Pistols, “No Fun”
The Sex Pistols didn’t release too many cover versions, mostly because John “Rotten” Lydon was more of a shouter than a singer (this is not a criticism). Their version of the Stooges’ “No Fun” was originally released as the B-side of the “Pretty Vacant” single. My favourite bit of this song is the rhythm guitar at about the three minute mark.
2. The Damned, “Ballroom Blitz”
The Damned’s Dave Vanian also had a distinctive voice, which didn’t lend itself well to covers. This version of the Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” features Lemmy from Motorhead on bass. I remember it being on an EP. It’s fun, but I’d rather listen to the original.
3. The Jam, “Slow Down”
This cover of the Larry Williams song appeared on their first album, In The City. A live version of this song also exists on YouTube, in which the band plays even faster than on the recording. Frontman Paul Weller looks so young in this video. (For fun, compare this version to the Beatles’ version.)
Other Jam covers include “The Midnight Hour” and, for some reason, the Batman theme. They also covered Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, which foreshadowed Weller’s evolution into performing more soul-influenced material.
4. Toby Swann, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”
Toby Swann was the frontman for the notoriously named Battered Wives, a Canadian punk band. He recorded this in 1981 after the band split up and he went solo. I love this song: Swann doesn’t so much hit the high notes as gently sneak up on them and tap them on the head. Hey, it’s not as if I could do better.
5. The Diodes, “Red Rubber Ball”
The Diodes were a late 1970s punk band from Toronto. Their best-known song was this cover of the Cyrkle’s 1966 hit, which was co-written by Paul Simon.
6. The Ramones, “California Sun”
Da Bruddahs covered the Rivieras’ 1964 hit on their second album, Leave Home. Naturally, it is wonderful.
7. The Ramones, “Surfin’ Bird”
I couldn’t decide whether to include “California Sun” or “Surfin’ Bird” on my list, so I picked both. Listening to these songs is guaranteed to increase your life span and bring joy to your heart.
“Surfin’ Bird” is a cover of the Trashmen’s 1963 hit, which in turn is a cover of two songs by The Rivingtons: “The Bird’s The Word” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow”. It was an act of inspired genius to combine these into one song, roughly equivalent to the invention of fire, the wheel, or quantum mechanics.
8. The Clash, “Pressure Drop”
The Clash covered a number of songs by Jamaican and African-American artists, including this Toots and the Maytals song. (I strongly recommend that you listen to the original, as it is wonderful.) Joe Strummer was one of the few white artists who could convincingly cover songs recorded by Jamaicans or African-Americans, and I think it was because he wasn’t self-conscious about being of a different race than the original artist. He loved the music, so he wanted to sing it.
Other Clash covers include Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Time is Tight”, James Waynes’ “Junco Partner”, Willi Williams’ “Armagideon Time”, and Vince Foster’s “Brand New Cadillac”. (I must confess that I looked some of this stuff up in Wikipedia.)
9. Teenage Head, “Brand New Cadillac”
Teenage Head were a punk band from Hamilton, Ontario, led by the legendary Frankie Venom. Their cover of “Brand New Cadillac” appeared on their second album, Frantic City.
10. The Stranglers, “96 Tears”
The Stranglers weren’t my favourite of the early new wave bands, but they showed good taste when they covered ? and the Mysterians’ 1966 hit. It’s not as good as the original, but then how could it be? The Stranglers also covered Dionne Warwicke’s hit “Walk On By”.
11. Captain Sensible, “Happy Talk”
Captain Sensible (real name Ray Burns) was the bass player for The Damned. He reached #1 on the UK charts with this in 1982.
A story that I guess is not true (since I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Internet) but I wish was true: Sensible took out an insurance policy that was set to pay off only if this song reached #1.