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

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.

Image result for the beatles rock and roll music volume 1 Image result for the beatles rock and roll music volume 1 volume 2

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

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.

 

Butthole Surfers covering ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ by Donovan – Magnificent Cover Version No. 8

Blue Cheer covering Summertime Blues by Eddie Cochran – Magnificent Cover Version No.9

‘Girl U Want’ by Devo, covered by Superchunk – Magnificent Cover Version No.1

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.

 

‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones covered by Devo – Magnificent Cover Version No.38

‘Kick Out The Jams’ by MC5 covered by Rage Against The Machine – Magnificent Cover Version No.25

Trashed! ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’