A quick (unfunny) Devo joke

Every time I see a golf ball, I think of Devo’s first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!  True story…

are_we_not_men_we_are_devo

That wasn’t the joke, don’t worry, but it’s not much better than that, to be honest. Apologies in advance. Here goes.

This is my dog;

whippet-08.jpg

His name’s Devo, because he’s a whippet!

You know, because of their most famous song, Whip It? Yeah? Ah, if you have to explain it it’s never funny. Which I did warn you about.

Sorry.

Superchunk’s version of Devo’s awesome Girl U Want is the subject of this Noisecrumbs blog post. You should read one and listen to the other. It’s up to you which way round.

Whippet, ha!

 

 

 

‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails, covered by Johnny Cash – Magnificent Cover No.14

This is another of those obvious cover versions. Every internet wonk who’s ever done a list of the ‘best cover versions of all time’ has this at or near the top. With good reason.

The original was a melancholy, largely acoustic ending to Nine Inch Nails’ second album The Downward Spiral. Introspective and full of self-loathing, it comes across as a cry for help from that ‘very dark place’ of popular artistic cliché.

Trent Reznor was initially uncomfortable with the idea of Cash using the song, fearing that the idea was ‘gimmicky’, but eventually he approved its use. When he heard the cover he immediately knew that the song was no longer his. This was the definitive version.

Johnny Cash’s Hurt smooths out the (deliberate) atonality of Reznor’s composition, replaces the phrase ‘crown of shit’ with ‘crown of thorns’ and, most vitally, has Cash’s voice; diminished by the decades since his heyday, but all the more engaging for its audible frailty and still with its old authority.

Cash’s version of the song is simultaneously bleak and uplifting – perfectly suited to the contradictory Johnny Cash legend; the Christian rock and roll rebel, devoted husband, outlaw and sinner, forever mourning the death of his brother in childhood and anticipating a  reunion with him in heaven, while also fearing for his soul.

Lines like “If I could start again a million miles away” take on new gravitas when sung by a man – an icon – nearing the end of his life. It’s immensely touching and painfully raw. This song, and the powerful accompanying video, opened the music of Johnny Cash up to a new generation at the very tail end of his legendary career.

Cash’s cover only gained in poignancy when his beloved wife and collaborator, June died shortly after its release; “Everyone I know goes away, in the end”.

Of course The Man In Black himself died a couple of months after that. The song was a huge hit, and whether it was meant as a eulogy or not, there’s no denying it works perfectly in that capacity.

nin-hurt

 

‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath, covered by Alice Donut – Magnificent Cover Version No.13

OK, truth is Alice Donut’s rendition of War Pigs may not be an improvement on the original. It might not technically be a cover version at all; more a reimagining or a tribute – a bit like Butthole Surfers’ cover of another Black Sabbath classic, Sweet Leaf. It’s obscure, funny and endearingly daft though. Endearingly Daft Cover Version No.1.

The track is a highlight of their 1991 album Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent which I acquired on a record buying trip decades ago for three reasons:

  1. Melody Maker had described Alice Donut as a “paranoid, darkly psychedelic hardcore band”, which sounded good to me.
  2. It was released on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label.
  3. It was called Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent; a superb title.

I’d never heard anything by Alice Donut before buying this album, but sometimes in life, you just have to take a chance and speculate £8.99 of your Saturday job money on a record by a band you think you might like. Tellingly, I never bought anything else by Alice Donut. But, then again, this record survived the cull my record collection endured in the lean years when I first got my own place.

It seems like Revenge Fantasies… wasn’t the best place to start with Alice Donut. The Melody Maker article quoted above recommended 1992’s The Untidy Suicides Of Your Degenerate Children as Donut’s best album. Listening to some more of the band’s output now, they might have been right. Untidy Suicides from that album is particularly good, especially if you like to hear a cowbell used in a song, which I do. Their 1989 album Bucketfulls Of Sickness And Horror In An Otherwise Meaningless Life might also have been a better introduction to the band, judging by this excellent tune, My Life Is A Mediocre Piece Of Shit.

At this point we ought to pause and reflect on some of the outstanding song titles that Alice Donut have used. We’ve already had Untidy Suicides and My Life Is A Mediocre Piece Of Shit, but their repertoire also includes:

  • Testosterone Gone Wild
  • Cow’s Placenta To Armageddon
  • She Loves You She Wants You It’s Amazing How Much Head Wounds Bleed
  • My Best Friend’s Wife
  • The Son Of A Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects On His Life While Getting Stoned In The Parking Lot Of A Winn Dixie Listening To Metallica
  • Madonna’s Bombing Sarajevo

Clearly, this is a band with a tremendous talent for naming songs.

Alice Donut band shot

Anyway, the War Pigs cover itself is an abbreviated, slightly stilted rendition of Black Sabbath’s best song (some people prefer Paranoid; they’re wrong) with the main difference being that the vocals have been replaced with brass instruments. Lines like ‘Evil minds that plot destruction’ are given powerful new resonance when farted out on a trombone, as you can imagine. While the original clocks in at nearly eight minutes, this one is all over in under three.

It turns out that Alice Donut had used this same formula since, with a live cover of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter, and they’ve used it since to cover the Pixies’ Where Is My Mind. Somehow, the AD version of the Pixies song, with trombones replacing vocals, works really well. In fact it’s quite a bit better than their version of War Pigs.

Of course what should happen now is that I should replace Alice Donut’s version of War Pigs as a Magnificent Cover Version with Where Is My Mind and rewrite all the stuff above. However, this is a blog not an academic paper, so instead I’m going to make this unprecedented move:

‘Where Is My Mind’ by Pixies, covered by Alice Donut –

Magnificent Cover Version No.13, part b

10 glorious animals.jpg

So, there you go – two cover versions for the price of one. Alice Donut’s War Pigs wasn’t as good as I remembered, but they’re a much better band than I thought, with a penchant for performing songs in a rare punk/brass fusion and a wide selection of evocative song titles.

Alice Donut’s website  is www.alicedonut.com. It’s still publicising a show in Paris in 2014 so it looks like they’re currently inactive. Their Twitter feed tells a similar story.

 

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

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

 

‘Just Got Paid’ by ZZ Top, covered by Rapeman – Magnificent Cover Version No.5

Steve Albini produced two of the first four Magnificent Cover Versions, and Number 5 is by one of his bands.

Albini originally found punk fame in the mid-eighties with his uncompromising band, Big Black and with his reputation for provocative and controversial public statements; a reputation hardly alleviated by naming his band Rapeman (apparently after a Japanese comic book).

The rest of the band comprised ex-members of Texas noise-punk outfit, Scratch Acid. Just Got Paid was on the band’s only album, Two Nuns And A Pack Mule, released in 1988. Two Nuns… is a brilliant, heavy chunk of art-rock noise – not as relentlessly punishing as Big Black, but not as accessible either.

Just Got Paid is the exception. It’s a thrilling celebration of the universal feeling of joy that comes with picking up your pay packet. It has a glorious central riff, played with shitloads of energy and at a higher tempo than ZZ Top’s (great) blues-rock original. It’s the closest thing to conventional rock on Rapeman’s only album and even when, after a few listens, the other tense and unsettling tracks begin to make sense, this song, about working guys looking forward to going out and getting pissed, is still a highlight.

Steve-Albini-in-Rapeman-right

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

‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath covered by Alice Donut – Magnificent Cover Version No 13

‘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’