Welcome to Gotcha Covered, a new biweekly column in which Nate Patrin revisits some of the most notable cover versions of a classic track.
For a stretch of 1985 and 1986, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” gave Tears For Fears a chance to do just that. The third single from their 1985 Songs From The Big Chair album — more well-remembered than the direction-changing “Mothers Talk,” and an even bigger smash than the inescapable “Shout” — “Rule The World” hit the top 20 of just about every country that bothered to track that sort of thing, including #1 in the United States and #2 in the UK, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Australia. Subsequently, it became one of those songs that was not only indelibly associated with a nostalgist’s version of the ’80s (and perhaps Dennis Miller Live) but earned classic-standard status long after it flipped from Top 40 status to Oldies.
And the band hadn’t even given it that much thought. Co-writer Roland Orzabal has stated in interviews that it felt off somehow: the 12/8 shuffle beat felt uncharacteristic to them, and it took some rewrites to get past the on-the-nose bluntness of the original titular verse “everybody wants to go to war.” The song wound up a last-minute final addition to the album that they reluctantly turned to on the urging of producer Chris Hughes to make a hit for the American charts — which it did, once they realized how good it sounded and committed it to tape. Ever since then, it’s felt like one of the great protest songs that doesn’t grandiosely announce itself as a protest song, a deceptively upbeat number that slyly, not-so-deeply conceals a certain Reagan/Thatcher spiritual ennui: “All for freedom and for pleasure/ Nothing ever lasts forever.” And an ennui like that has a way of carrying through just about any genre you can think of.
Gloria Gaynor (1986)
Gloria Gaynor’s mid-’70s breakthrough took a mid-tempo ballad and made it into an upbeat dancefloor-filler, but seven years after the (purported) death of disco, her take on “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” didn’t have the dance-chart-christening success of her Jackson 5 cover “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Granted, neither did any of the other tracks on the initially UK-only album The Power Of Gloria Gaynor, an all-covers album that took the K-Tel approach to contemporaneous hit-gathering (“The Heat Is On”! “The Eye Of The Tiger”! “The Power Of Love”! And many more of your ’80s AOR favorites, all on one LP or cassette!). And while Gaynor’s voice is strong enough to carry just about anything, something about the arrangement feels just off enough — it seems to be halfway in a different key — makes it one of those covers that feels like it’s sitting on the outskirts of some kind of musical uncanny valley.
Ken Boothe (2001)
Gaynor wasn’t the only singer on this list to have a #1 hit off a cover song in 1974: Swap out Billboard’s dance chart for the UK singles chart, and you’ve got Ken Boothe at the top of the pile with his reggae version of Bread’s “Everything I Own.” Twenty-seven years later, his version of the Tears For Fears classic appeared on a compilation called The Tide Is High – ReggaeRocks A Tribute to Rock ‘N’ Roll, the unwieldy title of which comes from a song that was already reggae in the first place via the Paragons before Blondie made it more famous — but that’s another story. Boothe’s religious ad-libbing (“everybody wants to rule the world… but only God, only God is a ruler”) isn’t the most drastic change; the reggae-fication of the song renders that famous spiraling guitar riff unrecognizable under a burbly wah-wah. Boothe became famous off a rich, expressive voice, but that’s easy to take for granted on a song whose context in a dadrock-heavy, pop-produced discount-store covers album reduces a lot of great artists to tourist reggae.
Nas, “Rule” (2001)
Trackmasters did more than just about any other hip-hop production crew to I Love The ’80s the hell out of the genre, and their Eurythmics flip “Street Dreams” proved to be one of the pivotal points that got Nas fans worrying about his potential to go full-on pop. Funny how Nas’ Stillmatic — deemed a comeback by hardcore fans by making up for the slapdash Nastradamus, giving him an all-time classic with “One Mic,” and permanently adding “Ether” to the rap lexicon — also included a Trackmasters joint that made “Street Dreams” sound like “NY State Of Mind” by comparison. But “Rule” isn’t soft by any means — it’s a canny chop of the two most recognizable riffs from the song, refitted to drums that thump instead of shuffle. And it’s not just one of Nas’ most underrated message cuts: It’s one of the most lyrically heartfelt protest songs by anybody to come directly from the aftershocks of 9/11 (the single dropped less than a month afterward). Get Amerie on the chorus-quoting hook and it’s not just a hey-remember-that? hit of nostalgia dopamine but a smart interpolation of the original’s subtext and Nas’ expanded text.
The Bad Plus (2007)
Even though they’ve written their share of fine originals, Minneapolitan jazz trio the Bad Plus are famous for their cover itinerary: They kicked off their self-titled 2001 debut with a chaos-theory version of ABBA’s “Knowing Me Knowing You” and have crossed paths with Nirvana, Rush, Blondie, and Bowie en route to blurring the lines between crossover-luring pop moves and wild-haired free jazz. Their “Rule The World” is a mellower version of their typical m.o., where recognizable hooks are woven into and sometimes smashed to sharp-edged little pieces by ventures into avant-jazz. This one starts off like an austere dinner-conversation piece of music, running through the verses’ melodies before pianist Ethan Iverson takes the bridge as an opportunity to rewire the whole thing — think the original’s tersely efficient pacing-in-a-closet guitar solo sprung out by Ahmad Jamal.
Patti Smith (2007)
Patti Smith used iconoclastic cover versions to kick off both her recording career (1974’s “Hey Joe (Version)” 7″) and her first album (1975’s Horses, with her opening meditation on Them’s “Gloria”). Smith’s still known more for her history of using punk as a conduit between rock’s past and present than she is for the year-zero negation that other artists saw in the genre. So her 2007 covers album, Twelve, is largely filled with tributes to classic rock artists who preceded her — Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles — with the two notable exceptions being Nirvana and Tears For Fears. If that last one seems like an outlier, Smith makes it feel like it belongs: Never forget that along with her rep as a writer and a rebellious icon, she’s got a voice that can live in a song like a nomad that can find a home anywhere. That’s why a relatively faithful arrangement like this — featuring 30-plus-year bandmates Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daughterty, plus a subdued if resonant guitar solo from her and Fred “Sonic” Smith’s son Jackson — can still sound like she wrote the thing in the first place.
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists (2010)
Aside from maybe the songbook juggernauts in Yo La Tengo, few indie-rock or indie-rock-adjacent acts pull “amazing cover version” duty quite like Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. Even though they haven’t been much of a going concern since 2010 — Ted’s teamup with Aimee Mann as the Both has been his highest-profile gig since the excellent decade-opening TLRx album The Brutalist Bricks, though he’s Kickstartering some new work — their back catalogue of reinterpretations has numbered in the dozens, with their melodic, punk-rooted versatility doing justice to everyone from Richard Thompson and the Jam to Robyn and Daft Punk. If it’s got a hook, he can ramp it up, and he and the Pharmacists do a spectacular job at bringing out both the serrated edges and the brightness in “Rule The World.” It’s rarely sounded as simultaneously hopeful and heart-aching as it has in Ted Leo’s hands. The anecdote at the beginning of this performance for the AV Club’s “Undercover” series is great, too: “It was my favorite song at one point in my life, I remember being in the car with my dad and going, ‘I think this is my favorite song.'” They jokingly pin this realization as one Ted made when he was 30, and they play it like that’s really the case, post-youth disillusionment battling with hope for the future.
One of the most tedious cliches of our time is the Movie Bummer Cover — a phenomenon jumpstarted, coincidentally enough, by another Tears For Fears cover in Gary Jules’ portentous weepy-woo trudge through “Mad World” for Donnie Darko. A few years later, Scala and Kolacny Brothers’ choral version of Radiohead’s “Creep” made the trailer to The Social Network almost as much of a phenomenon as the movie itself, and since then we’ve been inundated with gloomy, foreboding trailer-bait covers — of Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??” for another dumbshit Transformers movie, New Order’s “Blue Monday” for Atomic Blonde, even the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” for A Cure For Wellness, because not even the godfathers of fast-and-giddy punk are immune. That overdone trope is probably the only thing that really works against Lorde’s favor in her brief cover of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. It’s the shortest on this list, despite feeling like the most drawn-out. But even as it flattens out the sing-song taunt of its chorus’ titular line and reduces the melody to Xanax piano plinks and generic blockbuster-franchise strings, the aloof strangeness of Lorde’s voice does a lot to carry it past the usual Dramatic Reenvisionings.
Mayer Hawthorne (2016)
There’s a Motown classic somewhere beneath the original song’s ’80s pop touches, and for a while it seems like that’s what Mayer Hawthorne really did best: retrofit ’60s R&B for a glossier, bigger-is-better pop world while keeping at least some idea of soul going. He’s gotten a bit more eclectic since he broke out, though, taking a more low-key version of the Bruno Mars polygenre approach to pop-soul into sleeker, less time-pegged turf. You can sort of hear the ’80s in Hawthorne’s “Rule The World,” but it’s a bit more Jam/Lewis than Tears For Fears, all close self-harmonies over velvety 808-style percussion, a lateral move rather than a total recontextualization. If anything, he brings the blue-eyed soul in it to the forefront, until you believe it’s always been an R&B crossover rather than the typification of New Pop’s sunset years. But at least their gig touring with Hall & Oates makes a lot more sense now.