When you break it down, Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a pretty strange song. It’s got a singalong hook, but it’s an almost desperately frustrated one; it’s a defiant message that sounds like it’s about to fall into a state of defeatism; it’s one of the most recognizable songs of the mid ’80s even though nearly every element of its performance is one degree off from being unremarkable in every way.
Of course, there’s a big gulf in that one degree when you think of all the earnest singer-songwritery songs in that “things are hard but we’ll fight through it” vein that just tread water aimlessly where “Don’t Dream It’s Over” hits every mark precisely. There’s just enough eccentricity — the way that riff dekes you into thinking it’s going somewhere else before it goes where it actually does, the way Neil Finn makes the word “deluge” sound like something it is not only possible but ideal for normal people to sing, that airlifted-from-1966 Mitchell Froom organ solo in the middle of an otherwise very 1986 sound, the way the drums don’t even really kick in until the third verse (which, of course, starts out “Now I’m walking again to the beat of a drum”).
As blueprints for indie pop go — that whole big-production-meets-alt-rock vibe that gave us a good amount of top-tier pre-Nirvana college radio fodder — “Don’t Dream It’s Over” also feels like a harder song to screw with than you might otherwise think. Take away one of those aforementioned elements, which a cover version is likely enough to do even without the whole “let’s put a twist on it” aspect, and you risk missing at least one of the important points, or a piece of identification that makes the song stand out above its failed soundalikes. Paul Young famously covered it in 1991 during an Artists Against Apartheid Nelson Mandela benefit and made it sound sluggish, and in 2002 Sixpence None The Richer did a Hallmark Card version and took away all its nuanced worry. That hasn’t been enough of a deterrent to stop some others, though — which, in at least a few of these cases, is a relief.
Richard Thompson (2009)
This 2009 show in New York City was a solo acoustic all-request deal for legendary singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, and this is what came up when he was asked to play a song he’d wished he’d written. If you’ve heard Halfbricking or I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight or Shoot Out The Lights, you’d likely recognize what a compliment that is, and even if there’s some audible laughter of realization from the audience at the beginning of this version, it takes Thompson less than a verse to ease into it and the end of the first chorus to own it. (The way he draws out the “they won’t winnnnn” is a fine touch.) Not to mention that he manages to preserve the song’s whole personality with nothing but an acoustic guitar that barely even captures the tone of the original music — that’s how unassailable his singing is.
Faith No More (2010)
It’s not clear how recent a trend it is, but a lot of bands over the last several years have turned covering “Don’t Dream It’s Over” into something of an Australian-tour tradition — to the point where it’s debatable as to whether it’s somehow become American bands’ canonical Australian/New Zealander Pop Song Nod (Kylie, INXS, and Men At Work notwithstanding). Then again, as versatile as his voice is, I can’t picture Mike Patton singing “Who Can It Be Now.” So we’ve got this instead, from a show Faith No More played in Melbourne, and as low-key a performance as it is — its one-verse one-chorus run-through gives it cameo status, and the segue into Angel Dust’s “Midlife Crisis” is a real neck-snapper mood-wise — it’s by a band that doesn’t half-ass anything, even in their little interludes. Patton seems to be getting a genuine kick out of leading the crowd singalong, and goes for faithfulness where other playing-against-type singers might go for winking bombast. Not like this is their first time covering a classic pop song from Down Under — but the novelty’s still there.
Red Hot Chili Peppers (2013)
Sorry to disappoint, but this isn’t a ziggity-zing-a-dow slap-bass-overload Chad Smith Star-Spangled Banner caricature of a RHCP-ified Crowded House. I mean, it’d be funny, but it’d also be a disaster, and it’s not their only mode anyways. Like the Faith No More version, it’s another one-verse one-chorus wonder, played to stir up a New Zealand arena into joining them on the hook, but the segue purpose is a bit less jarring: Make note of the fact that this particular version, even if it’s a bit heavier on the cod-funk boom-bap rhythms (look, congas!), sounds like a pretty on-the-nose segue into “Under the Bridge.” It’s a good chance to give then-relative newcomer guitarist/singer/Frusciante replacement Josh Klinghoffer a spotlight moment, and he hits Finn’s notes better than Kiedis’ laconic croon/gawky yelp theoretically could.
Flock Of Dimes & Sylvan Esso (2015)
Seems like Wye Oak and/or individual component members of Wye Oak are an ongoing concern here at Gotcha Covered, and with the extra added bonus crossover element of the AV Club’s “Undercover” series, which has wound up getting more than a few performances out of Jenn Wasner (performing here under her Flock Of Dimes moniker). In this one, recorded the same year Wye Oak took on Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”, Wasner joins up with Sylvan Esso to do another transformative-yet-respectful take on a mid-’80s pop-transcending single that ratchets up the gauzy-synth factor. We don’t do a “who won” thing with this column, but the moments where Wasner harmonizes with Amelia Meath are pretty staggering, reshaping the backbeat as a minimalist but prominent jittery electro rhythm gives it a new dimension, and Wasner’s guitar solo filling in for Froom’s keyboard feels like walking through an inexplicably warm snowfall.
The Bad Plus (2016)
Speaking of ongoing concerns: The Bad Plus’ long tradition of extrapolating unpredictable free jazz from songs you heard a hundred times on the radio receded for the better part of the ’10s; aside from an album-length detour into Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring they went extremely light on the covers between 2008’s For All I Care and 2016’s It’s Hard. That latter album might have returned to the cold pop-covers itinerary out of a sense of finality; original pianist Ethan Iverson is set to leave the trio at the end of 2017, and putting together one last run through their name-making, standard-upending hit parade seems like a fitting send-off. Their tendency to rework obvious songs in extremely un-obvious ways makes their “Don’t Dream It’s Over” feel like simplicity turned complex, where the melodic starting points are so ingrained in the listeners’ (and musicians’) heads that even the more surprising directions and deliberately dissonant notes make perfect sense.
Chris Martin & Eddie Vedder (2016)
Sometimes you get exactly what it says on the can: Here is Eddie Vedder singing a verse and a chorus of “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Now here’s Chris Martin singing a verse and a chorus of “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Now here’s Eddie and Chris alternating verses and then harmonizing on the chorus. Eddie’s voice sounds a mile deep; Chris sounds like he’s about to collapse into a wheezing fit during the chorus. It is all very dignified and elegiac and for charity and maybe a minute longer than it needs to be. It exists.
Ariana Grande & Miley Cyrus (2017)
This is still strange to think about: Two years ago, Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus did a video together where they dressed up in kigurumi-style pajammy-jams and sat on an inflatable couch singing “Don’t Dream It’s Over” into old-timey microphones while tasteful flannel-rock dudes strummed acoustic guitars behind them. Grande sounds fine, even if there’s something technically proficient yet low on personality about her performance. Miley sounds like she’s not sure how serious she wants to be about this and goes halfway caricature where she sounds like Nelly Furtado doing an unflattering imitation of Cameo’s Larry Blackmon. And they both miss their cue for the third verse because they’re too busy trying to figure out what species Grande is dressed as. Seeing their duet reprised in a far more melancholy context as part of the One Love Manchester benefit, just weeks after the suicide bombing that followed Grande’s concert on May 22, is pretty jarring in that the circumstances are as serious as they can get but the performance itself hasn’t changed much — there’s still lighthearted banter and everything. But there’s also a hug and a handhold and a bunch of kids in the audience singing along with the chorus and how does cynicism even work, anyways?