15 Great International Covers Of Australian Hits

15 May 2024 | 9:15 am | Christie Eliezer

Overseas acts have reworked Australian hits for over 60 years.


AC/DC (Credit: Kerrie Geier)

In early 1958, when one of America’s biggest bands, Buddy Holly & The Crickets, toured Australia, the opening act was Sydney-based Johnny O’Keefe & The Dee Jays.

O’Keefe was at #1 with Real Wild Child, a song he wrote with two members of his band, inspired by a brawl at a show. The Crickets’ drummer Jerry Allison did a remake under the alias Ivan and had a modest chart movement in the US. Years later, in November of 1986, Iggy Pop had a global hit with the retitled Real Wild Child (The Wild One).

Overseas acts have reworked Australian hits for over 60 years. There are 200 versions of The Church’s Under The Milky Way. It’s hard to estimate how many AC/DC revisions there are, but start from the fact there are 14 tribute albums and covering artists have ranged from Buddhist Monk to 2Cello to Celine Dion.

Never recorded were Pearl Jam’s live-only versions of Hunters & CollectorsThrow Your Arms Around Me (after Eddie Vedder heard his chums Crowded House do it) and Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band’s tribute to Michael Hutchence on their 2014 Aussie tour, a four-guitar blitz on INXS Don’t Change.

There are two instances where a reworking missed out. Little River Band’s classy 1978 track Reminiscing, inspired by Broadway musicals of the ‘30s and ‘40s, had two famous fans. Frank Sinatra called it “the best song of the ‘70s” and John Lennon used to play it repeatedly during his hiatus from recording. A rumour went around that Sinatra had in fact recorded Reminiscing but it was never released.

Similarly, John Denver had a fondness for Russell MorrisWings Of An Eagle (1972). The Top Ten hit tapped into how First Australians, Native Americans and early Romans believed an eagle flew the spirits of the dead to the heavens. The story goes that he was keen to do a version but finally opted to write his own, titled On The Wings Of An Eagle.

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Rihanna – Same Ol’ Mistakes

When Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker got a text from his manager that Rihanna was planning to cover his 2015 track New Person, Same Old Mistakes for her ANTI album, he remembers reading the text a number of times and woke the next morning wondering if he’d dreamed it.

Some fans of both artists had mixed emotions about the cover (with the slight title change), but Parker declared her version truer to his original idea for the Currents track. “Funnily enough I imagined the song to be an R&B singer’s song in the first place,” he told The Independent, revealing he had TLC in mind. “Hearing the Rihanna version, it made me realise that the song finally got the treatment it deserved from the beginning. It went full circle.”

Guns N’ Roses – Nice Boys (Don’t Play Rock And Roll)

Los Angeles metal merchants like Guns N’Roses and LA Guns were enamoured by Rose Tattoo, AC/DC and The Angels. The Gunners were playing Nice Boys (Don’t Play Rock And Roll) in their club days. The frantic version made it on to GN’R Lies and Live Like A Suicide.

When they toured Australia in 1993, they requested Rose Tattoo to reunite, joining them at Sydney’s Eastern Creek and Melbourne’s Calder Park to 100,000 attendees. Bassist Duff McKagan and guitarist Slash jammed with them at Rose Tattoo’s club shows, taking photographs with them and exclaiming, “Our buddies back home will never believe we met ‘em!”

Rose Tattoo singer Angry Anderson gave his blessing: “Slash is a real rock and roll animal.”

David Bowie – Friday On My Mind

While the 1966 original by The Easybeats was a screenshot of young lad stuck in working class drudgery, David Bowie’s 1973 edition of the Harry Vanda and George Young classic was a more glam-theatrical take on finding identity outside society’s mores. That struck enough of a chord with the Bowie brigade for his edition to reach #6 in the UK, #1 in Australia and #16 in the US. Vanda declared it the only treatment of the song he liked.

It was recorded for Bowie’s Pin Ups album, which paid tribute to songs which inspired him, including Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play, Them’s Here Comes The Night and The YardbirdsShapes Of Things.

Arctic Monkeys – Red Right Hand

Nick Cave and Mick Harvey’s violent song about divine vengeance, inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), was set in his hometown of Wangaratta, Victoria. To get inspired, Cave filled notebooks of sketches of the town.

It was possibly this similarity to Arctic Monkeys’ own hometown of Sheffield that saw the English band open with it on their 2009 tours through Australia and North America, and at the Reading and Leeds festivals in England. It also appeared on the B-side of the single Crying Lightning. The Arctics’ version brought the song and The Bad Seeds to a new generation.

Herman’s Hermits – Here Comes The Star

In the late ‘60s, pop singer turned songsmith and future TV host Johnny Young was in a purple match, as Russell MorrisThe Real Thing, Ronnie BurnsSmiley, Lionel Rose’s I Thank You and Ross D. Wylie’s The Star chased each other up and down the charts.

Young wrote The Star in ten minutes while brooding after a romantic break-up. The character was feeling “the loneliest guy in the world, people say he’s a star and he’s sure to go far, ain’t he pretty”.

Wylie was the host of music TV shows Uptight and Happening ’70, and his track went to #1 in 1969 and was released in Germany, NZ, Norway, UK and the US. British boy band Herman’s Hermits (No Milk Today, A Kind Of Hush, A Must To Avoid) did a version that year with an extended title, which reached #35 in the UK.

Faith No More – I Started A Joke

This is a stellar example of a band doing a re-creation and making it their own. The Bee Gees’ 1968 original had lines like “I started a joke which started the whole world crying / But I didn’t see the joke was on me.” The track’s main writer and singer, Robin Gibb, described it as “spiritual” and refused to explain what it was about. Years later, minutes after Gibb passed away in hospital, his son downloaded the song from YouTube and placed it on his chest, saying, “The lyrics were perfect for that moment.”

In 1995, the words held a different meaning for Faith No More. They heard the song in a karaoke bar in a Guam, with large screen TVs showing porn movies, and the song came on. It appealed to their humour and self-image as underdogs. Billy Gould sniggered, “It was like God speaking to us, ‘You have to do this song!’ Recorded in Gould’s basement, it surfaced on their appropriately titled King For A Day… Fool For A Lifetime album.

Iron Maiden – Women In Uniform

By 1978, the addition of future Rose Tattoo/Angels guitarist Bob Spencer into the Skyhooks’ ranks solidified their move into a heavier direction, and the Top Ten hit Women In Uniform was the highlight of their #1 album Insane Until Proven Guilty.

The track got radio airplay in the UK, even if some of the reviews thought Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan was a woman himself. Bassist and main songwriter Greg Macainsh wasn’t interested in promoting it by touring there “because the UK rock press was so negative about anything Australian”. As a result it peaked at #73.

Someone at Iron Maiden’s publishing company Zomba thought it had the potential of being a hit there. Zomba was aware that Maiden’s songwriter, Steve Harris, would have grr’d at doing a cover for radio airplay. So Zomba didn't tell him about its motive, but enticed Harris with getting AC/DC producer Tony Platt to work the session. Maiden soon twigged, and Platt was given his marching orders while Harris took over the mix. Harris vowed "never, ever, ever to allow anyone outside to fuck around with our music again”.

The single’s cover depicted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with a Sterling submachine gun, preparing to attack Maiden mascot Eddie. The cover art and song title led to the Liverpool Daily Post reporting that "screaming, chanting, banner-carrying feminists" demonstrated outside their show at Leeds University on November 22, 1980.

Long John Baldry – Come Back Again

When Elton John first toured here in the early 70s, Australia was in the grip of Daddy Cool mania. He fell in love with the Melbourne band’s debut album Daddy Who? Daddy Cool! The album’s Eagle Rock inspired his own Crocodile Rock. John also got gravelly-voiced London R&B singer Long John Baldry to do a cover of Come Back Again, which had reached #3 on the charts.

Its songwriter, Ross Wilson, considered it one of his favourites. “It's the simplest song ever written. It's just got this pattern that repeats over and over again and you can play it… we did, for about ten minutes at a time, blow on it.”

Baldry was literally a towering figure (standing 2.01 metres tall) in London’s blues scene. He discovered Rod Stewart. He gave Elton a gig in his band Steampacket, was the ‘John’ in Reg Dwight’s stage name, and served as the inspiration behind Elton’s 1975 song Someone Saved My Life Tonight. Both John and Stewart produced two albums for Baldry. His version of Come Back Again, truer to its country-blues roots than the original, was on the Everything Stops For Tea album. Unfortunately, Baldry was hospitalised for mental health issues right after the album’s release and was not a hit.

Other international Daddy Cool fans included Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (who played them endlessly on their tour bus), Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter (who came to see them at the Station Hotel in Melbourne). When Marc Bolan arrived for a tour, he refused to leave Melbourne Airport until Wilson came out and met him.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – So Young

In a re-run of the Elton John story above, Melbourne R&B band Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons were a formidable live act when Elvis Costello and his cohorts arrived for their first Australian tour in 1978.They adopted So Young – a ballad “more about innocence than being young”, according to Joe Camilleri, who wrote it with Falcons colleague Jeff Burstin and Tony Faehse – to open on the Australian tour, later including it on a world tour. Costello described Camilleri as “great”.

Costello and The Attractions also recorded the track on May 28, 1979 at EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 2, specifically as a summer single. Costello regarded the session as an unhappy one, with the credit "produced at gunpoint by Nick Lowe” immortalising his frustration. Elvis recalled: “Unfortunately our only Abbey Road session fell on a Bank Holiday and was blighted by flying coffee cups, technical resistance and overwhelming blueness." The track was not released on an album until 1987.

Nothing But Thieves – What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?

For Nothing But Thieves, a Gang Of Youths song for triple j’s Like A Version was a no brainer. They were fans of Gang Of Youths, and owed them one for giving them a support at a show in London. They went for the latter band’s 2017 Platinum single What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?, with frontman Conor Mason revealing that when they “broke it down to learn it, we were all just amazed about the songwriting”.

He added: “It was just so intricately put together but you wouldn’t even notice is, which is really clever. Kudos to them for that. It’s amazing.”

The band repositioned the lengthy intro for greater impact to go straight into opening lines, “This is the sound of a soul in tune / To a savage desire for a soul made new.” Mason’s use of falsetto and change of tempo also made it their own.

Heart – You’re The Voice

Of the 60 international versions of John Farnham’s national anthem, Seattle sisters Heart gave it a hard rock treatment with the guitar replacing the bagpipes during the exhilarating solo. Heart had initially recorded it for their 1989 album Brigade but it didn’t make the final cut. It emerged in 1991’s Rock The House Live!, from the world tour that followed.

Ann Wilson’s approach to playing concerts, “of having a dancer’s soul combining mind and body”, gave the version a nice ambience. The live version was released as a single, complete with a video interspersed with footage from the Gulf War at the time, and which tapped into a broader anti-war pro-refugee sentiment.

It went to #20 in America’s Album Rock Tracks chart and was also a minor hit in Canada and Europe. The studio version emerged in July 2000 as part of Greatest Hits: 1985–1995.

Pennywise – Down Under

The first time Pennywise arrived in Australia, in 1995 for the Alternative Nation festival, they had no idea what to expect. What they got was a weather-surf-party culture similar to the one in their own Hermosa Beach, California, and an audience that knew every line in their songs.

Guitarist Fletcher Dragge, who married an Australian girl, recalled at the first show in Sydney’s Eastern Creek that 5,000 people broke down the barricade, 60 stormed the stage, and cops on horseback were called in. “It was the best show of our lives!”

Pennywise returned virtually every year (at least 15 times, the band reckons), claiming this was their second home. As a thank you to fans, they gave the signature Men At Work tune a skate-punk tang on their Straight Ahead album (1999). It reached #66 in Australia and #47 in New Zealand.