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Take Two: When Musicians Take a Second Crack at Their Own Songs

Dolly Parton is hardly the first artist who decided to tinker with her old material. In honor of ‘5 to 9,’ we look back at songs that were reinvented — and whether it made them better or worse

Dolly Parton is among the most beloved of pop figures, and “9 to 5” is among her most beloved anthems. Both of them came back into our lives this week when the country legend announced that a new version of the hit, now called “5 to 9,” would be part of a Super Bowl ad for Squarespace, the website-building company. The thinking behind the remake (and the title switcheroo) was that, because everybody has side hustles now, we’re all working 5 to 9. Or as the site’s press release put it, “Since its release in 1980, Dolly Parton’s iconic song ‘9 to 5’ has become an anthem for every working person who feels like there’s something else they should be doing with their life. Now, by flipping it to ‘5 to 9,’ the song has a new life as a modern rallying cry for all the dreamers working to turn an after-hours passion or project into a career with Squarespace.”

It’s rare, but not unusual, for artists to redo their own songs. Recently, it’s become a popular strategy so that performers can have an ownership stake in songs whose original versions are controlled by others. (This is better known as the Taylor Swift dilemma.) But over the years, musicians have simply wanted a second crack at their songs — often because, for whatever reason, they were never entirely happy with their first attempt. So why not give it one more try?

With that in mind, I’m spotlighting nine such instances, including “5 to 9,” where songs were radically rethought. One quick note: I didn’t include remakes like “Walk This Way” in which a new artist approached the original artist about a collaboration. (And I’m also not counting any re-recordings-to-own-the-masters situations, like with Swift, Def Leppard and others.) In each of my nine redos, the original performer felt the urge to revisit and reappraise their past. I’ll also render a verdict on whether or not the redo bests the first version.

Katrina and the Waves, ‘Walking on Sunshine’ (1985)

Why Do It Again?: It’s been in everything from Look Who’s Talking to American Psycho to High Fidelity to Moon, sometimes sincerely and sometimes sarcastically. Everybody knows “Walking on Sunshine” as that super-sunny 1980s pop song, although listeners might forget the name of the band who recorded it: Katrina and the Waves. But even fewer know that the “Walking on Sunshine” we hear all over radio, commercials and movies was actually a redone version by the same band. When the group was just starting out in the early 1980s, they put out an album called Walking on Sunshine that barely got released. That record had a different, more rocking version of the song. 

After signing to a major label, Katrina and the Waves redid some of their old songs, including “Walking on Sunshine,” which the band resisted at first because they weren’t sure they even liked it. “[W]e’d realized that, however annoying ‘Walking on Sunshine’ was at first, it was impossible to get out of your head,” vocalist Katrina Leskanich later said. “As we were [re-recording] it, an arranger wandered in and said, ‘You should put horns on that.’ And he hummed what became that pumping melody.” And a hit was born. 

How Did It Turn Out?: Pretty good. In 2010, NPR’s Elizabeth Blair wrote, “By some estimates, ‘Walking on Sunshine’ has made the band about $1 million per year over the past decade.” It’s impressive when you’ve created a song that embodies a particular emotion, and “Walking on Sunshine” is the essence of “happy” — and those horns go a long way toward driving that point home. All these years later, Leskanich’s initial assessment remains accurate: The song is kind of annoying, but it’s really hard to dislodge that earworm once it’s embedded inside you.

The Police, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86’ (1986)

Why Do It Again?: The Police ended their successful five-year, five-album run with 1983’s Synchronicity before calling it quits. Sting went on to a solo career, but in 1986, the band released Every Breath You Take: The Singles, a greatest hits that swapped out their student-in-love-with-her-teacher smash “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” with a new arrangement. Instead of the peppy, slightly anguished original, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86” felt moodier and more electronic — more like Pet Shop Boys than the Police. 

How Did It Turn Out?: Added as a way to juice sales for their best-of record, the new “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” was released as a single but failed to reach the Top 40 in the U.S. (The original was their first Top 10 hit Stateside.) What this new version proved was that Sting’s old band didn’t really fit into the mid-1980s synth-pop world, and after its initial release, the revamped version has mostly disappeared from radio. Tellingly, subsequent Police compilations tend to “‘86” the track in favor of the much better original.  

Eric Clapton, ‘Layla’ (1992)

Why Do It Again?: Layla remains Eric Clapton’s greatest album: Recorded under the band name Derek and the Dominos, it was made during a period of romantic turmoil in which the guitarist was madly in love with his best friend George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd. The title track was a tormented guitar workout that segued into a sad-eyed piano-and-slide-guitar instrumental that became synonymous with Goodfellas. But “Layla” was never a hit in the U.S. until Clapton revisited the song, along with a lot of other favorites, for 1992’s Unpluggled, which capitalized on the popularity of the MTV concert series. What had been a scorching lament for unrequited love became a bluesy shuffle, complete with the most annoying “Wooo!” from an audience member ever. (It shows up at the 3:03 mark.) 

How Did It Turn Out?: Unplugged won multiple Grammys, including Album of the Year, and the acoustic “Layla” was a Top 20 smash in America. But the revamped song both highlighted what was novel about MTV’s Unplugged and showcased the limitations of the format. Yes, it was interesting to hear a different take on “Layla” sung by an older man, who gave it a more regretful, resigned feel than what we heard in the electric, urgent original. But “Layla” suddenly sounded safe and a bit snoozy — perfect for your classy coffeehouse friends. It’s a fun alternate take, but the 1970s version reigns supreme.

Everything but the Girl, ‘Missing’ (1995)

Why Do It Again?: In the early 1990s, the duo Everything but the Girl had established a jazzy pop sound, tasteful and sophisticated. But they were also running the risk of getting pigeonholed. (“We were getting played on the radio alongside Kenny G,” complained band member Ben Watt.) And certainly their ethereal, melancholy new single “Missing” felt like more of the same: It was a lovely song about longing, but it also felt a little polite. So the band, fronted by singer Tracy Thorn (who’d recently worked with trip-hop collective Massive Attack on their incredible song “Protection”), decided to give their track a boost by handing it off to DJ and producer Todd Terry. “I thought the original was great,” he once said. “I was just going for a great song. And I wanted to do more alternative stuff.” Terry turned it into a banger.

How Did It Turn Out?: The remix was a massive hit, giving Everything but the Girl their first serious radio exposure and set the band on a course to exploring more club-friendly material. Terry was always very modest about his contribution — “I just added a beat and a bassline,” he once said — but the new “Missing” intensified the lyrics’ romantic desire and made Thorn’s plaintive voice the soundtrack to crying your eyes out on the dance floor. Plus, the remix inspired you to go back and listen to the excellent original, which is a heartbreaker in its own right.

Elton John, ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’ (1997)

Why Do It Again?: “Candle in the Wind” was a track off Elton John’s 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that paid tribute to the late Marilyn Monroe. (“Goodbye Norma Jean / Though I never knew you at all” are the song’s first lyrics.) Although it was a beloved song, it had never been a hit on U.S. radio — until Princess Diana’s tragic death in 1997, when John was asked to come up with a new rendition of “Candle in the Wind” for her funeral. 

Bernie Taupin, John’s lyricist, penned fresh words to commemorate the princess’ life. “I thought it was very important to project it from a nation’s standpoint,” Taupin later said. “I wanted to make it sound like a country singing it.” And so the world had to learn new lyrics to the re-recorded song, which now started with “Goodbye England’s rose / May you ever grow in our hearts / You were the grace that placed itself / Where lives were torn apart.”

How Did It Turn Out?: John had enjoyed a close friendship with Diana, so her death deeply affected him. (“She was blessed with an incredible social ease,” he later wrote, “an ability to talk to anybody, to make herself seem ordinary.”) The whole world was shocked by her passing, so it wasn’t a surprise that “Candle in the Wind 1997” went to No. 1 across the planet, including the U.S. But although you can’t deny the sentiment behind this new version, as a piece of music “1997” is awfully sappy, with everything turned up a couple notches too high. Put it this way: Listeners now may equate “Candle in the Wind” with both Marilyn and Diana, but you tend to hear the original a lot more often these days.

The Shins, The Worm’s Heart (2018)

Why Do It Again?: In March 2017, the Shins released their fifth studio album, Heartworms. Ten months later, the band returned with The Worm’s Heart, a “flipped” version of the original album. A press release promoting The Worm’s Heart explained the thought process: “When [Shins frontman] James Mercer wrote, produced and recorded Heartworms, he had this desire for an alternate version, an opposite version. The original track order is reversed and songs are reborn, yet the lyrics and melody remain intact. … The reasoning was to showcase the versatility and strength of Mercer’s songwriting.” Other artists have released remix albums, allowing other artists to tweak their records with their own sensibility, but The Worm’s Heart was a rare time when the original artist did it himself, changing his songs’ tempos and reimagining their arrangements.

How Did It Turn Out?: The Worm’s Heart mostly worked as a companion piece to Heartworms, giving listeners the opportunity to compare/contrast the two versions. The new takes were intriguing, but they couldn’t distract from a core truth — Heartworms was the Shins’ weakest album — and wildly different new arrangements weren’t going to appreciably change that fact. 

St. Vincent, ‘Fast Slow Disco’ (2018)

Why Do It Again?: 2017’s Masseduction was St. Vincent’s best album yet, an expert mixture of cutting-edge pop and rock. One of its closing tracks, “Slow Disco,” was a dreamy, string-laden song about a melancholy night out at a dance club: “Am I thinking what everybody’s thinking? / I’m so glad I came / But I can’t wait to leave?” Less than a year after Masseduction came out, the singer-songwriter born Annie Clark revealed “Fast Slow Disco,” which, true to its name, transformed the song into a feverishly uptempo dance track. “I always felt this song could wear many different outfits and live many different lives,” St. Vincent said when the new version was released. “Here she is in disco pants, sweating on a New York dance floor.”

How Did It Turn Out?: “Slow Disco” wasn’t a single, but “Fast Slow Disco” became a sensation, in part thanks to its sweaty, sexy video depicting St. Vincent surrounded by gorgeous men grinding away at the club. Speeding up the song only amplified the sadness at its center — that sense that everybody may look like they’re having fun on the floor, but what they’re feeling on the inside may be far more complicated. 

Later, St. Vincent admitted that it was Taylor Swift who gave her the idea for the revamped version: “[Masseduction co-producer] Jack Antonoff’s bros with Taylor Swift because they work together a lot, and I feel like Taylor was like, ‘You should make this a pop song.’ … I know that she wholeheartedly supported that idea and I think the genesis of the idea was her.” (And St. Vincent wasn’t done playing around with Masseduction’s songs: In 2018, she released MassEducation, which featured stripped-down piano versions of that album’s material.)

Paul Simon, In the Blue Light (2018)

Why Do It Again?: As Simon was winding down his touring career, he put out a new record of old songs. In the liner notes to In the Blue Light, he revealed what drew him to this restoration project: “This album consists of songs that I thought were almost right, or were odd enough as to be overlooked the first time around. Redoing arrangements, harmonic structures and lyrics that didn’t make their meaning clear gave me time to clarify in my own head what I wanted to say, or realize what I was thinking and make it more easily understood.” This wasn’t a best-of as much as it was a what-might-have-been — a chance to take a second crack at deep album cuts that had never been singles, working with new musicians to find fresh ways into the material.  

How Did It Turn Out?: Veteran artists like Joni Mitchell and Willie Nelson will sometimes reinterpret their songbooks — turning their hits into, say, orchestral numbers. But In the Blue Light was different — more like a master craftsman doing one final rewrite. For diehard Simon fans, it’s fascinating to hear his new spin on “Can’t Run But” (first heard on 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints) or “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” (from 1983’s Hearts and Bones), simply because a man in his late 70s will have different feelings about this material than he did when he was younger. As Simon noted, these songs were probably always a bit too peculiar to be hits. But the strength of the material remains — even if I probably prefer the originals.

Dolly Parton, ‘5 to 9’ (2021)

Why Do It Again? I mean, she got paid a pretty penny for it, I’m sure. A Super Bowl ad is a huge deal, and Dolly has never been one to shun the limelight. 

How Did It Turn Out?: The initial reaction to “5 to 9” has been less-than-glowing, with critics complaining that the redo was crass, cynical and cringey. They’re not entirely wrong, but I’d say it’s mostly an unfortunate and unnecessary new take on a classic song. What’s great about “9 to 5” is how it spoke out against the jerk bosses who exploit their employees to enrich themselves — an observation that’s even truer now than it was then — and what’s lame about “5 to 9” is that it’s an ad for a place that helps you build a website. Unlike the other redos on this list, “5 to 9” wasn’t made because the artist wanted to tackle her material from a fresh angle. It was mostly just to get paid.