Steve Albini produced two of the first four Magnificent Cover Versions, and Number 5 is by one of his bands.
Albini originally found punk fame in the mid-eighties with his uncompromising band, Big Black and with his reputation for provocative and controversial public statements; a reputation hardly alleviated by naming his band Rapeman (apparently after a Japanese comic book).
The rest of the band comprised ex-members of Texas noise-punk outfit, Scratch Acid. Just Got Paid was on the band’s only album, Two Nuns And A Pack Mule, released in 1988. Two Nuns… is a brilliant, heavy chunk of art-rock noise – not as relentlessly punishing as Big Black, but not as accessible either.
Just Got Paid is the exception. It’s a thrilling celebration of the universal feeling of joy that comes with picking up your pay packet. It has a glorious central riff, played with shitloads of energy and at a higher tempo than ZZ Top’s (great) blues-rock original. It’s the closest thing to conventional rock on Rapeman’s only album and even when, after a few listens, the other tense and unsettling tracks begin to make sense, this song, about working guys looking forward to going out and getting pissed, is still a highlight.
Come Up And See Me (Make Me Smile) was The Wedding Present’s contribution to the Alvin Lives In Leeds, anti-Poll Tax compilation – a rich source of covers, but they’re mainly a bit shit. I first heard it as a B-side.
I got the 3 Songs EP that includes this cover on cassette from Woolworths or Our Price as a kid (it’s written about here, just below the L7 piece). I remember playing the tape to my mate Millhouse and him saying, “Woah, that’s grunge!” It wasn’t grunge of course, but it had a harsher, heavier sound, which complemented rather than overwhelmed the songs. This sound was largely due to the production of Steve Albini.
The Wedding Present recorded two EPs (including 3 Songs) and the Seamonsters album with Steve Albini. These recordings are, to me, the strongest work that The Wedding Present have produced. Seamonsters has the same brooding, claustrophobic feel as The Breeders’ Pod (also produced by Albini and discussed in Magnificent Cover Version No.2). Like Pod, it also has brilliant songs.
Around this time, I remember reading an interview with Steve Albini in which he complained about love being the default subject matter for songs. He couldn’t understand why this was the case since love, to him, boiled down to the act of rubbing genitals together; the old romantic. Makes you wonder what he made of David Gedge’s lovelorn lyrics.
Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) was a cover of a Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel song and it was perfectly suited to The Wedding Present. They speeded it up and stripped it down from the sleazy, sub-Bowie original, turning it into an edgy, angst-filled indie-rock classic.
I’d never heard of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel before hearing this cover but I discovered two things about them afterwards. 1) Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel are a band, not a duo. 2) Steve Harley’s cousin lived in the house that backed onto mine when I was growing up. I don’t know if he ever visited but I wouldn’t have recognised him if he had.
The sister of Bob Catley, the lead singer of Magnum, lived a couple of doors down from us too. I saw him a few times – my dog once took exception to his leather trousers and ran up to him barking furiously. It was the most upset I ever saw her. She was absolutely livid about those trousers. She didn’t bite him or anything and I dragged her away pretty quickly. During the incident Bob Catley looked a bit alarmed but he didn’t run away. He just said, “Hey, cool it dawg”, in an American accent, like he was from Venice Beach rather than Aldershot. Nice fella.
The first two Magnificent Cover Versions were absolute classics, in my mind and clear improvements on the originals. And in both cases the originals were by bands with serious kudos; Devo and THE BEATLES, FFS! So, compared to those first two, Magnificent Cover Version No. 3 took a bit of a risk: not so much with Lush, but with ABBA.
One of my cousins grew up abroad, in a country where the latest pop music wasn’t available. When she came back as a teenager, the only pop group she knew was ABBA. Me and my sister thought that this was hilarious – my big sister liked Nik Kershaw, I didn’t really think about music much. By the time I was a teenager and thought about music a lot, ABBA were just a kitsch band from distant yesteryear.
A couple of years before the ABBA revival, which seems to have lasted ever since, I went to Ibiza for a fortnight with my mate Millhouse. Millhouse was in charge of the music, which meant a cassette player as hand luggage and one mix-tape, which he compiled especially.
That mix-tape was weird. I can’t remember it all, but I will always associate the tracks I do recall from it with that holiday. The Sex Pistols’ ‘Holiday In The Sun’ was one (an obvious choice); ‘Flashlight’ by Parliament was another. ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’ by Ian Dury and the Blockheads was on it and ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ by ABBA. Don’t ask me why he put it on there, but ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ was new to me and it ROCKED!
A couple of months ago, I was writing a piece about a new shoegaze compilation, which had led me to rediscover Lush. Lush happened to be releasing their first new material for decades at the time, so it’s fair to say that they were high up in my consciousness when I was thinking about the first Magnificent Cover Versions; ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ became No. 3.
The original song is a slow-paced, glam rock stomp and the cover is an upbeat, ethereal jangle and they’re both great. Back in Magnificent Cover Version No. 1, a ‘rule’ was set that the cover should be better than the original, but I think with this one it depends on your mood. So, three choices in, I’ve already bent one of the ridiculous, arbitrary rules that would come to cause me such a pain in the arse later on in this ‘project’ I should have just chosen their amazing cover of ‘Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep’. But who were Lush covering there? It was originally by someone called Lally Stott, but it was the version released by the band Middle Of The Road that made ‘Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep’ (inexplicably) popular. So who was being covered? This was a question which come up again and again with other covers. Also, Lush’s cover was from the ‘Alvin Lives In Leeds’, anti-Poll Tax compilation and another ridiculous, arbitrary rule I set was that there could only be one song from any one album, and there were better choices on there….
The Breeders’ Happiness Is A Warm Gun is a downbeat, oddly structured little tune that peaks quickly and winds down slowly. Its surreal lyrics and peculiar three-part structure conspire to make it sound dark, threatening and mysterious. It’s one of the highlights on The Breeders’ excellent debut album, Pod.
I borrowed Pod on vinyl from the library as a teenager. That’s not a typo or a euphemism, our local library had a record department that you could borrow albums from for 50p a week or something. Maybe you still can; I haven’t been to the library for a while.
I taped it, of course. It’s a fantastic album, full of sparse, brooding melodies, smoky vocals and Kim Deal’s distinctive basslines. Having never heard The White Album at this point I had no idea that Happiness Is A Warm Gun was a Beatles track.
Around the same time I was pirating music with the assistance of my local library, I picked up The Beatles’ Rock & Roll Music Volumes 1 and 2 from a second-hand shop. This was my first real introduction to their music (obviously I’d heard them plenty, but I’d never owned any of their albums). You may think that these two volumes aren’t the best way into The Beatles, but I was hearing tracks like Back In The USSR, I Saw Her Standing There, Helter Skelter and Revolution for the first time. Now I could see what the fuss was all about. I became a fan immediately.
So, when I finally got my hands on The White Album some time later, I was excited to hear the original version of Happiness Is A Warm Gun. John Lennon was struck by the title phrase when he spotted it in an American magazine and he and Paul McCartney attempted to turn it into a song which reflected its oxymoronic cheerful lethality, perhaps explaining its oddly jarring structure.
And it’s fine; it’s pretty good, but it’s not one of their greatest. It starts off brooding and interesting. The startling imagery (“Like a lizard on a window pane”) sounds nearly as good voiced by Paul as it does by Kim, but the middle section (“I need a fix”/”Mother Superior”) comes in a little too swiftly and without the noisy chaos of The Breeders’ version. Worse still, the doo-wop climax undermines the overall dark power of the track.
If you were going to trim The White Album down from a double to a single album – like lots of people say The Beatles should have done – there’s no guarantee that this would have made the cut.
The Breeders’ version of Happiness Is A Warm Gun is the definitive one for me. Maybe it’s because their version is less stylistically ambitious than the original so sounds more coherent. Maybe it’s because singing about guns sounds more plausible in an American accent (singing about The National Trust, less so). Maybe it’s because I heard this version first. Or maybe it’s because with The Breeders’ version, unlike with the version on The White Album, I’ve never had to listen to The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill in order to get to it.
Incidentally, you may have got the impression that from the above that this teenager, trawling around second-hand shops and hanging out at the library, was something of a nerd. Let me assure you that this was not the case. I was a musician, an aesthete, an athlete and very much a ladies’ man. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.
This really is a great cover version. Superchunk took the raw materials of Devo’s original Girl U Want, added needle sharp guitars and gallons of adrenaline and produced something which not only didn’t sound like Devo, but didn’t sound much like Superchunk either. I like Superchunk. They’ve got some great songs, but as far as I’m aware, this is by a distance the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s just so precise and exhilarating.
Superchunk’s cover appeared on a 1992 compilation of new-wave hits covered by ’90s bands. When it came out it was one of my first CD purchases – snapped up from the little ‘Various Artists’ part of the fledgling CD section of my local Our Price. This collection was titled Freedom Of Choice, taking its name from the third Devo album, on which both Girl U Want and Whip It appeared in 1980.
That compilation also featured Mudhoney, covering Pump It Up by Elvis Costello and Yo La Tengo tackling Dreaming by Blondie. Sonic Youth provide another highlight with their chaotic take on Plastic Bertrand’s already fairly hectic Ca Plane Pour Moi.
It’s a really enjoyable collection, but in retrospect the rest of the participants are pretty obscure; Erectus Monotone, Polvo, Hypnolovehweel, Chia Pet, Tiny Lights – who the fuck are these bands? Doesn’t matter, they all do a decent enough job but Superchunk’s contribution towers over the rest.
Credit where it’s due, Superchunk had brilliant source material to work from. Girl U Want proves that Devo could write a truly genius pop song. It’s often overlooked because the follow up single was the band-defining classic, Whip It, with it’s ever-popular ironic ‘Dude Ranch’ video (apparently based on a genuine resort where a hostess having her clothes removed with a bullwhip was a regular event and popular attraction). For me though, Girl U Want is the better song.
The synthesizer/guitar hooks on Girl U Want are widely believed to have been inspired by the jagged riffs on The Knack’s My Sharona, though co-writer Gerald Casale has denied this. Coincidental or not, it’s easy to hear the similarity.
What’s more important than where the tune came from is what it does, which is to convey that overpowering feeling of being young and in love with someone, but too chickenshit to tell them.
And then there’s the lyrics:
She sings from somewhere you can’t see She sits in the top of the greenest tree She sends out an aroma of undefined love It drips on down in a mist from above
She’s just the girl, she’s just the girl The girl you want
You hear her calling everywhere you turn You know you’re headed for the pleasure burn But the words get stuck on the tip of your tongue She’s the real thing but you knew it all along
She’s just the girl, she’s just the girl The girl you want
That’s just poetry. In combination with the tune, these words saw Devo delivering an original twist on a well-worn theme and a classic piece of art-pop. And you have to say the lyrics on Girl U Want have held up a whole lot better than those on My Sharona – remember “I always get it up, for the touch of the younger kind”? Can’t hear that today without wincing.
So, with a song as great as Girl U Want to work with, you might think Superchunk couldn’t go wrong. But then you come across the sluggish version Soundgarden put on the B-Side of Rusty Cage and realise that’s not necessarily so. Then you also come across the rendition Robert Palmer put out as a single in 1994 and you understand how very wrong it could have gone. So Kudos to Devo and Superchunk for creating the two essential versions of a truly magnificent song.
Some time in the late past, NoiseCrumbs wills itself into being. Twitter is its initial realm, where it will gestate, expand and evolve in ways that cannot be predicted. Is he live or dead? Has he thought within his head?
NoiseCrumbs is nourished by tweets about music and its appetite is voracious.
Decades of music that has grabbed, shaken, lifted and thrown this listener immeasurable distances generates fodder for the beast. It remains insatiable. Inspiration is sought and arrives through the unlikely medium of the cover version. The MAGNIFICENT cover version.
I check and can immediately reel off 10 magnificent cover versions in 10 seconds – that’s a rate of 60 a minute. That works out at 3,600 per hour. That will feed NoiseCrumbs. That is the answer. NoiseCrumbs will never be without sustenance again.