This is the 55th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
During the 1966 recording sessions for their third album, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded a song called “A Hazy Shade of Winter.” The song did not appear on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” but was instead released as a stand-alone single.
Set during the transition from fall to winter, the song focused on a writer, likely a poet, who lamenting his station in life:
Seasons change with the scenery
Weaving time in a tapestry
Won’t you stop and remember me
At any convenient time?
Funny how my memory skips
Looking over manuscripts
Of unpublished rhyme
Drinking my vodka and lime
I look around
Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter
Leaves are brown
There’s a patch of snow on the ground
Leaves are brown
There’s a patch of snow on the ground
The song peaked at Number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number 30 on the UK singles chart. Though initially released as a single, “A Hazy Shade of Winter” later appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 album, “Bookends.”
Besides being commercially successful, “A Hazy Shade if Winter” has been well received by critics. In a review for AllMusic.com, Richie Unterberger wrote:
“Hazy Shade of Winter” was one of their best songs, and certainly one of the toughest and more rock-oriented by a duo more noted for being relatively mild and dignified. A brusque, stiff drum rhythm sets the pace on the opening instrumental section, built around an edgy, up and down guitar riff; the melody and arrangement of the instrumental section are duplicated on the track’s subsequent vocal choruses. The lyric is one of Simon’s more downbeat early ones, particularly on the chorus, with its images of leaves turning brown (perhaps subconsciously influenced by the brown leaves in John Phillips’ slightly earlier “California Dreamin'”?) and the sky looking like a hazy shade of winter.
Orchestra leader and movie soundtrack composer Hugo Montenegro covered “A Hazy Shade of Winter” for his 1971 album, “People… One to One.” Given Montenegro’s background, it’s not surprising that his version sounded larger and more cinematic than the Simon & Garfunkel original, with more singers and instruments.
American band Jimmy and the Soulblazers included “A Hazy Shade of Winter” on its 1972 album, “Clockwork.” In the psychedelic band’s hands, “A Hazy Shade of Winter” was a slow, heavy slog through funk and rock. At this speed, the song’s signature riff was barely recognizable.
But it wasn’t until about 20 years after the original release of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” that the song got its definitive cover version. And that version, by the Bangles, remains the standard-bearer to this day.
In 1987, The Bangles was enjoying the success of the band’s second album, “Different Light.” Of the five singles, four had charted, and of those four, “Walk Like An Egyptian” peaked at Number 1 and “Manic Monday” peaked at Number 2.
The Bangles was asked to record a song for the soundtrack for “Less Than Zero,” the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name. The band picked “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” as that had been performing that song live for at least a few years.
All four members of The Bangles sang lead vocals on the track, simply called “Hazy Shade of Winter.” Steve Bartek, of the band Oingo Boingo, played guitar on the song. The single for “Hazy Shade of Winter” peaked at Number 2 in the US and Number 11 in the UK.
Australian pop punk band Bodyjar covered “A Hazy Shade of Winter” for its 1995 “Gee And Al”/”Do Not Do” EP. Bodyjar took the song further down the path taken by The Bangles. Bodyjar’s fast cover was an extension of the crunchy guitars and pounding drums that The Bangles had introduced.
Bodyjar later released a live version that sounded pretty similar, except, well, live.
Punk band Snuff, whom we heard from last week in our review of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” included a fast-paced, straightforward cover of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” on its 1996 album, “Flibbiddydibbiddydob.” It sounded similar to the Bodyjar version, though less polished and produced.
The following year, German thrash metal band Sodom included a headache-inducing screamy version of the song on its album, “‘Til Death Do Us Unite.” Calling it “Hazy Shade of Winter,” Sodom credited its song as a cover of The Bangles’ version.
In the late ’60s, English rock band Episode Six appeared several times on BBC’s Radio 1 Club. Many of the band’s recordings from the time were released on a 1997 compilation called, “Radio 1 Club: Sessions 68/69.” That album included a garage-y, lo-fi version of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” that felt frenetically urgent, as if the band was desperately transmitting a mayday signal or some equally import message.
In 2004, punk band Mr. Bubble B. contributed a pop punk version of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” for the fifth volume of the “Punk Chartbusters” compilation series. Of all the versions that applied punk flourishes (faster tempo, crunchier guitars, heavier drums), this might be the most faithful to The Bangles’ version.
She Wants Revenge released its self-titled debut album in 2006. The band had a goth, post-punk sound, in part because Justin Warfield sounded like he was channeling his inner Interpol, a band that itself sounded like it was channeling Joy Division. Later that year, She Wants Revenge recorded a dark-wavey version of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” for the KROQ Christmas album. It was hard to hear anything unique to She Wants Revenge, as the guitar track sounded faithful Vicki Peterson’s lead guitar on The Bangles’ version.
In 2009, folk musician Susan Werner released “Classics,” a covers album of 1960s and 1970s pop music featuring by chamber instruments. For all the versions that played up and distorted the guitar riff, Werner’s string-driven “A Hazy Shade of Winter” is a refreshing change.
In last week’s post about “I Think We’re Alone Now,” I said that Tiffany’s version should be credited for the longevity of that song, because her version probably inspired many of the covers that came after it.
I think it’s fair to say that the same is true of The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter.” There are many people (myself included) who heard this version before the original. Simon & Garfunkel may have given us that riff, but as we heard in so many of the covers, it’s Vicki Peterson’s 1987 performance of that riff that gets copied in the cover songs.
When comparing “I Think We’re Alone Now” to “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” it’s worth stepping back and considering how those songs fit in the context of other cover songs in the 1980s. We’ve already reviewed a handful of songs from the ’60s and ’70s that were reinterpreted in the ’80s: “Tears Of A Clown,” “Tainted Love,” “I Only Want To Be With You,” “Always On My Mind,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “The Loco-Motion.” Those songs were ripe for remakes in the ’80s for a handful of reasons:
- Music had evolved and changed since those songs had been originally released, introducing new genres.
- Technology and production had advanced, particularly in terms of keyboards.
- It had been at least a decade since those songs had been hits, and there was a new generation of fans who might not have heard the originals.
Of course, some songs covered in the 1980s were better than others, and that comes down to the talent of the artists and the ways those artists did or did not reinvent the song. Of the aforementioned songs, I think all Cover Songs Uncovered readers were unanimous in their dislike of “The Loco-Motion,” and I can’t think of any cover songs from the 1980s that I would place above Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” or The Pet Shop Boys’ “Always On My Mind.”
But if we’re ranking (and I apparently am), The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter” should be considered one of the better cover versions from the 1980s. Not only was that cover emblematic of what the song could be, it was emblematic of what the The Bangles as a band could be. On VH1’s “Behind The Music,” Bassist Michael Steele said, “We sounded the most on this record the way we actually sound live… If we hadn’t been so messed up as a band, it could have been a turning point for us.”
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.
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The most interesting detail to me, of the original Simon & Garfunkel recording, is how an acoustic guitar acts as a both a rythm and a melody, on one of the tracks. It acts as a simple snare drum through most of the song, playing notes only before the main chorus. A brilliant arrangement, all around.