This is the 88th 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.
By the mid-1970s, David Bowie’s stage persona had gone through a few incarnations, and he had experimented with a few different styles of music. After a painful parting with manager Tony DeFries, Bowie felt that both his career and life needed a reset. Though he had lived in Los Angeles for a while, Bowie decided to relocate to Berlin.
As Bowie worked on new material in Germany, he was able to get his friend Iggy Pop to join him. Iggy Pop had also had also had a traumatic split with Defries, and benefitted from a change of scenery.
That time in Germany resulted in albums that came to define their careers and the end of the ’70s: both Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and Bowie’s “Heroes” came out toward the end of 1977. “Lust for Life” included two of Iggy Pop’s best-known songs: the upbeat title track, and the darker but infectious “The Passenger.”
The song told the first-person account of someone who saw the world from the passenger seat of a car. Iggy Pop has said it was inspired by a Jim Morrison poem that saw “modern life as a journey by car,” as well as his experiences riding around in Bowie’s car. Iggy Pop’s former girlfriend Esther Friedman has also said that the song came from Iggy Pop’s riding the Berlin S-Bahn train.
The album peaked at Number 28 in the UK. When “The Passenger” was re-released as a single in 1998, it reached Number 22 on the UK charts.
In 1986, singer-songwriter P.J. Proby released “The Passenger” as a B-side to a cover of “Heroes.” It was purely a spoken word rendition: for nearly four minutes, Proby performed the lyrics aloud over dead air. Without instruments, Proby had nothing but his voice to convey the spirit of Iggy Pop’s lyrics. As he delivered the words, it was hard to tell if he was chuckling or sighing. Probably a little of both.
In 1987, Siouxsie and the Banshees released “Through the Looking Glass,” an all-covers album in which featured remakes of songs by, among others, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and The Doors. On “The Passenger,” Siouxsie and the Banshees added a brass arrangement, making it livelier and cheerier song. Listening to this version, one could imagine Siouxsie Sioux singing this on stage in a musical or as part of a cabaret performance. She sang that she was “the passenger,” but she sounded like she was the one behind the wheel.
Two videos exist for this cover: One shot outside…
And one shot inside.
She sings it well and she threw a little note in when she sings it, that I wish I had thought of, it’s kind of improved it… The horn thing is good.
Iggy Pop added that Siouxsie and the Banshees played the song for him before releasing it in an act of deference. Then, after getting his approval, the band took him to the ballet. As one does.
A cover of “The Passenger” by Michael Hutchence of INXS appeared on the “Batman Forever” soundtrack in 1995. The track was a slow burn, as the first minute was just a build-up of airy electronics and mechanical clangs. He made the song is own, if for no other reason because his cover didn’t sound like any of the previous versions: The backing track that formed the backbone of the song did not resemble the springy grooves of Iggy Pop’s original, nor did the cadence with which Hutchence delivered the lyrics. Sounding passive at first, he almost faded into to the instrumental track, but by the end, Hutchence sang with his familiar swagger.
In 1997, “We Will Fall: The Iggy Pop Tribute” featured covers by several punk and alternative artists, including Joey Ramone, Nada Surf, Pansy Division, and 7 Year Bitch. Lunachicks took the bouncy beat of “The Passenger” and sped it up with crunchy guitars, speeding it up until crashing for a loud, messy end.
The following year, Lunachicks included “The Passenger” on “Drop Dead Live,” from a small club show recorded in the band’s hometown of New York City.
R.E.M. performed “The Passenger” in an appearance on the BBC TV show “Later with Jools Holland.” The long version — which came in around seven minutes — later appeared as the B-side to the band’s single “At My Most Beautiful.”
The Creatures included “The Passenger” on the band’s 1999 live album, “Zulu.” It sounded a lot like the cover by Siouxsie and the Banshees, which made sense, as The Creatures was a project for Banshees members Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie. It was fitting that at the end of the song, Siouxsie said, “Thank you, you’ve been fucking great!” You, too, Siouxsie.
Bauhaus performed a live version of “The Passenger” that didn’t end up on the band’s concert album, “Gotham,” but did find its way onto the album’s companion DVD. It was a rather straightforward cover of Iggy Pop’s original, and if not for the vocals, you could think it was Pop’s version.
German rockabilly band The Kentucky Boys included “The Passenger” on the 2002 album, “On The Run.” To make the song fit their style, they did not have to alter the song much, as the original riff of the song had a bouncy groove ready for rockabilly.
Spanish rock band Skizoo reworked “The Passenger” for its song “Bla, Bla, Bla…” Recorded in Spanish, the song had the familiar riff from the “la, la, la” part of the song, though the bouncy groove from the rest of the song was removed.
In 2010, The Jolly Boys released “Great Expectation,” which included covers of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” and as mentioned in an earlier post, The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.” The Jolly Boys, a Jamaican band that formed in the 1950s, play a style of folk music that predated reggae and ska. Though the band saw lineup changes, it survived into the 2000s with some of its original members. At 72, singer Albert Minott was one of the younger members of the group. On The Jolly Boys’ “The Passenger,” one can hear a sound that straddles the lines of folk and reggae. The band occupies such a Venn Diagram of sounds and styles that with a few tweaks in one direction, it could become ska, or it could become bluegrass.
Folk Grinder is a project in which singer-songwriter Koozie Johns and guest musicians channel the sound of the traditional sea shanty using accordions, fiddles, and sometimes an upright bass. The Folk Grinder cover of “The Passenger” had that distinct period piece feel, such that it sounded like the narrator was not a passenger in a car or even a train, but a boat.
The first season of the Netflix series “Grace & Frankie” featured a version of “The Passenger” by singer-songwriter Tim Myers. The sunny cover was almost poppy with its hand-claps and acoustic guitars. If Iggy Pop’s version was inspired by riding around cars at night, then this version sounded inspired by riding around California in the middle of the day in the summer.
Big John Bates’ 2015 album “From The Bestiary To The Leathering Room” had a Gothic feel to its Americana. “The Passenger” was a perfect song for Bates and his band to approach, because as I said with the The Kentucky Boys’ version, the song’s springy groove lends itself to the sounds of rockabilly and Americana.
Of all of these covers (and the ones I did not include), it’s the Siouxsie and the Banshees version that’s probably most well-known. One could even argue that the cover is as recognizable as the original. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how many of these covers you knew before reading this post. If the answer is a nonzero number, then I’m willing to bet at least one of the versions you already knew was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “The Passenger,” yes?
And it’s not just because the song had two videos and Siouxsie was all over MTV, though that helped. But that version did what we expect a great cover song to do: it gave us a whole new way to appreciate something familiar.
In Popdose’s list of the 100 greatest cover songs of all time, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “The Passenger” came in at Number 70. In his write-up of that version, Jack Feerick said:
Siouxsie and Banshees’ 1987 “Through the Looking Glass” is a game-changer in a couple of ways. The smartest, most focused covers album since Bowie’s “Pin-Ups,” it runs through an idiosyncratic mix of cult favorites, 60s classic rock, and Tin Pan Alley. The horn punches and razor-sharp guitars of “The Passenger” show the Banshees reinventing themselves as well as reinventing the songs, evolving from droning goth-rockers to a shiny, spiky hyper-pop outfit.
Feerick’s praise was not without merit. The addition of the horn — praised by both Feerick and Iggy Pop himself — did reinvent the song, such that Siouxsie and the Banshees has become as important to the identity of “The Passenger” as “The Passenger” has become to the identity of Siouxsie and the Banshees.