Thursday, 2 July 2009

"Japan's marvellous pop scientists"

Ah, 2003. It seems so long ago. Back then, Mark X of unsuccessful television website BrokenTV was working on an even more unsucessful videogaming website called XB2. And as such, he'd started penning a rundown of the top 100 cover versions of all-time. Now, that never got finished, and since 2003 the currency of "bands doing interesting cover versions" has been massively devalued by Jo Whiley's Live Lounge, so it's likely to remain utterly unfinished.

Join us now, as we dip into this hitherto unpublished work. Hard to think it was just five short years from this, to the legendary piece "Taking Some Screenshots Of Twitter From and Pretending That's A Worthwhile Thing To Put Online".

"Part one of our mammoth guide to the hundred best cover versions ever. Heard Marilyn Manson's version of Personal Jesus? Ghastly, isn't it? Don't worry, it's nowhere near this listing - it's safely locked away in our special Unfortunate Tribute Song Containment Area. The leaves the cream of the crop free to roam our specially commisioned convention hall... no, this isn't going anywhere. It's a list of the hundred best cover versions ever. The 100 has already been decided on by our team of top musicologists, and over the coming weeks we'll be dipping into the list to bring you random highlights from the numbers eleven to one hundred. Once the ninety runners-up have been listed, it'll be time for our celebrity fronted Grand Final, where the best ten cover versions of always (each of which will have a top celeb going in 'to bat' for it) do battle, until the votes have all been counted and Only Fools and Horses is declared the winner due to circumstances.

There are rules. Not only is just one song per act allowed into the list, but only one song per album (to stop, say, all the tracks from NME Ruby Trax filling half the chart. That would be too easy). Different versions of the same song by different artists are permitted, however. Why? Because. So! Let's get going. Starting with:

B-Side, "Rocket" (1989).
Originally recorded by: Engelbert Humperdinck

One of the unhappy features of living in the 21st century, despite the lack of jetpacks and food in pill form, is the proliferation of rubbish rock versions of bygone pop songs. Always made with the clear intent of "knowing it's the only way your band is likely to get on daytime MTV and into the top ten, but if anyone asks we'll pretend we're being ironic", this method has unhappily propelled the likes of Limp Bizkit and Alien Ant Farm into the mainsteam (and as such, into the unprotected eardrums of anyone unfortunate enough to be near a radio in daylight hours), while bands who Do Things Properly (hello, The Kowalskis) rarely get further than KWAQ 97.8FM. This is wrong.

And besides, if you're going to do an 'ironic' cover version, at least do it properly. Like Stumpus Maximus And The Good Ol' Boys' version of Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me (Note to younger readers: The One That Singer Sings In That Peter Kay Beer Advert). Done very much in the style of Bad News, the Comic Strip's metal pastiche innowayrelatedtoSpinalTap, this is all big hair, spandex, harmonys and spittle inflected microphones. Y'know, like The Darkness, but more good.

It's a far cry from modern-day Rock Cover Versions in several ways. One, it doesn't benefit from having tons of major label cash pumped into it until the production is so sickmakingly clean you'd expect Jacko from Brush Strokes to have had a go at it first with a bucket of Flash. Two, it didn't have a promo video where lots of baseball capped teens jumping up and down around the band. Three, the band don't claim to be a 'punk' act at the same time as having a tour sponsored by Pepsi. And mainly: four, 'Stumpus Maximus And The Good Ol' Boys' were actually Def Leppard and their tour manager Malvin Mortimer larking about on the B-side to Rocket. At the time, a post-Craven Newsround pointed towards it as being indicitive of the pointlessness of B-sides and an argument towards single-sided, er, singles, but they were hopelessly wrong, as this is a great track. And I'm guessing, unlike The Darkness, one that's still worth listening to fifteen years later.

ep track, promo cdr(?) (2003)
Originally recorded by: Porno For Pyros

For the uninitiated, Action Biker have nothing to do with Clumsy Colin, the cartoon motorcyclist from packets of KP Skips and tie-in comic strips in Buster, and his tie-in rubbish Mastertronic Spectrum title from 1985*. But you'd probably guessed that. No, Action Biker (aka Sarah Nyberg Pergament) is Gothenburg's premier perveyor of quality lo-fi electro-pop, and this is her take on short-lived Jane's Addiction spin-off Porno For Pyros debut single from... ooh, 1993 (I'm not looking these up, you know). A much more fragile, dreamlike feel than P Farrell's original, and all the better for it.

Bafflingly, it doesn't seem to actually be available anywhere. I'd only happened across Action Biker in a programme about Swedish alternative music on MTV2 (in the small hours, after they'd packed away the usual diet of Zane Lowe approved corporate indie, natch). Checking them out via Soulseek, they seemed great, and a copy of their album has been purchased, but there's no sign of this cover on any site in the world.

(*I am wrong. Excellently, Action Biker are so named because of that very aforementioned Mastertronic game. Although it seems it's the C64 version they're referring to, so lose half a point, Ms Pergament. Although their song title 'Sandy Edwards' is a Prisoner Cell Block H reference, so three bonus points, there. Oh, and the start of 'Rise and Fall' reminds me a bit of the old World In Action theme, but this doesn't affect the overall score.)

Album track, "Luxury" (1999)
Originally recorded by: The Eurythmics

Personally, I always utterly hated 'that Lennox' and 'that Stewart', in any of their guises. Honestly, the only thing of any worth either of them has been associated with has been when Pop Will Eat Itself sampled the Lennox shriek for use in Everything's Cool (the last ever PWEI single before they split, actually, if you needed further proof of the EVILE POWER OF TEH LENNOX-STEWART HYDRA). Oh, and this, I suppose. It starts out as chilled electro-pop (that genre again), building into a full-blown modern pop epic (nine-minutes!) that makes you want to jump up and down like a total berk for the last six minutes. Of it. All thanks to Japan's marvellous pop scientists, Fantastic Plastic Machine.

It's so splendid, Edgar Wright takes time to mention just how good it is in the commentary track of the first Spaced DVD (although Pegg and Stevenson interrupt him, the scamps). Indeed, a shorter, not quite as good edit of the song appeared on the Spaced tie-in compilation CD, which really should have a big 'PARENTAL ADVISORY: CONTAINS THAT PREFAB SPROUT SONG ABOUT HOT DOGS AND JUMPING FROGS' on it nonetheless.

Incidentally, what's happened to Fantastic Plastic Machine? They haven't released an album for years. Do more records, Fantastic Plastic Machine.

33. Bran Van 3000 - Cum On Feel The Noize
Album track, "Glee" (1997)
Originally recorded by: Slade

Here at Xb's magnificently decorated headquarters, we like songs that start quite quietly, only to build up into a cacophany of sounds, like a swarm of locusts let loose on a orchestra or something. BV3's take on Slade starts like it's going to be all acoustic and gentle, with female vocals and handclaps and everything. After a moment, drums and distorted guitars kick in alongside the handclaps, and it all starts to kick off. Give it another minute, and it all goes kinda apeshit. Now, call us sluttish harlots if you like, but that's the sort of thing we like.

Once got played on Mr A Collinses Super Teatime Hour on BBC 6Music (thanks to us suggesting it for his E'en Better Than Th' Real Thing segment), prompting a flurry of calls from distraught Slade fans. This serves only to prove our rightishness. Also, it has been scientifically proven to be fifteen times better than the Oasis version of the same song. Which is a bit of a result, as tests indicate the combined musical output of Bran Van 3000 is only around nine times better than Oasis total output (although the figure rises to thirteen if you don't count Def Maybe)."

Ker-azy times. Did people really write in the first person back then? A different age.

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