Cyndi Lauper took the U.S. pop scene by storm in 1983 with her album She’s So Unusual. What was so unusual was the makeup of the songs on the album: a majority of the songs were covers.
We’re not talking about songwriters that wrote tunes exclusively for Lauper a la the Brill Building. We’re talking about songs that were written and previously recorded by other artists – most of which failed miserably and were unknown to the rest of the world.
Of the 10 songs on She’s So Unusual, six were covers of other people’s songs; Lauper co-wrote the other four with various collaborators (for some reason, “She Bop” – the simplest, most mundane song on the album – took four people to write). Lauper released six songs from the album; four of the singles were covers. Here are the songs that Lauper covered:
“Money Changes Everything” – The opening track from She’s So Unusual was originally written by Tom Gray and recorded by the Atlanta-based group the Brains in 1980. It didn’t chart, but Lauper’s popularity, which had skyrocketed due to her previous hits, managed to get her version from the album up to #27. Lauper’s version is obviously more polished, less punk and more New Wave, but still retains a bit of the rock edge from the original.
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” – I covered (no pun intended) this song on a post about 15 famous songs you didn’t know were covers. It sounds written for Cyndi Lauper, but Robert Hazard actually wrote the song in 1979 and recorded a demo of it. Lauper heard it and immediately wanted to use it, got Hazard’s blessing to change the words, and turned it into a feminist anthem. Lauper definitely improved on the original, which sounds half-baked (it is a demo). In fact, they sound like two different songs; Lauper reworked the bridge, added a more memorable melody and introduced the trademark Hooters synthesizers at the beginning (Rob Hyman of the Hooters helped on the album). It reached only #3 in the U.S. but was #1 in Canada, Australia and Europe.
“When You Were Mine” – This single, which surprisingly did not chart, was a New Wave song written and recorded by none other than Prince, who also wrote songs for Sinead O’Connor, the Bangles, Martika, Chaka Khan and Sheena Easton, to name a few. Lauper slowed it down and added a vocal track an octave lower to double her lead. The result is good if you’ve never heard Prince’s version, but it pales in comparison to the original. Oddly, Prince never released it.
“All Through the Night” – Hard-luck singer-songwriter Jules Shear, whose beautiful songs were covered by the Bangles and Alison Moyet, didn’t have a Top 40 song to his credit, despite releasing 13 albums. His version of “All Through the Night” has an offbeat guitar track that sounds like a reggae song; Lauper stripped it down, added synthesizers, and was smart enough to leave Shear’s melody and chord progressions intact. The result? A #5 hit single.
“He’s So Unusual” – Written by Al Sherman, Al Lewis and Abner Silver in 1929, “He’s So Unusual” was first performed by Helen Kane, the inspiration for the Betty Boop animated character. The song was used in the motion picture Sweetie and was 3 minutes long (the first 3-minute pop song?), but Lauper used only 47 seconds of it. She does a spot-on remake, down to the crackle of the phonograph record, with her girlish vocals matching Kane’s Betty Boop sound perfectly.
“Yeah Yeah” – Swedish artist Mikael Rickfors, the one-time lead singer of the Zombies in the early 1970s, released “Yeah Yeah” in 1981. An upbeat rock song with keyboards and a droning guitar riff, it gets a total facelift from Lauper, who begins it with a polka sound while doing her best Yoko Ono imitation. She uses the verses as a call-and-answer; the chorus is nothing special, with a saxophone instrumental in the middle of the song. Lauper inserts Betty-Boop and Yoko sounds and talks in her squeaky, heavy New York accent throughout the song, making it indeed unusual. Which leads me to wonder: Where did she find this album track from an unknown album released in Germany?
This post is not meant to belittle Lauper’s release in any way; indeed, the way she reinvented these songs, in addition to her strong and, um, unusual voice, made She’s So Unusual a monster hit. The album won critical acclaim, reached #4 on the Billboard album chart, stayed on the charts for 77 weeks and sold 6 million copies. It and its singles were nominated for six Grammy award nominations (two wins).
It’s easy to cover a song like “Stand by Me” or “Yesterday” – you get instant recognition, but you’re always compared to the original. It takes guts to find a dusty old single, make it your own, and release it, knowing that it failed the first time. But no one (except me!) can come behind you and compare the original with the remake. It’s yours.
That’s not bad for a girl who looked like she bought her clothes from a flea market – and got most of her songs there as well.