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

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.

Mudhoney on stage  Spacemen-3-Press-4

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.

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.

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.

Mudhoney_album_cover  Recurring

‘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

‘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

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

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. 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!

 

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

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

Pixies: Doolittle – still their masterpiece

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.

 

Pixies – Live: Still Dealing in Magic

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

Pixies – ‘Head Carrier’, Everyone Loves The Pixies

 

 

‘Motorhead’ by Motorhead covered by Corduroy – Magnificent Cover Version N.19

Everyone loves a cover version that differs wildly from the original – it’s a natural, human instinct, like sleeping, eating and being physically repulsed by Donald Trump. So Corduroy’s 1993 retro-funk take on Motorhead by speed metal legends Motorhead is a treat for music lovers everywhere.

Lemmy wrote the original Motorhead while he was still in Hawkwind and his next band was named after it. It was his second choice name, behind Bastard. It’s a typical bludgeoning, breakneck behemoth from punk’s favourite metal band; doused in Jack Daniel’s, speed, sweat, leather, denim, long, lank hair and warts.

Corduroy take in Motorhead’s version, burn its clothes, give it a hot bath, cut its hair and lend it a smart new suit. The resulting cover is still recognisable, despite giving each component of the song a thoroughly cheesy funk makeover. Importantly, it manages to retain the energy of the original, even speeding up for the middle section. It’s the same song, cleverly reimagined and it works brilliantly because it’s as funny as it is enjoyable musically. The B-Side, London, England is also great.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – “But, ‘Crumbs, this record was released on Acid Jazz, a label which specialised in bland, insipid, funk-lite, with all the sex removed, aimed at shallow, faux-sophisticated, fashion-conscious dipshits who preferred to listen to something which they were assured by others was cool, rather than go out on a limb and find authentic music that might actually have moved their empty souls”. Well, you may have a point; you may not. But I’d like to think that Corduroy had a bit more kitsch self-awareness and humour about them than your average Acid Jazz band, taking into account the wit in their Motorhead  cover and the sleeve of their first album, Dad Man Cat.  And even if they didn’t, this is still a great cover version.

Primal Scream also recorded Motorhead for their excellent 1997 album Vanishing Point. It’s OK, but it’s a less a cover version and more of a dance track with the same lyrics and slight melodic nods to the original. I don’t really know why they bothered.

corduroy

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

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

 

‘Fuel My Fire’ by L7 covered by The Prodigy – Magnificent Cover Version No.18

Prodigy chucked this cover on as the last track on their 1997 classic The Fat Of The Land and it still seems like an odd thing for them to have done. The original is a typically raucous, driving punk tune from L7, built around two heavy guitar riffs – which is PLENTY for any song, in my opinion – one for the verse, one for the chorus.

Straightforward as L7’s version is, the Prodigy’s is even less subtle; its main feature is a bludgeoning drum beat, with the tune loosely carried by Keith Flynt’s Lydon-esque vocals and some filthily distorted electro-punk noise. Apparently ‘Saffron’, the singer from Republica provides backing vocals, but you can hardly hear them, so that’s OK.

The thing that’s hard to understand about the cover is how they came to pick it up in the first place. L7’s Fuel My Fire appeared on their excellent 1994 album Hungry For Stink. I really loved this album because, while most bands who’d found fame during the grunge era were consciously moving away from a heavy guitar sound, L7 went heavier than ever (it’s all explained here). The album is full of rudimentary, crunching punk riffs like Fuel My Fire, but there are loads of better examples – Andres, The Bomb, Questioning My Sanity, Shirley all top it comfortably – so it’s never made sense that The Prodigy chose it as the one to cover.

Turns out Fuel My Fire isn’t even an original L7 composition. They used the tune from a song called Lost Cause by the Australian punk/yob rock band Cosmic Psychos and gave it new lyrics. Those two basic riffs went on a surprisingly long journey from the Melbourne punk scene to the UK rave scene via L7’s LA grunge. More surprising though is that Kim Deal has a writing credit on Prodigy’s monster hit, Firestarter, courtesy of a Breeders guitar part they sampled. Who knew?

 

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

‘Motorhead’ by Motorhead covered by Corduroy – Magnificent Cover Version N.19

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.

action-time-vision-punk-box-600x808

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.

 

Pixies, Live – still dealing in magic

pixies-academy

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’.

pixies-logo

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

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

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, He’s A Whore by Cheap Trick (they imitated Cheap Trick on the front cover). 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.

bb-hes-a

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.

the-hammer-party

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.

big-black-songs

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 – its ironic title derived from Albini’s often-stated bemusement at love and romance having become 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.

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.

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

big-black-final-show-august-11-1987-at-the-georgetown-steam-plant-in-seattle

Millhouse – Indie Music Mentor

 

In many ways the early-nineties was a simpler time – when it came to finding new music, it was much more complicated. There was an abundance of ridiculously good material just waiting to be discovered, but pre-internet, navigating the musical underground was hard. To hear music that didn’t get played on the radio you had to be in the same room as the record or the band themselves. These days you can check out a Tokyo djent band on your fucking phone. Having a friend who knew stuff already helped a lot. Enter Millhouse* – indie music Sherpa; human Google; sonic oracle.

High Fidelity.png

Me and Millhouse were in the same school year but we moved in different circles. He was an academic high flyer with a serious appearance – he didn’t seem like a lot of fun. It was only in the last couple of years at school, when I started playing football with Sean, a kid from another school who’d known Millhouse for years, that we started talking. We had a mutual friend and our lunch breaks coincided so we started eating our sandwiches together.

Despite his studious appearance, he turned out to be alright – interesting, well-informed and pretty funny. This was in the heyday of the pre-YouTube home movie show You’ve Been Framed, when Jeremy Beadle hosted it in front of a studio audience, and we bonded over our shared enjoyment of that show. But Millhouse’s main thing was music – he could talk about it endlessly. I was vaguely interested in The Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, having seen them on Top Of The Pops, but he’d already delved well beyond that and he became a kind of indie music mentor.

Millhouse introduced me to a lot of bands that I still love. The first mix tape he gave me had The Wedding Present, Primal Scream, Spacemen 3 and the Pixies on it. I heard Nirvana for the first time at his house (the Sliver 12″) and Butthole Surfers (Hurdy Gurdy Man) and Sonic Youth (Kool Thing). He pointed me in the direction of John Peel and showed me where to find Birmingham’s independent record stores – Frank’s Wild Records, Tempest, Plastic Factory and Swordfish.

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all types of music, partly thanks to his parents’ vinyl collection, which spanned Neil Young, The Beatles, Stones, James Brown, Bowie and The Doors. My parents were much more sociable and fun than his, but their LP collection stretched to Barry Manilow, Nana Maskouri and the Grease soundtrack. It’s fair to say that Millhouse had a head start on me.

JOHN PEEL EADT 20 10 05

With a lot of effort, I got my knowledge up near his level. I’d listen to Peel nightly with a C90 cassette primed and ready to go, read Melody Maker from cover to cover every week and send away for fanzines – preferably ones with demo tapes included. Any earnings from my weekend job that I didn’t spend on booze I spent on vinyl. Millhouse, being too studious to have a weekend job, envied my disposable income and the boost it gave to my record collection.

It wasn’t just indie; this was a phenomenal time for many genres – electronic music was getting more diverse, sophisticated and interesting, hip-hop was in its golden age, and even metal was beginning to pull itself out of its eighties, poodle-haired nadir. We explored all of that and the psychedelia, punk, metal and funk of previous decades. The weirder and more obscure it was, the better.

charlie-brown

We went to dozens of gigs. We saw Nirvana, The Fall, Mudhoney, Carter USM, Iggy Pop, Spiritualized, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth, along with loads more great bands who were never quite destined to make it, like Bleach, Silverfish, Senseless Things and Jacob’s Mouse. We’d also check out local bands whose only realistic ambition was to release a demo tape. It didn’t matter that these bands were usually shit because we got to exploit the confusion that existed between the venue’s door staff and bar staff about who should be checking gig-goers’ ages before serving them alcoholic beverages. Sometimes other people would come along to these gigs with us – sometimes even girls! – but I would guess that it’s only recently that my wife has overtaken Millhouse as the person I’ve been to most gigs with.

We didn’t get on great all the time, Millhouse and me. He could be really irritating. When playing you something new from his record collection he would stare at you intently throughout and elicit a considered response the second the song finished.  He was mean too – I never saw him happier than when he came away from a bar with change for a £20 when he’d only handed over a fiver for his drink. He had a habit of bullshitting shamelessly, making up stories to make him appear more interesting, even if it made me look worse. But kids that age can be arseholes – like when Millhouse passed out drunk at a party and I tried to make him piss himself by putting his hand in a bowl of cold water. Didn’t work; he just woke up. Should’ve used warm water.

Me and Millhouse lost touch around the age of 20. After we went to university we’d meet up occasionally but we were heading down different paths. In the end he cut his hair short in anticipation of monetising his abilities, qualifications, personal motivation and ruthless bullshitting ability. Meanwhile I dropped out of my course in order to remain committed to a grunge/slacker aesthetic and following the path of least resistance. I think Millhouse ended up doing really well for himself and I don’t begrudge him that at all. I wouldn’t have discovered half as much great music or seen as many amazing bands without his guidance. We were always quite different characters but we had a blast discovering, no DEVOURING the music that I’ve enjoyed ever since. Cheers, Millhouse.

*Millhouse isn’t his real name. I doubt he’ll ever read this blog, but you know, I get a pseudonym so it’s only fair that he should too. This is despite the fact that his real name is perfect for him – slightly nerdy and comical without being ridiculous. It took a while to think of a suitable alternative. Millhouse suits him.

Pixies, Live 2016 – Still dealing in magic

The Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr & Blur – ‘Rollercoaster’ 1992