Sri Lanka-born hip hop star M.I.A. is expected to enter the UK pop charts this weekend with her new single, ‘It takes a muscle’, which is a cover version of an obscure Dutch single from the 1980s. How a thirty-year-old song by a virtually unknown Dutch duo ended up on one of 2010’s most successful hip hop albums is somewhat of a mystery – even to the original artists.
M.I.A. – whose real name is Maya Arulpragasam and who is of Tamil origin – shot to fame in 2007 with her single ‘Paper planes’, which reached the top five of the American Billboard Hot 100, a very rare feat for artists from the Asian region. In 2009 she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film Song for ‘O saya’, a song she recorded with A.R. Rahmann for the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.
Currently living and working in Los Angeles, M.I.A. released her third album in 2010, called ‘Maya’. It entered the American album chart at number 9 and reached number one on Billboard’s Electronic Albums chart.
While most tracks on the well-received album were written by M.I.A. and her producers, one writers' credit on the sleeve is rather different. It lists Dutchmen Michel Mulders and Henri Overduin as authors of ‘It takes a muscle’, which they recorded as ‘It takes a muscle to fall in love’ in 1982 for a musical project called Spectral Display. The moody, synthesizer-laden ballad was a fine example of early 80s electronic and synth pop.
"We were quite ahead of our time," recalls Mr Mulders. "We sounded very modern. Perhaps too modern for pop radio. But I just wanted to do the things I liked and creating standard hit singles wasn’t one of them."
Mr Mulders had asked singer Henri Overduin to write the lyrics for a couple of songs he had composed and to sing them. "We did it quite fast. We recorded the song in my bedroom in Amsterdam. Henri quickly wrote down the lyrics, did the vocals in one take and that was it. Writing and recording the song only took one afternoon."
The song was released as a single in 13 countries, but despite a few TV and radio performances, it flopped. Spectral Display broke up after another record also flopped. 'It takes a muscle to fall in love' wasn’t even released on CD in subsequent years and seemed destined to disappear in pop music’s bins.
But it simply wouldn’t go away. Fans of hard-to-find underground 80s music found the 7” vinyl single in second hand record shops or online. A few home-made YouTube clips even popped up, although there was very little to show – all people could find was the original record sleeve and a grainy video from a 1982 Dutch music show.
Watch a clip of the song, with apologies for the poor quality. Story continues below.
The cult image of the song lead to fresh interest, says Mr Mulders. "Last year, French DJ duo Get A Room did a remix of the song. I was also planning on re-recording the song with a new singer and then suddenly M.I.A.’s version came along."
He has no idea how the Sri Lankan singer got hold of the song. "I understand her producer found the song on YouTube," he says. "The single was released in the UK in the 80s, so he may have found it in a London record shop. Who knows."
A few weeks ago, M.I.A. did a concert in Amsterdam, where Michel was hoping to meet the singer. "But that didn’t happen, as we couldn’t get backstage access. So we still don’t know."
On the surface, the singer’s reggae/hip hop version seems radically different from Spectral Display’s original synthesizer arrangement, but Mr Mulders disagrees. "Our version was reggae, but in a typically 80s-synth-pop kind of way. She hasn’t changed that much." M.I.A.'s performance on BBC’s music show Later With Jools Holland with reggae band The Specials, has been watched over 50,000 times.
Watch M.I.A.'s performance on 'Later', with The Specials. (Story continues below).
With 40,000 copies of the album sold within two weeks of its release, Michel Mulders and Henri Overduin are due to receive a nice payout from publishing royalties, but even that remains a mystery for now.
"Our publisher called us and asked us if it was registered properly, which it is. We’ll see how much money this generates. Hopefully it will enable me to pick up the Spectral Display moniker once again and to create new material. That would be nice."
It has already lead to fresh interest for the original recording, which is now finally available on iTunes.
But what about the title – which muscle does it actually take to fall in love? "There’s only one," smiles Mr Mulders. "It’s your heart which makes you fall in love with somebody."