‘Helter Skelter’ by The Beatles, covered by Siouxsie & The Banshees – Magnificent Cover Version No.20

Helter Skelter is obviously not The Banshees’ most famous Beatles cover, but I’ve always preferred it to their version of Dear Prudence. Whereas the band’s Prudence, is quite a faithful rendition of the original, their Helter Skelter turns The Fab Four’s heaviest recording into something delightfully weird.

In Ian MacDonald’s wonderful book about The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, he utterly slams Helter Skelter. According to MacDonald, in attempting to emulate the heavy rock of The Who, Cream and Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, “comically overreach themselves”, “reproducing the requisite bulldozer design but on a Dinky Toy scale”. He calls the result “ridiculous” and “a literally drunken mess”. This is coming from a fan who has written extensively about their brilliance and cultural impact and who elsewhere in the book refers to them as “far and away the best-ever pop group”. I agree with most of what MacDonald writes in Revolution in the Head, but not his assessment of Helter Skelter; it’s thrilling and I love it.

Siouxsie and the Banshees’ are clearly also fans of Helter Skelter. Their version doesn’t attempt to replicate the frantic, metal of the original, instead instilling it with an unsettling, post-punk threat. While the original kicks off out of nowhere, like an ambush, the cover couldn’t start slower. Four, long-held bass notes are played before a sparse, atonal guitar chimes in and it’s nearly a minute before Siouxsie begins to sing – “As I get to the bottom” – and a drum beat, of sorts, starts up – “I go back to the top of the slide”. The tempo is almost painfully slow, until she sings “see you again”, and it accelerates and becomes recognisable.

Neither the singing nor the guitars closely follow the original melodies – Siouxsie stamps her own charisma on the vocals and the guitars seem to fuse Paul McCartney’s riff with The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog. The descending guitar part on the chorus is replaced by a vocal part, “Helter Skelter, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na,” and while the original has a false finish, this one cuts off with a cymbal crash midway through a line. For something so confrontational, from a band with such an unsmiling persona, there’s a lot humour in the song and it’s got an uplifting feel about it.

siouxsie_and_the_banshees_with_robert_smith

There’s a great 1983 live version of it here. This is from the time that Robert Smith was in the band, and the YouTube comments quickly descend – as YouTube comments do – into offensive stuff about him and The Cure. At least that’s better than the comments on the video to their Dear Prudence cover. Bob’s in that video too, arsing about, badly portraying vertigo in Venice with the rest of The Banshees, but 90% of the commenters are far more concerned with Siouxsie’s armpit hair. Sorry, I know I shouldn’t read the comments. Incidentally, Robert Smith and Banshees’ bassist Steven Severin, had a side-project at this time called The Glove, which is well worth checking out https://youtu.be/xJ9BNGl5yOs.

Siouxsie and the Banshees also released an excellent live cover of The Velvet Undergrounds’ All Tomorrow’s Parties, as a B-side to their 1994 single O Baby. I guess Dear Prudence will always be the cover version that defines them, but their Helter Skelter is the one that does it for me, especially when you consider the terrible things that have happened to that song since at the hands of Motley Crue, Oasis and U2 – I urge you NOT to click on any of these links!

 

‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ by The Beatles, Covered by The Breeders – Magnificent Cover Version No. 2

‘Just Like Heaven’ by The Cure covered by Dinosaur Jr – Magnificent Cover Version No.10

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Pixies: Doolittle – still their masterpiece

When Pixies originally released Doolittle in 1989 they were already massively popular in underground music circles. Everybody who’d heard them loved them and if you had an interest in indie music any time up to the mid-nineties, it almost went without saying that they were a band you listened to.

They looked like shit – “Charlie Brown made flesh” and his backing band of misfits – but nobody else sounded like them. They screamed about mutilation, surrealism, biblical slaughter and incest, they used weird time signatures and song dynamics, they did touching love songs, and sometimes they sung in Spanish. They enjoyed the same artistic kudos as contemporaries My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, but were much more accessible. They’re responsible for some of the best and most influential guitar music of the last 30 years and Doolittle was their creative peak and finest hour.

Pixies started up without any drama in in 1986. Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV and Joey Stantiago were at college in Boston and started playing some of the songs that Charles had written. They recruited Kim Deal, the only bass player to reply to their personal advert in the Boston Phoenix, who knew of a drummer, David Lovering. For no reason he’s ever adequately explained, Charles adopted the stage name Black Francis, and that was it – their definitive line-up was in place for the next seven years.

Pixies classic line up

Their first demo tape was so well received that eight songs from it were released as a mini album, Come on Pilgrim, in 1987. This record received glowing reviews and sold more than anyone expected. For their first full album they were recorded by one of the few people in the music industry who didn’t like them. Steve Albini famously described Pixies as “a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock”, (a remark he later retracted and apologised for). But Surfer Rosa, the album that he worked on with them (and described as “a patchwork pinchloaf”) was even more enthusiastically received than its predecessor, particularly in the UK where they recorded four sessions for John Peel and the album topped album of the year lists for 1988.

Doolittle was the follow up to Surfer and Gil Norton was recruited to produce. Norton was both highly talented and a huge fan, so it seems natural that the album should be a triumph. But the band was starting to implode. Tensions among the members generally, and particularly between its two main creative forces – Francis and Deal – were high. The pair had collaborated often, including on Gigantic which had become the most popular song on Surfer but, despite this, Francis had now decided that this was his band and he was writing all the music and all the lyrics from now on.

Despite this tension and self-inflicted pressure, Black Francis wrote an album of brilliant songs. Kim Deal put her resentment aside and her song writing energies into producing material for The Breeders’ incredible debut album, Pod, which would be released in 1990 (and put another nail in the coffin of Pixies). Every one of the fifteen tracks on the album is great, despite the diversity of styles, from the melodic power pop of opener Debaser, with its surrealist twist in the lyrics ‘slicing up eyeballs/I want you to know’ – to the brooding quiet, loud, quiet of Gouge Away at the finish. Generally it’s more melodic than Pilgrim or Surfer Rosa, with the Beatles-like Here Comes Your Man and uplifting rock murder-suicide fantasy that is Wave of Mutilation, but it gets abrasive too on Tame and on Dead. The Spanish-tinged Crackity Jones and There Goes My Gun wouldn’t sound out of place on Come on Pilgrim but the stand out song is the least typical of the band. Monkey Gone to Heaven was released as a single and is a catchy, bass-led meditation on environmental issues and God. Francis is sometimes criticised for undercooking his lyrics and he happily admits that for him it’s the least important part of a song, but on Doolittle and especially on Monkey Gone to Heaven, he hits it just right, provoking thought without prescribing what to think.

Norton got great performances from the group and spent more time on production than anyone had previously, maintaining the prominent rhythm section, but adding subtle flourishes – overdubs, multi-tracking, strings on Monkey Gone to Heaven – without overwhelming the songs. Against all odds, the band sound like they’re having a good time and Lovering even gets to sing for the one and only time on La La Love You, a parody of the band’s own love songs. The album hangs together perfectly, like it was conceived as a whole, as all great albums do.

As well as receiving near-universal critical acclaim, Doolittle became the Pixies’ biggest selling album. The band couldn’t keep their internal tensions from affecting them for much longer and their next two albums suffered as a result before Black Francis split the band up and went solo as Frank Black.  In 2004 they reformed and starting touring again and in April 2014 released their first new album since 1993, Indie Cindy. A few months later in December, 4AD have released an expanded edition of Doolittle on CD and vinyl, featuring the original album, Peel Sessions, B-Sides and unheard demos.   Indie Cindy was welcomed by a good proportion of fans of the band from 25 years ago and it has its moments, but Doolittle 25 invites comparisons with the band at its height, from which there can only be one winner.  Popular as they were, for many reasons – timing, lack of ambition, the fact that their frontman looked like “Charlie Brown made flesh” – Pixies never got as big as they should have.  Anyone who’s missed this band and this album up to now should take the opportunity to right that wrong.

 

First published in Sabotage Times, December 2014 ahead of Doolittle’s 25 year re-issue.

 

Pixies – Live: Still Dealing in Magic

Pixies covering ‘Head On’ by The Jesus & Mary Chain – Magnificent Cover Version No.16

Pixies – ‘Head Carrier’, Everyone Loves The Pixies

 

 

‘Motorhead’ by Motorhead covered by Corduroy – Magnificent Cover Version N.19

Everyone loves a cover version that differs wildly from the original – it’s a natural, human instinct, like sleeping, eating and being physically repulsed by Donald Trump. So Corduroy’s 1993 retro-funk take on Motorhead by speed metal legends Motorhead is a treat for music lovers everywhere.

Lemmy wrote the original Motorhead while he was still in Hawkwind and his next band was named after it. It was his second choice name, behind Bastard. It’s a typical bludgeoning, breakneck behemoth from punk’s favourite metal band; doused in Jack Daniel’s, speed, sweat, leather, denim, long, lank hair and warts.

Corduroy take in Motorhead’s version, burn its clothes, give it a hot bath, cut its hair and lend it a smart new suit. The resulting cover is still recognisable, despite giving each component of the song a thoroughly cheesy funk makeover. Importantly, it manages to retain the energy of the original, even speeding up for the middle section. It’s the same song, cleverly reimagined and it works brilliantly because it’s as funny as it is enjoyable musically. The B-Side, London, England is also great.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – “But, ‘Crumbs, this record was released on Acid Jazz, a label which specialised in bland, insipid, funk-lite, with all the sex removed, aimed at shallow, faux-sophisticated, fashion-conscious dipshits who preferred to listen to something which they were assured by others was cool, rather than go out on a limb and find authentic music that might actually have moved their empty souls”. Well, you may have a point; you may not. But I’d like to think that Corduroy had a bit more kitsch self-awareness and humour about them than your average Acid Jazz band, taking into account the wit in their Motorhead  cover and the sleeve of their first album, Dad Man Cat.  And even if they didn’t, this is still a great cover version.

Primal Scream also recorded Motorhead for their excellent 1997 album Vanishing Point. It’s OK, but it’s a less a cover version and more of a dance track with the same lyrics and slight melodic nods to the original. I don’t really know why they bothered.

corduroy

‘Different Drum’ by Linda Ronstadt, covered by The Lemonheads – Magnificent Cover Version No. 27

‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk covered by Big Black – Magnificent Cover Version No.17

 

‘Fuel My Fire’ by L7 covered by The Prodigy – Magnificent Cover Version No.18

Prodigy chucked this cover on as the last track on their 1997 classic The Fat Of The Land and it still seems like an odd thing for them to have done. The original is a typically raucous, driving punk tune from L7, built around two heavy guitar riffs – which is PLENTY for any song, in my opinion – one for the verse, one for the chorus.

Straightforward as L7’s version is, the Prodigy’s is even less subtle; its main feature is a bludgeoning drum beat, with the tune loosely carried by Keith Flynt’s Lydon-esque vocals and some filthily distorted electro-punk noise. Apparently ‘Saffron’, the singer from Republica provides backing vocals, but you can hardly hear them, so that’s OK.

The thing that’s hard to understand about the cover is how they came to pick it up in the first place. L7’s Fuel My Fire appeared on their excellent 1994 album Hungry For Stink. I really loved this album because, while most bands who’d found fame during the grunge era were consciously moving away from a heavy guitar sound, L7 went heavier than ever (it’s all explained here). The album is full of rudimentary, crunching punk riffs like Fuel My Fire, but there are loads of better examples – Andres, The Bomb, Questioning My Sanity, Shirley all top it comfortably – so it’s never made sense that The Prodigy chose it as the one to cover.

Turns out Fuel My Fire isn’t even an original L7 composition. They used the tune from a song called Lost Cause by the Australian punk/yob rock band Cosmic Psychos and gave it new lyrics. Those two basic riffs went on a surprisingly long journey from the Melbourne punk scene to the UK rave scene via L7’s LA grunge. More surprising though is that Kim Deal has a writing credit on Prodigy’s monster hit, Firestarter, courtesy of a Breeders guitar part they sampled. Who knew?

 

‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk covered by Big Black – Magnificent Cover Version No.17

‘Motorhead’ by Motorhead covered by Corduroy – Magnificent Cover Version N.19