heard on the wire

You just can’t believe the joy I did receive

A “covers album” comes in one of two forms, neither of which has made much of an impression on the listening public. The first is the generally dreadful and impeccably misnamed “tribute”, which generally comprises 20-or-so bands of which you’ve never heard performing terrible versions of much-loved songs. The Smiths, the Clash and Joy Division, among others, have all suffered this disrespectful fate.

The second form, however, can excite and delight. For some, the covers LP, is an entertaining diversion, for others it’s a raison d’être, but given a good artist armed with a decent record collection the result can be terrific, though I took some convincing.

The first covers record I bought was released in 1986 and pretty much gathered dust for two decades, until I revisited it and realised the folly of my ways. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Kicking Against the Pricks¹ was reportedly banned in some record shops, presumably offended by the blatant Bible reference. The LP includes renderings of the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, the much-covered and Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart, and this track, written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell.

Webb, a Los Angeles resident when he wrote the song, was raised in Elk City, Oklahoma. As far as the geography implied, “[a fan] told me, ‘This song is impossible.’ And so it is. It’s a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality. …it’s more of a song about something I wish I had done than something I really did, in that I did not get in my car and drive back to Oklahoma to punish this young woman for not reciprocating my love and affection.”²

Nice guy؟

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds :: By the Time I Get to Phoenix

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Jimmy Webb :: By the Time I Get to Phoenix

Perhaps inevitably, it took John Peel to bring the covers LP to my attention once more. Nouvelle Vague, as the name obliquely suggests, took a baker’s dozen new wave songs, stripped them down to their bare essentials, added some bossa nova beats and luscious vocals and the result was startling.

You can’t get much further from French bossa nova than the Dead Kennedys, the punk-inspired Californians whose first four singles are all among the finest records of their kind. It’s a pity that the fourth didn’t reach the UK top forty and earn an obligatory mention on Top of the Pops. Though, like the HMV store where I bought the single, the BBC would certainly have obfuscated the offending word. You can’t say “drunk” on TV…

Nouvelle Vague :: Too Drunk to Fuck

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Dead Kennedys :: Too Drunk to Fuck

And if you ever get the chance to see Nouvelle Vague live, seize it. Brilliant.

Regular readers will know that this blog is a hug fan of the work of David Gedge, singer and songwriter for both the Wedding Present and Cinerama and a master of the singular cover version. But while Gedge has never released an entire LP of reinterpretations, his bass-playing bandmate, Terry de Castro, has and very fine it is too. This is a take on a song by Animals That Swim, for whom de Castro briefly played bass.

Terry de Castro :: East St O’Neil

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Laura Cantrell, the world’s greatest country singer, mixed covers and original compositions on each of her first three LPs, but her fourth release was the first to eschew the latter in favour of a travel-themed collection of songs by, among others, Burt Bacharach, Merle Haggard and New Order, who should need no introduction.

Laura Cantrell :: Love Vigilantes

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New Order :: Love Vigilantes

And this is the exception that proves the rule — a great singer singing a great song as a tribute to a great band. Pity about the rest of the Uncut Tribute to the Clash.

Pete Wylie :: Stay Free

Audio MP3

The Clash :: Stay Free


¹ Or Kicking Against the P****s, as Apple calls it.
² Wikipedia | By the Time I Get to Phoenix
Photo: Chicory Tip from Crazee Kids Sound

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