The 1980s was a fascinating decade when icy Cold War relations collided with tacky fashion, video games and inventions like the VCR. It was also the decade when popular music spread beyond radio to the masses thanks to existing TV shows like Top of the Pops and a little thing called MTV.
BBC Radio 2 has taken the initiative to further immortalise classic tracks from that era with Sounds of the 80s. This new release brings together artists old and new, but there are just a few too many tender acoustic covers.
Some retakes are straightforward. Ed Sheeran’s vibrant version of Atlantic City should make the Boss proud. The Script and Shane Filan respectively add warmth to The Cars’ Drive and Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours by stripping away those dated synths and drum machines. Rumer channels Karen Carpenter in her mellow, faithful cover of Christopher Cross’ memorable theme song from ‘Arthur’. Train brightens up yet retains the wistfulness of Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years (though Patrick Monahan is sadly no match for Mick Hucknall). London Grammar’s version of Wicked Game writhes in feminine ecstasy, free from the distracting background harmonies of Chris Isaak’s otherwise equally sexy original.
There are some creative re-imaginings too. Sam Smith transforms the upbeat pop fluff of Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know into tearjerking balladry with a typically intimate vocal performance. Will Young clearly did his research on the lyrics to Womack & Womack’s deceptive toe-tapper Teardrops, as his desolate rendition exposes how downbeat the song really is. The Pierces’ cover of Don’t Give Up sounds as if Kate Bush herself did her own version without Peter Gabriel during the Hounds of Love recording sessions. Katie Melua brings refreshing Sunday morning goodness to Black’s Wonderful Life with her typically smoky, sparkly style. The fun doesn’t stop, as Caro Emerald jazzes up Walk Like An Egyptian (originally by The Bangles) and the Overtones brings even more swing to Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
Some re-imaginings lose the impact of their originals. Christina Perri’s pitch-perfect rendition of Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time is sorely missing the theatrics of this karaoke staple. Birdy’s puzzling cover of Lucky Star turns Madonna’s dance-pop classic into a breathy, directionless lullaby. The waltzy beat of Ward Thomas’ country-tinged cover of Man In The Mirror dampens the impact of the reflective lyrics of this Michael Jackson gospel-pop masterpiece. Listeners may also long for Jennifer Halliday and a REAL choir on Jermain Jackman’s flat cover of Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is.
Thanks to the overload in stripped back acoustic covers, the rockier tracks stand out even more. Level 42 tribute their peers INXS with a fittingly funky, faithful cover of Need You Tonight. Joe Strummer would have liked the Kaiser Chiefs’ slinkier take of Should I Stay Or Should I Go that is also guaranteed to get people on the floor. The Manic Street Preachers bravely begin Start Me Up with drums instead of that recognisable riff, but the cowbell and James Dean Bradfield’s solid guitar work and punchy vocals drive this Rolling Stones cover forward.
Olly Murs’s Let’s Groove is infectious and groovy, but it’s hard to go wrong with Earth Wind & Fire. Kylie Minogue unfortunately doesn’t have the grit or gusto to match Kim Carnes’ original raspy vocal on Bette Davis Eyes, whose busy backing track buries that iconic synth riff. More successful is Sophie Ellis-Bextor on True Faith. There are hints of Murder on the Dance Floor, as the disco-worthy, propulsive bass is a contrast to the robotic backing vocals that chill the New Order track. It also helps that Ellis-Bextor is a far better vocalist than Bernard Sumner.
Sounds of the 80s is a decent collection of updates to those 1980s classics. There may be too many folky guitar ballads, but these are mostly fine on their own. Some notable 1980s artists are also missing (e.g. Prince, Duran Duran), but this is proof of how difficult it is to capture one of popular music’s most eccentric decades.