Recently I had a friend hip me to a song that I had no idea existed, having thought for decades that the later cover of it by an ‘80s one-hit-wonder band was the original and only version ever recorded. This epiphany led to a conversation about hit songs that we didn’t at first realize were covers—sometimes not discovering the existence of the original versions until many years after the fact. A few friends joined in, and at the end of the conversation I was sitting on a list of nearly 50 well-known hit songs that were “surprise” cover versions.
As a public service to Dangerous Minds readers, I’m going to share this list so that you too can wow your friends at parties with your vast musical knowledge. Granted, our readership is a smart and savvy bunch, so undoubtedly you’ll come across songs on this list and you’ll say “I already knew about that.” Yes, of course you did, but do indulge the rest of us, won’t you? Hopefully, though, there’s something here to surprise even you.
We’ll be rolling this list out in parts over the next few weeks. In no particular order, this is Part One of Dangerous Minds’ list of hits you (probably) didn’t realize were cover songs.
The song: “Obsession”
You know it from: Animotion
But it was done first by: Michael Des Barres and Holly Knight
“Obsession” was a 1984 smash for one-hit-wonders Animotion, but it was originally recorded a year earlier in 1983 by Silverhead and Detective lead singer Michael Des Barres and Grammy-winning songwriter, Holly Knight. Incidentally, this is the song that started the conversation that resulted in this entire list.
The song: “King of the Nighttime World”
You know it from: KISS
But it was done first by: Kim Fowley and the Hollywood Stars
“King of the Nighttime World” appeared on KISS’ 1976 platinum album Destroyer, but it was originally recorded in 1974 by producer, performer, and Runaways’ Svengali, Kim Fowley. Fowley’s version has slightly different lyrics and a more laid-back groove.
The song: “Wild in the Streets”
You know it from: The Circle Jerks
But it was done first by: Garland Jeffreys
“Wild in the Streets,” one of The Circle Jerks’ signature tunes, was the title track from their second album. Most punks in 1983 probably didn’t know that the song was actually a cover of a 1973 number written by Garland Jeffreys after hearing about a pre-teen rape and murder in the Bronx.
The song: “Gloria”
You know it from: Laura Branigan
But it was done first by: Umberto Tozzi
Laura Branigan’s signature song, her 1982 hit, “Gloria,” was on the Billboard chart for 36 weeks—but prior to that it was a huge 1979 hit in Italy for Umberto Tozzi.
The song: “Angel of the Morning”
You know it from: Juice Newton
But it was done first by: Evie Sands
“Angel of the Morning” was a 1982 number one hit for Juice Newton, but it was first recorded in 1967 by Evie Sands. The song, written by Chip Taylor, was first a big hit in 1968 by Merrilee Rush. Several artists have covered the tune, but Newton’s rendition achieved the greatest success.
The song: “Do It”
You know it from: Henry Rollins
But it was done first by: Pink Fairies
One of Henry Rollins’ most well-known post-Black Flag numbers was a cover of this 1971 song by The Pink Fairies. The original is remarkably “punk” for 1971.
The song: “Heart and Soul”
You know it from: Huey Lewis and the News
But it was done first by: Exile
Huey Lewis’ top ten 1983 hit was originally recorded in 1981 by Exile of “Kiss You All Over” fame. Check out the comically massive cowbell sound on the choruses.
The Bus Boys also took a crack at it in 1982:
The song: “Jesus is Just Alright”
You know it from: The Doobie Brothers
But it was done first by: The Art Reynolds Singers
The Doobies had a huge hit in 1972 with “Jesus is Just Alright” which was already a well-known 1969 track from The Byrds. But the original version can be found on The Art Reynolds Singers 1966 album Tellin’ It Like It Is.
The song: “Oh, Boy!”
You know it from: Buddy Holly
But it was done first by: Sonny West
“Oh, Boy!” is a rock and roll standard generally associated with Buddy Holly’s 1957 hit version, but it was actually written and recorded earlier by Sonny West. West’s recording failed to achieve any commercial success.
The song: “Video Killed the Radio Star”
You know it from: Buggles
But it was done first by: Bruce Woolley and The Camera Club
The classic new wave hit by the Buggles that launched MTV was pre-dated by an earlier version by Bruce Woolley and The Camera Club. Buggles’ Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes had been songwriting partners with Bruce Woolley. The track was written by Horn, Downes, and Woolley. So, technically, maybe it’s not a cover—but this version does pre-date the Buggles’ hit.
The song: “Hooked on a Feeling”
You know it from: Blue Swede
But it was done first by: Jonathan King
OK. So, “Hooked on a Feeling” was originally a hit in 1968 for B.J. Thomas. In 1974 Blue Swede had a huge hit with the tune, with a bizarre-yet-catchy “ooga chaka” chant added into the intro and bridge. But Blue Swede was merely covering Jonathan King’s version from 1971 which added the inexplicable ooga-chakas. King described them as “a reggae rhythm by male voices.” OK, sure. Blue Swede’s cover of King’s cover has been rediscovered by a whole new generation with its inclusion on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack.
The song: “I Love Rock and Roll”
You know it from: Joan Jett
But it was done first by: The Arrows
Joan Jett’s 1982 signature song was a cover. The Arrows original was recorded in 1975. Lead singer Alan Merrill claimed in an interview with Songfacts that the song was written as “a knee-jerk response to The Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)’. The Arrows had their own weekly television series in Britain in the mid-‘70s.
That wraps up this installment. but there’s plenty more where these came from. Keep your eyes peeled for Part Two of this list, coming soon to Dangerous Minds.