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

eight-miles-high-husker-du

‘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.

thebyrdseightmileshigh

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.

siouxsie_and_the_banshees_with_robert_smith

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!

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

220px-pixiesheadon

The Pixies’ cover of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Head On was released as a single in May 1991 – less than a year and a half after the original came out. As with Dinosaur Jr’s cover of The Cure’s Just Like Heaven the turning of the decade influences the musical style of each recording – the late-80s original features a drum machine and synthetic bass, while the guitars are heavier and more prominent on the grunge-era cover. But other than that, there’s not much to distinguish the two records apart from the vocal styles of the singers – Jim Reid’s drawl versus Black Francis’s holler.

Thanks to the compilation album Product 2378, Head On was The Jesus & Mary Chain song that I was most familiar for a long time. In the video, the Reid brothers looks like they might kill or cry at any moment, bringing to mind their manager Alan McGee’s famous comment about William, “He always seemed really annoyed we were imposing on his life of being a hermit in East Kilbride”.

I always liked the Mary Chain’s hedonistic original but the Pixies’ reworking tops it for me, precisely because of the stylistic changes and Charles’s holler. It was still an odd choice of second single to be released from Trompe Le Monde though; as was the first taster from that album, Letter To Memphis. But the Pixies were famous for sabotaging their own success, as can be seen by the big, MTV-averse ‘fuck yous’ their videos for Velouria and Here Comes Your Man were.

music_trompelemonde

The Pixies were always more of an album band anyway. Trompe Le Monde is one of their least lauded LPs, suffering as a result of the rising tensions within the band. Third album Bossanova is similarly seen as a poor relation by fans, but I have a soft spot for it because it was the first vinyl album I ever bought when I got my first record player in 1990 and consequently it got A LOT of plays and secured a special place in my heart.

The following year, I bought Trompe as soon as it came out too, but never really warmed to it in the same way. Maybe with Bossanova, the novelty of having a brand new Pixies album made Kim Deal’s diminished role less noticeable, whereas on the follow-up there was no escaping the absence of her vocals. It’s got some great songs on it though, other than Head On – Planet Of Sound, Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons, Motorway To Roswell – and if you listen to it in the context of the band’s last two albums, rather than their first two, it’s actually pretty great.

That said, everyone loves the Pixies no matter what and Head Carrier is pretty great too. I have tickets for their UK tour next month and I’m willing to bet that Head On gets a play.

Edit: they DID play it and it sounded incredible – Charles’s scream in person is still phenomenally powerful!

pixies-classic-line-up

A quick (unfunny) Devo joke

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

are_we_not_men_we_are_devo

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

This is my dog;

whippet-08.jpg

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

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

Sorry.

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

Whippet, ha!

 

 

 

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

20663-two-nuns-and-a-pack-mule

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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