Trashed! L7 – ‘Bricks Are Heavy’

For a brief period in the early-nineties, L7’s abrasive, metallic, punk-rock sound crossed over into the mainstream. They’d already released two albums of their ferocious grunge before they recorded Bricks Are Heavy with Butch Vig. That LP, and in particular, its lead single, the slacker anthem Pretend We’re Dead chimed with the zeitgeist, got a lot of airplay, caught imaginations and become a surprise global hit.

No one would claim that L7 achieved universal popularity, but they were loud, brash, self-deprecating and funny and they put out some of the most memorable tracks of the brief period when grunge was everywhere. L7’s contribution to that particular phenomenon is often overlooked these days but Bricks Are Heavy is an essential album of the genre; solid quality from start to finish and with some moments of real inspiration.

However, that’s not enough for some folks. And some of them have registered their displeasure via the medium of the Amazon review.

Some reviewers, like N in 2018, get straight to the point

“I HATE IT”

That’s the title and those are her capitals. The entire review reads:

“Wasn’t the music I thought it would be. Please take it back.”

No explanation of what she was expecting or why she bought it in the first place, but she gets across her opinion pretty succinctly. As does S, who dismisses Bricks Are Heavy, with the exception of Pretend We’re Dead, as “90s dirge”.

SBS employs a different tactic, lulling the reader in with a little praise to reassure everyone that he’s a considered and reasonable person:

“I respect that this band was an innovator in the grunge movement”

It’s a two-star review, so you know there’s a ‘but’ coming:

“But the songs are not that strong making this more form over substance.”

There it is! In fact SBS is so reasonable that he offers L7 some useful retrospective career advice:

“This band would have been better off steering towards a more melodic direction (the naysayers will call that going “pop”, “selling out”, “going commercial”). When you are a band, a good band, it’s not because you’re in a certain genre, or you are a pioneering feminist movement or anything else. Good songs/musicianship/arrangement are just that. Grunge is fine music but there’s only so much that you can do with it. This band should have taken a hint from what Joan Jett did and sprout some wings and develop and progress. They should have pursued the nuances of the bandmates and pulled from the grunge.”

No doubt L7 will be kicking themselves for not having received the benefit of SBS’s wisdom back in the ‘90s and transformed themselves into a completely different band. Too late now, sadly.

CW is also dishing out free advice; this time to potential buyers:

“Save your money and down load from I TUNES”

As is an anonymous reviewer from 2000:

“Save your pennies… you will be bored with the CD within a few spins.”

That review finishes with this cryptic sentence:

“Courtney Love is still the girl with the most cake.”

Now that’s one to ponder. CLD is also pretty thought-provoking in her review from 2003.

“Feminism is more than just tampons and big boots…”.

And that’s just the title. CLD goes on to credit herself with having her finger squarely on the pulse:

“British fans of the feminist Riot Grrrl movement will, or indeed, should know that it’s taken a good while for this pretty underground phenomenon to reach our shores and get anywhere near the level of recognition it should. L7, along with the likes of Bikini Kill, Babes In Toyland, Luna Chicks have been battering away at their guitars and rambling into mic’s about the life of your average everyday riot grrrl for a good few years with only a few of us finely tuned individuals paying much attention.”

Just to reiterate, this was written in 2003, several years after every single one of the bands CLD lists had split up and more than a decade after Riot Grrrl movement peaked. Truly CLD is a “finely tuned individual”. She reckons that “L7 had all the balls but not much originality”, gives Bricks Are Heavy zero stars and recommends that “beginners to the scene” look elsewhere because “the joy is found more in the message than the musical content here and we wouldn’t want to put you off!”

But if you thought CLD was patronising, B’s 2013 review takes condescension to a new level. Look away Riot Grrrls, here’s the title:

“There’s a reason why women and conventional anger is a difficult combination”

Ouch! The review itself says:

“The songs on “Bricks are Heavy” are not genuinely hard or even remotely emotional or “beautiful”; rather they are extremely conventional hard rock with a different lyrical attitude.”

“The vocals of Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner and Jennifer Finch are extremely bland and lacking in any sort of feeling whatsoever.”

And:

“the moodiness is so superficial”

Before this knockout closer:

“Women singing with an angry tone is awkward for biological reasons, and Sparks, Finch and Gardner do not even since [sic] with an “angry” tone here, rather L7 offer ordinary hard rock songs devoid even of hooks.”

B is all over the place here and leaves a lot of questions hanging. Are L7 attempting to sing in an “angry tone” or not? What’s so different about their “lyrical attitude”? And, most importantly, what are these “biological reasons”? We may never know, but it’s safe to conclude that B is just the sort of clueless, misogynistic dipshit that L7 would’ve really enjoyed eating alive.

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Trashed! The Velvet Underground & Nico

Trashed! ‘Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine

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

 

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

‘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

 

 

‘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