That Petrol Emotion’s cover of the Membranes’ Everybody’s Goin’ Triple Bad Acid, Yeah was released as a limited edition single as part of the Clawfist Records Singles Club in 1991. For the flip side, the Membranes reciprocated with a cover of That Petrol Emotion’s Big Decision (Slight Return). Clawfist Records was an offshoot of the Vinyl Solution label which in turn was a subsidiary of the independent London record shop of the same name (though now called Intoxica).
This is all pretty exhaustingly obscure now, and probably the only reason I remember anything about it is that TPE’s cover of Everybody’s Going’… was on a tape I compiled while listening to John Peel back then. The recording included a little bit of Peel’s introduction, which mentioned Clawfist, which stuck in my mind because I listened to that tape a lot. That’s mainly down to how great this song is.
After a suitably trippy sample from one of those earnest, vintage American documentaries about the dangers of drugs, Everybody’s Goin’ Triple Bad Acid, Yeah gives you a joyful, high-velocity, pop-punk blast through a catalogue of ways to alter your consciousness:
Alcohol and pills,
It’s a gloriously naïve celebration of the good bits about getting fucked up – including using the ‘plastic skin on a garden hose’, which is a new one on me – building to the climactic chorus consisting of a few repetitions of the song’s brilliantly daft title.
I’d never heard anything by either That Petrol Emotion or the Membranes before Everybody’s Goin’ Triple Bad Acid, Yeah, but back in 1991, this song put both of them on to my ever growing mental list of bands to be looked into.
Strangely enough, that split single was the last release the Membranes would have for 26 years.
That Petrol Emotion were also on a downward trajectory by that time. The band had been formed by John and Damian O’Neill in the mid-’80s after their previous band, The Undertones had split up. They relocated from Derry to London and recruited American singer Steve Mack who added his charismatic vocals to their melodic sound. TPE built up a loyal following playing small venues around the capital and their debut album Manic Pop Thrill was excitedly reviewed by the music press and went to number one on the indie charts.
Major labels came in for the band and they signed for Polydor and later Virgin. With great songs that seemed bang inline with the zeitgeist, bags of personality, a healthy fan base and the guarantee of John Peel’s patronage thanks to their Undertones connections, it seemed inevitable that they’d become hugely successful. They even had a singer from Seattle.
In the end though, they fizzled out. The eclectic nature of their releases kept sales figures down and this, coupled with their tendency toward being politically outspoken on the subject of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ meant that they were just too much trouble for their labels and they were dropped and split up for good in 1994. Despite all their promise, they’d never got closer to cracking the Top 40 as they had in 1987 with Big Decision (Slight Return) – the one covered by the Membranes – which peaked at 42.
The Membranes of course never got anywhere near as close to the pop charts as that. They were a resolutely underground band. After they split, frontman John Robb found far more fame as a music journalist and commentator than he ever had as a musician.
But in 2015, taking unlikely inspiration from the work of the CERN Project and the vaguely sinister Large Hadron Collider, he reformed the band to record a concept album about space and the universe. I was asked to review this for an online magazine, so finally got around to checking the Membranes out.
The resulting record, Dark Matter/Dark Energy is a superb album which surprised everyone by becoming their biggest-selling record to date. This in turn lead to an increased interest in the band and the release in 2017 of a 5-CD collection of everything they’d released last century. The title of this release? Everybody’s Goin’ Triple Bad Acid, Yeah.
Membranes records had become hard to find by the early-’90s, so this collection was a treasure trove including both the original Everybody’s Goin’ Triple Bad Acid, Yeah and the cover of Big Decision.
The original Everybody’s Goin’… is rather less celebratory than That Petrol Emotion’s cover. It’s all queasily atonal guitar riffs and disorientating rhythms and vocals. It’s similarly adrenalized but there’s definitely a noticeable nod toward the downside of drugs in this version. You get the feeling it’s gone too far.
For the cover, TPE had sifted through the manic, hardcore punk and filtered out a thrilling little pop song that bares little resemblance to the original. There’s no naivety in the Membranes version. It’s out of control.
So then there’s their cover of That Petrol Emotion’s Big Decision. The original Big Decision was a gleefully jumpy indie-pop cracker that would’ve justifiably sailed into the Top 10 in the Britpop era had it been released a few years later. The Membranes cover isn’t like that at all. Robb and the band turn it into a driving, threateningly melancholy, psychedelic epic. Again, it’s nothing like the original but it’s highly listenable and strangely beautiful, actually quite like a track from Dark Matter/Dark Energy. It’s not on YouTube so you’ll have to take my word for it. Better still, buy the boxset.
See, this is the kind of thing John Peel did all the time. He brought life-enhancing music to everybody’s attention constantly. Fourteen years after his death, and 27 years after that particular broadcast, an obscure, limited edition record he played at fuck knows what time at night opened up a world of fascination that’s sustained to the present day and is still bringing artists to listeners’ attention. It’s easier than ever to access new music these days, but I’m not sure that sort of thing happens any more.