Shellac – Live @ The Asylum, Birmingham

Shellac have a casual attitude to playing live. This is from their page on the Touch & Go Website:

Band information: While there is no specific coordination between Shellac’s record releases and touring schedules, you can expect the band to tour at its usual sporadic and relaxed pace.

They’re busy men, but they’ll get together and play when they can, and when they do, they’ll enjoy it.

Seeing them live, it’s obvious just how much they enjoy it. The chemistry between Todd Trainer (drums), Bob Weston (bass/vocals) and Steve Albini (guitar/vocals/living legend) is stupefying. Each element is completely locked in to the others; each one equally important.

Of course they shouldn’t be equally important, because the fact is that’s Steve Albini over there on the left. Even if you’re the biggest Shellac fan in the world, chances are that you only started listening to them in the first place because you love something he’s been involved with previously – be that Big Black, Rapeman, Surfer RosaSeamonsters, PodIn Utero, or, or, or, take your pick; you’re spoilt for choice.

But after two songs it’s obvious that the Shellac machine has three cogs and each of them is vital. They blast through the intricate, angular, stop/start hardcore with total precision and power; split-second perfect on every weird time signature, start and restart. I assumed this was purely down to practise, but they play a different set every night so it can only be telepathy.

They blast through their set – Squirrel Song, Dude Incredible, A Minute, Prayer To God. People say he’s mellowed since his Big Black days, but even after all this time making punishing music, Steve continues to find new ways of wringing abrasive noise from an electric guitar, can still be incredibly intense and can still scream till his jugular bulges. Bob, on bass, takes turns on vocal duties too. Often they’ll take turns to play rhythm, while the other handles lead, regardless of the instrument. Todd occupies centre-stage – skinny and exhausted-looking – he almost looks like he’s there against his will, such is the strained look on his gaunt face as he holds everything together with his shamanic drumming.

They have an understanding and collective force that can only come from musicians who really care about and love what they’re doing and have been doing it for more than two decades.

They complement each other as personalities as well. Bob is approachable and funny and does most of the talking, fielding the regular Q&A questions from the audience, covering a variety of subjects – haircuts, trousers, Dinosaur Jr vs Sebadoh. Steve is happy to stay on the sidelines for this but chips in occasionally with a witty remark – insisting that no one should feel obliged to buy a t-shirt because ‘you’ve done enough’. Todd stays silent, but gets involved from time to time to give a comic shrug or to give a twirl when Bob confirms him as the ‘sexy one’ in the band.

They’re playful during the songs too. One (incredibly loud) bar into their opening song they stop and freeze, apart from Todd twirling a drumstick in slow motion, for close to a minute before resuming in unison as if nothing had happened. During the drum break on Steady As She Goes, Bob and Steve run and hide behind amps at the side of the stage, leaving Todd on his own. And as the last song – the awesome Spoke – closes, Steve and Bob dismantle Todd’s kit, piece by piece until he’s left just hitting a snare. Then they wave goodbye.

It’s great when you come away from seeing a band a bigger fan than you were before. They put on a tight, loud and intense show while giving a new dimension to familiar songs, having a blast themselves and being genuinely funny. Albini got the biggest laugh of the night, telling the Birmingham crowd, ‘You have a beautiful city’. But he went on to explain:

“Beauty is only skin-deep. Think what you’ve given to the world. I’m talking about Black Sabbath.”

That got an appreciative cheer. Most people there weren’t born when Sabbath were at their height, but still, it was heart-warming to hear one legend paying genuine respect to another. In fact that’s what the whole night was – heart-warming – which I wouldn’t have expected beforehand. So yeah, maybe Albini has mellowed.

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

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

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Shonen Knife covering ‘Top Of The World’ by The Carpenters – Magnificent Cover Version No.30

Shonen Knife’s version of The Carpenters’ standard retains the blissed-out positivity of the original On Top Of The World, ditches the country and western elements and gives it a welcome upbeat, pop-punk twist.

On Top Of The World was released as part of one of those tribute albums that always look they’re going to be a really good idea but ultimately don’t add up to the sum of their parts.

For someone like me, who regularly writes blog posts about cover versions – for reasons that I can’t quite remember or adequately explain – tribute albums aren’t the rich source of inspirational material that they could be.

The idea is to take a seminal act like The Smiths, The Clash, or the Pixies, get a load of contemporary bands to cover their best known songs and package them up together in a collection. This ought to work more often than it does – songs you know covered by acts you like – but they tend to disappoint for some reason.

Carpenters

If I Were A Carpenter, released in 1994, is one of those disappointing compilations. It saw some of The Carpenters’ best known songs – We’ve Only Just Begun, (They Long To Be) Close To You, Yesterday Once More – covered by amazing bands like Redd Kross, Babes In Toyland and Sonic Youth but none of them really hit the spot, except for Shonen Knife’s Top Of The World. Unlike other songs on the album, SK get the balance just right between showing due respect for the original and putting their own stamp on the song, so it feels simultaneously familiar and new. I don’t see how even a fan of the Carpenters would fail to enjoy this as much as a punk fan.

Shonen Knife have been around since 1981 and in 1989 they got the disappointing tribute album treatment themselves. Every Band Has A Shonen Knife Who Loves Them features L7, Sonic Youth, Blue Oyster Cult, Lunachicks and a load of ’80s bands that have since slipped into obscurity, but whom no doubt somebody still loves.

Shonen Knife continue their cartoon punk odyssey to this day, recording and touring the world with lead singer/guitarist Naoko Yamano the only consistent member for their 36-year and counting career. They’ve got about 25 studio albums in their discography, the latest being Adventure from 2016, and they’ll probably be playing near you soon.

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Sex Pistols covering ‘Substitute’ by The Who – Magnificent Cover Version No.29

The Sex Pistols’ take on the classic single by The Who was recorded in 1976 but not formally released until it appeared on the soundtrack to The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in 1979. It’s an exuberant cover that captures the power-pop of the original, roughs it up and puts a rocket up its arse.

Pete Townshend was inspired to write Substitute by the line ‘although she may be cute she’s just a substitute’ in Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ Tracks Of My Tears. Approaching it from the substitute’s point of view – a man who knows he’s not as good as his girl thinks – the lyrics are a mix of cleverly self-deprecating – ‘I look pretty tall but my heels are high’ – jokes – ‘at least I’ll get my washing done’ – and sub-Dr Seuss, cryptic bollocks – ‘The north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south’. There’s an element of class-consciousness about it too – ‘I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth’ – which would’ve appealed to the Pistols.

You can hear the great Keith Moon screaming as he plays the drum fill about two minutes in. Supposedly he was so wasted and paranoid at the time that he forgot playing on the recording and accused the rest of the band, ironically, of using a substitute drummer and plotting to replace him. They had to point out the scream to convince him otherwise. Townshend was originally meant to play the solo on guitar but John Entwistle ended up performing it on bass. Roger Daltrey sings it pop idol sweetness and it all fits together perfectly for one of The Who’s best singles.

As with it is with most of the Sex Pistols’ legend the story that original bassist Glenn Matlock was sacked because he admitted to liking The Beatles is probably bullshit. Still, by the Sex Pistols’ time The Who were flirting with progressive rock and very much part of the establishment that the Pistols were anti, so it’s odd that they would cover them. Obviously the guitar smashing, volume and confrontational attitude of early Who made a lasting impression on Johnny Rotten and the boys and they were able to get over the rock opera shenanigans and long hair that would come later. You can hear how much they’re enjoying themselves playing Substitute too – it’s a really energetic performance.

Given how high-spirited the performance of Substitute is it’s ironic that it was released in conjunction with The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle – Malcolm McLaren’s interesting but deeply flawed vanity film project, made around the collapse of the Sex Pistols. The film was cobbled together at a time when the band members and management detested the sight of one another and Johnny Rotten quit just after production began. Legendary sexploitation, B-movie maker Russ Meyer was the original director, but only lasted four days before the mutual hatred got to him and Julien Temple, whose main qualification was that he’d been to a lot of Sex Pistols gigs, took over. Temple made something surprisingly watchable considering what he was up against, but it’s the soundtrack that really saves it – not all of it, there’s a LOT of filler. Some of it though captures the energy and adrenaline of the band at the peak of their powers, with Substitute being a prime example of this.

The Pistols’ supercharged version of Substitute is pretty faithful, if not exactly reverent. Steve Jones thrashes out a really filthy guitar sound and he reclaims the solo from Glenn Matlock, whose brilliant walking bassline has a real upbeat feel about it. Paul Cook can’t quite compete with Moon’s unique skills but he puts in a powerful, machine gun performance on drums. The biggest change is in the vocals. While Daltrey’s original was sweetly sincere, Rotten’s delivers his in his best, sneeringly sarcastic, North London guttersnipe snarl. It’s all dropped aitches and glottal stops – ‘You fink my shoes are made of levvah’. The first time he sings ‘plastic mac’ it becomes ‘wanker’s mac’ and there’s a general, healthy disregard for the order of the lines. There’s a joyous spontaneity about the whole song.

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle soundtrack feature a few covers and they’re all pretty good, but Substitute is easily the best. It’s the Sex Pistols at their loud, obnoxious best, before Sid Vicious came and went and Bambi got killed.

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

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

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‘Gimme Shelter’ by The Rolling Stones covered by Patti Smith – Magnificent Cover Version No.26

“I’m shrouded in the lives of my heroes.” Patti Smith, Please Kill Me (Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain)

Patti Smith always felt a deep connection to the famous. She seemed to simultaneously crave the company of beautiful people and feel awkward in it – as if  she belonged there but wasn’t sure why. In the brilliant oral history of New York punk, Please Kill Me, Penny Arcade related a story about Patti hanging around with Eric Clapton not long after she’d arrived in the city. Eventually he said to her, “Do I know you?”. “Nah”, she replied. “I’m just one of the little people”.

Patti first began to make a name for herself in New York by performing poetry and impressing everyone who counted in the punk scene with her intensity and vulnerability. When she’d finished reading a poem she would scrunch up the paper it was written on into a ball and drop it to the floor. Sometimes she would throw chairs.

It was a concert by The Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden that turned Patti towards music. According to Patti, Mick Jagger was “fucked up” that night. “He was not a rock and roller that Tuesday night. He was closer to a poet than he ever has been, because he was so tired, he could hardly sing”.

Patti the poet could sing. Her combination of passion, powerful voice and vivid poetry cemented her status as a punk star, right from her 1975 debut album Horses. She’s been there ever since. As a survivor of the original New York scene, she’s now practically royalty.

In 2007 she released Twelve, an album of covers featuring versions of songs by artists as diverse as Hendrix, Nirvana, The Doors, Tears For Fears and Stevie Wonder. Patti’s low-key take on Teen Spirit is great, but it’s when she gets to grips with the work of her long-time heroes that her charisma takes things to another level. Gimme Shelter is something of a sacred cow for Stones fans, and it took balls to take it on. That’s something that Patti’s never lacked. Musically it’s pretty close to the original but the raw emotion in Patti’s voice in her cover version adds a new emotional authenticity to an enduring classic and adds yet more weight to her enduring legend. Even when she’s covering other artists, she’s a complete original.

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I discovered Patti Smith through a cover version. Birmingham-based, Bleach-blond indie-rockers Birdland released a version of her Rock ‘n’Roll Nigger as a single in 1990 and the 7″ of this was one of my earliest vinyl purchases. This was at a time when I had no money and was rifling through bargain bins to boost my meagre record collection. It’s a pretty good cover; I certainly made a lot of worse purchases in those days.

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

 

Action Time Vision – UK Independent Punk 1976 – 1979

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

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

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.

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:

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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.

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‘(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

 

 

‘I Saw Her Standing There’ by The Beatles, covered by The Pink Fairies – Magnificent Cover Version No.24

Twenty four cover versions so far in this list and this is the third Beatles cover, this time I Saw Her Standing There, the first track on their first album Please Please Me and the song from that LP that’s stood the test of time best. I could’ve gone for Daniel Johnston’s lo-fi, outsider, piano version, which is touching and charming right from the false start, but went for psychedelic proto-punks The Pink Fairies’ stoner-rock take on it instead.

The Pink Fairies started up in 1970 in Ladbroke Grove, London. They were drug-advocating hippies and contemporaries of Hawkwind with a fluid line-up that often included two drummers, which is always a good thing. They were another band I was introduced to through Millhouse‘s parents’ record collection. I saw Her Standing There was The Pink Fairies’ second single; a hard-edged, hippie-rock take on a rock ‘n’ roll classic, reminiscent of Steppenwolf or MC5.

Punking up a Beatles song fitted in perfectly with The Pink Fairies’ outsider stance. They prided themselves on being anti-rock establishment. The band’s drummer/vocalist Twink explained, “[In] the era of rock gods, inflated ticket prices, and total inaccessibility for fans, we wanted to tear it all down. We waved two fingers at corporate rock by setting up and playing OUTSIDE corporate rock events. We played only for free, after all money was the root of all evil, right?” Very hippie. Very punk rock.

 

Happiness Is A Warm Gun, by The Beatles covered by The Breeders

Helter Skelter by The Beatles, covered by Siouxsie & The Banshees

Summertime Blues by Eddie Cochran, covered by Blue Cheer

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

‘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.

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

Action Time Vision – UK Independent Punk 1976 – 1979

Punk was a watershed moment for UK music, one which shook the mainstream, enlivened the underground and influenced everything that followed. Everyone’s aware of this but if you weren’t there at the time, how much do you know about the scene beyond its epochal acts – punk’s acceptable face, The Buzzcocks, its unacceptable face, The Sex Pistols and its conscience, The Clash? Maybe The Damned, X-Ray Spex, Stiff Little Fingers and a few others have entered your consciousness but even then the musical legacy doesn’t seem to match the cultural legacy. Action Time Vision is a just-released, four-CD set featuring punk records released on a variety of independent labels in the late-’70s which helps give an idea of the breadth of the scene beyond the main players.

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Cherry Red Records have developed a formula for this sort of thing – taking an underground musical subgenre, collecting together the best examples of tracks from that scene and sticking them on CD compilations, lovingly packaged with illustrations, photos and writings from journalists who covered the scene at its height. Just this year the label has released collections covering the early-’90s shoegaze scene, 1980s neo-psychedelia, early British electronica and the developing C86/indie scene. These collections provide a nostalgia trip for those who were part of these scenes and a rare insight for those who weren’t. Cherry Red’s punk collection, covering a scene that everyone’s aware of but not so many really know, is probably overdue.

In the case of Action Time Vision, the foreword is written by Kris Needs, editor of Zigzag magazine during the punk era. By his estimation, the songs collected here “wrench up the paving slabs to reveal what was really going on underneath street level during that seminal time”. And so it is that the collection starts off with The Damned’s debut single on Stiff Records, New Rose – which reached the dizzying heights of number 81 in the 1976 charts – before unearthing lost treasures that never got that close to rubbing shoulders with ABBA, like Lockjaw’s Radio Call Sign, New Religion by Some Chicken and the Poison Girls’ Under The Doctor.

There are 111 songs on the four discs of Action Time Vision, ranging from really great stuff, like Stiff Little Fingers’s classic Suspect Device, Little Miss Perfect by Demon Preacher, Blank Generation by Xtraverts and Teenage Treats by The Wasps, to energetic triers like Steroid Kiddies, whose 1979 effort Dumb Dumb,  sounds a lot like something by Bad News. There are also rarities like the previously unreleased I Hate The Whole Human Race by Newcastle band Big G and curios like a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made For Walking, released on the UK label Golden Sphinx by Philadelphia’s Pure Hell.

Early incarnations of The Fall (with Psycho Mafia), Joy Division (Failures) and a pre-nose-plaster Adam and The Ants (Zerox), are all featured and sounding great along with a whole load of other musicians who really made their mark in the next decade. Kevin Rowland of The Killjoys became the lead singer of Dexys Midnight Runners, Shane McGowan, Billy Bragg and Gary Numan started their singing careers with The Nipple Erectors, Riff Raff and Tuebeway army respectively, while Johnny & The Self Abusers had the audacity to evolve into Simple Minds.

Action Time Vision gives a real sense of what UK punk was about, showcasing dozens of bands who bought into its DIY ethos and helped give the scene weight. Listening to it is like being handed a crate full of obscure punk 7″s collected by a fan – and who wouldn’t want that? – it’s a compilation to live inside for a long time and really absorb. Everything included was released by independent record labels, and whether the bands featured went on to greater successes or disappeared after one single, they all got their opportunities and audiences from the same musical revolution.