parsing punk covers–and why Lester Bangs was right about James Taylor

Welcome back to W-SAT, where I’ll be spinning some punk and post-punk platters in just a few more syllables.

The boys over at Crave-online have come up with their 100 kickass songs under two minutes (it’s always boys, isn’t it, making allegedly definitive lists?), and there are plenty of tunes to celebrate here. I’m not sure how Beck’s “Cyanide Breath Mint” or anything by Soundgarden gets in above The Clash’s “White Riot,” but each her own–unless you omit The Replacements, then I’m taking issue. When half the songs on their debut LP start-n-stop within 120 seconds, they’ve earned the right.

Back in the day, amid many glorious and inglorious-ly drunken performances, The Replacements were regarded as the best cover band in the 1980s. The reputation was solidified one night when their road manager confiscated a newly recorded tape from a fan in the balcony and, after the band found the recording to be decent, sound-wise, and representative of their live shows, they released it on cassette as When the Shit Hits the Fans. Oddly enough, no one’s put the whole thing up on YouTube yet, but here’s a sample to whet your aural appetite.

The gesture of the cover, though, is more than merely indulging a few vocal fans. Once The Beatles–and, as a result, seemingly every other white band of that era–stopped offering tributes to their forebears, and started composing everything themselves, rock celebrated artistry. In turn, (white) people grew more earnest, stopped dancing, and abandoned joy altogether–i.e., they bought albums and went to concerts by Jackson Browne and James Taylor. The “singer-songwriter” appellation is not only racist, as a rule–e.g., Smokey Robinson sang and wrote songs, as did Stevie Wonder and George Clinton–but their music largely codified boredom, celebrated narcissism, and encouraged people to sit down rather than stand-up.

Punk as a great refusal p-shawed such navel-gazing, and reclaimed the joy of dancing and the glory of interpretation with fantastic and–in the case of the ‘Mats–fantastically blasphemous cover songs. As they did on so many fronts, The Sex Pistols arrived early, and helped ensure successive generations would offer The Modern Lovers their due.

The Clash followed suit, in part, with more earnest adulation for their Black Atlantic musical forebears. (Check out the brilliance of Topper herein.)

The Ramones, too, were a helluva cover band, and Joey is so adorable live in their version of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”:

I don’t know how The Slits have so effectively escaped their due attention in punk annals, so let me make another nod in their direction, via their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Before Chrissie Hynde offered the greatest act of fandom-devotion to Ray Davies by having his baby, she offered a brilliant cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing.”

Right around that time, The (English) Beat took stock of their influences and dialed up a lovely cover of a late 60s by Smokey Robinson, in a time when even the best bands had to lip-synch through TV appearances.

Their comrades from Coventry also dialed up some brilliant covers–including this double-time tribute to Toots and the Maytals:

I’ll wrap up with one of the more poignant tracks, in which one of the shabbiest bands pays tithe to true masters of rock artifice:

If spring’s arrived in your neck of the woods, please send a bit of it to your brethren here in the midwest. Have yourself a week rich with melody and delight.

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