Certain songs have an inherent appeal that makes them popular covers. They infect the brains and resonate with artists of any era, inspiring their own rendition. It’s one of the purest examples of imitation as flattery. One of these reliable, time-traveling songs is The Kinks’ “I Go to Sleep” – a 1960s classic that has survived through time to pop up every now and then with wildly different and interesting versions.
The original is a haunting bare bones piece with nothing more than a distant, methodical piano played like a ticking clock. It’s a lonely song, but the expression of that emotion is subtle. It feels more like someone drifting through life, numb and isolated, rather than a tortured soul.
Then when The Pretenders did it in 1981 – what a difference. They add in drums, bass, guitar and Chrissie Hynde’s seductive vocal work. It’s really a version that cashes in on all the emotional potential that The Kinks set up. Whereas their strategy was to play it restrained and methodical, The Pretenders indulge. It’s most evident in the way they create a climax on what was once just a normal bridge – “I was wrong/I will cry/I will love you/ ‘Til the day I die” – is suddenly a small rock out session.
Here in modern times, the logical step after The Pretenders’ version is Australian pop-jazz singer Sia, who sang the crap out of the song in 2008 backed by a soulful jazz ensemble. This is a version that makes pure sense. Of course, a song about the longings of love would have a heavy mood, riffing vocals and a lounge singer aesthetic. It’s the cleanest, most obvious way to play the song, and it’s a wonder that it hadn’t been done sooner. We are now so far removed from the original that people forget it was The Kinks who made it in the first place.
A year later, S. Maharba joins the conversation with the most experimental and hardest hitting version yet. Reappropriating a cover by Marion, he applies his lo-fi electronic style to a heavy, almost industrial-sounding beat. This is a song that sounds like a slow fight. Each version slightly tweaks the meaning and spirit of the song, and this one is concerned with unsettling its listeners. There’s an eerie drone in the background, and every kick drum is a gunshot. It’s not the way love songs are supposed to sound, and that’s precisely what makes it a thrilling reimagination.
But things have a way of working in cycles. The most recent version, a 2010 offering by British and German singer-songwriter Anika, is at once experimental and in keeping with the original. Sia and The Pretenders made it accessible and beautiful, S. Maharba gave it some bang, and Anika imagines what the song would sound like if it were created today. It’s as low key as the original, except it makes decisions to keep you on edge. It’s still paced with the same restraint, but the timekeeping piano has been replaced by a loud, pitch black bass. Anika’s distinct singing style heightens the otherworldly quality found in the original and maintains an emotional disconnect, playing off the lyrics’ inherent wild passion.
If I were to count all the covers of this song, I would say that number would be comparable to the population of Nevada. The Applejacks, Cher, Peggy Lee – the list goes on. A good cover isn’t merely just an artist’s performance of a cool song. It has got to change the angle of the song in some way, to reveal hidden secrets of the original that can only be caught when you refract the light.