how to make a great punk cover (reprise, updated)

Happy Sunday, people! I hope you’re having a lovely, lovely weekend. I’m in a reuse/recycle mode, and figure if it’s new to you, that’s what counts. I dedicated this past week’s radio hour on wobc.org (5-6pm, EDT) to great punk covers, and I’ll post a clip or two from that show on Wednesday, but wanted to update a post from last year at this time. (From October 6, 2013.) Enjoy!

… So, let me offer something short and sharp for your consideration: five key punk covers, in order of historical appearance. One of the virtues of punk was its recuperation of the cover song. In the rock-as-art movement commencing with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965), the turn to the original composition was a key factor separating rock from pop and, in turn, away from the black influence of blues, R&B, and even jazz, for which the cover or the standard was a key part of the repertoire. The Rolling Stones, of course, took steps to “keep it real” as the bluesy bad-boys foil to The Beatles by offering a cover song on nearly every disc post-1967 (not Goat Heads Soup–1973), for those of keeping score at home).

Rather than the cover song as something a combo played before they got better, punks held onto covers, and The Clash blazed the way in this regard, offering up lovely renditions of Mose Allison’s “Look Here” and Eddy Grant’s “Police on My Back” on Sandinista! The Sex Pistols didn’t last long enough to bother, but their posthumous releases, including The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, documents their (disdainful) affection for The Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner”–a punk standard, if there ever was one–and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” The Who’s “Substitute,” and, regretfully, Sid’s interpretation of “My Way.”

For a punk cover to rise to greatness, I suggest it needs to do one or more of the following things:

1) it takes a somber song and makes it joyful.
2) It offers a fun challenge to our sensibilities, by disrupting our notions of racialization, class, gender, or sexuality.
3) It offers a renaissance of the joy of rock’n’roll before rock-as-art and draws a connection between early 60s rock (or before) and the present.
4) It takes something that appears to be powerful and makes it wimpy, but with total “badassery”–my favorite recent entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The results, of course, can be unsettling and, in turn, provide immeasurable inspiration to make it through the day.

I’d be happy to hear your version of this history, but I believe it commences with Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” and the unrivaled opening verbal gambit. From SNL 1976:

A year later, of course, The Ramones release their debut LP, which includes a cover of “Let’s Dance,” but it’s the second LP when The Ramones truly shine as interpreters of rockabilly and surf guitar classics. Here’s a brief–although I suppose with The Ramones, it’s always brief–rendition of The Ramones doing “California Sun”:

The Clash, legend has it, had nearly wrapped up the recording of their debut LP and, with 13 songs in the mix, they had 28 minutes of material. They decided to record Junior Murvin and Lee Perry’s “Police and Thieves” (live super-snarl mix included here) for the album and, in doing so, made history by insisting on the inimitable blackness of their musical forebears.

I’m not sure this track rises to the historical significance of the others included here, but I have a real soft spot for decidedly groovy interpretation of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by The Slits. It insists on the imperative of joy, and what could be wrong with that?

There are certainly some brilliant covers between 1979 and 1985, from The Clash’s “Police on My Back” (The Equals), to Costello’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” (Sam & Dave), and Wall of Voodoo’s “Ring of Fire” (thank you, @MickeyUndertone, for weighing in earlier). But I’ve got to give a nod here to Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump,” which I recall hearing on rock radio in Sacramento and Stockton back in the day. The DJ would play some, if not all, of the track, and ask listeners to call in to weigh in on this travesty. They all hated it. I loved it. Roddy Frame and co. stripped bare David Lee Roth and co. of the bluster, the guitar and keyboard virtuosity, the spandex and the hairspray to show the world in plainspeak what exactly the song was about. (Of course a song is more than its lyrics, but not in this rendition.) In turn, they produced one of the purest, if mellowest, punk gestures ever.

Et tu? What are your favorite punk covers?

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3 thoughts on “how to make a great punk cover (reprise, updated)”

  1. Clash pressure drop
    Replacements another girl another planet
    Elvis Costello I just don’t know what to do with myself
    Graham Parker and the Rumour I want you back
    Johnny thunders great big kiss (or Pipeline)
    Rem strange (punks covering punks?)
    Sex pistols no fun (live in sf)
    Talking heads (punks?) take me to the river
    Yo la tengo nuclear war (or Blitzkrieg Bop)

  2. Dave, all right! I got some studyin’ to do, as there’s a few on here I don’t know (just yet). For the Mats, I do enjoy “20th Century Boy” and “Iron Man” (live only, I figure). Thanks for tuning in to Radio SAT!

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