Part II May--August
by Michele Christopher
I’m writing about my 2006 recording project, the 12 Covers-12 Months series that I started in January 2006. Here’s part two of a rundown of the covers I did, May to August, aka Summer, with the whos, the whys, the wherefores, the insights, the problems and the happy accidents. Hope you like it. Read Part One here.
May cover – Billy Bragg – A New England/The Wedding Present - What Have I Said Now?
For those of us who have ever carried a guitar in our arms, a fire in our belly and a voice to shout it all out, Billy Bragg is our storyteller friend genius. Here’s a guy that for some reason only has ever been in one band -- an early punk band called Riff Raff, but then left that and went solo and has pretty much stayed solo (Mermaid Avenue/Wilco collaboration notwithstanding) for his entire career. Inspired by Joe Strummer and filled with a passion for the fiery politics of The Clash, Billy used his literate talents and hummable knack for melody to kick off a thrilling career in the 1980s as the punk troubadour.
“A New England” has been an oft-covered song, but what led me to it in particular for my covers series was Billy Bragg’s solo rendition of it on the Conan O’ Brien show this summer. He walked onstage, electric guitar in hand, and played the song with a freshness as if he’d just wrote it a few weeks earlier. All the confusion, hesitation and sincerity embodied in the lyric came out flowing in that 2-min. performance on Conan. I said “Sheesh, I gotta do a flavor of that bird!” (Searched for it on YouTube for you groovy flag wavers, but sadly came up empty-handed; but found a delicious version of A Great Leap Forwards instead)
But, of course, just throwing down a quick ‘lil ditty for my cover of the month seemed a shortchange of sorts, so I dug back into The Wedding Present song “What Have I Said Now?” from their 1989 “Bizarro” release to wrap into an, ahem, ‘medley’ of indie Brit-folk. After the heavily rock-processed April cover of “Paper Dolls” I wanted something more immediate and clear. So I grabbed two mics, my recorder and guitar and went into my echo-laden bathroom for a direct-to-mic, live reading (3rd-take performance) of both of these fine relationship songs.
June Cover – Mott the Hoople – All the Young Dudes
For this music-craving teen growing up in the 1970s, CIRCUS magazine was my Pitchfork, my People magazine and my “Please Kill Me” in real time, rolled together in one. Rolling Stone was caught up its own ass in its self-importance, covering the cocaine dinosaurs of the era and the whole “LA stoner mellow” scene. Ugh. To me, CIRCUS stood out in its New York-centric rock outlook, always looking past the LA loving-Hefner Playboy mansion-bullshit rock scene and into the louder, faster in your face kind of rock and roll. Because of CIRCUS, I was exposed to Iggy Pop, David Bowie, KISS, the Dictators, the Ramones, early Genesis and Mott the Hoople.
I had read about how David Bowie had taken a liking to Mott the Hoople and helped glam up their sound in late 1972 and early 1973. When the LP “Mott” came out in 1974, I was all over it. I ended up enjoying Honaloochie Boogie as well as All the Young Dudes. But when it came to the covers series, the Bowie cover it was, rocked up in all its glory. I always liked this song, descending riffs and all, but wanted to make it faster and cooler. “Kick like a mule, it’s a real mean scene…”
Sharp-eared fans will notice that I sadly flubbed it a bit, adding an extra beat on the chorus during the recording of my drum track. And when that happened, I just rolled into it, adjusting the guitar and bass to lend another chord in there. The wonders of impromptu recording, will they ever cease?
A bit of a cheat on this one; I had performed New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” at a few of my 2005 shows and happened to catch a decent recording of it from my live set at Galapagos (Brooklyn) taping from early ’05.
So it was end June ‘06, I’m a closet sun bunny, my wife and child were waiting for me, and I didn’t quite feel like holing up in a recording studio for my July cover. So I nicked this version. The soundman caught my voice OK (puberty crack and all), but ‘twas a shame the guitar was mixed down.
This track from New Order’s Low Life release has been revered in certain circles for being a fairly straight narrative from NO’s Bernard Sumner, but in true Manchester fashion, he’s pretty much disowned the lyrical nod to England’s Balkan war, being quoted as saying “"It was a pastiche; a pisstake. People are so pious about lyrics. The first single I ever bought was 'Ride A White Swan' by T-Rex. Absolute gibberish. But I didn't give a fuck. Bow down before the tune. The tune is God."
Grant Hart’s “Pink Turns to Blue” is a cover I never thought I’d do. When it came to Husker Du songs, I was always firmly in the Bob Mould song camp. His songs were angrier, rougher, more dissonant and a bit scary. A perfect soundtrack for a punk kid in the early 80s. Grant’s songs, simpler melodically but frustratingly repetitive, were always on my back shelf list. Don’t get me wrong, I liked ‘em, but for every “Sorry Somehow” and “Books About UFOs”, I preferred “Chartered Trips” and “First of the Last Calls”.
But therein is the rub – I can’t play guitar like Bob Mould. He’s a one of a kind on those monster early Husker songs. The tone, muscle and distortion achieved in those Husker Bob songs is just completely beyond my playing capabilities. It’s a great sound and technique, one I’ve could never learn. It’s in the hallowed hall of iconoclasm. It’s singularly unique. It totally resonates with me. Let it be.
So I found a Husker song I could play. The arpeggio’d C#m with an up and down finger on the A string is just darn fun to play. And it’s from Zen Arcade, the much-heralded 'best' Husker Du LP ever (though I still prefer “Metal Circus” for its brevity and “New Day Rising” for its speed). And even though I’ll never play guitar like Bob Mould, I did spend some time learning the Mould solo on “Pink Turns to Blue” – I think it’s the highlight of the song in a way, and I’m glad I captured it pretty closely.