This is the 27th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
The name Marty Wilde might not mean much in the US, but in his native England, he is revered as one of the pioneers of rock and roll. In the 1970s, his teenaged son Ricky had a few minor hits that were marketed to younger audiences.
But it was Kim Wilde, Marty’s daughter and Ricky’s sister, who had the ambition, not Ricky. “I was happy for him, but I do remember thinking, not that it should be me, but that one day it will be me,” Kim Wilde said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian. “I always had this strong sense of where my destiny lay, that I was going to be a singer. Not because my dad was Marty Wilde, it was just an absolute truth that I lived with from a very young age. Maybe a part of me was quite psychic, because we have strong psychics in my family, especially on my father’s side.”
RAK Records boss Mickie Most took notice when Kim Wilde appeared as a back-up singer on one of her brother’s songs. Most said he liked her voice and image, and that he would like to work with her. According to Kim Wilde, her brother was relieved: “He didn’t fancy being a pop star – he wanted to be out of the limelight.” Ricky and Marty Wilde set to work on writing a song for Kim Wilde to record. Together as a family, the three Wildes recorded a demo version of that song, “Kids In America,” and then sent it to Most. He remixed it and early that next year, in January of 1981, Most released it on RAK as Kim Wilde’s first single. It appeared on her self-titled debut album later that year.
Over the next year and a half, “Kids In America” would hit Number One in South Africa and Finland, and the top 10 in 11 other countries, including Number 2 in the UK. In the US, “Kids In America” reached Number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Like many of the new wave hits that would follow in the next few years, “Kids In America” had that brash energy of punk, but with the accessibility of danceable disco. Thus, many of the covers in the 35 years since “Kids In America” was released have mostly been either punk or dance. But there have been some good surprises in there, too.
English thrash metal band Lawnmower Deth applied a sense of humor and silliness to a genre that was already difficult to take seriously. The band’s 1991 cover of “Kids In America” was three minutes of pounding drums, snarling guitars, and barely intelligible yelling. The “la la la la” chorus was understandable. Mostly.
New Jersey band The Bouncing Souls played light-hearted songs really fast. The band’s sound might have been inspired by punk, the but spirit and ethos was more John Hughes than Johnny Rotten. The band’s 1994 version of “Kids In America” appeared on a split single with a cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the band Weston.
The Muffs might have been one of the better-known punk bands to come from southern California in the 1990s. A fair amount of the band’s fame probably came from its “Kids In America” cover on the “Clueless” soundtrack. It later appeared in the game “Rock Band 2.” Because this cover has become so ubiquitous, it is the standard-bearer for punk covers of “Kids In America,” even though it wasn’t the first done in that style. Nor was it the last. Brace yourself, because there are still way more.
Alternative band Bloodhound Gang, the band responsible for poetic gems “You’re Pretty When I’m Drunk,” covered “Kids In America” for its 1995 album, “Use Your Fingers.” The band’s signature songs — “Fire Water Burn” and “The Bad Touch” — stood out because of deep-voiced Jimmy Pop’s monotone, not-quite-rap vocals. But none of that was present on the band’s “Kids In America,” which had two distinct halves. The first half sounded like someone trying to channel Vince Neil or Bret Michaels. The second half sounded like a room full of high school miscreants shouting, “We’re the kids in America! We’re the kids in America, oi!”
Ohio band Morella’s Forest released a restrained, thoughtful version of “Kids In America” on its 1998, “From Dayton With Love.” This was not a quiet or muted cover, but in comparison to the several punk-inspired versions, this “Kids In America” might as well have been a lullaby performed on a xylophone. By stripping out keyboards and crunchy guitars and replacing them with quirky strings, Morella’s Forest made it easier to pay attention to the lyrics, as sung in Sydney Rentz’ sweet voice.
German trance act S.E.X. Appeal was mainly a project for former E-Rotic lead singer Lyane Leigh. Under the S.E.X. Appeal name, Leigh released a handful of studio and remix albums. The 1999 album “Peeping Tom” featured a sprawling “Kids In America” that spanned almost seven minutes. The layered track incorporated so many signatures of dance music from the ’80s and ’90s: hip-hop breakbeats, trance bass lines, industrial-friendly crunchy guitars. In that regard, it sounded both dated and timeless, as it sounded nostalgic, but not pegged to any one era.
Canadian brother-sister group Len recorded a “Kids In America” cover for “Digimon: The Movie.” Len’s only hit song, “Steal My Sunshine,” belied the band’s roots as a pop/alternative band. In other words, if that’s all you’ve heard by the band, then this cover will sound jarring with all its keyboards, guitars, drums and shouts.
The soundtrack for the “Nancy Drew” featured a plucky cover from all-female punk band, The Donnas. Lead singer Brett Anderson sounded slightly deadpan compared to Wilde’s delivery, but that gave her an air of swagger, like the older teenager you thought was cool because he acted like he didn’t care. And the by the end, that facade was done, as Anderson sounded as exuberant as the back-up singers.
German dance group Cascada’s 2006 album “Everytime We Touch” featured two covers: “Kids In America” and “Wouldn’t It Be Good.” This updated version sounded like something you might hear at an international soccer game. It was cheesy in the way that most Cascada tracks are. And thank God for that.
We’ve discussed The Hot Stewards before, as the band’s 2007 album “Cover Up” included covers of “The Loco-Motion,” “Smalltown Boy,” and “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.” The band’s “Smalltown Boy” was the best song on the record (and one of the best versions of that song), but William Steward’s whining vocals and the bratty back-up vocals gave the band’s “Kids In America” the authentic swagger that a song about American kids should have. As in, it sounded like jackasses having fun.
German electronic band Orange Sector released a cover of “Kids In America” on an album of the same name. The synthesizers sounded slightly updated from the 1981 version, but only updated to 1983, as the song sounded a lot like Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home).” The airy keyboard, when paired with the angsty, screaming vocals, gave the song an ominous, almost goth sound.
Punk band MxPx’s covers album “On The Cover II” had a variety of fast-paced remakes of songs from the ’80s, from U2’s “I Will Follow” to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” Of all the covers on the album, “Kids In America” was one of the least surprising, in part because there have already been so many punk versions of the song. But to MxPx’s credit, this did not sound like the standard pop-punk cover, in part because of the absence of emo vocals.
When we discussed Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” we looked at former teen icon Tiffany’s “Greatest Hits of the ’80s & Beyond,” a compilation that featured some of her hits and covers of other artists’ hits from the 1980s. In that post, I said Tiffany’s “Running Up That Hill” was “faithful to the original to a fault.” Some time later, I think it’s fair to expand that assessment to all of “Greatest Hits of the ’80s & Beyond,” her take on “Kids In America” included. It was not a bad cover, but it was hardly a cover. It was more or less a note-for-note replica, just with Tiffany singing.
The Foo Fighters released a cover of “Kids In America” in 2015. It was a solid cover, even if it wasn’t earth-shattering or surprising. Wilde sang the song in a somewhat restrained monotone over her brother’s polished keyboards, but it sounded like what European artists were doing in 1981. In contrast, Dave Grohl growled throughout The Foo Fighters’ version, sounding as rough as the gritty guitars that backed him.
In the years since the original song debuted, Wilde released two other versions of “Kids In America.” One was to promote a 1994 compilation, “The Remix Collection.” The word “remix” fit this version very well, as it was remolded to sound like the Eurodance of the day (think La Bouche).
The other alternate version Wilde released was for the 2006 album “Never Say Never,” which featured Wilde’s reinterpretations of her previous hits. The 2006 “Kids In America,” featuring English singer Charlotte Hatherley, didn’t sound drastically different from the 1981 original. The Wilde song that got the biggest remake on that album was “You Came.”
This covers list only features a fraction of the covers of “Kids In America” recorded in the last 35 years. But there are dozens more, and as I said at the beginning, a good number of them were punk covers. As in, most of them.
Six months of researching cover songs has convinced me that for most songs, there is probably a reggae version, a Hi-NRG remix, piano version, a bossa nova version, a bluegrass version, or a punk version, if not most or all of the above. This has been the case for almost all of the songs we’ve discussed for this series.
But there are some songs where the covers mainly fit into one genre. Most of the covers for “It’s Raining Men,” for example, were dance, which is not surprising, given the original was a dance song.
So then why so many punk covers of a new wave song? Why not a bajillion dance covers?
It’s because “Kids In America” resembled punk in enough of the ways that mattered. The title aside, the song wasn’t really about youth in America, not specifically. The everso English Kim Wilde singing about being a kid in America made as much sense as Johnny Rotten singing about Route 128 in “Roadrunner.” “Kids In America” might be the first and only song to ever use “East California” in a lyric.
But funny geographical references aside, the song was (and still is) the epitome of youthful bravado, the musical equivalent of thumbing your nose and flipping the bird. That vibe aligns pretty nicely with young punk bands with a lot of energy and ego, wouldn’t you say?
The myriad punk bands that have covered “Kids In America” have not necessarily reimagined or reinterpreted the song, so much as they have just put their mark on it, even if their mark is not different from many of the other dozens of covers. It’s the musical equivalent of sharing a Facebook status about where you were when some historic thing happened: it doesn’t add to the national discussion, but it helps you articulate who you are and makes you feel better. In that regard, the covers demonstrate not the creativity of the bands recording the covers, but the power and inspiration in the source material itself.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.