‘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.

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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

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.

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‘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

Pixies, Live – still dealing in magic

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Pixies at the Academy, Birmingham, UK – 8th December 2016

Of all the bands I’d never seen, the Pixies were the one that meant the most to me. They were one of the first bands I fell in love with and Bossanova was the first album I bought on vinyl –  Pilgrim, Surfer and, Doolittle followed soon after. Other bands came and went over the years, but Pixies remained constant. They were special. They were one of those rare groups whose sound was so distinctive and uplifting that they seemed to be dealing in magic rather than music.

I was meant to see them on the Bossanova tour in 1990. Millhouse and a few other mates went and I would have been there too, but girl trouble intervened. If I’d know then that I wouldn’t get another chance to see them for 26 years, I might have been prepared to let that trouble get a little deeper. Finally, this year, I had the opportunity to witness the Pixies live, a quarter of a century later; that’s only three albums though, which doesn’t sound so bad.


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In the days of Bossanova I was a child. In the days of Head Carrier I’m technically an adult with children of my own. When the tickets came on sale I bought four, thinking that those children might want to come with me and Mrs NoiseCrumbs for their first gig – and if they didn’t, I knew plenty of people who would take the tickets off me.

“Hey, I’ve got Pixies tickets for December. You want to come with us?”

“What do the Pixies do?”

“Er, Monkey Gone To Heaven, Wave Of Mutilation, Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons. Loads of things.

Dunno, maybe.”

Snakes. You know Snakes?”

“Oh yeah, alright then.”

They’ve been properly indoctrinated, they know their whole catalogue, even if they don’t know the song names, but they love Snakes and its video.


 

It’s not the same seeing a band so long after their heyday (and yours) is it? Especially when the original line-up isn’t complete and you know they’ll probably not play all the songs that you love the most and even if they do they’ll resent it. So prior to the gig, I was extraordinarily excited, just not quite expecting to experience the unrestrained elation that was once a feature of seeing a favourite band.

But this is the Pixies – they’re different. They’re special. And when they took to the stage, spitting distance away, and smashed out the opening chords to River Euphrates – a song you’ve loved for a lifetime – played like you’ve never heard it before, to you, your children and 3000 people who love the Pixies like you do, well it was just joyous. My sons, 12 and 13 years-old were awed and thrilled by it too, like I hoped they would be, and later they were singing along to Monkey Gone to Heaven and Tame and Here Comes Your Man. It was emotional.

It seemed like, as a live band, they were still in their heyday. Charles was one minute screaming away as if trying to tear his lungs to ribbons, next minute crooning and la la-ing sweetly as they remorselessly ripped through their discography (with no hint of resentment). The band didn’t utter a single word to the crowd between songs, but we didn’t care because there was a lot get through and a limited time to get through it. Charles did have a little joke with David Lovering on La La Love You though, keeping on playing his guitar part at the end, over and over to keep the drummer singing.

They seemed like a happy, contented band, and that must be partly due to Paz. Paz isn’t Kim, but she doesn’t need to be. She’s a wonderful musician and vocalist with immense stage presence and the rest of the Pixies obviously love playing with her. Any band would miss Kim’s charisma, but Paz brings plenty of her own, and it never felt like a ‘Pixies-lite’.

pixies-logo

We didn’t get to hear Gigantic – presumably out of respect to Kim – but we did get most of the songs we loved, with tracks from Come On Pilgrim (Caribou, Nimrod’s Son), Surfer Rosa (Bone Machine, Where Is My Mind?), most of Doolittle some highlights from Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde (Ana, Rock Music, Planet of Sound, U-Mass) and most of Head Carrier. We also got a ferocious version of Head On and the UK Surf version of Wave of Mutilation, which I’ve always preferred to the original, so it nearly brought a tear my eye. There was nothing at all from Indie Cindy though; so no Snakes, sorry kids. I got them both a bootleg t-shirt to compensate.

After finishing with a rendition of Debaser that finally sent everyone fully delirious, Charles, Joey, David and Paz took the avid applause and encored with the brilliant Into the White, while pumping the Academy so full of dry ice that we couldn’t say whether they were playing it from the stage or the dressing room. It was a fantastic finale and a wonderful, wonderful gig.


Of all the bands I’ve seen, the Pixies are one of those that’s meant the most to me. They really aren’t like other bands – even now, they’re capable of eliciting unrestrained elation from their original fans and their new ones with their still distinctive and still scintillating sound. Twenty-six years after I fell for them, they’re still dealing in magic.


Epilogue: During the course of the evening my boys, for reasons even they probably wouldn’t be able to explain, rechristened the band members. From now on, they’re known in our house as, “Bobby Bee, Jimmy Gee, Flamingo Pete and Babyface Syd”. They didn’t say who was who, but I think it’s pretty obvious.

Below, the Pixies: Bobby Bee, Jimmy Gee, Flamingo Pete, Babyface Syd, a stuffed wolf.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

big-black-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.

big-black-songs

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 Day and Bad Penny are 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.

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

big-black-final-show-august-11-1987-at-the-georgetown-steam-plant-in-seattle

Millhouse – Indie Music Mentor

 

In many ways the early-nineties was a simpler time – when it came to finding new music, it was much more complicated. There was an abundance of ridiculously good material just waiting to be discovered, but pre-internet, navigating the musical underground was hard. To hear music that didn’t get played on the radio you had to be in the same room as the record or the band themselves. These days you can check out a Tokyo djent band on your fucking phone. Having a friend who knew stuff already helped a lot. Enter Millhouse* – indie music Sherpa; human Google; sonic oracle.

High Fidelity.png

Me and Millhouse were in the same school year but we moved in different circles. He was an academic high flyer with a serious appearance – he didn’t seem like a lot of fun. It was only in the last couple of years at school, when I started playing football with Sean, a kid from another school who’d known Millhouse for years, that we started talking. We had a mutual friend and our lunch breaks coincided so we started eating our sandwiches together.

Despite his studious appearance, he turned out to be alright – interesting, well-informed and pretty funny. This was in the heyday of the pre-YouTube home movie show You’ve Been Framed, when Jeremy Beadle hosted it in front of a studio audience, and we bonded over our shared enjoyment of that show. But Millhouse’s main thing was music – he could talk about it endlessly. I was vaguely interested in The Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, having seen them on Top Of The Pops, but he’d already delved well beyond that and he became a kind of indie music mentor.

Millhouse introduced me to a lot of bands that I still love. The first mix tape he gave me had The Wedding Present, Primal Scream, Spacemen 3 and the Pixies on it. I heard Nirvana for the first time at his house (the Sliver 12″) and Butthole Surfers (Hurdy Gurdy Man) and Sonic Youth (Kool Thing). He pointed me in the direction of John Peel and showed me where to find Birmingham’s independent record stores – Frank’s Wild Records, Tempest, Plastic Factory and Swordfish.

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all types of music, partly thanks to his parents’ vinyl collection, which spanned Neil Young, The Beatles, Stones, James Brown, Bowie and The Doors. My parents were much more sociable and fun than his, but their LP collection stretched to Barry Manilow, Nana Maskouri and the Grease soundtrack. It’s fair to say that Millhouse had a head start on me.

JOHN PEEL EADT 20 10 05

With a lot of effort, I got my knowledge up near his level. I’d listen to Peel nightly with a C90 cassette primed and ready to go, read Melody Maker from cover to cover every week and send away for fanzines – preferably ones with demo tapes included. Any earnings from my weekend job that I didn’t spend on booze I spent on vinyl. Millhouse, being too studious to have a weekend job, envied my disposable income and the boost it gave to my record collection.

It wasn’t just indie; this was a phenomenal time for many genres – electronic music was getting more diverse, sophisticated and interesting, hip-hop was in its golden age, and even metal was beginning to pull itself out of its eighties, poodle-haired nadir. We explored all of that and the psychedelia, punk, metal and funk of previous decades. The weirder and more obscure it was, the better.

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We went to dozens of gigs. We saw Nirvana, The Fall, Mudhoney, Carter USM, Iggy Pop, Spiritualized, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth, along with loads more great bands who were never quite destined to make it, like Bleach, Silverfish, Senseless Things and Jacob’s Mouse. We’d also check out local bands whose only realistic ambition was to release a demo tape. It didn’t matter that these bands were usually shit because we got to exploit the confusion that existed between the venue’s door staff and bar staff about who should be checking gig-goers’ ages before serving them alcoholic beverages. Sometimes other people would come along to these gigs with us – sometimes even girls! – but I would guess that it’s only recently that my wife has overtaken Millhouse as the person I’ve been to most gigs with.

We didn’t get on great all the time, Millhouse and me. He could be really irritating. When playing you something new from his record collection he would stare at you intently throughout and elicit a considered response the second the song finished.  He was mean too – I never saw him happier than when he came away from a bar with change for a £20 when he’d only handed over a fiver for his drink. He had a habit of bullshitting shamelessly, making up stories to make him appear more interesting, even if it made me look worse. But kids that age can be arseholes – like when Millhouse passed out drunk at a party and I tried to make him piss himself by putting his hand in a bowl of cold water. Didn’t work; he just woke up. Should’ve used warm water.

Me and Millhouse lost touch around the age of 20. After we went to university we’d meet up occasionally but we were heading down different paths. In the end he cut his hair short in anticipation of monetising his abilities, qualifications, personal motivation and ruthless bullshitting ability. Meanwhile I dropped out of my course in order to remain committed to a grunge/slacker aesthetic and following the path of least resistance. I think Millhouse ended up doing really well for himself and I don’t begrudge him that at all. I wouldn’t have discovered half as much great music or seen as many amazing bands without his guidance. We were always quite different characters but we had a blast discovering, no DEVOURING the music that I’ve enjoyed ever since. Cheers, Millhouse.

*Millhouse isn’t his real name. I doubt he’ll ever read this blog, but you know, I get a pseudonym so it’s only fair that he should too. This is despite the fact that his real name is perfect for him – slightly nerdy and comical without being ridiculous. It took a while to think of a suitable alternative. Millhouse suits him.

Pixies, Live 2016 – Still dealing in magic

The Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr & Blur – ‘Rollercoaster’ 1992

 

 

 

 

Product 2378 – The soundtrack to my paper round

Product 2378 was a 1990 indie compilation on the abysmal (and now defunct) Telstar label – home of Black Lace, Engelbert Humperdinck and Des O’Connor. All the songs on it were from the previous decade and its cover image is a photograph of a kettle. Altogether it’s an unpromising looking little package, but this cassette was one of my first indie music purchases and it meant a lot to me. And just take a look at the track listing;

Side One

  1. The Wonder Stuff – Who Wants To Be The Disco King?
  2. New Order – Vanishing Point
  3. The Jesus & Mary Chain – Head On
  4. The Wedding Present – Kennedy
  5. Pop Will Eat Itself – Can U Dig It?
  6. Happy Mondays – Mad Cyril
  7. New Model Army – Brave New World
  8. The Weather Prophets – Almost Prayed

Side Two

  1. Morrissey – The Last Of The Famous International Playboys
  2. Siouxsie & The Banshees – Peek-A-Boo
  3. Pixies – Monkey Gone To Heaven
  4. Inspiral Carpets – Joe
  5. Crazyhead – Baby Turpentine
  6. Throwing Muses – Dizzy
  7. All About Eve – December
  8. The Mission – Tower Of Strength

That’s a strong collection of songs, roughly covering a variety of contemporary UK scenes;

  • C86 – The Wedding Present and The Weather Prophets
  • Goth – Siouxsie & The Banshees, All About Eve, The Mission
  • Post-Punk – The Jesus & Mary Chain, New Model Army, Crazyhead
  • Manchester – Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, New Order
  • Stourbridge – The Wonder Stuff, Pop Will Eat Itself

It also featured a couple of excellent American contributions (Pixies, Throwing Muses) and one from Morrissey, who was really beyond any sort of scene by then.

Looking back now, it’s a pretty good summary of the state of indie music at that time. If you dropped two or three of the lesser lights from the line-up (no need to embarrass them by naming them, we all know who they are) and added a My Bloody Valentine track and something off Sub Pop, it would be perfect.

For me Product 2378 will forever be associated with the paper round I had between the ages of 13 and 16. It wasn’t a hard core, get-up-before-dawn-every-single-day paper round, it was an evening one, delivering a free newspaper once a week. This sounds pathetically easy, but it meant delivering to every single house on an estate near mine – about 200 papers in all.

Every Tuesday the papers would be dropped off at to my house in two bundles by a nervous looking middle-aged bloke with a moustache. It wasn’t possible to carry all 200 papers at once, so I’d put one bundle in my canvas bag and trudge off into the night. 100 papers are heavy – the strap seams would cut me like a knife. Once these were safely delivered an hour or so later I’d go home, fetch the rest and trudge back out.

Sometimes, as I hauled my heavy burden around, I would think about the kid in the arcade game Paperboy, gliding down Easy Street on his bike, lobbing papers into or near post-boxes and I’d laugh to myself bitterly. Even if I could have balanced on a bike with a bag that weighed nearly as much as me, I had to deliver to an estate full of semi-detached houses, so there was nowhere to make use of one. And my customers expected their papers to go in their letterboxes, not on their doorstep.

It was hard work. The main thing that kept me going – apart from the prospect of earning up to £5, plus an extra quid if there was an advertising leaflet to be delivered as well – was wearing my Walkman.

In the early days De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising was a favourite tape for the ordeal (that album’s also indelibly linked with my paper round), later it was mix tapes either made by mates or by me from listening to John Peel. You know how that would go – let the man introduce the track, hit record and decide 20 seconds in whether it was wonderful or unlistenable. Either that or find out it was played at the wrong speed. But Product 2378 got more plays on that round than anything else.

Each song on the tape is associated with a section of the route, from The Wonder Stuff – helpfully upbeat for the opening few houses when the bag was at its heaviest – to The Mission for the walk home after a job well done.

I was listening to Mad Cyril when I saw a woman in a pink, quilted dressing gown let my best mate’s dad into her house, lead him upstairs, put the bedroom light on and shut the curtains. Obviously I told my mate about this the second I saw him at school the next day. The explanation he got from his dad was that he went round to play snooker with the woman’s husband in their spare bedroom. Yeah, right! “But best not mention it to your mum, she hates me playing snooker”.

I was listening to Joe by Inspiral Carpets when some fat old bastard threatened to kick my juvenile arse for walking across his grass. Each week I’d have a little wrestle with the Jack Russell that would snatch the paper from the other side of the letterbox to the sound of Can U Dig It? by Pop Will Eat Itself.

In three years of doing that round I received one, solitary tip – 50p from a friend of my mum’s one Christmas. Possibly satisfied customers were constantly calling me post-delivery waving fivers and I just couldn’t hear because I was singing along to Monkey Gone To Heaven. Probably not.

The nervous looking bloke who dropped the papers off at my house was understandably crushed when I quit my round at the age of 16. He asked me if I knew anyone who wanted to take it over. When I told him I didn’t his moustache trembled fearfully. Maybe whichever media baron ultimately owned that shitty periodical oversaw a regime in which undelivered papers were punished with broken limbs. It wouldn’t surprise me.

I was moving on to take up a Saturday job which was less badly paid, less physically demanding and more likely to allow my spine to develop as God intended. It would also allow me to save up for a record player, and once I had it, almost all my money from this job went on vinyl. The only trouble was it was paid monthly, like I was a regular employee. So I’d always spend every penny in one joyous record shopping trip every four weeks and be skint for the rest of the month. It was great though.

So as my career blossomed, so did my listening choices and Product 2378 got fewer and fewer plays. But to this day, whenever I hear the ‘yeah, yeah, yeahs’ fading out at the end of Head On I still expect to hear the 100mph opening bars of Kennedy immediately after, and Peek-A-Boo after The Last Of The Famous International Playboys and so on – it’s one of those albums. I know all the words to every song on it. And I actually like the cover image too. Kudos, Telstar. You have a lot to be ashamed of but Product 2378 was pretty cool.

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

‘Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’ by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, covered by The Wedding Present – Magnificent Cover Version No.4

‘When Tomorrow Hits’ by Mudhoney, covered by Spacemen 3 – Magnificent Cover Version No.22

The Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr & Blur – ‘Rollercoaster’ 1992

 

 

 

Pixies – ‘Head Carrier’, Everyone Loves The Pixies

Review of the Pixies’ 2016 album Head Carrier for Sabotage Times

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Everyone loves the Pixies. Their output from their heyday 25 plus years ago inspires so much enduring affection that it really doesn’t matter how good Head Carrier, their new album, is. Original fans and newcomers will keep listening to them, the band will sell out whenever they play and everyone will still love them.

We know this because in 2014 they released their first album for 23 years, Indie Cindy. What should have been a triumphant return ended up being slightly underwhelming, partly because Indie Cindy was nothing more than a collection of three, already-released EPs in their entirety, and partly because it didn’t really sound like the Pixies. Despite this, everybody still loved them. The Pixies have a lot of goodwill.

For most people, this affection stems from the output of the band’s heyday in the late ‘80s. The Pixies first two albums, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle (along with their debut mini-LP, Come On Pilgrim) are among the most memorable and influential alternative rock recordings of all time, featuring enduring classics like Monkey Gone To Heaven, Gigantic and Where Is My Mind?

Rifts within the band, particularly between frontman Black Francis and bass player/vocalist Kim Deal led to its demise in the early-‘90s, after they’d released two more excellent, but less beloved albums.

Always more popular in Europe than in the US, the band’s reputation in their homeland only grew during their hiatus. Even so, it was a shock when the original line-up reformed and started playing gigs in 2004. The truce between Francis and Deal always seemed uneasy and she left, apparently for good before new material for Indie Cindy was recorded.

Paz Lenchantin is the charismatic new bass player and female voice in the band. She doesn’t exactly impersonate Kim Deal but, you can certainly hear her influence on Lenchantin, which is understandable and her presence seems to have revitalised the band.

A strong female voice and understated basslines are not the only classic Pixies traits that have returned for this album. Their trademark loud/quiet/loud dynamics can be heard on Tenement Song and on the excellent, unconventional love song Oona, which also features characteristic violent imagery (“Oona, I will await destruction”). There are skewed pop songs like Classic Masher and Bel Esprit which also benefits from the soaring harmonies between Francis and Lenchantin, who even gets a solo song, All I Think About Now which flies audaciously close to Where Is My Mind territory.

For those who like their Pixies on the heavier side there’s Baals Back in which Francis unleashes his ferocious scream, and the unhinged rockabilly of Um Chagga Lagga which features a classic Joey Santiago guitar solo. The downbeat All The Saints includes a wobbly surf guitar that would have fit snugly onto third album Bossanova. There are even some of the undercooked lyrics that main songwriter Black Francis has always been prone to; example, on Talent, “Talent, fighting on the east side, talent, taking on the west side, talent, fucking up the north side”. All these traits, along with the high quality of the songs mean that Head Carrier sounds like the Pixies again.

So it doesn’t matter how good Head Carrier is; the important thing is that the Pixies are around as a functional, current band, doing what bands do – touring and recording new material – which should please everyone who loves them, original fans and newcomers. Nobody would have expected the new album to be as good as Surfer Rosa or Doolittle, and of course it never reaches those creative peaks, but it’s easily a match for anything else in their output. It didn’t really matter if was any good or not, but Head Carrier improves with every listen and more importantly, it showcases the Pixies sounding like the Pixies again.

A slightly edited version of this article can be read in Sabotage Times here

‘Love Or Confusion’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, covered by The Screaming Trees – Magnificent Cover Version No.15

The Screaming Trees’ version of Love Or Confusion is a respectful take on the song, never veering too far from the original. The band were all huge fans of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and their influence can be heard in all of The Trees’ output. The cover sounds like they’ve finally captured on tape something that the band would regularly jam out and, apart from the rougher and grungier production, the only real difference between the original and the cover is in the vocals.

Jimi Hendrix played a small role in the inception of The Screaming Trees. Mark Lanegan noticed Van Connor’s Hendrix badge when the two were in detention together in high school, which got them talking about music.The two were from very different social groups – Lanegan was a couple of years older and a big, intimidating stoner/jock; Conner was overweight and something of a dweeb – but they bonded over their shared taste in music, not only Hendrix, but Cream, The Doors and punk rock. In their home town of Ellensburg, Washington, these tastes were unusual.

When they ran into each other at a party a few years later they agreed to start a band. For their first rehearsal they were joined by Conner’s friend Mark Pickerel and the trio started off with Lanegan on drums and Pickerel singing. It didn’t go well until Pickerel took to the drum kit and Lanegan stepped forward to the microphone to perform The End by The Doors. As soon as Pickerel heard Lanegan’s distinctive, smoky voice he realised that they’d ‘stumbled ass-backwards into something good’.

The complicating factor in this early incarnation of the band was that rehearsals were taking place in the bedroom of Van Conner’s reclusive older brother, Gary Lee. Van and Gary Lee had been in bands together before and the two had always fought violently. For that reason the younger brother had intended to keep his older sibling out of this group, but relented under pressure from their mother and from Lanegan, who recognised that Gary Lee, as guitarist and songwriter, was ‘the one with the talent’.

The band created a proper practice space in the back room of the Conner family’s video store, used it, got good and got signed to the ultimate US punk label, SST. The band were thrilled to be on the label that had released Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth. Gary Lee called it ‘the coolest and most amazing thing that happened in our entire career’.

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Some major labels had also sniffed around at that time, but had found the band too physically unattractive to sign. But four SST albums later, the growing popularity of the Trees’ hard-edged, melodic, psychedelia brought the majors back into the picture – this being 1990, it didn’t hurt that they were from the vicinity of Seattle either – and, following in Soundgarden’s footsteps, they signed for Epic.

The band released three major label albums and achieved a good level of popularity without ever catching the same wave as Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice In Chains et al. They did however score a fair-sized hit when their uplifting single Nearly Lost You was featured on the soundtrack to the godawful ‘grunge film’ Singles. They also gained a reputation for their drink and drug fuelled violent escapades whilst on tour, with Lanegan’s behaviour especially notorious. Dave Grohl has said of the singer, ‘you don’t wanna mess with that dude. Give him a microphone, let him sing, then get the fuck out of his way’.

The Screaming Trees’ 1992 appearance on Letterman comes close to encapsulating their entire career – playing their biggest hit, looking out of place on a mainstream TV show, the Conner brothers hidden away at the back of the set and Lanegan with a black eye from their latest brawl. They had a stand-in drummer for the performance too, because Barrett Martin (who’d taken over from Mark Pickerel the previous year) had dislocated his shoulder in the same incident.

The band released their last album Dust in 1996 and split for good in 2000. All the band’s members continue to work on various projects, most notably Mark Lanegan, whose gruffly unique voice ensures that when he’s not working solo he’s always in demand for a collaboration, with Queens Of The Stone Age, Unkle, Massive Attack, Moby and many, MANY others. There’s often talk of a reunion, but Lanegan usually quashes these rumours, preferring to keep the past in the past and referring to his time with the band as his ‘apprenticeship’.

The Screaming Trees’ cover of Love Or Confusion was the first thing I heard by the band. It was on one of the first CDs I ever bought, the classic compilation Sub Pop 200, which also features Soundgarden, Nirvana, Tad, Mudhoney and Green River. Sub Pop founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, in one of their signature flamboyant marketing moves, released this as a lavish three-record box set in 1988 with the idea of presenting the label’s hometown of Seattle as having a distinct and thriving alternative rock scene. It worked.

By the time the CD came to my local Our Price Records around 1990 the vinyl boxsets were long since sold out and Mudhoney, Nirvana and Soundgarden, were advancing the Seattle sound far further than even Sub Pop’s megalomaniacal founders could have dreamed. It’s also a fantastic compilation of music, a snapshot of a scene that was about to explode and a seminal grunge album.

My original Our Price copy of Sub Pop 200 was in the possession of a friend of mine at the time he hung himself from a tree in 1996. I replaced it pretty soon after Amazon made that sort of thing piss-easy at the turn of the century. I still play the new version pretty regularly and though it’s housed in an unsatisfactory blank cardboard box with a flimsy booklet rather than in a proper, robust case like my first copy, I’m still glad I didn’t try and talk to me friend’s parents about getting in back. The tree is still there and I blow a kiss in its direction every time I pass it.

 

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‘Gimme Shelter’ by The Rolling Stones covered by Patti Smith – Magnificent Cover Version Number 26