Walk on By \ Dionne Warwick (1964) & The Stranglers (1978)
This is another of my favourite cover songs and one that was so good, it obliterated the original (though I’m sure fans of the original likely disagree since they wouldn’t be punk fans). In 1963 prolific songwriters Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics) wrote this song for Dionne Warwick. Warwick’s version, released in ’64, went to the top 10 in the US and UK and was her second big hit. It was mostly an interplay of her vocal with the piano, punctuated with the occasional trumpet and underpinned with a scratch guitar, with the breaks dramatically offered with strings. It was typical of Bacharach’s smartly written, easy listening music.
The Stranglers were one of the earliest and most original of the UK punk bands, notable for their heavy use of organ riding shotgun over guttural basslines and Hugh Cornwell’s resonant vocals. For them to cover a Bacharach/ David song was surprising, to say the least. They released it as a non-album single in 1978 and it went to #21 on the UK charts. Their version was testimony to what a solid song the original was – which wasn’t surprising since Bacharach and David were consummate writers – but The Stranglers’ lengthy version with the extended organ interlude made the song something incredible. Perhaps inspired by Isaac Hayes’ 12-minute, R&B version in 1969, The Stranglers extended take on the song allowed fans of their sound to hear it like never before.
The Stranglers delivery provided a menace to the lyrics that wasn’t captured in the original. When Hugh delivered the opening lines, “If you see me walking down the street / And I start to cry each time we meet / Walk on by, walk on by,” the delicacy of Warwick’s delivery, almost divorced from the pain and vindictiveness of the lyrics, was replaced with an angrier edge that suggested ‘walking by’ wasn’t just to make the ex-lover feel guilty, it was perhaps for their own safety. The cover version was faster, angrier, tight within the band’s mold, broke convention with punk’s typically short song durations, and gave The Stranglers and punk fans an epic song of their time. It also allowed modern rock fans like myself to go back and appreciate the original, something I would never have done otherwise.