New York experimentalists TV on the Radio released their cover of the Pixies’ Mr Grieves as the fifth track of five on their 2003 debut EP, Young Liars. While the Pixies’ original begins as a sloppy reggae number before morphing into an aggressive, jittery, Latin-tinged indie rock number, TV on the Radio’s cover is this mesmerising, low tempo a cappella track.
TV on the Radio are well known for pushing boundaries and mixing up genres in their eclectic output, but assembling a male voice choir for a recording still seems like an odd move even for them. And in truth, they didn’t. Technically, this is a solo track from founder member Tunde Adebimpe. He painstakingly performed and recorded the vocal parts and finger clicks himself multiple times, multi-tracking them into a stunningly effective three-part harmony. Having gone to so much effort and achieved such a stunning result, the oddest thing of all is that the track is given so little prominence.
Mr Grieves of course contains the lyric which gave the Pixies album Doolittle its name:
Pray for a man in the middle One that talks like Doolittle
I’m on record as saying Doolittle is the Pixies’ best album and, I don’t know, probably that’s true. But you could make an argument for any of their original output. Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa are the most obvious contenders but you could make an argument for any of their original output. I’ll always have a soft spot for Bossanova as the first vinyl album I ever bought and Trompe le Monde has some brilliant songs as well. So, as this is completely subjective anyway, I reserve the right to change this decision at will.
TV on the Radio were chosen to support the Pixies for the eight consecutive gigs they performed at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York as part of the latter’s 2004 reunion tour. The Pixies played Mr Grieves at those shows, TVOTR, understandably, didn’t. Probably the younger band’s hipness was more of a factor for them being picked for this honour than their reimagining of Mr Grieves. But Black Francis has since described their haunting, a capella take on it as ‘awesome’. He’s right too.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Pavement ripped off The Fall for their sound. Okay, it may not be universally acknowledged, but plenty of people have commented on the similarities over the years, including the late, great Mark E. Smith himself. Here’s what he told Melody Maker in 1993:
“People were coming up to me saying ‘listen to this’, and playing me Pavement records on a Walkman, and I just asked, ‘What live tape is that of ours? Is that from Holland in 1987 or something? That’s a fucking drum riff I wrote. The cheek!'”
Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus has always been happy to confirm The Fall’s influence on his music, while always stopping short of admitting outright plagiarism. The point is, it’s hardly a surprise that Pavement eventually released a Fall cover. And when they did, they chose one of their most exuberant and bombastic tunes – The Classical.
The Fall’s 1982 original of The Classical opens their album Hex Enduction Hour and it’s a joyous six minutes of cacophonous glory from a line up featuring Craig Scanlon, Marc Riley and two drummers. It’s full of classic Smith lyrics including:
“Made with the highest British attention, to the wrong detail”
“I have never felt better in my life”
and, of course:
“Hey there, fuckface”
There was always a lot of humour in The Fall’s music, but it seems like it was a more fundamental part of their appeal during the first half of their existence. There was a playfulness to them which was more prominent back then.
Pavement’s rendition of The Classical is reverentially faithful – albeit, they sensibly drop the ‘N’ word from the opening of the song. It’s the sort of loving treatment you’d expect from avowed fans.
Pavement’s cover was released on their 1999 Major Leagues EP but was originally recorded for a Peel Session. This is highly appropriate since John Peel, as The Fall’s most notable champion, is the man responsible for introducing them to most of the world, including me. Having found The Fall through Peel in the early-’90s and randomly dipped into their already extensive discography since then, it was only when listening to the 2004, career-spanning collection 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong, and playing 25 years worth of their material in chronological order that their influence became clear to me. l kept finding myself thinking things along the lines of, “Everyone sounded like this in 1991”, only to then see that the track in question to was from 1986. They were always well ahead of their time. So when MES said of Pavement after they first appeared on the scene:
“It’s just The Fall in 1985, isn’t it? They haven’t got an original idea in their heads.”
…he was being (characteristically) harsh. That was true of a lot of bands, it’s just that Malkmus and his buddies didn’t bother to hide it.
Following Smith’s death, Stephen Malkmus was asked explicitly about his influence by Pitchfork. He said:
“I wasn’t like the Fall fan compared to a lot of my friends, but I certainly thought Mark was cool, and one of our albums, Slanted and Enchanted, has three or four songs that totally mess with his way of doing stuff. I never denied it—I’ve never been one to deny ideas I’ve taken. They always come out through a prism of me.”
Seems fair enough. And Slanted and Enchanted is a very fine album too. Presumably, this is one of the ‘three or four songs’ referenced above:
This would be the first time someone had pointed out the similarity of Conduit for Sale! to A New Face In Hell.
Apparently, Malkmus never got to meet Mark E Smith. He had the opportunity once at a reunion gig but was too shy. It’s probably just as well. Chances are it wouldn’t have gone well. Here’s the hip priest’s reaction to being appreciated by Fall fans, Fat White Family backstage at Glastonbury, as told to The Guardian shortly before his death:
“They got a bit cheeky so they were taught a lesson, I don’t think they’re fans anymore. They came and sat next to us and thought they were it. Big mistake. I was giving a glass of champagne to the lads before we went on and one of them just walks up and I just threw it in his face. He was showing off and there was a bit of a standoff. I like the stuff of theirs I’ve heard though. It was a pretty weird day that, the Dalai Lama was there.”
Of course there are a million MES stories like this. The man was a true original. Maybe that’s why he found it so uncomfortable and lashed out if he felt he was being copied. Maybe his Fat White Family story tells us that he never lost his playfulness after all. Whatever it tells us, he’ll be missed.
Disintegration is The Cure’s highest-selling album and the one that saw them cement their place as an arena rock band, in the UK, Europe, America and Japan, at a time when that was still a huge achievement for an ‘alternative’ rock band. In terms of popularity, the album represents the peak of The Cure’s career, after more than a decade and seven previous albums of atmospheric, bittersweet, dark and joyous music.
In addition to its commercial success Disintegration was ecstatically received by critics. It was Melody Maker’s ‘Album of the Year’ in 1989, while Q listed it as the 17th best album of the ’80s. It made it on to both the US and German editions of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003. Pitchfork says that “Disintegration stands unquestionably as Robert Smith’s magnum opus”.
The 3 million+ copies of Disintegration sold worldwide mean that it’s certified ‘Gold’ across Europe and ‘Platinum’ in America. It also spawned four successful singles – Lullaby, Lovesong, Pictures of You and Fascination Street – which brought the band unprecedented levels of airplay and attention.
With Disintegration The Cure pulled off that rarest of tricks; producing an album that finds huge mainstream, commercial and critical success without alienating their original fans.
But of course, not everybody likes it. And some of those who don’t have been good enough to write Amazon reviews warning potential buyers to tread carefully before spending £5.32 on a CD.
“There are not enough words to describe how awful the complete waste of time called “Disintegration” really is. Horrible, disgusting, nasty, wretched, and atrocious doesn’t even begin to describe the listening experience.”
That’s the considered opinion of JX, as expressed in a 2004 review titled “An Epic Pity Party”. JX continues:
“Asking me to listen to the Cure or U2 is like asking me whether I would like to be shot in the gut or kneecaps.”
JX also reckons:
“They add complex melodies just to show how pretentious they are.”
Really? Is that why those melodies are there? To show how pretentious they are? I’d always thought they were part of the music in some way.
DPG is also unimpressed, heading his/her review “Garbage” before explaining:
“The Cure were best when they did fun pop songs, like in the 80s and early 90s!”
“Pop songs are what gets played on radio, and the radio is the only sure sign of what’s good in music.”
Wait. What? “The only sure sign”? That doesn’t seem right. I heard Nickelback on the radio once…
“Obviously this album doesn’t get played on the radio.”
Ah, OK. DPG has subtly implied that Disintegration is no good because it doesn’t get played on the radio. This seems like a flawed argument, because a) “what’s good in music” is entirely subjective, b) it fails to take into account the commercial pressures on radio stations which restrict the variety of music that they are able to broadcast, and c) the singles from Disintegration got a shitload of airplay.
So DPG fluffed that argument. Maybe he/she will have more luck when discussing mental health issues:
“Smith’s mopey vocals sound so much better when he’s in a good mood. And why wouldn’t the guy be in a good mood? HE MAKES MILLIONS OF DOLLARS!!”
Nope, DPG fluffed that argument too.
Despite awarding Disintegration three stars, JM also finds the album a bit of a downer:
“so depressing it’s hard to take for more than 20 minutes.”
Conversely, MDG describes the album as “Carnival Music”, adding that in his opinion it “Sounds like a carousel; droning around and around”.
Meanwhile, BS calls the album “puzzlingly popular” and says that on it Robert Smith’s songwriting is “at an all-time low”. The review concludes with the statement, “Smith never had the juice for a long term career in my opinion”. Now, BS wrote this is May 2000, by which time Smith had released 11 studio albums with The Cure over the course of nearly a quarter of a century. Eighteen years later, The Cure are still going, and have slipped out another couple of well-received albums, so maybe Bob did have the “juice” after all.
BS gives his review the title “Overlong and dull”, and he’s not the only reviewer to criticise Disintegration for being too long. None is more vehement in this criticism than CS who, somewhat ironically, drones on for fully 400 words about how long it is. The review, titled “Slow, Boring And Long”, includes a description of each song – “Fascination Street: Not ‘fascinating’ at all!!”.
BSgives Pictures of You and Lullaby four stars and Love Song and Disintegration five stars, but the album itself receives a disappointing two stars overall. “Moodiness is not what I expected from The Cure!”, she says.
So to recap, contrary to popular opinion, the album described by Kyle Broflovski from South Park as ‘the best album ever’ is actually a “disgusting, nasty listening experience”, “pretentious”, unworthy of radio play (the only real mark of quality music), “depressing”, “carnival music” with “mopey vocals”, substandard songs and way too long. Probably not worth £5.32, in that case.
Interestingly, none of the negative reviewers I’ve found have picked up on my main criticism I have of Disintegration – that synthesizer sound always, always reminds me of the original theme music from Casualty.
Viva Las Vegas is one of the standout tracks from The Dead Kennedys’ 1980 debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.
Given that the other standouts on this political, hardcore punk classic include Kill the Poor, California Uber Alles and Holiday in Cambodia, it’s slightly surprising to find an Elvis cover in there too. But they up the tempo – and the sarcasm – and deliver one of the great punk cover versions.
Elvis’s original, and the film of the same name, present a sanitised vision of Vegas, in which any chancer can rock up and roll their way to a life-changing fortune. In the film Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, a penniless racing driver who wins a fortune, loses it and pesters Ann-Margret for the unlikeliest date ever – featuring helicoptering, water-skiing, motorcycling and wild west gun slinging. He then – undeservedly – beats her in a talent contest to restore his fortune, wins the Grand Prix against his rival in racing and love, who is nearly killed in the process, then marries Ann-Margret, while staying on friendly terms with everyone and maintaining an extraordinary hairstyle. It’s the American Dream in movie form.
The Dead Kennedys were never big believers in the American Dream. According to Jello Biafra their infamous name was supposed to draw attention to its end. So their satirical cover of Viva Las Vegas could’ve been really scathing.
In reality it’s pretty faithful, with Biafra’s campy vocals even taking on a slight Presley twang. The biggest difference is the subtle amendments to some of the lyrics so:
How I wish that there were more Than the twenty-four hours in the day ’cause even if there were forty more I wouldn’t sleep a minute away
How I wish that there were more Than the twenty-four hours in the day Even if I ran out of speed Boy, I wouldn’t sleep a minute away
I’m gonna give it everything I’ve got Lady luck please let the dice stay hot Let me shout a seven with every shot
Ooh, I’m gonna give it everything I’ve got Lady Luck’s with me, the dice stay hot Got coke up my nose to dry away the snot
Of course, messing with Elvis’s legacy is bound to attract criticism, no matter how subtle the barbs are. And in 1980, when this was released, just three years after the death of The King, it was even more provocative. But then, you don’t name a band The Dead Kennedys if you’re worried about a bit of anger from conservative commentators.
Jello Biafra is still active today, pointing out hypocrisy and injustice and rubbing people up the wrong way. Of course hypocrisy and injustice are really easy to find these days and a lot of people are pointing them out, but Jello does is really well. His anti-Trump rants on YouTube are awesomely entertaining. The best of these is the surreal one in which he shows off the pro-Trump colouring book he picked up from San Francisco airport, with each page depicting Donald in a different heroic scenario for your children to crayon – Superman Trump, Mount Rushmore Trump, Enola Gay Trump, etc.
The Rollercoaster tour was conceived as a lower key, British answer to Lollapalooza back in the early ’90s when the American franchise had just begun and was still a touring show featuring cutting-edge bands.
Curated by The Jesus & Mary Chain’s Jim Reid, the Rollercoaster tour featured The Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Blur and Dinosaur Jr sharing headlining duties as they played a series of concerts at several large venues across the UK in the Spring of 1992.
Reid explained, “Everyone was talking about Lollapalooza, which to us was pretty crap. We did it, playing at 2pm after Pearl Jam, and it was fairly disastrous. So we thought, Why not do a good version of it? We were just trying to shake things up, to make it not like a bunch of boring blokes standing around with pints of beer. We were sick to death of plodding up and down the UK on our own, playing the same shitholes. It felt more like being a rock star – more a Bowie/Bolan thing.”
Looking at the line-up for Rollercoaster tour now – two and a half decades later – it’s worth trying to give it some context. The Jesus & Mary Chain were of course long-established by this point and had just released their well-received fourth album, Honey’s Dead. At that point it had been seven years since Psychocandy, the album that defined them and, though they were still a big deal, in terms of popularity and cool, you could have said that they were past their peak. Or maybe it just seemed that way because we were just teenagers while the Reid brothers were past 30 by then.
My Bloody Valentine were absolutely at their peak, though nobody knew it at the time. Their hugely powerful cacophony and uniquely beautiful melodies had made them massively popular and inspired a whole raft of bands to try to emulate them. No one could get close. The previous year they’d released the majestic Loveless album. It seemed like they would only get bigger and bigger. As it turned out they wouldn’t release the follow up to Loveless until 2013. This was as big as they’d get.
Dinosaur Jr brought some US glamour to the show – not in a KISS/New York Dolls sort of way, obviously – I mean look at them. It was kudos and variety that they provided, as well as grunge credentials. At that time, when American alternative rock had just crossed over into the mainstream, Dinosaur Jr’s ’80s output had been namechecked constantly as an influence by bands from the scene. They’d also released their successful major label debut Green Mind in 1991 and were shaping up to follow that up with Where You Been in ’93. So they were on good form and very much in vogue; having them on the tour and a lot of sense .
Blur’s inclusion made less sense. Graham Coxon has admitted “I was shocked we were asked, but absolutely over the moon. It provoked quite a lot of passion in people – like “What the fuck were Blur doing on there?”.
Their signature tune had been There’s No Other Way, an irritatingly catchy, baggy, pop number that had jauntily made it into the UK Top Ten in early 1991. By the time of Rollercoaster, the baggy scene was over and Blur were beginning to look like indie also-rans who’d fluked a one-off, big-selling single – like Candy Flip or something. What actually happened of course is that they became leading lights of the Britpop scene that dominated the middle of the decade. I wouldn’t have predicted that. At the time they seemed like the poor relations on the tour, but they turned out to be the only band on the bill to have their most successful years ahead of them.
Me and Millhouse went to the Birmingham NEC leg of the Rollercoaster tour along with Jason, the drummer in our (shit) band, his girlfriend Bianca and her best friend Claire. Bianca was a self-consciously cool indie girl – all flowery dresses and superior attitude. She was in my year at school and we got on fine, but she liked to behave in a mature manner at all times, whilst I was – and still am – fond of getting silly. That’s why she went out with Jason who was a year older than us and was the proud owner of a rusted Austin Metro. Claire was similar, but not as pretty, although Millhouse fancied her desperately anyway. Claire’s made her lack of interest in Millhouse very obvious. My girlfriend at the time wasn’t invited on the trip because there was only room for five in the Metro and I was a crap boyfriend.
Millhouse organised the trip, because that was his role and because he wanted to spend time trying and failing to work his way into Claire’s affection. Jason’s job was to drive. My role was to write it all up 25 years later.
Of course being 25 years later a lot of the details are forgotten. I know it was great and that it started early so everyone could play a full set; not like a festival show where most are abbreviated. I remember J Mascis’s ear-splitting solos and the hooks on Freak Scene and The Wagon; songs that I didn’t know that well at that time. The Jesus & Mary Chain were impressive too; the muscular beats and crisp guitar sound of Honey’s Dead translating perfectly to the vast arena of the NEC. Even Blur were good, maybe conscious of their status as poor relations and keen to prove their worth to an indifferent crowd. Their set was memorable for the film they showed at one point – a reverse chronology of a cow’s life, from kid eating burger, back to abattoir and finally standing, chewing the cud in a field. It was strangely touching.
My Bloody Valentine were the main attraction for us. While the other groups raised their game for the bigger venue and the huge, diverse crowd, you felt like MBV could have played to ten times as many people and kept them enraptured. They could have done it with the same sound system too – this was during their ‘holocaust’ days and shit, they were loud. You could physically feel the swirling, squally feedback take your breath away. It was mesmerising. The cotton wool in Millhouse’s little ears had never worked so hard. I don’t want to take the piss out of people for taking care of their hearing – I know tinnitus is a horrible, horrible condition – but Millhouse was 16 at the time. It wasn’t natural for him to be thinking like that. Besides, he was wrong, my hearing is still fine now.
My Bloody Valentine’s performance of the glorious Soon stays with me to this day. As does the sense of bewilderment that me, Millhouse and Jason shared at their sheer musical competence. As members of a (shit) band ourselves, we were awestruck by their ability to all remember in unison how many times to play the descending riff after the chorus of Feed Me With Your Kiss.
Strangely my clearest memory of the Rollercoaster tour comes from before we even got into the venue.
As well as being a golden era for music, 1992 was a fantastic time to be a smoker. It was still fairly cheap, the packets featured only small written warnings of the hazards inherent in your habit, rather than large, graphic horror photos of your likely future and you could smoke pretty much anywhere. And yet we got the idea from the back of the ticket that cigarettes weren’t allowed in the NEC Arena. Look at the T&Cs below – the second to last line implies it.
At least three of us smoked at that time and we debated the situation all the way there. It was going to be a long gig and we didn’t want to wait until after the concert for a cigarette. But we didn’t want Security to take our smokes off us either. Then, Bianca spoke up. She had an idea. Her vintage suede coat had a small rip in the lining. She would squeeze a packet of B&H into the lining through the rip and retrieve them inside the venue. It was a brilliant idea. Well, no, it was a shit idea, but Bianca was saying it, and she was just so sensible and mature. If she thought it would work, we were willing to accept that.
We parked up and walked the long walk to the venue, joining long queues of German army shirts, cardigans, plaid, combat shorts, flowery dresses, Doc Martens, band t-shirts and tie-dye. Banks of security guards checked tickets by the doors. Bianca remained cool.
We got closer to the front and could see that everyone was being patted down before they got through the doors. Seeing this, Bianca took off her suede coat and draped it over her arm casually. She remained unfazed and we believed in her. Me, Jason and Carl joined the male queue, with male security staff, Claire and Bianca joined the ladies’ queue. Bianca, retained an air of total confidence in her smuggling abilities. She got to the front of the queue before we did and was patted down by a sturdy lady in a black bomber jacket. Bianca remained impassive throughout, even when the bomber jacket woman gestured for her coat.
By this time me, Millhouse and Jason were at the front of the queue and being searched. We stood there with our arms outstretched looking over as Security Lady squeezed the coat and found something suspicious. She stopped smiling. Bianca’s face began to get red. Security lady turned the coat inside out and began talking to Bianca sternly. Bianca got redder. Security Lady found the hole in the lining, reached in and pulled out the golden box of contraband. From five metres away, I could feel the searing heat coming from Bianca’s face. Security lady summoned her colleagues as she opened up the cigarette packet and tipped out the contents into a tray, all the while talking sternly to Jason’s glowing girlfriend. Within a couple seconds Bianca was surrounded by big fellas in black bomber jackets, pointing accusing fingers at her and questioning her angrily about her subterfuge, demanding to know what else she’d hidden and why. We looked on helplessly, wondering if this was the end of our night, as well as our cigarettes.
After a couple of tense minutes the crowd of bomber jackets began to disperse until it was just Bianca with Security Lady admonishing her as she slid the cigarettes back into the tattered packet with trembling fingers. Eventually, Bianca, and the cigarettes were allowed through to join us.
She traipsed over to us, with her sweaty, red face turned to the floor to avoid the sniggering gaze of the many hundreds of people who had witnessed her humiliation. It turned out that while trying to sneak stuff past the security team was frowned upon, you could smoke in the NEC after all – just not in the seats. So that was good.
Although, thinking about it, I don’t think Bianca actually smoked.
A few years later Mrs NoiseCrumbs was working at the NEC and could get us reduced price tickets for shows. Being a massive venue, not that much worth seeing came up, but among the bands we did see were The Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath and AC/DC. We had tickets for The White Stripes too, but tragically they split up before they did the tour. Another band we saw there was Blur – the poor relations of Rollercoaster filling the Arena on their own on their ‘Greatest Hits’ tour. I still wasn’t really a fan, but it’s funny how things turn out.
Ah, Spacemen 3; neo-psychedelic, proto-shoegazing, effects pedal-piling experimentalists from the beautiful British Midlands that Noisecrumbs calls home. And Mudhoney; Seattle’s favourite, shaggy-haired, hedonistic, hard-drinkin’, garage-grunge, party band. Spacemen 3 and Mudhoney might not seem to have a lot in common, other than an audible Stooges influence – what worthwhile band hasn’t go that? – but these are two of my all-time favourite bands. This is in the large part down to their respective guitar sounds.
For me, guitar sound is absolutely crucial – often more important than melody, lyrics or performance. A powerful, roaring, throaty, chord sequence can elevate an otherwise unremarkable song into something sublime. Over the years it’s been my only reason for listening to songs by Metallica and Pantera, it’s why Territorial Pissings is a personal highlight on Nevermind and it’s the main factor that’s sent me back repeatedly to play tunes by wonderful but forgotten bands like Bullet Lavolta, Lovecup, Starfish and Worms. In different ways, both Spacemen 3 and Mudhoney consistently sound like they’re joyously driving their Fenders and Marshalls to breaking point, and in Spacemen 3’s case, never more so than on their cover of Mudhoney’s When Tomorrow Hits.
Mudhoney’s original When Tomorrow Hits comes limping out of the heat-haze like a sinister desert drifter, with a loose, bluesy drone. You can hardly discern the lyrics Mark Arms drawls until the chorus, which consists of nine words – the title repeated three times. It builds over the course of the second verse to a fairly noisy climax – like tomorrow hitting – then it’s done, having clearly made its point. It’s low-key, by peak Mudhoney standards, but it’s a great song and you can see why the simple construction and repetitive elements appealed to Jason and Sonic Boom.
The Spacemen 3 version keeps the same structure, starting quiet with a simple drum beat, two chords and an insistent slide guitar. The vocals are just as impenetrable as on the original, with wobbly, echo effects obscuring the lyrics and, as with the original, there’s a foreshadowing of the climax in the chorus, before the crescendo, heralded by a squall of feedback at the end of verse two. This is where the song explodes. It erupts in a molten cacophony of shrieking feedback, wah-wah and pummelling overdrive, layered into a sound that’s absolutely gigantic. So much so, that the band struggle to bring the racket back under control and the cover runs nearly twice as long as the original while they tackle the chaos. When tomorrow hits in Jason and Sonic’s world, it hits on a fucking spectacular scale.
Spacemen 3’s cover of When Tomorrow Hits was meant to be half of a split single for Sub Pop, with the other side being Mudhoney’s cover of Spacemen 3’s Revolution. The project never happened though, because Sonic was pissed off when he heard Mudhoney’s cover and discovered that they’d changed the lyrics. So the collaboration was cancelled and Revolution came out on various bootlegs and the March To Fuzz retrospective, while When Tomorrow Hits became an album track and stunning highlight on Spacemen 3’s final studio album, Recurring.
Spacemen 3 had effectively dissolved before Recurring was even released, with Sonic and Jason unable to resolve the acrimony that had long existed between them, even with the prospect of a lucrative record deal and American tour to tempt them. They kept the split quiet until after the release then officially went their separate ways, with Jason going on to form Spiritualized and Sonic Boom going solo and recording and performing as Spectrum and E.A.R.
Sonic and Jason had always been incredibly productive – particularly for such dedicated stoners – working on side-projects during their Spacemen 3 days and getting their new ventures off the ground without a pause following that band’s sad demise. They’re both still active today and have released some fantastic music in the intervening years. But despite the acrimony that apparently existed between the two creative forces for much of the time that they collaborated, the material they produced as the seminal, psychedelic, Spacemen 3 remains their best work. It’s not all down to their guitar sound, but shit, as this cover demonstrates, they could really make some noise when they wanted to.
‘Quite simply, it’s one of the most powerful pieces of rock music ever recorded”. That’s the view of eminent music writer Michael Azerrad on Husker Du’s cover of Eight Miles High. Wow! I like it, but I’m not sure I’d go quite that far.
Me, Millhouse and a couple of other mates had a terrible band for a while. One of the reasons it was terrible was that we spent more time trying to think of a suitable name than we did practising. One of the names we considered was Husker Don’t.
And yet Husker Du wasn’t a band that any of us particularly listened to at that time. This being the early-nineties their influence on contemporary alternative rock was often discussed in the music papers and Bob Mould was just getting his excellent new band Sugar together, but none of us had yet gone back to the source.
Another eminent music writer Everett True credits Husker Du – along with The Replacements and R.E.M. – with inventing alternative rock in the eighties ‘by adding a soulful, melodic edge to their abrasive punk influences’. He calls their Eight Miles High cover ‘mind-blowing’. Just to clarify, for the purposes of this post ’eminent’ in the context of music writers means that they have their own Wikipedia page.
The Byrds’ 1966 original Eight Miles High was a classic example of their jangly, psychedelic folk rock and their last US Top 20 hit. Banned by radio stations for its drug references, the title and lyrics also refer to The Byrds’ flight to the UK for a 1965 tour and their mixed reception on arrival – adulation from fans, hostility from rivals. The song’s originality, fusion of Eastern and Western sounds and influence on psychedelic rock make it an important cultural touchstone of its era. In 1984 when Husker Du covered it, it was still a beloved artefact for ageing hippies. Which is exactly why Husker Du went for it.
Like many in the eighties US punk scene, Bob Mould had long been disillusioned with what he saw as sixties counter-culture’s betrayal of its own ideals, the pinnacle of which being the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Husker Du’s furious assault on a sacred hippie hymn was an attack on them and their treachery.
The cover replaces the dreamy pop jangle of the original with excessive volume, distortion and aggression. Mould’s guitar work is sublime, slashing out the melodies in searing, high-velocity metallic squalls. At the beginning of the track, his voice is an angry roar; by the end it’s a furious, throat-shredding, animal holler. Despite the cacophony, The Byrds’ tune remains audible, presaging the direction that the band would take in their next two, classic albums, 1984’s Zen Arcade and 1985’s New Day Rising, both of which would retain the volume of their earlier work but with melodies more clearly detectable within the torrent of sound.
When looked at in context, maybe those eminent music journalists have a point about the significance of this cover version. It’s not just a mid-eighties hardcore band fucking around with a song from a contrasting genre – it’s a blistering attack on the philosophical failure of a previous generation’s subculture and a landmark recording in the life of an important and influential underground band. The combination of punk aggression and pop melodies that started here would grow and grow before exploding in the next decade.
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.
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!
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.
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.
I had never seen this record sleeve before. Isn’t it horrible? It’s the mighty Big Black imitating Kraftwerk. Left to right, Steve Albini, Santiago Durango, Dave Riley.
In 1987 Big Black released their cover of The Model as a B-Side to another cover, He’s A Whore by Cheap Trick (they imitated Cheap Trick on the front cover). It was their last single. Both songs also appeared on the CD version of Big Black’s final album, Songs About Fucking, but only The Model made it onto the vinyl release, and that’s where I know this song from.
Big Black were an amazing band – powerful, shocking, thought-provoking and funny. They’d finished by the time I discovered them but I was a big fan before Steve Albini started really making his name by recording The Breeders and Nirvana. I bought Atomizer – the earlier, better album – Millhouse bought Songs About Fucking and we each taped our copy for the other.
As a child, Albini was compelled to move from town to town by his father’s work – Albini senior was apparently a rocket scientist. Skinny, sarcastic and smart-arsed, the young Albini seldom made a good impression at new schools and he had few friends. He credits bands like the Ramones, Stooges, Suicide and Television for getting him through high school. While recovering from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19 he taught himself to play the bass.
On enrolling at college in Chicago in 1980, Albini immersed himself in the city’s active punk scene, becoming a devoted fan of local heroes Naked Raygun and attending their gigs religiously. He began broadcasting on college radio and writing a monthly column entitled Tired of Ugly Fat? for a Chicago fanzine. Through these media he began to gain notoriety for the witty but venomous broadsides he’d aim at characters in the scene – this reputation would only build over the years. Here are some of his words of wisdom:
Albini on the Pixies – “a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock.”
Albini on Mudhoney – “it’s silly how great they think they are. It’s almost offensive to me.”
Albini on Courtney Love – “psycho hose beast.”
Albini on Al Jourgensen – “I’ll cut your balls off and sew them shut in your mouth.”
His column and radio work split opinion and gave him a profile in the music scene, but what he really wanted was to make his own music. After unsuccessfully attempting to get the sound he wanted with a couple of short-lived groups, self-sufficient Albini bought himself a drum machine and a guitar and borrowed a four-track for a week.
The result of this endeavour would become Big Black’s debut EP Lungs. These days Albini apparently hates the Lungs EP – “It just makes my flesh crawl. I can’t listen to that record anymore” – but it sounds fucking good to me, particularly the opener Steelworker (“I’m a steelworker, I kill what I eat. Great big thing crawling all over me”). It lacks the ferocious power of Big Black’s later output, but it’s fantastically unsettling and possesses a video nasty-era sense of impending violence. It later formed the first side of The Hammer Party album, which you should definitely own.
In 1982, at the point that 1,500 copies of Lungs were released on Ruthless Records, Big Black still consisted of Albini and his drum machine – Roland. The release of Lungs helped Albini to entice guitarist Santiago Durango and bass player Jeff Pezzati of his beloved Naked Raygun to join him and Roland, turning Big Black into an actual band.
The new line-up’s first studio output was the Bulldozer EP, which took the template established in Lungs – exploring dark, sordid themes to an accompaniment of drum machine beats and jagged, unconventional guitar sounds – and turned it up several notches. Cables was about bored kids sneaking into a slaughterhouse to watch the action; Pigeon Kill was about a town-wide pigeon cull utilising poisoned corn, while the opening sample on Seth is an horrific rant from a white supremacist. Overall the sound, the ideas and the riffs on Bulldozer set it apart from its predecessor – Texas is a highlight – and it represents a big leap forward for Big Black. Bulldozer would become the second side of The Hammer Party.
The Racer X EP followed – featuring the excellent Deep Six – but it was after that, when Dave Riley replaced Jeff Pezzati on bass that Big Black really took shape. Riley had previously worked at a recording studio in Detroit that had been frequented by Sly Stone and George Clinton and he brought an element of funk to the group that complemented it, against all logic, and helped to define its later output, the high watermark of which was their 1986 debut album Atomizer.
Atomizer sees Big Black trawling up pulp legends from the darkest depths of small town America and setting them to music that’s sometimes so abrasive it hurts. Bazooka Joe is an upbeat ditty about a desensitised Vietnam veteran putting his numbness to violence to profitable use, Bad Houses is about an individual’s compulsion to do “bad things…even when the thrill is seldom worth the degradation”. Jordan, Minnesota is a deeply unsettling tune about child abuse while Kerosene opens with a guitar riff reminiscent of grotesquely warped church bell chimes and famously references a small town resident who combines his twin loves of sex and arson.
Albini enjoys himself in the sleeve notes, enigmatically describing each little horror story masquerading as a song and crediting the band as “Dave Riley: bass, flyswatters”, Santiago Durango: “train guitar”, Steve Albini: “rocket guitar”, Roland: “Roland”. The combination of macabre subject matter, dark humour, relentlessness and sheer power tapped a vein in underground circles, sparking myriad bad imitations and elevating them to new levels of popularity.
By the time Big Black recorded their next LP, Songs About Fucking in 1987, they’d already announced their intention to split. The stated reason was that they didn’t want to outstay their welcome, but Durango’s decision to start law school may have been a catalyst. Songs About Fucking – its ironic title derived from Albini’s often-stated bemusement at love and romance having become music’s default subject matter – sees Big Black treading similar territory to Atomizer, and it’s another fine album. Kasimir S. Pulaski Dayand Bad Pennyare among the best things that they ever recorded, but the cover of Kraftwerk’s The Model is the standout track for me. The band take the kitsch euro-pop of the original and explode every aspect of it. Dave Riley turns the bassline into a monster, backed in the rhythm section by the ever hard-thumping Roland. Santiago Durango’s guitar is shrill and piercing, like a dentist’s drill, while the lyrics, in Albini’s distorted voice, suddenly seem threatening – Kraftwerk singing ‘I’d like to take her home with me, it’s understood’ sounds sophisticated and sexually confident; Albini makes it sound downright sinister. Big Black make the song completely theirs and wipe the (blood-stained) floor with the original.
So in 1987, after their final show at The Georgetown Steam Plant in Seattle, Big Black did indeed break up. Dave Riley and Santiago Durango pretty much retired from the music scene there and then, though one of Durango’s first cases as a lawyer saw him helping to recover Cynthia Plaster Caster’s bronze casts of rock star genitalia. Albini of course became a world renowned producer with Nirvana, The Breeders, The Wedding Present and many, many others. He also kept performing, first briefly with Rapeman, and then, to this day, with Shellac. Steve Albini remains a wildly unique musical talent, a punk rock trailblazer and a loud and uncompromising voice on the industry he loves but the work he did with his colleagues in his first band still stands out as his best.