Our Great Cover Song Challenge Celebrates the Best and Worst ’80s Movie Soundtracks

[Editor’s Note: On August 21, the movie “Dirty Dancing” celebrated its 30th anniversary. We took this opportunity to introduce our 2nd Great Cover Song Challenge, wherein musicians were dared to agree to cover a song without knowing advance what it would be or even who it would be by. They had about six weeks to record a cover of the song, in any manner they saw fit (along with a second, one-week “bonus round” where participants took on an extra song under tight deadline pressure.) The only rule was that the random assignments couldn’t be appealed. More than 120 artists inquired, and the result was 61 covers on the theme of ’80s Music Soundtracks. The participants ranged from professional musicians to novices and amateurs to strange, uncategorizable performance artists; ranged in age from tweens to senior citizens; and came from all over the US, Europe and Australia. The results are everything from straight-up covers to wild sound experiments and a few complete rewrites, resulting in what on some levels is a glimpse of an alternate universe of ’80s films. Below, you’ll find the story of a handful of the artists who participated, along with all of the artists’ recordings. Enjoy!]

It’s a familiar refrain: Albums don’t sell like they used to. But even casually following the Billboard and iTunes charts shows there’s one sort of album that’s an exception to that maxim: Movie soundtracks. Some of this success is due to kids’ manic obsession with movies such as “Frozen.” Other winners, such as the soundtracks to “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Baby Driver” are really just particularly well-crafted playlists, curated form already beloved songs. This goes back all the way to classic films with great music such as 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy” and 1973’s “American Graffiti,” even discounting outright musicals and “jukebox” films like the Beatles pictures.

But it wasn’t until the ’80s when a soundtrack become almost as much of an event as the movie itself, with the likes of “Footloose,” “Flashdance” and “Top Gun” appearing magically in most households faster than you could say “Columbia Record Club.” Indeed, even though movies such as “The Lost Boys,” “Dirty Dancing” and just this month “Less Than Zero” have all turned 30 this year, their soundtracks are still strangely iconic. They were vibrant and earwormy as all hell, and featured fresh pop songs, most of which were garbage, but a few of which were real gems. By the ’90s, with movies such as “The Crow” and “High Fidelity,” we saw the first glimmers of now-familiar formats beginning, but the ’80s were still a moment of wild experimentation, and the results were weird and stylistically diverse.

But is the music of those soundtracks worth holding onto? To get to the bottom of that question, we did the only sensible thing, and asked musicians to volunteer to cover a song off of one of 14 classic ’80s movie soundtracks – including the aforementioned ’80s favorites along with songs from “the Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Say Anything,” “16 Candles,” “Weird Science,” ‘Ghostbusters,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Labyrinth” – without knowing in advance what song or artist they’d be tackling. After all, this worked when we did it with the music of Phil Collins, Air Supply and Madonna. (We also received two unsolicited covers from “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “The NeverEnding Story,” because these things happen, so we included them.) Many ran in horror at their randomly selected song, but others rose to the challenge, bringing us such delights as a haunting piano rendition of Mummy Calls’ “Beauty Has Her” way by Hawaiian musician Maelan Abran, the realization by New England folk duo Wolfpen that Glenn Danzig’s “You and Me (Less than Zero)” is essentially the same song as Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” and the return of Orange County’s long-presumed-dead Pocket Clowns, with a glam metal rendition of Cycle V’s less-than beloved “Seduce Me Tonight.”

“I had such a hard time finding anything to emotionally connect to in my song,” says Florida’s Will Ryan, who recorded Lou Gramm’s “Lost in the Shadows (The Lost Boys).” “I ended up having to record it out of sheer determination and then listened to my own rough cover enough to emotional connect with my version of it. … I’m not sure what it is about ’80s production aesthetics, but I have this problem with a lot of ’80s music. I used to think there were just a lot of bad songs, but I have come to appreciate that there were many good songs written during that time period whose goodness was buried in soulless (in my opinion) production techniques.”

Ryan wasn’t the only one who found himself questioning what it was they’d been handed. “I did not get the song,” says 11-year-old Orange County singer Katyana Hall, who tackled Laura Brannigan’s “Imagination.” “When I heard it the first time, I had to ask my mom, ‘Is that music?’ She said no, so what I had to do was to make my version music.” Kenny Dena of OC’s Brodii Split referred to this process as “ratcheting down the cheese factor” when they covered the BusBoys’ “Cleanin’ Up The Town.”

“The most difficult thing for me was stripping back what I felt like was the typical ’80s over-production with key changes and all that nonsense,” says Indiana’s David Sprinkle, who covered Alyson Williams and Oran “Juice” Jones’ “How To Love Again,” and getting back to a song that has a pretty good concept in the foundation, how to love someone else or yourself again after heartbreak.”

Surprisingly, it wasn’t all trauma. The musical potpourri ensured that some of the songs assigned were undeniable classics: Either cover songs solicited by the studios because they either couldn’t get or couldn’t afford the rights to the original, or in some cases, the real recording itself, performed by a undeniably credible artist.

“I had a very well known and respected song by the Smiths,” says SoCal’s Johnathan Mendoza, who covered “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” under the name Waker Glass. “The hardest part for me was to not copy the original – because I know I couldn’t top it – and to find an approach that was authentic to my sound but not forced or contrived.”

In the end, Mendoza gave the Smiths song a makeover as a fast-paced rock song. Other changes in direction included New England industrial duo Eurydice going brutally metal with Tom Johnston’s “Where are You Tonight,” and Long Beach’s Bill Lanham giving Suzanne Vega’s “Left Of Center” the 8-bit-video game treatment. But for all the musicians, the challenge was, essentially, more against themselves than against the song.

“I wanted to take the song in a different direction,” says Boston’s Sarah Fard, of Savoire Faire, who covered both Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,”as well as David Bowie’s “As The World Falls Down,” “but I didn’t want to do the same thing I had done with other songs. I have a tendency to turn most covers into a slightly moodier take on whatever the original is. … I didn’t want to keep the same feel as the original because I didn’t like it! What to do?! It was hard to straddle the line of doing the same thing again, trying to make it unique, and not making it toooooo weird!”

Not that going “too weird” was a detriment for everybody. New Mexico performance poet Rich Boucher took a creepy serial killer vibe to an offbeat rendition of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget about Me,” the masked OC quartet Four Black Eyes did their thing with a raucous rendition of Teena Mari’s “Lead Me On,” and England’s Dan Morrissey took what easily the most despised song in the mix – “I’ve Had) the time of My Life,” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, a song which was turned down point blank TWICE by artists – and turned it into a wild heavy metal instrumental. For many, the solution to dealing with the song was to lean into the crazy, whether the song was a piece of ephemera obviously forced onto the record by a studio, or an undeniable classic.

“My song – “People Are Strange” – was so iconic as done by The Doors,” said OC poet and videographer Jaimes Palacio, “that Echo & The Bunnymen (which I was covering) didn’t really change much. So covering E & TB version would pretty much be the same damn thing as covering The Doors. I had to therefore take it in another direction and the song only gets referenced as a recurring part of a sound collage.”

Palacio also did a wildly creepy video rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbuster’s as well as creating the videos for Hall’s “Imagination” and The Vermicious Knids’ version of the Blow Monkeys’ “You Don’t Own Me,” which was a collaboration between vocalists Deb Auchery and Jereme Lawrence in New England and Dan Morriseey playing music in the UK. That wasn’t the only long-distance collaboration: In addition to tackling Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Free (Heaven Help the Boy)” with Roosterhead, and Gerard McMann’s “Cry Little Sister” solo as “Me Montana Casio,” SoCal musician Luke Johnson teamed with Massachusetts singer-songwriter Jessica Lovina to form The Pocket Dreamers, which adapted Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida.”

“The original version of the song was 17 minutes long but only had 5 lines of lyrics,” said Lovina. “It really lacked structure and didn’t have much of a story. We overcame this by asking ourselves, OK, if the guy who wrote this song wasn’t drunk, if it actually was about what happened ‘In the Garden of Eden,’ what was the rest of the story? Luke Johnson expanded the storyline, I wrote a first draft of lyrics, he revised and added more lyrics, we sent numerous demos, uke and guitar chord progressions, visual maps of song structure (complete with illustrations!) back and forth for well over a month. We decided we had to keep ‘the riff’ in there somewhere, though not as a focal point. In short, the fact that it was a hit song was intimidating, but the fact that it lacked so much in story and structure actually was liberating, and I think that allowed our imaginations to really run wild with this one!”

Along the same lines, New England-based poetry and music fusion outfit the Duende Project reworked Loggins’ “Danger Zone” into a caustic piece of political commentary, and indeed, liberating the music from the context of its cinematic roles seemed to shake a lot loose for the musicians. That wasn’t an easy process, though.

“The second I heard it I knew it,” said singer Amanda Holton of Eurydice, about their song, “But I hadn’t heard it in years and years. I probably watched ‘Dirty Dancing’ 700 times when I was a younger girl … it still brings me back to a younger time in my life.”

“It’s funny,” adds poet Tony Brown, of Duende Project, “I have seen maybe only 10% of the movies included in the challenge, yet I feel like the plots and characters and soundtracks are so embedded in the generation who saw them again and again that they permeate many aspects of pop culture. For instance, I’ve never seen ‘Say Anything,’ but somehow I can only see that scene when I hear ‘In Your Eyes’ – and I’ve seen Peter Gabriel play it twice live. Go figure.”

Even though a lot this music has been relatively dormant for music, and some of the rest of it has been heavily derided, there’s still a power in it, a power deeply rooted in nostalgia.

“I grew up with many of these songs,” says Fard. “I heard a lot of them without the context of the films first. Then, once I became a teenager, watching ’80s movies (mostly John Hughes) became THE THING to do. John Hughes clearly knew that his films were aimed at young adults. They were funny, encapsulated an era, and the soundtracks were entwined with pivotal moments in the plots. I think that for the iconic songs, they’ve carried on in part because of what they are associated with. I’m thinking mostly of the Simple Minds’ tune ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ sure, it’s a sort of love song, but (for me) it’s hard to hear the song without thinking of” Judd Nelson punching his fist into the air at the end of the “Breakfast Club.”

Still, while many of the artists reinterpreting these songs found musical and pop cultural value in the excursion, others found the experience a little bewildering.

“I had never heard it,” says Hall of her song. I had never heard anything like it. I had never heard of Giorgio Moroder or Laura Branigan. It changed my opinion of the ’80s. I thought the ’80s were like Prince and Madonna, fun and upbeat and danceable, but some of the ’80s was just weird, I guess.”

Yeah. Yeah, she’s probably right about that.

Check out all the great cover songs of ’80s soundtracks below.

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