Best Covers

On The Surprising Endurance Of Sade’s “By Your Side”

Ever since the Nigerian-born, English-bred singer/composer Sade Adu released her 1984 debut LP, Diamond Life, she and her eponymous band have released countless high-charting hits — it’s just debatable if “By Your Side” is one of them. It’s certainly one of Sade’s more renowned songs, a fine example of how the group’s post-genre sophisti-pop-laced R&B could evolve from the ’80s onwards into a sound that only benefited from its trend-averse formlessness. (That, and it’s romantic as all hell.) Yet its wedding-dance canonization was far from instant. Hitting #17 in the UK in 2000 isn’t failure by any stretch, and even if its pop success in the States fell short (#75 in 2001 is as high as it got on the Hot 100), it reached all the way up to #2 on Hot Dance Club Play. (Its most prominent exposure came in a 2002 episode of Sex And The City, when the track scored a scene in which Samantha and her on-again, off-again love interest Richard shared a tender slow dance on a Manhattan rooftop.) But even in a context where the charts feel like a definitive tallying of a song’s impact, using them to work out a song’s legacy seems less valuable than another, more abstract metric: just how many bands wind up reinterpreting it.

Whether it’s through remixes, samples, or cover versions, “By Your Side” has long outlasted its apparent initial fate as a low-key single from an artist and band then on the verge of becoming a 20-year concern. Its lyrics, simple as they are, are so directly open that they manage to make what starts out as a defensive reality check (“You think I’d leave your side, baby/ You know me better than that”) feel like a once-strained bond reinforced two times over. “By Your Side” was most recently covered by English pop revivalists the 1975 — whose version was reportedly influenced by Bon Iver, Kanye West, and Francis And The Lights — but as this chronological rundown of its many interpretations reveals, the song’s sentiment can carry through just about any form.

The Neptunes Remix (2000)

Remixes don’t always have to outdo the originals, even when the remix in question comes from the Neptunes at their world-beating peak. Chad and Pharrell’s take on “By Your Side” first appeared on a UK/European CD single that literally dropped four days before both Jay Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” single and Ludacris’ Back For The First Time cut “Southern Hospitality,” in case you’re wondering how good that one particular stretch of mid-October was for them. It’s not as well-known as those two hip-hop hits, but it’s unmistakably theirs — those synthesized guitar strums and minor epic am-I-high chord progressions keep up the original’s smooth elegance while tweaking the mood just a bit further toward tense longing.

Beachwood Sparks (2001)

In the 11 years between their 2001 sophomore album, Once We Were Trees, and 2012’s The Tarnished Gold, LA’s Beachwood Sparks had a strange breakthrough: Their cover of “By Your Side,” rendered as a Laurel Canyon-oid, harmonica-laced waft of mellow-psych indie, went from a solid standout single (and a minor UK hit) into the geek-culture canon when it snagged a pivotal spot in the soundtrack to cult comic-movie adaptation Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. If the Angeleno vibe of this version threatens to feel a little too sunny for the Toronto winter of Edgar Wright’s film, its hazy, young-guy version of its stated devotion feels like a good decade-stretching reflection of not-entirely-mature love.

M.O.P. – “Slade” (2004)

The early-mid ’00s trend for hardcore New York hip-hop icons to simultaneously subvert and pay homage to classic R&B — think Ghostface upending the Delfonics on “Holla” — hits peak weirdness right here: Operating quasi-pseudonymously as the Marxmen, Lil Fame and Billy Danze close out the first half of their two-disc mixtape Marxmen Cinema with the kind of Sade tribute you’d expect from the crew that gave us “Ante Up.” Sade’s voice is dropped in to finish Lil Fame lines about repping real hip-hop and the streets of Brownsville, and the whole track feels like something that started as a goofy dare but got executed with full sincerity. Even if you can kind of tell that everyone involved knows how weird it is, it’s even more obvious how little they give a fuck.

Gayngs (2010)

Ryan Olson’s soft-pop supergroup, featuring an army of cross-genre Upper Midwest musicians ranging from Justin Vernon to P.O.S, wound up far better in execution than they were in concept. The more you read about them, the more tongue-in-cheek their prom-dance schtick felt, but the more you listened to them, the more up to the task of emotional legitimacy they actually sounded. Their “By Your Side” cover was a live-show fixture during tours in 2010 and 2011, and even if Justin Vernon has to Auto-Tune his way to hitting those keening high notes that Sade could manage with deceptive ease, the schmaltz gets pretty severely overpowered by the beauty.

Frank Ocean (2011)

For all the early discussion that Nostalgia, Ultra stirred up about Frank Ocean’s legitimacy (What was with his Odd Future ties? Was he “PBR&B”? Could he even sing?), a big piece of his musical identity stood right out there in the open even before Channel Orange made him a widespread sensation. This clip from the final show of his first tour, a Los Angeles homecoming at the El Rey in November 2011, isn’t just a chance for him to show off his emotional range, emerging stage presence, and not-so-questionable vocal chops. It’s a choice that puts him in the context of a predecessor that, like him, wasn’t just content to be relegated to a mainstream narrative of R&B as a narrowly defined niche genre.

Ben Taylor (2013)

There are a ton of YouTube covers of “By Your Side” that turn Sade into earnest-guy-with-acoustic-guitar fodder, but credit where it’s due: If you’re the son of James Taylor and Carly Simon, you’re probably better suited to that particular task than just about anyone else looking for like/comment/subscribe props. There’s not much more to say about this song than the fact that Ben sure as hell sounds like his old man, so it’d be cool if we could either see if he takes after him in other ways by casting him in a reboot of Two-Lane Blacktop, or find out whether he can hew toward his mom’s style too by dropping a sweet early-’80s disco dub Chic production under him.

Free Cake For Every Creature (2016)

The only cover version on this list that’s sung by a woman is also the only one that makes it sound like a faithful but unique reinterpretation without making a big deal of it. Free Cake For Every Creature are a lo-fi band out of Philadelphia that feel twee and lighthearted without actually getting cloying about it, and this version of “By Your Side” feels dizzily lovestruck while still retaining some of the original’s defiance. Singer/guitarist Katie Bennett toes a line between vulnerable and powerful, and works her way through that range in a compact 1:40.

The 1975 (2017)

Strange how a cover version can be one of the most talked-about songs of the entire month — but not too strange, given the parties involved. The 1975’s new release for the War Child charity pulls poptimism’s favorite rock band back into the forefront, filters Matthew Healey’s lead vocal through an Auto-Tuned ether frolic that’s as disorienting and elusive as Sade Adu’s voice is soothingly direct, and acknowledges the original’s prescience while updating it for a listenership interested in finding a commonality with Bon Iver and Chance The Rapper. It is the latest “By Your Side” cover; it probably will not be the last.