The Dead Kennedys covering ‘Viva Las Vegas’ by Elvis Presley – Magnificent Cover Version No.31

Viva Las Vegas is one of the standout tracks from The Dead Kennedys’ 1980 debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.

Given that the other standouts on this political, hardcore punk classic include Kill the Poor, California Uber Alles and Holiday in Cambodia, it’s slightly surprising to find an Elvis cover in there too. But they up the tempo – and the sarcasm – and deliver one of the great punk cover versions.

Elvis’s original, and the film of the same name, present a sanitised vision of Vegas, in which any chancer can rock up and roll their way to a life-changing fortune. In the film Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, a penniless racing driver who wins a fortune, loses it and pesters Ann-Margret for the unlikeliest date ever – featuring helicoptering, water-skiing, motorcycling and wild west gun slinging. He then – undeservedly – beats her in a talent contest to restore his fortune, wins the Grand Prix against his rival in racing and love, who is nearly killed in the process, then marries Ann-Margret, while staying on friendly terms with everyone and maintaining an extraordinary hairstyle. It’s the American Dream in movie form.

The Dead Kennedys were never big believers in the American Dream. According to Jello Biafra their infamous name was supposed to draw attention to its end. So their satirical cover of Viva Las Vegas could’ve been really scathing.

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In reality it’s pretty faithful, with Biafra’s campy vocals even taking on a slight Presley twang. The biggest difference is the subtle amendments to some of the lyrics so:

How I wish that there were more
Than the twenty-four hours in the day
’cause even if there were forty more
I wouldn’t sleep a minute away

becomes:

How I wish that there were more
Than the twenty-four hours in the day
Even if I ran out of speed
Boy, I wouldn’t sleep a minute away

and:

I’m gonna give it everything I’ve got
Lady luck please let the dice stay hot
Let me shout a seven with every shot

becomes:

Ooh, I’m gonna give it everything I’ve got
Lady Luck’s with me, the dice stay hot
Got coke up my nose to dry away the snot

Of course, messing with Elvis’s legacy is bound to attract criticism, no matter how subtle the barbs are. And in 1980, when this was released, just three years after the death of The King, it was even more provocative. But then, you don’t name a band The Dead Kennedys if you’re worried about a bit of anger from conservative commentators.

 

Jello Biafra is still active today, pointing out hypocrisy and injustice and rubbing people up the wrong way. Of course hypocrisy and injustice are really easy to find these days and a lot of people are pointing them out, but Jello does is really well. His anti-Trump rants on YouTube are awesomely entertaining. The best of these is the surreal one in which he shows off the pro-Trump colouring book he picked up from San Francisco airport, with each page depicting Donald in a different heroic scenario for your children to crayon – Superman Trump, Mount Rushmore Trump, Enola Gay Trump, etc.

Who said the America Dream was dead?

 

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

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

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

OK, truth is Alice Donut’s rendition of War Pigs may not be an improvement on the original. It might not technically be a cover version at all; more a reimagining or a tribute – a bit like Butthole Surfers’ cover of another Black Sabbath classic, Sweet Leaf. It’s obscure, funny and endearingly daft though. Endearingly Daft Cover Version No.1.

The track is a highlight of their 1991 album Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent which I acquired on a record buying trip decades ago for three reasons:

  1. Melody Maker had described Alice Donut as a “paranoid, darkly psychedelic hardcore band”, which sounded good to me.
  2. It was released on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label.
  3. It was called Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent; a superb title.

I’d never heard anything by Alice Donut before buying this album, but sometimes in life, you just have to take a chance and speculate £8.99 of your Saturday job money on a record by a band you think you might like. Tellingly, I never bought anything else by Alice Donut. But, then again, this record survived the cull my record collection endured in the lean years when I first got my own place.

It seems like Revenge Fantasies… wasn’t the best place to start with Alice Donut. The Melody Maker article quoted above recommended 1992’s The Untidy Suicides Of Your Degenerate Children as Donut’s best album. Listening to some more of the band’s output now, they might have been right. Untidy Suicides from that album is particularly good, especially if you like to hear a cowbell used in a song, which I do. Their 1989 album Bucketfulls Of Sickness And Horror In An Otherwise Meaningless Life might also have been a better introduction to the band, judging by this excellent tune, My Life Is A Mediocre Piece Of Shit.

At this point we ought to pause and reflect on some of the outstanding song titles that Alice Donut have used. We’ve already had Untidy Suicides and My Life Is A Mediocre Piece Of Shit, but their repertoire also includes:

  • Testosterone Gone Wild
  • Cow’s Placenta To Armageddon
  • She Loves You She Wants You It’s Amazing How Much Head Wounds Bleed
  • My Best Friend’s Wife
  • The Son Of A Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects On His Life While Getting Stoned In The Parking Lot Of A Winn Dixie Listening To Metallica
  • Madonna’s Bombing Sarajevo

Clearly, this is a band with a tremendous talent for naming songs.

Alice Donut band shot

Anyway, the War Pigs cover itself is an abbreviated, slightly stilted rendition of Black Sabbath’s best song (some people prefer Paranoid; they’re wrong) with the main difference being that the vocals have been replaced with brass instruments. Lines like ‘Evil minds that plot destruction’ are given powerful new resonance when farted out on a trombone, as you can imagine. While the original clocks in at nearly eight minutes, this one is all over in under three.

It turns out that Alice Donut had used this same formula since, with a live cover of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter, and they’ve used it since to cover the Pixies’ Where Is My Mind. Somehow, the AD version of the Pixies song, with trombones replacing vocals, works really well. In fact it’s quite a bit better than their version of War Pigs.

Of course what should happen now is that I should replace Alice Donut’s version of War Pigs as a Magnificent Cover Version with Where Is My Mind and rewrite all the stuff above. However, this is a blog not an academic paper, so instead I’m going to make this unprecedented move:

‘Where Is My Mind’ by Pixies, covered by Alice Donut –

Magnificent Cover Version No.13, part b

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So, there you go – two cover versions for the price of one. Alice Donut’s War Pigs wasn’t as good as I remembered, but they’re a much better band than I thought, with a penchant for performing songs in a rare punk/brass fusion and a wide selection of evocative song titles.

Alice Donut’s website  is www.alicedonut.com. It’s still publicising a show in Paris in 2014 so it looks like they’re currently inactive. Their Twitter feed tells a similar story.

 

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

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