Chris Cornell – Feeling Minnesota

Chris Cornell

This isn’t a Chris Cornell obituary – just me trying to work out why, when I heard about his sad, sad death a couple of days ago it felt like such a kick in the teeth.

I’ve been listening to his music for more than 25 years. With Soundgarden he’s been responsible for some of my most listened-to songs of all time. Yet when I’ve been asked what sort of music I like and dutifully reeled off a list of band names, I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned Soundgarden. They’ve been an ever-present, but never an obsession.

1990 was when it started. Someone lent me the Louder Than Love album with its iconic Charles Peterson photograph of a hair-flailing, bare-chested Chris Cornell on the cover. At that time my main jam was baggy, indie pop and Soundgarden just sounded like metal; which it pretty much was. Guitarist Kim Thayil described the sound they were aiming for as ‘Black Sabbath without the parts that suck’. Steady on there, Kim, that’s Sabbath you’re talking about!

Soundgarden Louder Than Love  Soundgarden_-_Badmotorfinger

The sound grew on me, as of course it did with a lot people at that time. Mudhoney’s garage fuzz was my main route into grunge, but 1991’s Badmotorfinger, and more specifically its three outstanding singles,  Jesus Christ Pose, Outshined and Rusty Cage, got me properly interested in Soundgarden for the first time.

Outshined included Cornell’s brilliant lyric, ‘I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota’. In interviews, the frontman with the Hollywood looks often alluded to the crippling agoraphobia and depression that he’d suffered as a teenager. Though music had been his saviour, this line showed that despite his growing success, he never felt that his problems were behind him.

TempleOfTheDog

I loved the Temple of the Dog album that came about after the death of Cornell’s close friend Andrew Wood. The Mother Love Bone singer ‘s overdose was an epochal event for Cornell and, despite it prompting a dive into serious drug and alcohol dependency, he formed the side-project band as a tribute. The album featured the grunge classics Say Hello 2 HeavenHunger Strike and Pushin Forward Back. It was about this time that I started to notice that Chris Cornell could really fucking sing. Strangely, it was his backing singing to Eddie Vedder’s lead on Hunger Strike that particularly brought this fact home for me.

As Soundgarden became more popular than ever in the mid ’90s – despite the demise of grunge following Kurt’s death – I’d tune in to them from time to time. They were the kind of band whose CDs I’d buy in the HMV sale. Black Hole Sun is now being put forward as their masterpiece, but I think they did better stuff in this period; The Day I Tried To LiveBurden In My Hand and Pretty Noose, the title of which has now taken on a tragic new context.

After Soundgarden, Chris Cornell seemed to become more active than ever with Audioslave, solo work and various collaborations. He married, had children and began a charitable foundation. He got himself clean and apparently remained so. When Soundgarden reformed in 2010 and started putting out new material it was heartwarming – a major band from the dominant and most exciting music scene of my teenage years was up and running again, and the singer barely looked a day older, despite the passing of two decades.

On Thursday, when Soundgarden were trending on Twitter and I clicked the hashtag, I was expecting to maybe see a UK tour announcement. ‘Chris Cornell dead aged 52’. Fucking what? Fucking WHAT? Another link to my youth, gone. And this was someone who’d negotiated addictions and a notoriously morbid music scene, apparently unscathed. He’d grown up, become a family man, gained huge respect as an artist, was clean, sober and busier than ever. Surely he was out of danger? People speculated that maybe it was a heart attack – a consequence of those years of addiction, maybe? Later came the suicide confirmation.

Tragically, 25 years on, Chris Cornell was looking California and still feeling Minnesota.

There can’t be many better illustrations of how devastating mental illness can be than this. If Chris Cornell, a lavishly talented, impossibly good-looking, artistically respected, incredibly successful rock superstar with a loving family can’t cope with life, what chance does anyone else have?

I’ve lost other friends to suicide. I know how senseless and devastating it is and how any apparent positives don’t seem to count for anything. It might be that that’s the aspect of Chris Cornell’s death that’s hit me so hard. It’s such a waste.

chris cornell

 

 

‘Judgment Night’ Soundtrack – Rap Rock’s last stand

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Music From The Motion Picture ‘Judgment Night’ – Various Artists

In mid-1993, Melody Maker printed news about the soundtrack for an upcoming film, Judgment Night, which would feature collaborations between contemporary rap acts and ‘alternative’/metal bands, including contributions from Sonic Youth, Run DMC, Cypress Hill, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr.

The full track listing was unbelievable, featuring top artists from both scenes and some of the unlikeliest combinations since Bowie and Crosby crooned around a baby grand:

  1. Helmet & House of Pain – Just Another Victim
  2. Teenage Fanclub & De La Soul – Fallin’
  3. Living Colour & Run DMC – Me, Myself & My Microphone
  4. Biohazard & Onyx – Judgment Night
  5. Slayer & Ice-T – Disorder
  6. Faith No More & Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. – Another Body Murdered
  7. Sonic Youth & Cypress Hill – I Love You Mary Jane
  8. Mudhoney & Sir Mix-A-Lot – Freak Momma
  9. Dinosaur Jr & Del the Funky Homosapien – Missing Link
  10. Therapy? & Fatal – Come And Die
  11. Pearl Jam & Cypress Hill – Real Thing

The teenage me couldn’t have been more excited without involving Winona Ryder in some way.

When it was released the Judgment Night soundtrack became one of my earliest CD purchases, along with Sub Pop 200 and Freedom Of Choice. This was at a time when CDs were generally 50% more expensive than records – pretty much the opposite of now – so buying a newly-released one was a rare luxury for me.

It’s worth explaining at this point that rap rock had more credibility in 1993 than it does now, in these post-Limp Bizkit times. The earliest hip-hop had happily co-existed with punk in late ’70s New York, in seedy clubs away from the disco establishment, before Beastie Boys, with roots in both scenes, hit the charts by fusing the genres. There were several notable collaborations between highly-regarded rap and rock acts either side of that, but Public Enemy and Anthrax’s 1991 reworking of Bring The Noise might be the genre’s definitive tune. The following year, Rage Against The Machine released their seminal, self-titled first album. It’s fair to say that the early-’90s was when rap rock reached its pinnacle.

This was a time when both ‘alternative’ music and hip-hop were crossing over to the mainstream, and rap was diversifying in many different directions. It was also the time of the first Gulf War and the Rodney King verdict, and as a result, music got angrier. Mixing the expressiveness of rap with the aggression of heavy guitar music was an obvious move. Rap rock hasn’t died since the early 90s, but the likes of Kid Rock have done a fuck of a lot of damage to its kudos.

So the Judgment Night soundtrack came out at a time when rock rap as a genre was at its peak, and most of the bands involved were too, leading to an eclectic collection of unique collaborations. And it was REALLY FUCKING GOOD!

At the heavy end of the spectrum you had Biohazard playing on Judgment Night with Onyx – who at that time, on the back of their excellent Slam single, looked likely to fill the void left by the self-destructing NWA. Helmet produced a heavier than normal version of their tight grunge to back House Of Pain on Just Another Victim, which is highly effective, despite some clunky rhymes – “Feeling like De Niro in Taxi Driver, with Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel, feels like I’m walking through a living hell”. Therapy? provided an indie-metal background on Come And Die with (the now obscure) Fatal.  Living Colour’s funk complemented Run DMC perfectly on Me, Myself & My Microphone, and Faith No More/Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. provided an unexpected highlight with the brutally aggressive Another Body Murdered – “Bang yo’ head to this!”.

More relaxed offerings came from Teenage Fanclub/De La Soul and Sonic Youth/Cypress Hill, both getting gloriously trippy on their collaborations, Fallin’ and I Love You Mary Jane (maybe, MAYBE a subtle marijuana reference there?). Freak Momma by Mudhoney and Sir Mix-a-Lot was also pretty laidback. It was entertaining too, though sadly not the delicious cocktail of Baby Got Back and Touch Me I’m Sick I’d been hoping for.

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Ice-T seemed to misinterpret the brief, despite having just begun fronting his own rap-metal band, Body Count. I’d been a fan of his hip-hop since the Power album, but on Disorder, his collaboration with Slayer, he chose to shout a bad approximation of metal singing rather than rap. For me, it was the weakest track on the album.

While every cut on the Judgment Night soundtrack is excellent in its own way, Mr Marrow and friends aside, there are two tracks on it that stand out above the rest for me. The first is Real Thing, the collaboration between Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill. Now, I’ve never been a fan of Pearl Jam, but the overdriven, descending guitar riff on this, coupled with the prominent, threatening bassline blends perfectly with Sen Dog and B-Real’s ultra aggressive rap for a claustrophobic classic. From the opening feedback, to the closing “na, na, na” hook, Real Thing sounds like two acts at the peak of their powers pushing each other to give the best performance possible.

The other stand out track is Missing Link from Dinosaur Jr and Del Tha Funky Homosapien. Del is best known for his insanely catchy 1991 hit Mistadoblina (“Mr Dobalina, Mr Bob Dobalina”), and for being Ice Cube’s cousin. Among the things Dinosaur Jr are best known for is J Mascis’s guitar heroics, which are all over this tune. If Real Thing showcased two musical heavyweights coaxing each other to new levels, Missing Link is the sound of a very good rapper desperately trying to keep his head above water under a constant deluge of J’s guitar genius, as one after another, unique and brilliant riffs are casually layered over the track. With a lot of effort, Del manages keep himself heard for the duration of the song, but there’s no doubting that it’s J’s contribution that makes it so memorable.

Despite having one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, Judgment Night the film is a bit of a turkey. It’s an ‘action-thriller’ in which four buddies get lost in the wrong part of town and end up – guess what – fighting for their lives. I only recently got around to watching it and it’s clear to see why it flopped at the box office. The Washington Post‘s review nails it, describing Judgment Night as ‘regrettably familiar’.

The film’s hero is portrayed by Emilio Estevez, who had previously starred in Repo Man, a great film with another fantastic soundtrack, featuring Iggy (with the title track), Suicidal Tendencies and Black Flag. He was also in Freejack in 1992, which is only notable for a hopeless performance from Mick Jagger as the baddie. In Judgment Night, Denis Leary is almost as implausible as the all-powerful crime boss, but the film’s biggest flaw is the failure to give any prominence to the soundtrack. There may never have been such a disparity between the quality of a film and the quality of its soundtrack.

So there you go, that’s Music From The Motion Picture ‘Judgment Night’ by Various Artists, an ambitious project that brought together some of the biggest stars of the rap and alternative rock scenes at a time when they were taking over the mainstream. A rock rap collaboration on this scale never happened again – it was the genre’s last stand. Then again, if anger was the catalyst for the first wave of rock rap, maybe the turbulent times we’re living in will create a resurgence; members of Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine and Cypress Hill performed as Prophets Of Rage at an Anti-Inaugural Ball , after all. If not, then the Judgment Night soundtrack will remain a great document of when the genre was at its best. It really deserved a better film.

 

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

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

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

 

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

MC5 Kick Out The Jams

There’s a certain symmetry to this cover – a tribute to the premier, righteously angry, White Panther-affiliated, garage punk band of the ’60s by the premier, righteously angry, ‘political action through music’, alt-rock/rap band of the ’90s.

MC5’s brazenly confrontational Kick Out The Jams was first released on their debut LP of the same name in 1969. The album was recorded live in October 1968 over the course of two shows at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom where MC5 had been the house band since its reopening as a psychedelic venue in 1966. MC5 were the default support act for visiting bands and when their local fans felt that the evening’s main attractions were underperforming they would demand that they ‘Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!’.  MC5 appropriated the phrase for their most famous song.

Bassist Michael Davis had mixed feelings about the impact of their debut album. “The night we recorded Kick Out The Jams was actually the end of the band for me. Before that night, the MC5 was totally experimental. Every time we went up onstage, it was like we were making the sound up for the time. After October 31, 1968, the MC5 would forever be moulded that way because now we knew what we were supposed to sound like. We were like Play-Doh before that, and then we were an actual form after it, and we were expected to be like that from then on.”

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As well as setting the template for the band’s sound, Kick Out The Jams, and specifically the use of the word ‘motherfucker’ increased MC5’s notoriety massively. Though it was a big hit they were dropped from their record label, record stores were banned from selling the album and the band was constantly hassled by police at shows. As a way of introducing the world to a resolutely anti-establishment band, it was a big success.

The way Rage Against The Machine announced themselves to the UK on the (notorious mess of a) TV show that was The Word in the early-’90s was similarly effective. Channel 4’s The Word is remembered for a few musical moments, most famously Kurt declaring Courtney to be ‘the best fuck in the world’ before launching into Teen Spirit and Donita from L7 dropping her jeans during Pretend We’re Dead. Both of these events are regularly dredged up and labelled as shocking, when they really weren’t. Nirvana and L7 were well-known before these appearances and their unpredictability was pretty, er, predictable. RATM meanwhile were virtually unknown when they took to that stage and the power of their heavy riffs, tight rhythms, hip hop beats, intense, lucid anger and repeated ‘fuck yous’ was totally unexpected and truly exhilarating. The performance ended in suspiciously unspontaneous looking chaos – under the watchful eye of super-middleweight world champion, Chris Eubank – but they’d made their impression by then.

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Rage Against The Machine’s cover of Kick Out The Jams appeared on their final album, Renegades (2000). Their blistering, self-titled 1992 debut album had shot them to alternative rock royalty but their follow up, Evil Empire wasn’t released until 1996 and was a disappointment. 1999’s Battle Of Los Angeles was a slight return to form but by the time Renegades was released the band was fizzling out. Renegades features a number of cover versions of songs by artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Cypress Hill, Minor Threat, The Rolling Stones, The Stooges, Bob Dylan, Afrika Bambaata and Devo. Kick Out The Jams was the best of these. It doesn’t capture the sweaty, spontaneous energy of the original but it does fill it with the intense, tightly-harnessed power that Rage Against The Machine always did so well.

Though Kick Out The Jams had been covered lots of times before – by Jeff Buckley, Bad Brains and The Mono Men, among many, many others – you could argue that it should’ve been left alone. MC5’s will always be the definitive version – there’s no way to improve it – and it defines the band, in the same way that Killing In The Name Of defines Rage Against The Machine. But RATM’s cover is a bold attempt to do it justice and it’s a high point on Renegades. Maybe it’s also helped to keep MC5’s legacy alive, meaning sights like this can become more common:

MC5.jpg

Remember that? I don’t know how to feel about Rachel from Friends wearing an MC5 t-shirt. Maybe this fictional character was a fan? Why shouldn’t she be? But it doesn’t feel right, somehow. Who knows, maybe it doesn’t even matter. But I bet Rage Against The Machine wouldn’t be happy about it.

RATM.jpg

 

‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’ by The Monkees, covered by Minor Threat – Magnificent Cover Version No.6

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

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

 

 

‘Surfin’ Bird’ by The Trashmen, covered by The Ramones – Magnificent Cover Version No.23

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The Cramps were playing Surfin’ Bird live before The Ramones. Johnny admitted, “We heard them doing it, so we started playing it”. The unhinged bubble-gum pop of Surfin’ Bird was perfect for The Ramones anyway. It was fast, retro rock ‘n’ roll, comprising three chords and a bunch of lyrical hooks. That IS The Ramones.

It also fitted in with the band’s self-deprecating way of answering the mainstream’s misconceptions about their mental functionality. One time Marky remembered when the band were on tour and stopped at a restaurant. When their tour manager Monte Melnick left the band alone inside to go out to the van a concerned woman approached him and asked, “Are you taking care of those retarded men”. “She thought we were retarded guys in a van, being nursed by Monte. She meant it.”

Whether it was because of their appearance, playing style or the blunt subject matter of their songs, they were often dismissed as stupid or crazy and songs like Pinhead, Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, Teenage Lobotomy and Surfin’ Bird were their way of hitting back.

It’s plain to see that The Ramones were in fact geniuses. They wrote brilliant songs and developed a playing style and complete street gang aesthetic – encompassing the clothes, the shared surnames, the logo that launched ten million t-shirts and the stripped back attack of their live performance – that no band before or since has ever matched.

The Trashmen’s original Surfin’ Bird was essentially a cover itself; a surf-rock reimagining of the choruses from two separate songs by the brilliant ’60s doo-wop group The Rivingtons – The Bird Is The Word and Papa Oom Mow Mow. It became a novelty hit for The Trashmen and was famously featured on a January 1964 edition of American Bandstand in which their singer/drummer Steve Wahrer lip-synched solo while doing a chicken dance. He performed solo because the band’s record company had refused to fly the rest of the band to the show’s recording.

The Trashmen carried on performing until 1967 but never managed another hit. It isn’t as easy to make a lasting career out of fast, three-chord, bubble-gum pop as The Ramones made it look.

 

Ramones Rocket To Russia

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

(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone by The Monkees covered by Minor Threat – Magnificent Cover Version No.6

Action Time Vision – UK Independent Punk 1976 – 1979

 

 

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

Spacemen-3-Press-4  Mudhoney on stage

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.

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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.

Recurring

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.

‘Eight Miles High’ by The Byrds, covered by Husker Du – Magnificent Cover Version No.21

‘Love Buzz’ by Shocking Blue covered by Nirvana – Magnificent Cover Version No.11

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

‘Eight Miles High’ by The Byrds, covered by Husker Du – Magnificent Cover Version No.21

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‘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.

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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.

Magnificent Cover Version No.6 – (I’m Not Your) ‘Steppin’ Stone’ by The Monkees, covered by Minor Threat

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

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

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

Siouxsie & The Banshees - The Scream.png

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 https://youtu.be/aG5bTcWuKhs. 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!

Pixies: Doolittle – still their masterpiece

Pixies Doolittle

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.

See also: Pixies – Live: Still Dealing in Magic, Magnificent Cover Version No.16 ‘Head On’ by The Jesus & Mary Chain covered by Pixies and Pixies – ‘Head Carrier’, Everyone Loves The Pixies

 

 

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.


pixies-bossanova

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’.

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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.

pixies-2016-cropped

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

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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, this one of He’s A Whore by Cheap Trick (they imitated Cheap Trick on the front cvover). 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.

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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 – the name derived from Albini’s often stated bemusement that love is seen as 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.

kraftwerk_-_the_man-machine

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.

 

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

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