100 best covers: #75 Madness “Lola”

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Madness were at the forefront of the so-called second wave ska/2-tone movement during the late 70s and early 80s. They quite possibly had the most hits of the lot and made the best go of it through the 80s, surviving until 1986 when they finally called it quits. The original lineup re-formed six years later but mainly as a live outfit, not recording any new material until 1999.

Then, in the early part of the 2000s, after more than two decades in existence, the group decided to refresh things a bit by doing shows that didn’t include any of their hits. Instead, they performed under the name The Dangermen, doing sets of only covers, songs that had inspired them, some of which they would do in their earliest days before any of their hits. In 2005, they put their favourite of these covers to tape, calling the ensuing album “The Dangermen sessions, volume 1”. The album was actually very good and has become one of my favourite by Madness. It captures the same energy and humour that exuded from a lot of their early work and produced many tracks that could have easily appeared on this very list.

The cover of The Kinks’ classic “Lola” is one of the examples on the album of songs that you almost can’t believe weren’t originally conceived as ska songs. It just works so seamlessly. Of course, the original does have that boppy and almost rocksteady rhythm, starting off so innocent like a young man, vocals wide-eyed, his first time in the city, but quickly becoming wild and swanky, a real party tune. Ray Davies’ humorous tale of a young man going home with a transvestite, albeit shocking and fodder for radio bans in some circles in the early 70s, fits almost right in with the subject matter of early songs by the jokesters of Madness.

Where the original alternates between plucking guitars and heavy handed drumming, Madness throws its whole arsenal at it. Horns and keyboards and backbone rumbling bass. Suggs keeps his own vocals even, not pushing the envelope, save for the final verse, where he switches to spoken word for the big reveal, making plain the section of the song that might have been faded out by radio stations on the original.

All in all, it’s a cover I’d be hard-pressed to say is better than the original but one that is great nonetheless.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

Best tunes of 1992: #28 The Stairs “Weed bus”

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My memory of this particular evening is even foggier than most of the ones from around that time. It could be that it’s from at least twenty five years ago now and that some of those nights out with friends and music sometimes blend together and I would hazard that perhaps there was some alcohol involved.* To be honest, I’m not even sure what year it was exactly (I am guessing ‘93 or ‘94) or even what season of the year, though I am thinking winter because I am remembering wearing cold sneakers and winter jackets piled high on chairs.

My friend Andrew Rodriguez was there because it was surely him that dragged us to that spot that night, and perhaps so was Tim or John, someone with wheels to bring us in to the big city. As to the where, that might be the foggiest of all because I haven’t a clue of the destination that night. Indeed, it was a ‘night’ that had migrated to a few places, the DJ bringing his dancers to wherever he landed. I think it might’ve been ‘Blow up’ or a precursor to it, one of those ‘dos that started late, say 11, and went even later. The venue for this particular event, though it goes nameless to me to this day, I remember as being off for a dance party, lots of tables and very little dance space, like it was a restaurant by day, lots of windows to look out at the city streets beyond.

At some point that night, I heard the shaking of the maracas (or what sounds to me like maracas) and placed this song from wherever I was and ended whatever conversation with whomever it was with and joined Rodriguez, who was already out on the tiny raised platform that served as a dancing space. I had to be quick because the song is a short one, clocking in at just over two minutes. Rodriguez and I jumped and jostled all over the place, matching the bass line and the arpeggiating and repetitive guitar hook, always being careful not to spill our beers. And at the same time, using said bottle to join the lead vocalist in channeling Mick Jagger in our minds. Of course, to everyone else it probably sounded more like yelling and screaming.

It was with this night in mind that I went back to the internets a decade or so ago to track down “The weed bus” by The Stairs. It was a song that I loved but had never, ever heard anything else by the group. With further digging, I learned that The Stairs were the trio of Edgar John, Ged Lynn, and Paul Maguire that held cult status in many circles and of course, I also unearthed the group’s lone album, 1992’s “Mexican R’n’B”.** And this whole album is wonderful stuff to me. The production is purposely lo-fi and recorded in Mono to capture the feel of all that 60s garage and psych rock that influenced them. And yeah, yeah, yeah, some might say that the virtual name-checking is too in-your-face but to that I say balderdash! The energy is just so great, how can you not but love it?

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

* Before you start making some connections that aren’t there, the fuzzy memory had nothing to do with another stimulant not so subtly referred to in this song’s title.

** Those select few who are familiar with the group will already know that “Weed bus” was actually released on an EP of the same name in 1991 but I’m still including it here for 1992 because well, it’s my rules.

Best tunes of 2011: #10 Dan Mangan “Post-war blues”

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Maybe you folks outside of Canada can help me out here. I’m not sure at all how well-known West Coast singer/songwriter Dan Mangan is outside of his (and my) country but around these parts, he definitely does quite well. In 2011, he released, “Oh, fortune”, his third full length and second on indie super-label Arts & Crafts. It was his second album to be long-listed for a Polaris prize (Canada’s equivalent to the Mercury) and the following year garnered the man a couple of Junos (our version of the Grammy).

As an album, the lush instrumentation that filled out his gorgeous songwriting and baritone vocals was a stark contrast against the relative austerity of his acoustic-laden previous effort, 2009’s “Nice, nice, very nice”. The subject matter was still quite dark, even in its humorous moments, but it all felt cleaner and more accomplished. “Post-war blues” was the obvious single on the album, a rousing number that starts with a drum roll and leaps into Arcade Fire territory, circa “Funeral”, complete with chugging beats, screaming guitars and a string backbone. And in that kindly voice of his, he sings words that seem oddly reminiscent of their hope in youth and cynicism with the aged.

“Let’s start a war for the kids
A purpose for which to unite
Make them some words they can mince
What they don’t know, They won’t mind”

And yes, for those Kubrick fans out there, you really need to watch the hilarious, Strangelove-inspired video. The pair, video and song, are just so great together and if you do manage a chance to see Dan Mangan perform live, definitely take it. He definitely made a bigger fan of me.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.