Some of the most iconic pop and rock songs of the past half century have been covers. These two weeks, I will take a look at these classics and their overshadowed originals.
As I’ve gone through some of these covers that have vastly overshadowed their originals, I’ve been struck by a few things. First, it’s sometimes just a few small tweaks that turns a song from forgettable to iconic. For example, Trine Rein took Ednaswap’s swampy “Torn” and added in some acoustic/electric contrast, making the song infinitely warmer and more compelling. (Natalie Imbrauglia would expand Rein’s interpretation.)
Second, some of the covers’ most memorable features have often been additions to the original: Aretha Franklin spelled out R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the bridge of her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Cyndi Lauper took the guitar riff from Robert Hazard’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and turned it into a vocal line: “They just-a-wanna! They just-a-wanna!”
Third, a gender swap is sometimes works wonders… usually a woman reclaiming a song written for a man. Lauper reinvented Hazard’s mopey “Wanna Have Fun” into a girly anthem. Peak Aretha — the biggest female voice of her generation — demanding “Respect” added a lot of layers vs. a grumpy Redding’s demand. Patsy Cline turned Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” into a heartbreaking tragedy by projecting repressed female longing.
And today, we hit an iconic cover that hits all three of those checkmarks: Toni Basil turning Racey’s “Kitty” into number-one hit “Mickey.”
A British New Wave band, Racey, had a modestly successful run in the late ’70s on the strength of their 1979 album Smash and Grab. One of their singles was the snappy “Kitty.” It plays as chipper, catchy, and forgettable. Pop songs about horny dudes are a dime a dozen, even the good ones.
A year later, Toni Basil, a professional choreographer trying to break out in the music business, recorded her own version of the song. She kept nearly everything about the original: The melody, the sound, the structure. She changed two things: First, she changed the song’s title character to a man, Mickey. Second — crucially — she added a cheerleader chant to the song: “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine; you’re so fine, you blow my mind; hey Mickey!”
The song soared up the charts, topping Billboard when it reached America in 1982. Basil is still frequently cited as one of the biggest one-hit-wonders ever.
The song’s success as a cover is the result of only a few minor tweaks. The new chant section provides a perfect earworm, as annoying as it is hooky. The real coup is the gender swap: Where Racey’s lustful obsession sounded unoriginal, Basil made the same melody and words sound different. She was liberated and sex-positive. It’s not that Basil is a particularly compelling vocalist — she struggles to hold down even a single, steady line without silly flourishes. But her reading brings out the composition so much more.
In short, if you think you have a good song, give it to a woman and ask her to add some stuff to it. It could be the difference between a “Kitty” and a “Mickey.”