867-5309 Jenny, Amazin' Blue, Flopsweat, Innerve, Kurt Lanham, Lisa Breslin, Mark Allen and Company, Mark Weigle, Mike Browning, Pickin' On Series, The Chevelles, The Outliers, Tommy Tutone
In the realm of perfect poprock songs there are few rivals for Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309.” The opening lead guitar hook reels you in, the slashing guitar chords send you straight to the dance floor, that dynamic bridge takes it all up a notch … It’s a song that literally never hits a wrong note. Its secret is the tension it manages to create at every turn, with multiple guitar lines and vocals pulling in different directions – then resolving – then pulling apart again. In terms of performance the guitar work is simple and straightforward but oh so addictive while the vocals are heartland rock and roll at its best. Undoubtedly this song ranks in my top 20 all-time great poprock singles. Indeed, it’s so good it unfairly cast everything else the band ever did in shadow. They were even reduced to reworking it into a Christmas song 28 years later.
Given the songs obvious strengths, the lack of cover versions in the first two decades after it was released might seem surprising. But then again, maybe not. Frankly, I imagine it was hard for bands to think how the song might be done differently, so iconic were the song’s signature riffs and arrangement. Early on, only punk and heavy metal bands dared to mess with it, with results that predictably tended to quash the tune’s hooks and more subtle melodic charms. As more conventional rock and roll covers emerged in the new millennium they didn’t stray far from the original Tutone formula, perhaps changing up the instrumentation or vocals only slightly. Case in point: Mark Allen and Company. This 2007 version is pretty Tutone, limiting its innovations to the vocal delivery, power chord and the lead guitar tones. It’s credited Mark Allen & Company & Tommy Tutone but what went down here is hard to get any info on. On 2008’s Rollerball Candy The Chevelles stretch the song’s lead guitar line intro and amp up the bar chords but swap the Americana vocals for a more new wave sound. In the same year The Outliers decided to slow the tune down, adding a special allure to the vocals and giving the melody a more Johnny Rivers feel. Or, for something more different, Pamploma Spain’s Innerve switch to a more acoustic but still rocking sound on their 2011 version.
It would take the dawning of a new century to shake off established practice when it came Jenny. Just ahead of the curve a cappella group Amazin’ Blue offered up a rich cacophony of voices to populate the song. They’re not alone – I found five other a cappella versions – but their take is definitely the most dynamic. Lisa Breslin gave the song an understated, hushed performance but felt the need to point out she was not into women, she just liked the tune. Really? Where’s the mystery? Contrast this with Mark Weigle’s brave remake “867-5309 Jimmy” from 2003. Yes, he’s singing about a guy and he’s not bothered, and he takes creative chances with the arrangement that really pay off: an acoustic guitar lead line, some inventive rhythm guitar work, and some hilarious spoken-word telephone messages. Weigle’s album Different and the Same has some other surprises too, like a cover of Pete Townshend’s sexuality-ambiguous “And I Moved” from Empty Glass and a rewrite of the Jackson Five’s “ABC” as a critique of a controversial AIDS drug in “AZT.” And then there’s the banjolicious romp that appears on the Pickin’ On Series 2008’s collection Pickin’ and Singin’ the Biggest Hits of the 1980’s, Volume 1. Seriously, solid banjo propulsion and a fiddle solo break is clearly what this song needed all along.
As we turn to more recent covers the range goes from the exquisite and carefully crafted to inspired DIY love. Kurt Lanham is amazing musician and his mostly acoustic guitar instrumental version is a form of audio art, the arrangement is so precise and delicate, vibing a bit of Kenny Burrell guitar tone and low key Latin feel. By contrast, what Flopsweat lacks in musical precision he makes up for in DIY enthusiasm and intensity, his vocals and guitar work exude such love for the tune the listener can’t help but be drawn in, captivated. But my most favourite recent version is Mike Browning‘s from his 2021 album Class Act. Clear, sharp, haunting in parts, Browning strips things down to essentials, reminding us again just why we love this song so much.
Well there you have it, eleven creative covers of a certified poprock classic. And yet I can’t help but feel there’s plenty room on the “867-5309 Jenny” cover-train for more. Personally, I’d love to hear the likes of Tim Finn, Pictish Trail, The Martial Arts, Richard Turgeon, and host of other artists I’ve featured on this blog take a crack at this tune. Perhaps there’ll be a part two?
Top graphic courtesy Kurt Lanham’s 45 design for his single “867-5309 Jenny.”