‘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

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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

 

Some stuff you may not know about the Butthole Surfers

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A short list of stuff you might not know about psychedelic, scatological, avant-garde, Texan, punk rock reprobates and legends, Butthole Surfers….

  1. Gibby Haynes graduated from Trinity University, San Antonio with an economics degree and having been named ‘Accountant of the Year’.
  2. After graduating, Gibby and his friend Paul Leary published a fanzine called Strange V.D. which featured gruesome photographs of medical conditions captioned with fictitious diseases, like ‘taco leg’.
  3. Gibby printed Strange V.D. at work in his graduate job at a prestigious accountancy firm. He left this job shortly after inadvertently leaving a photo of some infected genitalia to be found on a photocopier.
  4. Haynes and Leary’s next move was to Venice, Southern California where they attempted to make a living producing and selling Lee Harvey Oswald T-shirts. When this venture, surprisingly, didn’t work out, they decided to start a band.
  5. They originally changed the band’s name for every performance before Butthole Surfers stuck. Other names they used included Nine Inch Worm Makes Own Food, Vodka Family Winstons, Ahstray Babyheads and the Inalienable Right To Eat Fred Astaire’s Asshole.bhs 2
  6. In their heyday, the band toured with their pet pit bull who was named after Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad. She was called Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad.
  7. The backwards fiddle on Creep In The Cellar is an accident. When recording their second album, Rembrandt Pussyhorse, the studio used an old tape which had previously been used by a country band and hadn’t been wiped. When the Surfers heard it, they decided to keep it that way.
  8. In The Simpsons episode Hurricane Neddy, Ned Flanders’s son Todd wears a Butthole Surfers T-shirt donated to the family when they lose all their possessions.todd flanders
  9. The band also featured on Beavis & Butthead twice, with the videos for Who Was In My Room Last Night and Dust Devil, both from the album Independent Worm Saloon. The boys are big fans.
  10. The band’s stage shows were infamous, featuring, flaming cymbals, nudity, multiple strobes, fake blood, a ‘piss wand’ and video projections. The most famous film they used featured a man undergoing penile reconstruction surgery following a farm accident. They would sometimes play this backwards.
  11. The sleeve for the album Locust Abortion Technician was designed by Arthur Sarnoff, the artist most famous for his paintings of dogs playing pool.
  12. Drummer Teresa Nervosa appeared in the 1991 Richard Linklater film Slacker. She’s the character on the street trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear.

 

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

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

 

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

(I’m Not Your) ‘Steppin’ Stone’ by The Monkees, covered by Minor Threat

Minor Threat In My Eyes EP

Minor Threat doing (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ StoneOh yes! Every version of this song is fucking great! You just can’t go wrong with that E, G, A, C chord progression. Sex Pistols did a very solid take on it and The Farm’s baggy reimagining is well worth a listen too. Minor Threat’s version is the best though.

It turns out it’s not a Monkees’ song after all – who knew? They made it famous but it was originally by Paul Revere & The Raiders.

From this point I’ve decided that another rule for the Magnificent Cover Versions list would be that the original version is properly credited to the original performer – not to someone who’d performed another cover version. It’s important to have arbitrary standards that will become a pain in the arse before long.

I like The Monkees (not as much as Marge Simpson likes them, maybe), but I do like them a lot and I’m not afraid to admit it. Whether they wrote them and/or played them or not, they had some great songs, their TV show was awesome and I particularly love the fact that Mike Nesmith’s mum invented Liquid Paper/Tipp-Ex.

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The Monkees’ version of Steppin’ Stone is a typical slice of their acceptably psychedelic bubble-gum pop, with Hammond organs, hand-claps, harmonies, tambourines and an uncharacteristically bitter sounding vocal from Micky Dolenz. Like most of The Monkees’ output, it’s bouncy, hippie-ish fun.

I like Minor Threat too – the definitive hardcore band and the polar opposite of The Monkees, in many ways.

Hardcore punk appeared in the late-70s, when the original punk rock scene was beginning to wane. Hardcore took the volume, aggression and speed of punk and refined it, making it louder, heavier and, above all, faster.

Black Flag were the single biggest drivers of this resolutely underground movement; touring relentlessly across the US with local bands from unfashionable cities, away from the cultural epicentres of LA and New York, in support. Washington DC was one of the least fashionable cities at the time, but its punk scene in particular thrived. This was ‘harDCore’ and Minor Threat were its star players.

Minor Theat

Formed by Ian McKaye with school friends, their name came from the fact that despite their aggression, they were all minors (and small ones at that). For a lot of hardcore bands, speed was everything and while Minor Threat delivered that, they did it without compromising the power and heft of their music. They also reacted against the self-destructive overtones of punk, advocating a virtuous, straight-edge manifesto – no drink, no drugs, no promiscuous sex.

Minor Threat’s songs were ordinarily furious rants against social injustice, religion, violence or the normalisation of mind-altering substance use, so a Monkees’ cover (sorry, Paul Revere & The Raiders cover) seems quite unlikely. And that’s one of the things that makes a good cover version; when a band takes a song from a different genre, outside its comfort zone and gives it its own twist.

Minor Threat’s cover is a straight-edge, hardcore blast that starts fast and gets faster – though, in truth it lags behind a lot of their output in terms of tempo. The guitars and drums are thrashed out, McKaye barks out the ‘I, I, I’ part and there are certainly no Hammond organs or harmonies. There are though a few production tricks in there – the first part of the track is compressed before it opens up after a minute or so and there’s a reprise of the chorus vocals at the end. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s still unusual for MT to mess around like this and it all works great.

I love this entry in Magnificent Cover Versions. It’s got a wonderful original and an even better cover version and I love the fact that The Monkees are a glossy, 60s, manufactured, Technicolor, idealistic, mainstream hippie pop band while Minor Threat are a no frills, 80s, back to basics, self-started, black and white, furious, underground, hardcore punk band. Two polar-opposite bands playing the same song and each coming up with something unique.

 

 

 

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

Jilted John (Gordon Is A Moron)’ by Jilted John would be the perfect choice of cover version for The Wedding Present, with its themes of love, loss and jilting, but failing that, this’ll do.

Come Up And See Me (Make Me Smile) was The Wedding Present’s contribution to the Alvin Lives In Leeds, anti-Poll Tax compilation – a rich source of covers, but they’re mainly a bit shit. I first heard it as a B-side.

I got the 3 Songs EP that includes this cover on cassette from Woolworths or Our Price as a kid (it’s written about here, just below the L7 piece). I remember playing the tape to my mate Millhouse and him saying, “Woah, that’s grunge!” It wasn’t grunge of course, but it had a harsher, heavier sound, which complemented rather than overwhelmed the songs. This sound was largely due to the production of Steve Albini.

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The Wedding Present recorded two EPs (including 3 Songs) and the Seamonsters album with Steve Albini. These recordings are, to me, the strongest work that The Wedding Present have produced. Seamonsters has the same brooding, claustrophobic feel as The Breeders’ Pod (also produced by Albini and discussed in Magnificent Cover Version No.2). Like Pod, it also has brilliant songs.

Around this time, I remember reading an interview with Steve Albini in which he complained about love being the default subject matter for songs. He couldn’t understand why this was the case since love, to him, boiled down to the act of rubbing genitals together; the old romantic. Makes you wonder what he made of David Gedge’s lovelorn lyrics.

Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) was a cover of a Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel song and it was perfectly suited to The Wedding Present. They speeded it up and stripped it down from the sleazy, sub-Bowie original, turning it into an edgy, angst-filled indie-rock classic.

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I’d never heard of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel before hearing this cover but I discovered two things about them afterwards. 1) Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel are a band, not a duo. 2) Steve Harley’s sister lived in the house that backed onto mine when I was growing up. I don’t know if he ever visited but I wouldn’t have recognised him if he had.

The sister of Bob Catley, the lead singer of Magnum, lived a couple of doors down from us too. I saw him a few times – my dog once took exception to his leather trousers and ran up to him barking furiously. It was the most upset I ever saw her. She was absolutely livid about those trousers. She didn’t bite him or anything and I dragged her away pretty quickly. During the incident Bob Catley looked a bit alarmed but he didn’t run away. He just said, “Hey, cool it dawg”, in an American accent, like he was from Venice Beach rather than Aldershot. Nice fella.

 

‘Different Drum’ by Linda Ronstadt, covered by The Lemonheads – Magnificent Cover Version No. 27

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

 

 

‘Hey, Hey Helen’ by ABBA, covered by Lush – Magnificent Cover Version No. 3

The first two Magnificent Cover Versions were absolute classics, in my mind and clear improvements on the originals. And in both cases the originals were by bands with serious kudos; Devo and THE BEATLES, FFS! So, compared to those first two, Magnificent Cover Version No. 3 took a bit of a risk: not so much with Lush, but with ABBA.

 

One of my cousins grew up abroad, in a country where the latest pop music wasn’t available. When she came back as a teenager, the only pop group she knew was ABBA. Me and my sister thought that this was hilarious – my big sister liked Nik Kershaw,  I didn’t really think about music much. By the time I was a teenager and thought about music a lot, ABBA were just a kitsch band from distant yesteryear.

A couple of years before the ABBA revival, which seems to have lasted ever since, I went to Ibiza for a fortnight with my mate Millhouse. Millhouse was in charge of the music, which meant a cassette player as hand luggage and one mix-tape, which he compiled especially.

That mix-tape was weird. I can’t remember it all, but I will always associate the tracks I do recall from it with that holiday. The Sex Pistols’ ‘Holiday In The Sun’ was one (an obvious choice); ‘Flashlight’ by Parliament was another. ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’ by Ian Dury and the Blockheads was on it and ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ by ABBA. Don’t ask me why he put it on there, but ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ was new to me and it ROCKED!

A couple of months ago, I was writing a piece about a new shoegaze compilation, which had led me to rediscover Lush. Lush happened to be releasing their first new material for decades at the time, so it’s fair to say that they were high up in my consciousness when I was thinking about the first Magnificent Cover Versions; ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ became No. 3.

The original song is a slow-paced, glam rock stomp and the cover is an upbeat, ethereal jangle and they’re both great. Back in Magnificent Cover Version No. 1, a ‘rule’ was set that the cover should be better than the original, but I think with this one it depends on your mood. So, three choices in, I’ve already bent one of the ridiculous, arbitrary rules that would come to cause me such a pain in the arse later on in this ‘project’ I should have just chosen their amazing cover of ‘Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep’. But who were Lush covering there? It was originally by someone called Lally Stott, but it was the version released by the band Middle Of The Road that made ‘Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep’ (inexplicably) popular. So who was being covered? This was a question which come up again and again with other covers. Also, Lush’s cover was from the ‘Alvin Lives In Leeds’, anti-Poll Tax compilation and another ridiculous, arbitrary rule I set was that there could only be one song from any one album, and there were better choices on there….

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