There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.
There were many smash hit cover versions during the '80s of songs famous enough that most fans were aware they were covers. Some examples include David Bowie and Mick Jagger's "Dancing in the Street", Pet Shop Boys' "Always on My Mind", Billy Idol's "Mony Mony", "Venus" by Bananarama, Cyndi Lauper's "What's Goin' On", Club Nouveau's "Lean on Me", "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tiffany, UB40's "Red Red Wine", the Bangles' "Hazy Shade of Winter", Kim Wilde's "You Keep Me Hangin' On", Quiet Riot's "Cum on Feel the Noize", "Funky Town" by Pseudo Echo, just to name a very few.
However there were also many big hits that many fans might not have realized were covers, either because the original versions are obscure, or perhaps they had been hits but had faded away from public awareness. Below are 20 classic singles of the '80s that many may not have realized are covers, and some of them might surprise.
Animotion - "Obsession" (1984)
Singer/songwriter Holly Knight, who enjoyed substantial success in the '80s writing hits for other artists like Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield", "Never" by Heart, and "The Warrior" by Scandal just to name a few, first released the track "Obsession" as a duet with singer Michael De Barres in 1983. Despite placement on the film soundtrack for A Night in Heaven, the song failed to ignite. A year later it was recorded by Los Angeles-based new wavers Animotion, who took their synth-driven version of the song to #6 in the US and into the Top 10 around the world. It became the band's signature song and one of the '80s most iconic singles.
Toni Basil - "Mickey" (1982)
Who knew that "Mickey" was once "Kitty"? British power-pop combo Racey are best known for their smash UK singles "Lay Your Love on Me" (1978) and "Some Girls" (1979). However, it was the track "Kitty" from the band's 1979 debut album Smash and Grab that became a pop-music phenomenon -- just not for them. Singer/choreographer Toni Basil changed the name to "Mickey", donned her cheerleading gear in a video that was in near perpetual rotation on MTV, and scored a #1 smash in 1982.
Pat Benatar - "All Fired Up" (1988)
Pat Benatar was one of the '80s most consistent hitmakers early in the decade, but as the '90s approached, she began to lose her commercial momentum. Her last every Top 40 hit came in 1988 with "All Fired Up", a blazing rocker from her album Wide Awake in Dreamland. She delivers a terrific performance and absolutely owns the song, but she had no hand in writing it. It was first a 1987 single by the obscure Australian band Rattling Sabres. Their original recording was a minor hit in Australia and was ultimately the band's only brush with success before disbanding.
Big Pig - "Breakaway" (1988)
American R&B singer Chuck Jackson, an inductee into the Official Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, is best known for his 1962 single "Any Day Now", which hit #2 on the US R&B chart and #24 on the pop chart. His 1973 single "I Can't Break Away" failed to achieve similar success, but 15 years later the funky soul tune was morphed into heavily rhythmic electro-pop by the Australian band Big Pig. They released it as "Breakaway" from their 1988 album Bonk. The song was a Top 10 smash in their native country and also received significant play on MTV in the US, thanks in part to its inclusion on the soundtrack to the 1989 comedy Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
Blondie - "The Tide Is High" (1980)
Jamaican reggae band the Paragons recorded their obscure single "The Tide is High" in 1967, but it didn't become a major international hit until Blondie released it as the first single from their 1980 album Autoamerican. Blondie's sexy reggae-light rendition, featuring a flirty and playful vocal by Debbie Harry, soared to #1, becoming the group's third US chart-topper following "Heart of Glass" and "Call Me".
Bow Wow Wow - "I Want Candy" (1982)
The Strangeloves were a New York-based band that scored one major hit: "I Want Candy" reached #11 in 1965. Nearly two decades later it was resurrected by Bow Wow Wow, an English band put together by the late Malcolm McLaren, one of the most influential architects of the punk rock movement in the UK. Bow Wow Wow consisted of former members of Adam and the Ants and the young vocalist Annabella Lwin, who was only 15 when "I Want Candy" was released in 1982. It was never a big hit for the band in America, stalling out at #62, but "I Want Candy" received plenty of MTV airplay and has become a new wave essential.
Laura Branigan - "Gloria" (1982)
Powerhouse vocalist Laura Branigan scored three Top 10 hits in the US, and they all were covers of songs originally recorded by European artists in their native language. Branigan's 1984 smash "Self Control" was originally a hit for the Italian artist Raf, and the Top 10 "Solitaire" from 1982 was a minor hit for French vocalist Martine Clémenceau the prior year. Branigan enjoyed her greatest success in 1982 with the high-energy pop/disco classic "Gloria", a song co-written and originally recorded in 1979 by Italian artist Umberto Tozzi. Branigan's version hit #2 in the US and remains an '80s classic.
Kim Carnes - "Bette Davis Eyes" (1981)
Before Kim Carnes turned "Bette Davis Eyes" into one of the great singles of the '80s, Jackie DeShannon co-wrote and released the song in 1974. Her jaunty melding of R&B with some country elements couldn't be more different in tone that Carnes' starkly powerful new wave/rock classic that spent nine weeks at #1 in 1981. The arrangement is simple and stark, just a heavy backbeat and bass, a simple rhythm guitar, quavering lines of synth, and bits of electronic percussion mimicking handclaps, sometimes echoed by the guitar. Her nuance and phrasing are perfect at every turn. From a growl to a conspiratorial half-whisper, Carnes knows how to use her raspy voice to wring every last bit of drama from the song. Listen to the attitude she injects in lines likes, "She'll expose you / when she snows you / off your feet with the crumbs she throws you / She's ferocious / and she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush."
Cher - "I Found Someone" (1987)
Turnabout is fair play. Laura Branigan's biggest hits were all covers of songs previously released by European artists. Written by Michael Bolton, Branigan's version of "I Found Someone" was barely a blip on the US pop chart, managing to reach #90. But the song was not forgotten, and it became Cher's big comeback single. The first single from her self-titled 1987 release, Cher's version was her first Top 40 hit since 1979, reaching #10. "I Found Someone" righted the ship on Cher's floundering music career and set her up nicely for future success with hits like "We All Sleep Alone" and "If I Could Turn Back Time".
Hall & Oates - "Family Man" (1983)
When Daryl Hall and John Oates released "Family Man" as a single in 1983, they were riding a string of hits, including two straight from their 1982 album H20: the #1 classic "Maneater" and the Top 10 ballad "One on One". Hall and Oates primarily wrote their own material, but they were known to throw in the occasional cover, such as their hit remake of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" in 1980. The third single from H20, "Family Man" was originally co-written and recorded by Mike Oldfield (of "Tubular Bells" fame) and Maggie Reilly for Oldfield's 1982 album Five Miles Out. The original became a minor hit in the UK, reaching #45, but it took Hall and Oates to turn the song into a smash, going all the way to #6 in the US and becoming one of a remarkable 16 Top Ten hits for the duo.
Heart - "Alone" (1987)
Veteran rockers Heart enjoyed a major career resurgence during the '80s with their multi-platinum self-titled 1985 album including hits like "What About Love", "Never", and the band's first #1 single, "These Dreams". Their follow-up, 1987's Bad Animals, earned Heart another chart-topper with the power ballad "Alone", featuring a stunning vocal by Ann Wilson. "Alone" was written by ace songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (known for numerous smash hits like Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors", the Bangles' "Eternal Flame", Divinyls' "I Touch Myself", the Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You", among many others). The songwriters recorded "Alone" first under the name i-Ten for their 1983 album Taking a Cold Look. The original version went nowhere, but just four years later Heart transformed the song into a classic.
Whitney Houston - "Saving All My Love For You" (1985)
Whitney Houston's 1985 self-titled debut was launched with the ballad "You Give Good Love", which reached #3 on the Hot 100. It was the follow-up single, though, another ballad called "Saving All My Love For You", that became Houston's first #1 hit and the first of an amazing string of seven chart-toppers in a row. "Saving All My Love For You" was originally recorded in 1978 by Marilyn McCoo (formerly of the 5th Dimension) on her collaborative album with Billy Davis, Jr., Marilyn & Billy. It was a minor hit that was quickly forgotten until Houston resurrected it and took it to the top. It wasn't the only #1 cover on Houston's debut album -- "The Greatest Love of All" was originally recorded by George Benson for the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest in 1977.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts - "I Love Rock n' Roll" (1982)
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts were certainly no strangers to recording covers. Their versions of classics like "Crimson and Clover", "Do You Wanna Touch Me", and "Everyday People" all became substantial hits. While all of those originals are well-known, some fans may not be aware that the band's biggest hit -- the #1 smash "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" (1982), a song that helps define '80s rock -- is also a cover. It was originally recorded by the Arrows, a British glam-rock band who released the song in 1975. The Arrows never made it big in America, but they did have several hits in the UK, highlighted by their Top 10 single "Touch Too Much" in 1974.
Cyndi Lauper - "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" (1983)
One of the most instantly recognizable hits of the '80s is "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", the first single by Cyndi Lauper from her 1983 album She's So Unusual. It was written and recorded in 1979 by Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Robert Hazard, best known for his edgy new wave rocker "Escalator of Life". Lauper transforms his song from an aggressive rocker to an ebullient party anthem. Lauper includes several other covers on her debut album: "Money Changes Everything" (originally by the Brains), "When You Were Mine", written and recorded by Prince for his 1980 classic Dirty Mind, and the smash ballad "All Through the Night", originally written and recorded by Jules Shear.
Huey Lewis & The News - "Heart and Soul" (1983)
Juice Newton - "Angel of the Morning" (1981)
Songwriter Chip Taylor wrote "Angel of the Morning" in the mid-'60s with the intention of Connie Francis recording it, but she declined. A couple of recordings in 1967 by UK vocalist Billie Davis and singer Danny Michaels went nowhere, but it was finally a hit for Merrilee Rush in 1968, reaching #7 in the US. Fast forward to 1981, and pop/country vocalist Juice Newton scored a massive hit with her re-recording of the song. Newton's version of "Angel of the Morning" hit #4 and launched a string of successful singles like "Queen of Hearts", "Love's Been a Little Bit Hard on Me", and another hit cover, the gorgeous ballad "Break It to Me Gently".
The Oak Ridge Boys - "Elvira" (1981)
One of the '80s biggest crossover country hits to make a major impact on the pop chart is "Elvira" by the Oak Ridge Boys. The ultra-catchy singalong climbed all the way to #5 on the US pop chart, very rare indeed for a country single in the '80s. The song is actually an oldie. It was written and recorded by Dallas Frazier in 1966 for his album of the same name. Frazier's version made little impact, scraping to only #72 on the Hot 100, and subsequent recordings by Kenny Rogers and Rodney Crowell failed to catch much fire. "Elvira" finally achieved mass success when the Oak Ridge Boys, inspired by Crowell's version, included it on their 1981 album Fancy Free and turned it into a smash.
Simply Red - "Money's Too Tight (To Mention)" (1985)
Most fans are likely aware that Simply Red's chart-topping recording of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "If You Don't Know Me By Now" is a cover, but the band also scored a hit earlier in their career with a cover of a lesser-known song. "Money's Too Tight (To Mention)", from the band's debut album Picture Book (1985), was Simply Red's first single in their native UK (reaching #13), and in the US it was the follow-up to their #1 hit "Holding Back the Years". The song was written and originally recorded by the Valentine Brothers, an Ohio-based R&B duo, for their 1982 album First Take. The track failed to ignite, stalling just short of the Top 40 on the US R&B chart, and missing the Hot 100 entirely. Simply Red's remake climbed into the US Top 30, ensuring the band would never be considered a one-hit wonder.
Soft Cell - "Tainted Love" (1982)
One of the '80s most ubiquitous hits, Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" began life as the b-side to an obscure 1964 single by R&B vocalist Gloria Jones, "My Bad Boy's Comin' Home". The original is an upbeat Motown-inspired jam that easily could have been a hit at the time had it been given a chance. Jones re-recorded it in 1976 with a more disco flavor, but again it failed to make an impact. The British duo Soft Cell resurrected it, slowed it down, stripped it down, and infused it with an aura of seedy decadence. Complete with a clever arrangement of dusky synths and fabulous electric whip cracks, "Tainted Love" hit #1 in the UK, and in 1982 reached #8 on the Hot 100 in the US. It would be Soft Cell's only American hit. The song is now an obligatory part of any '80s night, a brisk sing-along punctuated by those inevitable hand-claps.
Tina Turner - "Better Be Good to Me" (1984)
- The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s: Part 1: 100 - 81 ... ›
- Stripped Down: The 10 Best Acoustic Covers - PopMatters ›