Monday, 22 January 2018

The hidden world of R.E.M. #21

Yep, I've decided to revive this series. Kind of. I don't know how long I'll keep it going, and it won't be as frequent as before. Best guess, it'll be monthly - or thereabouts - for five instalments. After that? Who knows. Maybe more, maybe not.

To kick us back off though, well it's been 25-plus years since 'Automatic For The People' cemented R.E.M. as major mainstream rock stars, although musically there was much about AFTP that was far from mainstream. The recent 25th anniversary deluxe reissue of the record scuppered my plans for some of the tracks I was going to post here. It's a very decent set though, especially the disc of demos. You really ought to check it out if you haven't done so already.

So I've decided to go for a couple other tracks from around that time. Star Me Kitten was perhaps the most downbeat moment on a rather downbeat album. The 'Star' in the title is actually 'Fuck' in the lyrics, but the band apparently didn't want a title including that word. This version was released on the X-Files tie-in sort-of-soundtrack album 'Songs In The Key Of X' and is basically the backing track of the original with William S. Burroughs reciting the lyrics in place of Stipe. I have no idea when Burroughs recorded his vocal, but it was released in 1995 when he was 80. It's certainly not an essential piece but worth hearing, for sure.

Either side of 'Automatic For The People's release were two fanclub singles. Each one featured a cover of a song originally by British punk bands. The 1991 single had a cracking take on the Vibrators' hit Baby Baby with Mike Mills taking lead vocal. The following year, a raucous rendition of Spizzenergi's Where's Captain Kirk? graced one side of the seasonal 7". Not sure who's singing lead here. It's not Stipe, though his voice is definitely in the mix. It doesn't sound like Mills either. Peter Buck never sang on an R.E.M. recording which just leaves Bill Berry. But it wouldn't surprise me if any member of the extended R.E.M. family (such as manager Jefferson Holt, lawyer Bertis Downs or guitar tech Microwave) was involved either. Great version though, and proof that the band still had what it took to rock out when they wanted to!


Sunday, 14 January 2018

Bowie Week II: "Heroes"

To round things off, a bonus post featuring what is probably David Bowie's best known and most heralded song. "Heroes" (don't forget those quotation marks) has been covered perhaps more than any other Bowie song, so today here's a small selection. They're just the first five that came to mind. If I'm still doing this next year, maybe I'll dig up a few different ones. In the meantime, see what you think of this lot. All of them are a little different to each other while never straying far from the original's path. Only Kirk Brandon goes for the full album version though, and I think that's my fave of the bunch. But you gotta admire Lemmy for having the sheer audacity to change some lyrics!



Saturday, 13 January 2018

Bowie Week II: Saturday

As good as much of Bowie's 90s material is, it clearly hasn't been as influential as anything that went before it. Hence why there's so little in the way of cover versions of songs from that era. Even his early 2000 stuff has been largely overlooked. Which is why, for today's selection of tunes, we're fast-forwarding to this very decade and the great man's final two albums.

When Where Are We Now dropped at midnight on the 8th January 2013, it was big news. Bowie had not released anything for a decade and not made any public appearances for seven years. There was a lot of speculation about his health in this time, so it was a huge relief to us fans that our hero was very much alive and kicking. The comeback single, for me at least, was a little underwhelming - an introspective ballad in which he reminisced about his Berlin days. The comeback album 'The Next Day' though was superb. The same month, Villagers released their also rather excellent album '{Awayland}', an Irish number one and their biggest seller in the UK. As part of the record's promotion, they popped into the BBC Live Lounge and played Where Are They Now?. Personally, I think it works beautifully with just acoustic guitar and piano.


Three years later, Bowie released 'Blackstar' then died. A hole was left in our lives that will never be filled. But still his spirit lived on and the tributes came flooding out. Rising indie star Will Toledo records under the quite awful name of Car Seat Headrest. It hasn't stopped him from being one of the most written-about and musically prolific artists of the last couple of years though. In 2016 he included this cover of the first part of 'Blackstar''s title track in his set at the Pitchfork Festival.


A little later in the year, an intriguing release came in the form of 'Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute'. It was the work of American musician and composer Jherek Bischoff and Australian singer/musician Amanda Palmer. They roped in a few friends and recorded some of Bowie's biggest hits with a string section. Here, Palmer duets with the wonderful Anna Calvi on a full-length take on Blackstar. I love this but think I'll go for Villagers today, though it's a close call.


One final, special bonus instalment to come tomorrow...

Friday, 12 January 2018

Bowie Week II: Friday

As a new decade dawned, so did a new Bowie. The 80s started pretty well for him, a number one single with Ashes To Ashes and a number one album with 'Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)'. Ashes To Ashes remains one of Bowie's finest moments. It's a phenomenal track, it really is. It's possibly also the first 'sequel' to top the charts, giving us an update of poor old Major Tom from Space Oddity. It's easy to suggest that Welsh trio The Joy Formidable jumped on the 'Death of Bowie' bandwagon when they included a cover of Ashes To Ashes on their 'Sleep Is Day EP' in October 2016, but they actually did a wonderfully atmospheric take on it.


Teenage Wildlife was one of many highlights on 'Scary Monsters...'. Bowie has said his vocal was an imitation of Ronnie Spector. I'm not sure about that, but musically it's not a million miles away from "Heroes". The lyrics are a thinly-veiled swipe at the arty post-punk brigade, in particular Gary Numan ("Same old thing in brand new drag..."). Ash had wild lives in their teens. They played Glastonbury when they should have been sitting their A Levels for chrissakes! Ash make Teenage Wildlife sound like an Ash song. It's louder, faster and altogether more youthful-sounding. Terrific stuff.


As the decade wore on, Dave became less and less interested in being the innovator. He craved hits. The strange thing is, he had plenty while he was making great music. Once he started actually trying to write hits, his music went downhill fast. Everything got bogged down in that awful 80s production that has dated so badly. His mid-80s albums were dreadful affairs. Yet, even in the midst of this low period, a gem would rear its head and Bowie fans were reassured - albeit temporarily - that he still had it in him to make brilliant records. Absolute Beginners was one such track. One of my favourite Bowie songs, possibly even in my Top 3.

Saint Etienne recorded a version of Absolute Beginners for one of their fan club releases in the 90s. It's an interesting one. It sounds like The Go! Team, but they hadn't even formed when Saint Etienne did this. Now, I won't hear a bad thing about Sarah, Bob and Pete, but while I admire their audacity to do something new with the song, I really don't think I can listen to it without feeling so disappointed that it's not Bowie's version.


While writing this article, I realised the first three songs featured acts from Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Had I noticed this earlier, I would have tried to track down a Scottish act to round things off. As it is, I'd already prepared this one. Now, my daughters were introduced to Bowie by MrsRobster in the form of Labyrinth, a movie she claims to love. Personally, I reckon she liked his extremely tight trousers and everso-noticeable bulge as much as his acting, but she'd never admit it. Bowie wrote a number of songs for the soundtrack which, like most of his stuff from the period, is pretty much unlistenable. But As The World Falls Down is a beautiful ballad which, if it were recorded in any other decade could well have been one of his most memorable songs. On her 2011 covers EP 'Baggage', Dutch songstress Signe Tollefsen stripped that 80s sound away and just let the song do the work. Gorgeous.


I'm really torn between Signe and Ash as my favourite today. Hmmm... I call a tie.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Bowie Week II: Thursday

Ah, the Berlin Trilogy. One of Bowie's most experimental, yet fertile periods. There's an equal spread of great songs and strangeness to be found on those three records. Personally, I'd settle for a 'Berlin Highlights' album, rather than listen to all three in full. Don't hate me - I'm a massive Bowie fan, as you know, so that's not blasphemy, OK? One song that would be sure to feature - in fact it would open the record - is Sound And Vision, one of my Top 10 Bowie moments for sure. Franz Ferdinand recorded this rather splendid version for the BBC to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Radio One in 2007. Those backing singers? Why, it's none other than Girls Aloud. Honestly!


For me, "Heroes" is the best record of the trilogy. Oh yeah, I said as much here. The title track is one of Bowie's best known and most universally loved songs, but I'm going to throw a curveball and plump for this take on the album's closing number. B.E.F. consisted of two members of Heaven 17 who had also been in the Human League. They made four albums, including their own trilogy 'Music Of Quality And Distinction', which consisted of cover versions featuring guest vocalists. Volume One included this version of Secret Life Of Arabia with the voice of Billy McKenzie. Wait a mo, wasn't he here yesterday? Oh no matter, I'm sure you won't mind...


'Lodger' has never been a critics favourite, but a lot of fans like it a lot. The Swede, for instance. Some really good songs on it, for sure. It marked the end of the Bowie/Eno partnership, but they clearly had a lot of fun working together, as some of 'Lodger''s tracks suggest. Boys Keep Swinging is a bit of a throwback to Dave's gender-bending glam rock past self and is probably the main highlight. A Camp was the solo project of Nina Persson, singer with Swedish popsters The Cardigans. Around the time of her second album, she released an EP of cover versions entitled - wait for it - 'Covers' (see what she did there?) It featured a more than decent airing of Boys Keep Swinging.


Tough one to call today. If you pushed me, I'd probably go for Franz Ferdinand, mainly because I really really love Sound And Vision. I suppose we ought to deal with the elephant in the room while we're at it: "Heroes". So many covers of that over the years, so where is it? Well, hold that thought 'til the weekend. That's all I'm saying for now. In the meantime, as a special treat, here's one of the most epic covers you'll ever see/hear. Beck is no stranger to thinking outside the box when it comes to music, so here's how he does Sound And Vision. Well, he and 157 other musicians playing everything from musical saws to gamelan instruments. There's even a yodeller and an Alpenhorn.




Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Bowie Week II: Wednesday


Bowie turned his back on glam as others tried to eke out as much of a living from it as they could years past its sell-by date. What he did next came as shock to many. Recording a soul album wouldn't have been at the top of many people's lists, but that's exactly what he did. His first attempt was abandoned (released as 'The Gouster' in the 2016 box set 'Who Can I Be Now?'), but the sessions eventually yielded 'Young Americans'. Critics at the time were less than complimentary, but later on, with hindsight, they've been kinder.

Which is more than I'm going to be about The Cure's take on the title track. Recorded for former alternative radio station XFM, it is pretty diabolical. Sorry, I love The Cure, but I can't excuse this mess.



Now, you probably know of my love for 'Station To Station', for me the Bowie album against which all others must be judged. I won't go on about it. In 2013, Melvins released 'Everybody Loves Sausages', an album of cover versions which included this rather loud rendition of Station To Station, featuring Aussie maverick JG Thirlwell on lead vocals. It's a faithful take in some respects, but doesn't set my pulses racing like it ought to, what with it being the Melvins and all.


The highlight of 'Station To Station' is Bowie's incredible version of Wild Is The Wind. That's the one I turn to when I need a lift. Thing is, he didn't write it - it's a cover. Johnny Mathis did it first, then Nina Simone made it her own. Countless others have also had a go. Now you can argue all you like about the best version of this, but no one's going to convince me of anything other than Bowie's version being the definitive one. THAT VOICE!

I'm more than well aware of the love many of my readers have for the late Billy McKenzie, so I'm going to be honest here. His version of Wild Is The Wind appeared on a posthumous EP of the same name, and while it can't hold a candle to Bowie's version, it does have something special about it. It's certainly the best of the bunch as far as today's songs go.


But I also think this is worthy of a mention. Birmingham blues bombshell Joanne Shaw Taylor recorded this version on her 2016 album 'Wild'. My only criticism is that I wish she'd let her voice really go on the "Don't you know you're life itself" part. But then, maybe she's trying to do something different with it. There's something about her deep, husky blues tone that seduces me whenever I hear her.


Next stop - Berlin.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Bowie Week II: Tuesday

With glam rock in full swing, Bowie became a household name. Shortly after 'Ziggy Stardust' had cemented his name into the consciousness of rock 'n' roll, he trotted out a series of hits that just outdid his contemporaries each time. John, I'm Only Dancing was the first new one, appearing in the autumn of 1972. It was no radical departure, but the subject matter has often been discussed. The most popular consensus is that it's about a gay man reassuring his boyfriend that he doesn't have serious intentions towards a female companion, that he is merely "dancing" with her. Confusingly, two versions were released as a single in the UK with the same catalogue number, one with and one without a sax part.

Manchester-based Californian Jesca Hoop is an interesting character herself, and her latest album, last year's 'Memories Are Now', was her best to date. There's no sax in her version which is taken from a 2015 tribute album called 'A Salute To The Thin White Duke'.



'Aladdin Sane' was not Bowie's best album but it's best moments rate extremely highly indeed. Drive-In Saturday in particular is a stand-out. It's no secret that Morrissey was a long-time Bowie fan. The feeling was clearly mutual as Dave himself once covered I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday on his 1993 comeback record 'Black Tie White Noise'. However, a couple of years later, while on tour together, the pair fell out and Moz, typically, remained rather bitter about it for, well, forever really. "I bear more grudges than lonely High Court judges," as he once crooned. And yet he performed a version of Drive-In Saturday during his US tour in 2007, subsequently releasing  a recording of it as a b-side the following year.


Glam's last hurrah, for Bowie at least, came in the form of 1974's 'Diamond Dogs' which was altogether darker and more arty than anything he'd done before. While some strung the whole glam thing out for far more than it was worth, Dave moved on. But not before he released what remains one of his defining songs of the period, the stomping Rebel Rebel.

What I find interesting is how Bowie's influence has been as much upon female artists as male ones. That's probably illustrated quite well by this series so far, actually. One of many Bowie tribute albums was 'Spiders From Venus' which featured exclusively female acts. Canadian twins Tegan And Sara name Bowie as one of their influences and contributed their version of Rebel Rebel to this album. They are the only act on the thing I've ever heard of, and if I'm being honest, I've heard better. They do play it pretty straight.




Today's winner: Jesca Hoop. Back tomorrow...

Monday, 8 January 2018

Bowie Week II: Monday

Today, David Bowie would have turned 71 years old. While it's difficult to believe he could ever have been as old as 71, it's even more difficult to believe he's no longer with us.

At the start of 1972, David Bowie had enjoyed a couple of big hits and was noted as a rising star. By the end of the same year, he was the hottest property on planet Earth. The reason? 'The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars', a concept album based on the premise of an alien rock star coming to our planet to save us from imminent destruction. Bowie played the title role and exploded into the pop music stratosphere. The album's apocalyptic opening track set the scene, and it sounded pretty ominous, telling of the oncoming doom of the human race. In 2002, 20-odd daft Texans wearing robes, led by a guy called Tim deLaughter, covered 5 Years in the BBC studios. They looked like a cult singing about the oncoming doom of the human race. Now that's pretty ominous...


Soul Love is probably the deepest, most profound moment on 'Ziggy' for me. Our hero seems to be questioning the very point of 'love', what it is exactly, and why it is he feels so alone. At least, that's what I get out of it. I'm probably wrong. For some reason, Bowie seldom played it live, yet it remains a bit of a favourite among fans. Here, the divine Cerys Matthews adds her gorgeous Welsh lilt and a bit of an electronic groove to the song. This appeared on the b-side of her debut solo single Open Roads.


I was a teenage Frankie fan. Although I knew David Bowie from Ashes to Ashes, Let's Dance, etc, I wasn't so up to speed on his earlier stuff and this was my introduction to Suffragette City. The song's meaning is ambiguous to say the least. Some say it's about drugs, some say it's sex, some say it's both and some say it's neither. Either way, it remains one of the best-known songs on 'Ziggy'. Frankie's version is imbued with Trevor Horn's trademark electro production. It sounded great in 1986 when it came out as a b-side on the Rage Hard 12", but in 2018 it's rather lacking the angst-ridden energy of the original and sounds pretty dated and weak. To these ears, anyway. Cerys wins today.


The glam years have begun. More tomorrow...

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Bowie Week II: Sunday

This year for Bowie week, marking the second anniversary of the great man's sad passing, I'm going to look at some of his songs as interpreted by others. His influence was so humungous, it's no surprise there has been a plethora of tribute releases over the years. Not all my selections come from these. In fact many were recorded as b-sides, album tracks and various other projects.


Throughout the week, I'm going to be concentrating on a particular area of David's career. Today, it's the early years. The Prettiest Star is best known for its presence on 'Aladdin Sane', but three years earlier in 1970 (and before the release of 'The Man Who Sold The World'), it was released as a single featuring the guitar work of none other than Marc Bolan. Here, it's given a faithful airing by Ian McCulloch, a world away from his work with Echo And The Bunnymen for sure.


Bowie's follow-up single featured a song from his second eponymous album (which would later be renamed 'Space Oddity'). With the original stretching over 7 minutes in length, Memories Of A Free Festival was chopped in two with 'part one' on the A side, and 'part two' on the flip. The latter was taken on by Mercury Rev for an obscure tribute album in 1996, two years before their long-awaited commercial breakthrough record 'Deserter's Songs'. For some reason, they renamed it and changed a couple of the lyrics ("We could be heroes...")


The next thing the world heard from David Bowie couldn't have been more different - the hard-rockin' 'The Man Who Sold The World'. One of its quietest moments was After All, a rather strange and hazy acoustic song. Tori Amos, who has never been shy of taking on other people's songs and making them sound like her own, did this one while recording her covers album 'Strange Little Girls', a collection of songs written and performed by men. It ended up on the b-side of the title track and is intriguing if only to hear Tori sing the words "Oh by jingo." Actually, she makes it sound brooding and ominous. My favourite of today's bunch.


Three more tomorrow.

Monday, 1 January 2018

A song for... January

This may just be some lame attempt to try and get myself posting at least once a month, and I'll probably bail out by March, but anyway... Few words, just a song that includes the month in its title. Hardly original, but y'know. To get us underway, the one and only Billy Bragg with a track from a few years back.

Oh, and for what it's worth - Happy New Year.