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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key punk covers — not a best-of list

Happy Sunday, people! I hope you’re having a lovely, lovely weekend. I wish there were some pithy way to riff on the absurdity of the posturing in DC, with the continued separation of keywords  (“negotiate,” “good faith,” “will of the people,” “Americans for Prosperity”) from their historical meaning, but it is distinctive, awe-inspiring and, in the end, I figure, alas, brutal and debilitating.

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 there’s rarely anything wrong with that.

It seems impossible that there isn’t a great punk cover between 1979 and 1985, 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.

Enjoy!

Motor City Love — one measure Singapore, two measures Amsterdam

As X’s John Doe scolded many years ago, “Don’t forget the Motor City!” And, since I’ve always done as Doe commands, Detroit was on the table over a delightfully social coffee this morning, and I think our well-caffeinated imaginations have devised a proper solution to the current woes of this once-great city.

detroit  - 1

Like the word “blog,” “Motown” is a portmanteau (“motor” and “town”), and the city’s musical legacy runs deep and wide: John Lee Hooker, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Martha and the Vandellas, The Spinners, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin. Saxophonist Donald Byrd hails from Detroit, and of course, there’s the punk legacy: MC5, Iggy Pop (still got it), Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, and Suzi Quattro, with lesser-known bands such as The Necros and The Meatmen bridging the gap to the garage-rock sound of The White Stripes, The Von Bondies, and Electric Six.

Months back my dear friend John grew weary of the tepid solutions proposed by politicians and pundits alike, so here’s our proposal. Now, I’m not certain how we work out the pensions that should be paid (it’s a contract, and defended by the Michigan Constitution), but I think it’s possible.

Step one: Detroit as a geographical entity, alas, lacks natural barriers to development to the north, west, and south, and suburban sprawl thrived as the dominant paradigm in late modernity. Alas, it was much too late by the time folks realized that suburban life was long on promise and short on sustainability. With the Detroit River (and Lake St. Clair) along the east side as the natural border to Canadian neighbors, Detroit occupies a more natural location for secession. Detroit, a la Singapore, becomes a city-state.

Step two: Once the city-state is established, it can free itself from the cannabis-phobia just starting to wane in the US, and become the Amsterdam of the west, with pot salons and a plethora of bicycles. The urban garden scene of Detroit is already thriving, although the recent acquisition of 2000 lots for $600,000 by the Hantz Group may change things–we’ll see.

Urban Farm in Detroit  

(Photos courtesy of http://www.organicandurban.com/.)

The city has a rich urban cultural center, plenty of decent roadways (they’ll need to turn the street lights back on, of course), and somewhat expensive homegrown bicycles, too. (Images from Shinola and Detroit Bicycle Company, respectively, below.)

Dark Green

Of course, this blog is not advocating smoking and steering, or smoking at all. One might imagine over time, though, that dope taxes could fund pensions galore. (I hear Amsterdam’s swimming in cash.) I would simply advise that the powers that be have, like rock in the late 70s, become ossified, and that we’re due for a punk-rock-esque paradigm shift.

Best of luck to all the parties involved. There will be blood, and tears, and a solution, let’s hope. Many thanks to Sloop John B. for the inspiring conversation and stiff brew.

When Albums Ruled the World (BBC4 documentary, Feb 2013): a review of sorts

Welcome back to Sunday’s version of S-A-T radio, and I hope you have–or have already had–a proper day of rest or play (or both).

I’m grateful for Tim @ TheClashBlog for bringing this excellent documentary to my attention. (I look forward to also reviewing “The 12 inch Single,” an audio programme by Paul Morley, who is too smart for his own good.) Steve O’Hagan of BBC, The Guardian, et. al. takes a break from his documentary film on Central America’s Christian civil war to provide us with this comparatively light-hearted ditty–although to those of us who came of age in this era (or a wee bit later), the stakes rarely seemed light-hearted at all. O’Hagan and his crew offer a compelling narrative of the different strategies of album composition in the old sense–i.e., putting it together–both in terms of the studio recordings (Hendrix at the mixing board for Electric Ladyland), the artwork (the excess of Yes) and, when things got rough financially in the mid-seventies, the relative affordability of the live album (see Frampton Comes Alive–or not, depending upon where your affinities lie).

The story begins with Bob Dylan’s break from traditional to modern folkie. For his 2nd album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan  (1963), Dylan flipped the strategy from his first album, which only contained two originals. Here there are only two covers, and Dylan thus charts a path that will eventually be trod by Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, and Pete Townshend. The Beatles, for example, turned in a no-covers LP on their 3rd go round (A Hard Day’s Night), but the pressures of the assembly line (2 albums and 4 singles a year, I believe, were the initial expectations) drove them back into the business of covers on Beatles For Sale and Help!. Ray Manzarek of The Doors gets a good quip in on his first impression of the LP cover for Rubber Soul: “Oh, The Beatles have been psychedelicized!”

O’Hagan, too, does a fine job of drawing the thread from Sgt. Pepper’s through Marvin Gaye’s battle with Berry Gordy over What’s Going On (eventually 2M in sales its first year) and onto the conceptual brilliance of LPs by George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. One interview subject imagined Funkadelic as the black American version of The Grateful Dead, and I think they meant it as a compliment.

What doesn’t get captured in this documentary, which is a breezy 93 minutes or so, is the long shadow cast by Western concert music (or “classical music”) on the domain of rock. This influence weighed heavily upon George Martin and, in turn, upon The Beatles and on the subsequent direction of rock and the emergence of punk. George Martin, as you may know,  earned his music performance degree at London’s Guildhall School of Music, as an oboist with considerable ability on the piano. He possessed the cultural capital prized in middlebrow and upper-middlebrow circles, which were occupied by–among others–music critics of The New York Times. The Times’ Theodor Strongin, for one, argued that The Beatles drew upon more than the usual pop repertoire to build their own repertoire. In 1964, Strongin writes:

“The Beatles have a tendency to build phrases around unresolved leading tone. This precipitates the ear into a false modal frame that temporarily turns the fifth of the scale into the tonic, momentarily suggesting the mixolydian mode. But everything ends as plain diatonic all the same.”

The value of pop was recognized in terms of Western concert music, and this condition would reach its apex with Sgt. Pepper’s, Beggars Banquet, and What’s Going On.

In brief: Martin maintained the duty of LP sequencing, subject to final approval by The Beatles (Summer of Love: 128). In one version, Martin gave cursory regard to this duty, noting that he simply assembled the tracks randomly a few times, and the order on the LP is the order in which they sounded best. I consider this suggestion rather disingenuous, and reflective of Bourdieu’s concern with the “ideology of natural taste”:

“[Taste] naturalizes real differences, converting differences in the mode of acquisition of culture into differences of nature; it only recognizes as legitimate the relation to culture (or language) which least bears the visible marks of its genesis, which has nothing “academic,” “scholastic,” “bookish,” “affected” or “studied” about it, but manifests by its ease and naturalness that true culture is nature—a new mystery of immaculate conception.” (Distinction 1984: 68)

I think Bourdieu’s after how taste erases the history of how something is deemed good–it simply is good, and if you can’t recognize that, then you must not be a cultured person. The songs on an album might be arranged in a host of ways: alphabetically; tempo, slow to fast; harmonically; or by songwriter. For Martin (or any producer, for that matter), to impose such a “bookish” scheme onto the LP would be unnatural, especially for a classically trained musician, who of course wanted the LP itself to sound great–i.e., like a multi-movement composition in the Western concert tradition. I’ll pick up this thread in full next Sunday, and flesh out these claims a bit more.

Other highlights from “When Albums Ruled the World”:

29:00 — Jimmy Page’s refusal to release a single off LZ II.

51:00 — from prog rock to P-Funk

54:00 — the audacious, effectively unlabeled, LP cover for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon

70:00 — the beginning of the end of free-form radio: tight playlists through corporate ownership of radio, and how this development produced the odd composition history  of “More Than a Feeling” and the group deemed Boston, for the purposes of live concert revenue

I hope 900+ words is enough for today’s ditty, and that you found it worth your while. Have a lovely, lovely week!