“Torn” – Natalie Imbruglia
Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” arguably stands as one of the most iconic songs of the 90s (and perhaps of all time), so many people were shocked when they found out, decades later, that the smash hit was in fact just a brilliant cover.
“Torn” was written in 1993 by Anne Preven and Scott Cutler of alternative rock group Ednaswap, along with producer Phil Thornalley. Danish singer-songwriter Lis Sørensen was the first to record the number, performing the song in her native language. Sørensen used Danish lyrics from Elisabeth Nielsen and titled the track “Brændt” (“Burned” in Danish), releasing the song as part of her 1993 album Under stjernerne et sted. Two years later, Ednaswap created the first English recording of “Torn” for their eponymous debut LP, but the band was unable to garner significant publicity.
In 1996, American-Norwegian singer Trine Rein found moderate success with her own rendition of “Torn,” but it was Imbruglia who, in the next two years, turned the track into a global sensation. Thornalley, one of the original writers, met the Australian actress and singer through his publisher who suggested that they record “Torn,” which was released in 1997 as Imbruglia’s debut single. The song rapidly ascended UK music charts and peaked at #2 before breaking the Top Ten throughout Australia and Europe, and it dominated the Airplay/Radio Songs chart in the U.S. for 11 weeks. Thanks to the track, the lead single from her debut album Left of the Middle, Imbruglia earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and won a BRIT Award for Best International Female.
When asked why Imbruglia, unlike previous artists who performed “Torn,” was able to achieve such colossal success with the single, Thornalley explained, “Sometimes you have to wait for all the elements to come together. Obviously, she was a pop star and had a background as an actor so she looked the part. She knew how to make a great video and the quality to her voice seemed to suit the song because the song is quite anxious, and yet her voice is quite sweet. So, I think that made it an attractive union of emotions.”
“Black Magic Woman” – Santana
Original: Fleetwood Mac
Santana’s 1970 release of “Black Magic Woman” was a major hit for the band, with the track charting at #4 in the U.S. and staying on the Billboard Hot 100 for 13 weeks. Featured on their sophomore album Abraxas, the single was Santana’s biggest hit for nearly three decades and became one of their most distinctive songs, prompting many to associate “Black Magic Woman” with the band. However, the record originated with another famous rock band that, like Santana, began as a blues group: Fleetwood Mac.
Fleetwood Mac founder and guitarist Peter Green composed “Black Magic Woman” in 1968, taking inspiration from Otis Rush’s “All Your Love,” a blues standard Green’s former group John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers had recorded two years prior. Described by drummer Mick Fleetwood as “Three minutes of sustain/reverb guitar with two exquisite solos from Peter,” “Black Magic Woman” was released in 1969 and found success in the UK, reaching #37 on the UK Singles Chart.
A year later, Santana added their own twist to the original blues rock track, injecting Latin grooves into the music and creating intricate polyrhythms with the addition of the piano, organ, and percussive instruments (conga, bongos, timbales, and guiro). Santana’s rendition also fuses Green’s original with guitarist Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen,” with an adaptation of Szabo’s piece introducing and concluding the track. “Black Magic Woman” was one of two covers on Abraxas, and perhaps Santana chose this piece for their album because of a deep admiration for the band behind the original.
“I used to go to see the original Fleetwood Mac, and they used to kill me, just knock me out,” founder and frontman Carlos Santana revealed in the book The Guitar Greats. “To me, they were the best blues band.”
“Twist and Shout” – The Isley Brothers/The Beatles
Original: Phil Medley and Bert Russell
Written in 1961 by producer Bert Berns (pseudonym Bert Russell) and songwriter Phil Medley, “Twist and Shout” started out as “Shake It Up, Baby” and was first recorded by R&B group The Top Notes the same year. Phil Spector, who at the time had yet to hone his influential Wall of Sound, produced the two-minute track, which featured falsetto vocals and a saxophone interlude, but the single failed to chart. Subsequently, The Top Notes lost their recording contract and seemed to fade into obscurity.
Bert Berns, however, was not shocked at the song’s flop; in fact, he expected “Shake It Up, Baby” to founder. Upon listening to Spector’s production, Berns insisted that the producer had “messed up the song,” so he set out to produce the track himself. In 1962, Berns offered the composition to gospel-turned-R&B collective The Isley Brothers, who turned it into a charting hit. The song, now called “Twist and Shout,” peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached #2 on R&B charts. The Isleys’ version incorporated the gospel-inspired call-and-response structure, with a proliferation of horns, a slower tempo, and Latin influences, and it would later spawn a string of covers, the most notable of which is arguably the Beatles’ 1963 rendition.
The Beatles unveiled their version, a British Invasion hit that spotlighted the group’s signature tight harmonies, as part of their debut album Please Please Me. The band churned out the album in a mere day by recording tracks for nearly 12 straight hours, with “Twist and Shout” concluding the marathon session, as producer George Martin had saved the song for last due to it being “a real larynx-tearer.” By the time The Beatles finally got to recording “Twist and Shout,” John Lennon’s voice had become rough and grating, leading to what Martin characterized as a “linen-ripping sound.”
“[‘Twist and Shout’] nearly killed me,” Lennon revealed in an interview featured in Anthology. “My voice wasn’t the same for a long time after; every time I swallowed, it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing it better than that, but now it doesn’t bother me. You can hear that I’m just a frantic guy doing his best. We sang for 12 hours, almost nonstop. We had colds, and we were concerned how it would affect the record. At the end of the day, all we wanted to do was drink pints of milk.”
“Unchained Melody” – The Righteous Brothers
Original: Alex North and Hy Zaret
“Unchained Melody” is another tune that has been covered numerous times, but the original credits go to composer Alex North and lyricist Hy Zaret. The ballad was released in 1955 and served as the theme song for the prison flick Unchained, a film about a convict who struggles to choose between fleeing prison and completing his sentence. Baritone singer Todd Duncan performed the song in the film, solemnly staring out into space while the other prisoners gather around him. In 1956, “Unchained Melody” received an Oscar nod in the category “Music (Song),” but it ultimately lost to “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing” from the namesake film.
Various versions of “Unchained Melody” came out after the film’s release, including hit covers by Les Baxter and Al Hibbler, but the most well-known belongs to R&B/doo wop duo The Righteous Brothers, who debuted their rendition ten years after the original. Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley (who are not actually brothers) both wanted the song as their solo number for their album Just Once in My Life, but the piece went to Hatfield after a coin toss. As a result, Hatfield sang the lead vocals accompanied by Medley on the Wurlitzer piano, with Medley later joking, “If I knew that it was gonna be a hit I certainly would have brought in a better piano player.” In 1990, their cover saw a renewed surge of popularity following its appearance in the massively successful film Ghost, topping the UK Singles Chart and Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart.
(Here we should embed the Righteous Brothers’ version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=te51eVrFWEc)
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” – They Might Be Giants
Original: The Four Lads
Originally written by Nat Simon and Jimmy Kennedy, the ode to the renamed Turkish city was initially recorded by Canadian vocal group The Four Lads in 1953, which coincidentally was 500 years after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. The Four Lads’ recording of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” the quartet’s first gold record, incorporated elements of swing and Middle Eastern influences, and it is propelled by numerous repeats of “Constantinople.” The original rose to #10 on Billboard’s music charts and replaced Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra’s 1928 song “C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E,” the track that apparently spurred Simon and Kennedy to compose “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” in the first place, as the most popular tune referencing the famed city.
Before alternative rock act They Might Be Giants released their rendition of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” on their third album Flood (1990), the novelty song was already a staple in their live performances. The band did not use backing tracks when performing the number, instead opting for echoboxes.
“The way they played it in the mid-1980s, after the first two verses (accompanied by [John] Linnell’s accordion), the song would degenerate into an endlessly reverberating caterwaul of spooky-voiced dialogue and vocalizations halfway between a yodel and an Islamic call to prayer, warning listeners as if spoken from the Byzantine Beyond, ‘You caaaan’t go baaaaack to Constantinooooople!” before picking back up for the third verse,” according to the book They Might Be Giants’ Flood.
However, when Linnell and John Flansburgh got to recording Flood in 1989, they weren’t sure if there was a way to rework their live cover into a single. Consequently, the duo decided to experiment with the track, turning “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” into an exploration of Casio FZ-1 synths.
“When we were recording the Flood album, we had bought these Casio FD-1 samplers,” Flansburgh recalled in an interview with Lumino Magazine. “I basically spent a couple of weeks in my house recording every single thing I could figure out how to record and playing it back on the keyboard. And so all these things that you hear on ‘Istanbul’ are samples, except for the violin solo at the beginning and the trumpet in the middle. The thing that sounds like an accordion is actually a melodica that’s been sampled. In the ‘Even old New York’ part, it’s a Coke bottle being blown into a chord. The song’s got a very unusual texture.”
Following its 1990 release, Flood was certified gold in the UK and platinum in the U.S., with “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” spending three weeks on the UK Singles chart and ultimately surpassing the original in popularity.
If you enjoyed this piece, please check out our previous article which dives into songs popularized by Beyoncé, Joan Jett, Led Zeppelin, Toni Basil, and Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse.