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.
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.
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!
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:
Melody Maker had described Alice Donut as a “paranoid, darkly psychedelic hardcore band”, which sounded good to me.
It was released on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label.
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.
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.
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
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.
The Breeders’ Happiness Is A Warm Gun is a downbeat, oddly structured little tune that peaks quickly and winds down slowly. Its surreal lyrics and peculiar three-part structure conspire to make it sound dark, threatening and mysterious. It’s one of the highlights on The Breeders’ excellent debut album, Pod.
I borrowed Pod on vinyl from the library as a teenager. That’s not a typo or a euphemism, our local library had a record department that you could borrow albums from for 50p a week or something. Maybe you still can; I haven’t been to the library for a while.
I taped it, of course. It’s a fantastic album, full of sparse, brooding melodies, smoky vocals and Kim Deal’s distinctive basslines. Having never heard The White Album at this point I had no idea that Happiness Is A Warm Gun was a Beatles track.
Around the same time I was pirating music with the assistance of my local library, I picked up The Beatles’ Rock & Roll Music Volumes 1 and 2 from a second-hand shop. This was my first real introduction to their music (obviously I’d heard them plenty, but I’d never owned any of their albums). You may think that these two volumes aren’t the best way into The Beatles, but I was hearing tracks like Back In The USSR, I Saw Her Standing There, Helter Skelter and Revolution for the first time. Now I could see what the fuss was all about. I became a fan immediately.
So, when I finally got my hands on The White Album some time later, I was excited to hear the original version of Happiness Is A Warm Gun. John Lennon was struck by the title phrase when he spotted it in an American magazine and he and Paul McCartney attempted to turn it into a song which reflected its oxymoronic cheerful lethality, perhaps explaining its oddly jarring structure.
And it’s fine; it’s pretty good, but it’s not one of their greatest. It starts off brooding and interesting. The startling imagery (“Like a lizard on a window pane”) sounds nearly as good voiced by Paul as it does by Kim, but the middle section (“I need a fix”/”Mother Superior”) comes in a little too swiftly and without the noisy chaos of The Breeders’ version. Worse still, the doo-wop climax undermines the overall dark power of the track.
If you were going to trim The White Album down from a double to a single album – like lots of people say The Beatles should have done – there’s no guarantee that this would have made the cut.
The Breeders’ version of Happiness Is A Warm Gun is the definitive one for me. Maybe it’s because their version is less stylistically ambitious than the original so sounds more coherent. Maybe it’s because singing about guns sounds more plausible in an American accent (singing about The National Trust, less so). Maybe it’s because I heard this version first. Or maybe it’s because with The Breeders’ version, unlike with the version on The White Album, I’ve never had to listen to The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill in order to get to it.
Incidentally, you may have got the impression that from the above that this teenager, trawling around second-hand shops and hanging out at the library, was something of a nerd. Let me assure you that this was not the case. I was a musician, an aesthete, an athlete and very much a ladies’ man. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.