35 primitive, inept, raw, rough, and otherwise horrible cover songs that ruined music forever
If the moments before beginning musicians’ enthusiasm and diligent rehearsal merge and then calcify into “talent” are the quintessence of Shit-Fi, the cover song thus often typifies the height of ambition laid low by the restraint of skill-lessness. The best shit-fi covers, of course, are the versions that are worse than the original. With shit-fi music, mere mediocrity—the domain of a million cover bands playing their local pub—won’t cut it, and originality, as typically conceived, is rather overrated. Not all shit-fi covers result from inability to play the song; rather, many result from the decision not to play the song the "right" way, the clean way. In this fashion, the cover “artists” make the songs their own, but not quite in the way a notable article in The Wire magazine on cover versions detailed in November 2005. The homage is often ironic, if not downright sarcastic. In other cases, it is genuine, with the spirit of the playing matching the original artists’ intentions even if the players’ dexterity does not. Spontaneity, too, is essential. Another key to some shit-fi covers is sheer improbability: a Beatles cover played by a California band in the late 70s was no big surprise; a Shitlickers cover played by a Prague band in 1984 betokened a radical globalism, against the grain of capitalism, before glasnost or perestroika.
This list of champion shit-fi covers is not exhaustive, but it represents an attempt to survey the breadth of “good” music played badly or bad music played worse. There are, of course, hundreds of unheard cover versions languishing on bedroom rehearsal tapes and live recordings. With a few exceptions, I have stuck to songs that have been released to the public, however neglected these releases may nevertheless have been. Besides, a large component of the shit-fi aesthetic is the moxie involved in assaulting the buyer/listener with unlistenable crap. Perhaps unsurprisingly, several bands recur: Sex Pistols, Stooges, Velvet Underground, and Black Sabbath. The worldview-changing revelation that these bands continue to confer on young music fans accounts for the frequency of their covers. Faithfulness to the original versions in this list, of course, varies; whether Shit-Fi– or Wire-approved, I think most connoisseurs would agree that faithfulness is the purview of bar bands and the truly great covers aim for something more sublime. Or fetid. Obviously, stolen riffs, as essential as they may be to shit-fi classics (Revenge, anyone?), do not merit inclusion on this list. I have also ignored entire genres, like reggae, in which notions of authorship are a bit more slippery than in the rocknroll canon. While I’m on the subject, I should emphasize that the shit-fi cover should be interpreted as the last best hope that pop music had (yes, “had”) against devouring itself in a Kool-Aid–drinking cult of authenticity and originality that in the final analysis benefits executives and shareholders more than any working musician.
The debate over whether the first wave of punks were conscious that their tactics of bricolage, pastiche, and détournement had first been politicized by the Situationists misses the point; what the shit-fi cover demonstrates is another Situationist maxim: “our ideas are already in everyone’s heads.” For if punk can be considered an heir (the final one?) to the historical avant-gardes, it is because, like Dada, it too mined, and mimed, the “degraded world of capitalist modernity in order not to embrace it but to mock it,” as Hal Foster has described the practice. In this way, like Dada, punk would forever be tethered to the world from which it was trying to break, despite its insistence that it represented the final nail in that world’s coffin. Punk’s achievement, as some of these shit-fi cover versions show, was to reveal that, even if the cover version did paradoxically embalm that world, we were all better off for punks’ having tried to speed its process of decomposition.
Negative Approach: 4-Skins “Chaos”
This cover proves that sometimes Shit-Fi is a happy accident. It also proves that one need not be an expert spelunker to find the gems—nearly every acne-faced, testosterone-laden hardcore dude from Peoria to Plano carries Negative Approach’s Touch-n-Go CD in his Jetta. Of course, most of these dudes probably skip the live and demo material at the end (a shame, because its roughness is appropriate, whereas the insanely poor mastering job on the tracks comprising NA’s 7" and the LP has long been a travesty against hardcore fans of good conscience). Anyway, abrasiveness abounds on all three covers on the CD: “Chaos,” “I Got a Right,” and Blitz’s “Never Surrender”—the last proving what we already suspected, that Blitz was the first US-style hardcore band, avant la lettre. But “Chaos” is my favorite. Brannon’s breathlessness, the guitar feedback, and the crowd of crazy baldheads singing along to perhaps the finest Oi! song ever written is enough to warm the hearts of even the most cynical droogs. See: Shit-Fi isn’t so esoteric after all.
Feederz: Olivia Newton-John “Have You Never Been Mellow”
Although it isn’t exactly lo-fi, this astringent cover of a 1975 pop song by Australia’s Olivia Newton-John, which opens the Feederz first LP, “Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss?”, utterly captures the hardcore punk radical zeitgeist. To this day, many music fans wish punk had never exposed the bankruptcy and hollowness of the music industry, and the industry’s modus operandi remains the desperate plugging of the holes in the dike that punk’s explosion wrought. I saw a recent comment on a Youtube video for Newton-John’s original that said, “she is just the epitomy [sic] of a woman in a time of innocence...” Well, the Feederz said nothing if not, “goodbye to all that.” Frank Discussion’s détournement of the original lyrics kept and parodied what was so ridiculous about an attempt at feel-good music in 1975, at the nadir of a worldwide economic, political, and social crisis, and supplemented these words with their own bilious riposte, which embodied the acknowledgment that once punk reared its spiky top, there was no going back. There was now only one acceptable stance: it was subversion or nothing. Their lesson is no less trenchant today, as we live through yet another of capitalism’s crises, with neo-imperialist war still ravaging the earth and global ecological collapse imminent. The response to this state of affairs that so many had in the 70s, which the Feederz treated with a hefty dose of acerbic wit, remains unfortunately palatable to many: “shoot some hard drugs and get dead.”
The Saints: Missing Links “Wild About You” (sorry for the skip on my vinyl)
One must relish the irony of a cover of a band called the Missing Links being, as it were, the missing link between 60s punk and 70s punk. The Missing Links were at the top of Australia’s 60s R‘n’B scene, but their misfit long hair (circa 66!) and aggro lyrics penned by a teenaged refugee from New Zealand meant that they attracted the type of thuggish audience that was to eventually dominate (physically, at least) the Australian rock scene in the following decade. Anyway, what’s punk (in the 70s sense) about “Wild About You” becomes clear in the Saints’ version, recorded in a single live take in their garage in 74 and subsequently released on the aptly titled “The Most Primitive Band in the World” LP. If the Links’ original version was meant to draw out the connection between Tarzan-like jungle barbarism and 60s youth cults, this cover sounds like a gang of pissed-off wallabies beating on guitars with pumice, in a cave, drunk. The sound anticipates the aesthetic the Fun Things would perfect, and name, with their 1980 song “Savage.” The Saints, and Birdman too, have become untouchable in the rockist canon, but these ossified opinions never acknowledge that precisely what made the Saints remarkable, as audible on this LP, was beginning to be eroded by the time their classic albums were recorded.
VulpeSS: Modern Lovers “Roadrunner” (retitled "Viva el Papa")
I was going to include the paradigmatic shit-fi versions of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roadrunner” from 1976 by the Sex Pistols, but my lawyer advised against it. So I killed him. Anyway, you can find them easily online. Las Vulpes are responsible for the best cover version in the history of punk rock: “I Wanna Be Your Dog” redone as “Me Gusta Ser Una Zorra,” with prurient lyrics directed at the ejecutivos for whom an all-girl band would have been thought of and treated as little more than a harem. The competence displayed on the recorded version of this track—oh yeah, watch the video, also one of the best in punk history—keeps it off this particular list. But their luded-out version of “Roadrunner,” with lyrics seemingly in homage to the jodiendo Pope is just too great to pass up. The audience participation ratchets up the whole affair to the heights of this shit pile.
Jumpin’ Beans and the Moustaches: Sonics “Strychnine”
To almost no notice, a two-piece outfit from parts unknown in the far northeast U.S. flailed their way through a flurry of 45s and an LP in the late 90s. Variously named Jumpin’ Beans and Willie and Jumpin’ Beans and the Moustaches (as a three-piece), most of their output consisted of extremely rough, in-the-red, rudimentary covers of Chuck Berry, the Monks, the Sonics, and the Boss. Theirs is a quintessential shit-fi vibe: played with reckless abandon, released to a nonexistent audience, appreciated by only a few nutcases years later. Of all their material, I think this cover of “Strychnine” is their best tune, or worst. The Sonics themselves were kings of the cover that surpassed the original, and Jumpin’ Beans and the Moustaches seem to have channeled all of that unbridled energy on this rippin’ side. To me, it’s the sound of angels kissing.
Rondos: Wire “12XU”
Covers of “12XU” are a dime a dozen. There’s a reason for that, though. My conjecture is that Wire captured the stark break with the past that punk was meant to embody more concretely than nearly any of their 77 cohort mates due to their minimal sound. As such, later bands inspired by this revolution had to invoke their forebears, particularly because, in Wire’s hands, the sonic break from the past presaged hardcore punk’s to-the-point no-frills smackdown. That this cover enabled flagrant usage of the word “fag” surely played no part in its popularity amongst the suburban legion of U.S. hardcores. Sike. I had the pleasure of seeing the Cro-Mags play earlier this year, and they too covered “12XU,” although it seemed singer John Joseph was unaware that Minor Threat had not been its original auteurs. Anyway, Dutch punks, and most inspiringly the Rondos, took Wire’s extreme minimalism to its scrubbed-down logical conclusion. Live, Rondos’ martial beats and shouted choruses come across as proto-hardcore to me (check the blazingly fast 1978 [!!] live set included with the recent CD boxset and 2xLP), even though they were aiming for something quite different. I’m not sure how much of the warbly, out-of-tune sound on this version is due to their don’t-need-no-speed adrenalin-laced playing, or if the tape on which it was recorded has deteriorated over the years. But either way, I think it adds to the chaotic atmosphere. After you’re done pogoing and strangling, get ready because the pigs are evicting a squat down the street and we’re not going to let it go without a fight.
The SS: The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop”
The SS were among the late-70s punk bands that invented hardcore punk simultaneously, without knowledge of each other, spread across different parts of the globe. An argument can, and should, be made that once the Ramones had released their first LP, hardcore punk was inevitable. The SS seem to have thought so. Their ultra-high-speed punk rock—there are even faster live takes available on CD than the ones on their rare bootleg LP—is largely indistinguishable from what would come to be codified as hardcore punk just a few years later. Live, one member counted off “1-2-3-4” before every song, and the audience would attempt to goad the band into beginning the next song even more rapidly by shouting those English words nearly as soon as one song had ended. Their velocity had the feeling of an artistic experiment, but whatever the reason for pushing the musical speed envelope, this sonic blitzkrieg is compelling exactly because it fit the potentialities punk opened up rather than the codes and strictures that would develop within it, against those very potentialities (though I do love “formulaic” hardcore!). I’m fond of noting that this version of “Blitzkrieg Bop” comes across as faster than one by S.O.B., the Japanese grind-core band, that came a decade later.
Unholy Swill: Black Sabbath “War Pigs”
Inconceivable is the only way to describe this factoid: Unholy Swill sold 5,000 copies of their first single, from 1989. The late 80s/early 90s were a dark period for punk in the US, but damn! Punx must’ve been desperate. Even as a connoisseur of shit music, I can’t say I often reach for Unholy Swill’s crapulent, deserving-of-a-straitjacket, dirgy hate-fuck of politesse. A few years ago, they graced the world with a CD collection of outtakes and rarities that included many unreleased covers, from the Beatles to fellow travelers Drunks With Guns. But it also included this version of “War Pigs,” which was originally released on vinyl in a pitifully small pressing of something like 60 copies. Unholy Swill is one of those cases where you want to describe the music as “deranged” but you are afraid that the band members actually suffer from severe mental illness. But that guitar sound is to-die-for no matter what strange interpretations of the rhythms and singing the rest of the band have on offer. Need I mention that the band hails from a town just a few miles north of a nuclear reactor?
Death: Black Sabbath “Paranoid”
An odd historical reversal has occurred: whereas metal is clearly dumb and punk often aspired to be if not smart at least shrewd, today, when one goes looking for commentary, there is plenty of pseudo-smart writing about metal and little non-dumb writing about punk. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but the mainstream (and the blogosphere) seems to have decided that metal is worthwhile and punk should still be treated like the whiny prepubescent it always was. Or maybe I need to stop reading the New York tabloids. Anyway, I offer Death’s muffled May 1985 rehearsal-room version of “Paranoid” as proof that no self-respecting music journalist should treat metal as anything other than by morons, for morons. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hilarious. Come to think of it, maybe this is punk.
The Door and the Window: Television Personalities “Part-time Punks”
Whereas the Desperate Bicycles do-it-yourself manifesto was, “It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it,” The Door and the Window’s was, “It was easy. It was cheap. Go and deconstruct it.” Without even a semblance of musical ability, TDATW nevertheless managed to release three of the most memorable records of the UK DIY movement. Yes, it all seems like one big in-joke, but it doesn’t leave the listener on the outside. Because you know that you could pick up a guitar or drumsticks and do the same, and probably better, on your first go, TDATW dissolves any barrier between performer and audience that pretense or professionalism would otherwise throw up. TDATW’s Nag and Bendle (who was the door and who was the window?) name-check fellow DIY acts Take-It and 49 Americans in this version of the TVPs’ classic. "Part-time Punks" was originally released on the TVPs' 1978 "Where's Bill Grundy Now" EP, and I’ve heard it argued that this 7" marked the end of the first wave of UK punk because of its self-referentiality. Well, TDATW, joined on this recording by Sniffin’ Glue editor Mark Perry, separate the part-time punks from the lifers with this track. If you make it through to the end, you’ll have crossed the Rubicon and know for certain whether you’ll ever hang up your boots.
Phones Sportsman Band: Little Richard via Slade “Get Down and Get With It”
First, I know it goes against prevailing prejudices, but cross-dressing dudes are so much tougher than dudes dressing gender-normatively; for proof, compare the pics on the first Slade LP to pics on the later ones. Anyway, the world is beginning to acknowledge glam’s huge influence on punk, which is mentioned but disclaimed in its official mythology in order to construct a better case for punk’s ex nihilo emergence and originality. This Swell Maps side-project points toward a more honest appraisal of glam: many punks grew up on it but they couldn’t take it completely seriously after 1977. And by 1980, when this record was released, this version of “Get Down and Get With It” shows that little was being taken seriously. The Phones Sportsman Band parodied this approach because Slade were nothing if not businessmen, and DIY, particularly in its most Dadaist elaborations, meant that business was the least sacrosanct thing under the sun. All things considered, the original version of this tune is not much less over-the-top, as everything Slade did of course was aimed at being professionally extreme. (Oh yeah, the Phones Sportsman Band sleeve is a masterpiece too, don't ya think?)
This is the first of three installments.