The ’80s were notoriously a time of many, many one-hit wonders. Some were sort of interesting, like Soft Cell’s grim and slightly ghoulish take on a 15-year-old R&B record. As an aside, I didn’t remember that (moderately NSFW, perhaps) video for the Soft Cell version at all. It’s a great example of both the fire-sale budgets that were standard for a baby act’s videos at the time, and a fine answer to the question “How many ways can you miss the point?”
The era also hosted what’s been called a second British Invasion, with UK-based acts all over the charts and MTV. Some, like the Police, turned out to be genuine contenders and career artists. Some, like Duran Duran, were occasionally pretty decent, or at least pretty to look at. Then you get the more mysterious success stories, like Billy Idol. (What were we thinking?) Or these guys:
Red, red link for the e-mailites. UB40 had two American hits, the first being the above take on an old Neil Diamond song. (Yes, I know UB40 have been insanely successful in the UK and worldwide. But they never did much in the U.S. after “Red Red Wine” was a big hit, so I am admittedly, but not apologetically, looking at them from a parochial American perspective.)
Anyway, that was based on this:
It’s from 1968, before Diamond’s commercial prime, and it’s not a very good record. It’s draggy and confused, with a strummy guitar and some soggy strings eyeing one another but never introducing themselves. The lyrics are mopey and dull, and it’s an uncharacteristically awkward vocal; Neil usually attacks even a ballad with with a lot more vigor than this. And at just 2:48, it’s still too long.
And what UB40 did on their version, remarkably, was suck all the energy out of a song that was dead on its feet to begin with. Their version sounds more upbeat, sure, but Ali Campbell swoons driftily through it like he has no idea what he’s singing about, and the tempo is just … so … regular…. reggae for somnambulists, is what it is. Shh, don’t wake them up, they might hurt themselves.
This was another single that got some play in the U.S. — “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”
So this proves UB40 could drain all the air out of a great record, too. I know, I know, the idea of doing a cover is to make your own mark with it, but I’m not sure taking songs that sound nothing alike and make them sound exactly the same is a gift, exactly. It’s a knack, at most. I mean, how do you get from here: