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 albums of 1988: #2 The Wonder Stuff “The eight legged groove machine”

You can pretty much file this album under nostalgia for me. I won’t deny it. The Wonder Stuff weren’t particularly ground-breaking or influential but I was rabid fan of the band throughout the 90s. In truth, I fingered them as my favourite band for a great many years. Much of this leads back to my initial discovery of the band, way back in 1990.

A friend at the time, Elliott, loaned me a cassette tape copy of “The eight legged groove machine”. This friend was mostly into thrash metal and hardcore punk so I was a bit dubious. However, he assured me that The Wonder Stuff weren’t of that ilk and that the only reason he had the album at all was that he had liked its cover (yes, we used to do that in the old days). I think I had the album for about a week before I put it on while doing some chores around the house. What struck me immediately was the band’s energy. After a few songs, the lyrical content caught my attention even more. With titles like “Give, give, give me more, more, more” and “It’s yer money I’m after baby”, they were songs that weren’t being played on commercial radio and they appealed to my typically instilled angst and ennui. It was love at first listen.

The Wonder Stuff formed in 1986 in Stourbridge, England and came out of the music scene based in the Midlands, curiously titled ‘Grebo’, that also spawned such luminaries as Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. This scene was popular in England at the time but never really took hold here in North America. The Wonder Stuff released a total of four albums before splitting up in 1994, much to my chagrin.* After a few years in which the band members undertook various solo projects, the band re-formed in 2000 as they were at dissolution in 1994, with the exception of the bass player (the original bass player, Rob Jones, had died in 1993 and Paul Clifford wasn’t included in the reunion). Miles Hunt, Malc Treece, Martin Gilks, and Martin Bell, along with Pete Whittaker and a new bass player, played a series of sold out shows at the Forum in London. Since then, there have a been a number of lineup changes and a few new albums released but the only constant from the original lineup now is frontman, Miles Hunt.

“The eight legged groove machine” was The Wonder Stuff’s debut album. Running in at just under 40 minutes in 14 tracks, it was snarling, raucous pop, music that snuck up behind you and sucker punched you every time. The songs were short, fast, rabidly catchy, and the lyrics biting but playful. Each song is a large part of my memories of my late teen years because they were so often the soundtrack that accompanied me on my walkman in those days. Admittedly, the album sounds a bit dated when I listen to it now but there are tracks here that I still count amongst my favourite tracks. Here are my three picks for you, along with some of the Miles Hunt lyrical gems contained within.


”Give give give me more more more”: The cash register ka-ching that starts the song, feels like an echo throughout its three minutes, and frontman Miles Hunt starts in. “Well I hope I make more money than this in the next world. I hope there’s a lot more in it there for me. I’d like my trousers pressed and my shoes shined up by a rich girl, who’s only care in the world is me.” Never demanding much, is he, that Miles. Just everything and more. And it becomes a clarion call with the pounding beat and rifling guitars that bounce and climb, not-so-gently requesting everyone into some pogo action (just don’t stage dive, whatever you do).

”A wish away”: A danceable beat and jangly guitars and you want to jump out on the dance floor to sing along with the repeated chorus line. It all feels so happy and upbeat but the song is anything but about all that. Like much of this album, the short, energetic jolts have dark and cynical undertones. The singer here is never really needing his lover around except at his low times. “But now I need a hug and now I need a love and I really, really wish you were here.” On the title, frontman Hunt has said that they came up on it by way of a recording accident and hearing the vocals sung backwards. The extra line to include it at the end was just a tease.

”It’s yer money I’m after baby”: There’s one thing you can say for Miles Hunt and his lyrics. He doesn’t really use vagaries, at least not in his early work, but he always could deliver a line. “Don’t give me love, oh no none of that stuff ‘cos it’s yer money I’m after, baby.” What The Wonder Stuff as whole does, though, is take the biting wit and sugarcoat it in rip-roaring and peppy pop tunes. Like the previous two, this track clocks in around the three minute sweet spot and deliveries on the catchy and the danceable. The acoustic strumming, the wiry bass line, the almost silly electric guitar high, and of course, Martin Gilks’ super fun drumming. Just another great track that I would listen to over and over again as a teen and that I still know word for word today.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”
4. Pixies “Surfer rosa”
3. The Waterboys “Fisherman’s blues”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

*True story: I learned of The Wonder Stuff’s break up on a camping trip, while cutting down a tree for firewood. After my friend Tim mentioned this piece of news, the tree came down in short order.