Johnny has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and when we meet up we talk music in a quite obsessional way. Sometimes we swap cover versions, something that started in hugely long Facebook conversation. That said a covers column seemed a good way of easing Johnny into LSF.
Welcome aboard Johnny.
So for this column rather than just choosing covers and saying why we liked them, we decided it would be more entertaining – for both you and us – if we commented on each other’s choices.
‘Nuff said, lets dive right in…
‘Hitler Was a Vegetarian’ – The Residents
Originally by: we’ll see!
Frank: I adore The Residents, the bunch of weirdos. This choice is something that Johnny may well argue isn’t a cover or even one track. Maybe an ‘interpretation’ is a better choice of word. In this one track – and I’m sticking to it being one track – The Residents interpret 14 songs in their own unique way, hey it’s not just one cover it’s 14, how’s that for a bargain. The song listing is:
“Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)”
“It’s My Party”
“Light My Fire”
“Ballad of the Green Berets”
“Yummy Yummy Yummy”
“Rock Around the Clock”
“Pushin’ Too Hard”
“Sunshine of Your Love”
“Sympathy for the Devil”
OK so I admit that some of these are somewhat difficult to hear as separate things – in some cases two things are played ‘over’ each other. And I’m going to admit that this isn’t exactly an easy listen. What sort of drugs they were on when they made this I can only start to imagine. Still I find it strangely charming and laugh out loud funny in places
Johnny: I’m sorry – I just don’t get the Residents any more, although I spent many happy hours in my student days rolling around on the carpet to them laughing like a loon and thinking myself very cool and avant-garde. Now I can’t bear to listen to them for more than…oh, let’s say four and a half seconds. In the interests of fairness for this column I managed to extend that to around one and a half minutes (a painfully long fraction of its 12 plus minutes) of Hitler Was A Vegetarian. For all its artsy weirdness, it’s just a medley of cool and not so cool sixties tunes. Maybe I’ve just grown old and jaded, a stereotypical grumpy old man, but to me it was just grating noise and silliness for the sake of it and I’m afraid I can see no art or charm in it. My bucket list now has a new entry – to succeed in avoiding hearing the Residents ever again..
‘Sex Beat’ – Alejandro Escovedo
Originally by: The Gun Club
J: Let me get this clear from the start. The Gun Club’s ‘Sex Beat’ has always been one of my favourite songs – a contender for my Top Ten. In my eighteen year old mind it was the perfect rock n roll song – urgent, brash, dirty and dangerous – just like the song’s singer and author, Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Many years later, though, I actually paid attention to the lyrics, read up on Jeffrey Lee’s tragically short life and realised just what a desperately sad, lonely and confused song it is – the fantasy of an awkward, chubby suburban kid who couldn’t get a girlfriend, but fancied himself as an Elvis from Hell.
The eighteen year old me probably wouldn’t have ‘got’ Alejandro Escovedo’s alt country version – he would have wondered what the point of it was, where the sex had gone.
By slowing it down, and the sparing use of harmonica, strings and slide guitars, Escovedo cuts through the layers of swagger of the original and lays bare the bleeding soul of the song that I missed, back when I was too mesmerised by the tiger in Debra Ann’s hips to feel the emptiness. Reinvented with desert dust on its boots but still with bourbon in its veins, I like to think this is how an older, wiser, alive Jeffrey Lee would be doing the song now.
F: Johnny, I think I’m with the eighteen year old you here. This sounds like something I should like – you know the ‘it’s something a serious music fan should like’ thing – but it just isn’t working for me at all.
It all feels a little flat in terms of the vocal ‘styling’. It’s a pity because I like the music. I might even suggest that the music could have been used for an original song rather this cover. I much prefer the swagger and trash of the original.
I get that stripping a song down can work, bringing out something extra that wasn’t in the original. But this strips everything out and then adds back something that overwhelms the words. Style over substance, to coin a phrase.
‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ – Nouvelle Vague
Originally by: Dead Kennedys
F: I think I may be on slightly safer ground with this. After my last covers column people frequently said that I should have included something by Nouvelle Vague.
The French band have covered loads of things but I chose this because I really like the original which I first heard on daytime Radio One (this may have been the Chart Show) when The Dead Kennedys released it. Given it’s lyrics this turned into one long bleepfest.
Nouvelle Vague’s signature sound is this sort of French lounge jazz. This combined with the lovely lazy vocal turns this song into the tale of a drunken night out. It’s damn fine.
J: All Nouvelle Vague songs work on the premise that you can turn anything, absolutely anything, into a super-cool, super-sexy song if you slow it down, swathe it in a cloud of Gitanes smoke and get a girl to sing it. Sometimes it works spectacularly – often it doesn’t. This cover is definitely in the former category. I would go so far as to say it’s their best song, better than the original. – because, for all it’s cheekiness, it’s actually edgier and more dangerous. I’m scared of the vocalist on this, and scared for her at the same time – she sounds genuinely off her head, especially when singing (almost giggling) the words ‘16 beers and started a fight’. Utter Genius.
‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’ – The Divine Comedy
Originally by Noel Coward
J: Well of course The Divine Comedy would cover a Noel Coward song. Nothing unexpected there. The precise, note perfect, classically-trained musicianship, the humour and Neil Hannon’s louche but perfectly pitched baritone were made for it. What is unexpected though is how they manage to fuse that aspect of their art with full-on, mind-bending techno to blast the song with a massive bang right into the 1990s and beyond. I doubt that any other band could have come up with this, or if they had, gotten away with it. I couldn’t have liked it more!
F: Somehow this has managed to slip past me, I don’t know how. So this is very much a first impression. Hmmm, not sure about this at all. Some of it I like, some of it not at all. The techno bits sound a little – how shall I phrase this – shoehorned into what was probably a note for note cover. And here I’m going to contradict myself, I actually quite liked the dance bit towards the end.
The problem I have with this is that although The Divine Comedy do the non-dance bits exceptionally well, and it’s almost a laugh out loud parody in a Bonzo or Neil Innes style, the techno bits are just average techno. If they’d managed to up those then I may have tipped into the ‘I like moderately’ camp. As it is, not for me.
Something I do like, in a similar vein, is the Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry cover of ‘Well, Did You Evah’. Although not banging, it has a swing and a swagger I find very appealing.
‘Hotel California’ – The Cat Empire
Originally by: The Eagles
F: So what we have here is a cover of ‘Hotel California’ by Australia band The Cat Empire sang in French and accompanied by accordion. ‘Oh come on Frank’ I hear you shout ‘you’re just trying it on now’.
No I’m not, I actually find this rather effective. Yes it’s bizarre, but it’s bizarrely good. It’s rather Brel like. Actually while you’re about it check out The Wine Song by the band. This band is the find of the column for me, they’re still going perhaps we could get them to come over for a tour.
J: In 1989, while I was sitting on a train waiting to leave Nice station, guards chased a vagabond through the train and out of a window and a fellow passenger sung and strummed his way through Hotel California without batting an eyelid, linking the song with France in my mind forever. For that reason alone I want to like this version, but I just can’t. I have heard similar renditions in many a square in many a French city and tossed a few coins at the perpetrators. Mostly they were doing a cover of the Gipsy Kings’ cover.
Cat Empire’s version is plodding, pedestrian and kind of predictable, despite the minor whooping it up too near the end. More pertinently, it doesn’t actually add anything to my understanding of the song, doesn’t give me a new perspective. Just covering something in a different genre or language, doesn’t automatically give it a new slant, particularly if the performers don’t, as here, appear to have any real connection with it.
For a better ‘continental’ version check out the Gipsy Kings flamenco version – the real thing. Then there’s Alabama 3’s sexy, dancey, late-night-smokey take on it. Or, for a real lose-yourself-in-the-headphones-for-a-whole-7-minutes-headphones treat – try Nancy Sinatra’s 2002 recording.
‘Hurricane Fighter Plane’ – Sort Sol
Originally by: The Red Crayola
J: The Red Crayola’s ‘Hurricane Fighter Plane’ is psychedelia. Beautiful, awesome, terrible, sparse, frightening, incomprehensible, and downright silly. Filled with space and cramped as Hell. Deep and dark and shining in starlight. The Red Crayola’s Hurricane Fighter Plane is psychedelia. You need never hear another ‘psyche’ tune – all of it and more (yes- life, the universe and everything) are contained in these few sublime moments of weirdness. Whenever I hear it (and I choose these occasions carefully) something special always happens. Tiny mind orgasms. My brain explodes and I am lost in space. And I’m always left wanting more, something else that maybe wasn’t there.
Sort Sol deliver that something more – bollocks. Simple as that. Lost in Space? Sort Sol hit the warp speed and hyperspace buttons and rocket you out of there with a big punk ass kick in the nuts. But, unlike all the straight and not so straight covers out there, they manage to keep the creepiness, the paranoia and beautiful weird chord changes of the original. But you know what? – I’m still unsatisfied. I much preferred being lost in space in all its terrible beauty.
F: This is the first time I’ve actually heard this, and I have to thank Johnny for including it.
While I ‘understand’ that this is ‘meant’ to be the same song as Red Crayola’s song covered in their own sweet way. It’s actually a completely different thing all together, it just happens to have the same lyrics and (some of the) same chord changes. Frankly I find this quite a terrifying thing to listen to. I’m in the process of listening to it a third time in a row and I’m beginning to get twitchy. It’s a twitch I want more of though.
I’m trying hard to think of a way of describing this – the phrase ‘it sounds like a punky MC5 crossed with band trying to be the Cramps but not quite getting there’ keeps coming to mind. This may sound like a criticism, it isn’t.
Ah, now just to calm myself I’ve switched to the original. Bliss. I feel transported.
‘I’m Your Witchdoctor’ – Motörhead
Originally by: John Mayall
F: Everybody has their favourite Motorhead line-up and I’m very much in the original line-up fanbase – that’s Lemmy, Filthy Phil and Fast Eddie. Fast Eddie was for me the best, no arguments. Apart from the brief Brian Robertson period it took two guitarists to replacement him, so case closed on his guitar skills there.
Motorhead was the first band I saw that actually caused long-term hearing loss, I couldn’t actually hear properly for over a week the first time I saw them. This may have been something to do with being too close to the floor mounted bass stacks, who knows. Still that gig is one of my favourite ever.
‘I’m Your Witchdoctor’ is from the ‘Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers’ EP – something I have in a rather nice 12” blue vinyl form (it’s an original pressing, and no, it’s not for sale). I love the tracks on this EP – they were out-takes from the first album – and my particular favourite is this. This is one of the few tracks that Fast Eddie actually sang lead vocals on, so that’s a bonus.
Frankly I just love the fact that it’s just such a mess, it sounds like a first take. And yet somehow it just works. Yes, they’ve cleaned it up a bit and there’s some rather stunning stereo pans on the guitar but it’s raw, it’s actually quite punky.
J: I love the original of this and its supercool mid-sixties Deram mod vibe. I love Motorhead too – but sadly I’m no fan of this. It sounds so ordinary without Lemmy’s vocals – It adds nothing to the original – it’s just noisy and the vocals don’t have the urgency that the song requires, and which John Mayall manages to give it without shouting and breaking guitar strings and amps along the way. For me this falls firmly into the ‘nice try but doesn’t work’ category, which is a shame as Motorhead produced some mighty fine covers, but it was always that bass and Lemmy’s unmistakeable gruffness that made them for me.
‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Originally by: Marvin Gaye
J: I’m driving through the desert in a ‘67 Chevy Impala big block V8 with 425 bhp of muscle under the bonnet. I’m wearing my best chisel-toed Venezuelan boots, drinking Wild Turkey at the wheel. I’m wearing sunglasses. Motel’s another 200 miles off down that long straight road and I lost the cops back in Reno. CCR’s full 10 minute version of Grapevine on the stereo. Need I say more?
F: You don’t, I’m right there with you.
‘Another Girl Another Planet’ – Wolf Alice
Originally by: The Only Ones
F: ‘Another Girl Another Planet’ is in one of my top ten all time favourite songs. Wolf Alice are one of those bands I’m always forgetting I really like. This wistful acoustic cover turns the song into something rather sadder than the original. But I rather like a cover that brings something out that was there but only hinted at in the original.
J: To me this is a nice demo, a competent open mic cover – shows promise, but instantly forgettable.
‘I Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ – The Flaming Lips
Originally by: Kylie
J: Oh Kylie. Everyone you know someday will die. But not you, Kylie. You can bathe forever in your very own bombastic space opera, swathed in cosmic glitter, beamed from Alpha Centauri by The Flaming Lips whose sole purpose, it seems, is to achingly celebrate you and your perfect tiny goddess form. This is one of those rare covers that is instantly recognisable, but utterly, utterly other. That is so true to its performer but totally tuned in to its originator too. It’s alchemy. Oh, Kylie, we will always love you, forever.
F: The problem I have with this is that the original is just so so perfect it hurts. It’s a piece of perfect pop. There’s no flaws, nothing you might have tweaked or changed.
I find it really hard to think quite what the Flaming Lips bring to the party that makes their version ‘good’, or adds anything to the original. It just sounds a bit like a studio jam that somehow got out into public to me.
Actually a quick search shows that The Flaming Lips have ‘previous’ in terms of covers – quite what they thought they were doing covering ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Space Oddity’ or joining up with Miley Cyrus to cover ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ I don’t know. I’m not even going to link to those, you can Google them yourselves.
I used to quite like The Flaming Lips, but you can go right off bands sometimes…
‘Heroes’ – Motorhead
Originally by: Bowie
F: I was slightly wary about including another Motorhead cover but I just couldn’t resist. This is just fabulous. It just works. I don’t even mind all that much that Lemmy’s voice is a little strained. And that guitar solo…
J: I absolutely love this. One of my favourite Bowie songs – Motorhead beef it up, fuck with the lyrics and rock the hell out of it, while retaining the song’s optimism, soul and goosebumpy elements. I would love to have heard a studio version with bass to the fore and Lemmy’s voice in slightly finer fettle.
‘Heartbreak Hotel’ – John Cale
Originally by: Elvis
F: I had a few tracks in mind for my last choice – ‘Enter Sandman’ by Pat Boone (truly scary), ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Sinead O’Connor (truly perfect) and ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Luther Wright and The Wrongs (a sort of blue-grass version which is so awful it’s actually good and apparently ‘approved’) – but I decided to go with this.
‘Heartbreak Hotel’ has featured in John Cale’s live sets for a long while, and there are a few versions out there on Youtube – including one featuring Andy Summers, another performed solo on piano and another performed in a sort of free-form avant-garde jazz fashion – but I picked this one from Stockholm in 1975.
What I liked about this version was the attack, the venom, with which he absolutely wrings the neck of the song. He just rips it apart. It’s quite quite stunning.
J: Now we’re talking. This is a cover that completely turns the original on its head to the point where it is barely recognisable, but in a good way. I love this live version for the same reasons as Frank – it’s raw and punky, ahead of its time and faintly reminiscent of the Birthday Party. Nevertheless I actually prefer the album version – yes, it’s smoother and more complex, the vocals and drums less primal. But it does, for me, have more heartbreak and some damned fine soul backing.
‘Get Lucky’ – Daughter
Originally by: Daft Punk
We both love this. We have no words to describe quite how wonderful this is.