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.

100 best covers: #76 Weezer “The weight”

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A year or two ago, a teenaged girl started a social media campaign on Twitter calling for American 90s alt-rock icons Weezer to cover Toto’s hit from the 1980s, “Africa.” Six months later, the band relented, releasing their almost note-perfect cover, and because of it, have seen something of a resurgence, scoring their first big hit since 2009. Of course, the success of this one-off cover inspired a whole side album to be released in tandem with an album of new material. That so-called “Teal album”, an album full of covers of 80s tunes (among others), was released electronically in January of this year and pressed to teal coloured vinyl for Record Store Day. This release got people wondering if it was all some big joke but I didn’t think so. Weezer has always been retro leaning, always having fun, and never one to shy away from recording covers. One such cover was included as a bonus track on the UK release of their 2008 album, one of their many self-titled long players, nicknamed for the cover’s colour, which in this case was Red.

Canadian-American rock collective, The Band, released the original version of “The weight” in 1968 as part of their classic album, “Music from the big pink”. It is considered by many to be one of the best, most influential rock songs ever recorded. It is by now looked at as a standard and has been covered so many times, by so many artists, that it might as well be as such. Thus, I won’t even bother asking my usual question of “which do you prefer?”, though I give you full permission to debate the issue in the comments section if you so choose.

As great as I feel the original is in this case, Weezer’s cover might have it beat in one category: that being, the length of the recording. I always felt the groove could’ve been played out much longer in the original and I imagine it must’ve been every time The Band performed it live. It just has that awesome jam vibe. Both Weezer’s and Travis’s cover (another version I quite enjoy and that you can check out here), seem to slow it down a beat and drag another 30 seconds or so out of it. The Weezer cover starts out sounding much like the original with the rough pull on the acoustic but then, the raunchy guitars kick in, replacing the rag-timey piano of the original, and the blues turns to rock.

Purists might sneer but I really like it. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The cover:

The original:

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

100 best covers: #77 The Polyphonic Spree “Lithium”

<< #78    |    #76 >>

Some of you might remember that I started off the countdown of my favourite songs of 1991 with a post on Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”. I bestowed upon it an honourable mention rather than ranking it in the list and explained how Nirvana excited me at first, much like it did everyone else, but how I quickly became oversaturated with the mere mention of them. It took many years before I could appreciate the band and I think swearing off of commercial radio went a long way towards getting me to this place. All that being said, there were a handful of songs from their catalogue that didn’t have me running screaming, even back then, and “Lithium” was one of them.

Ten or fifteen years after the release of “Nevermind”, my wife and I and another couple of friends went to see David Bowie on his “Reality” tour. We walked into Scotiabank Place (or whatever it was called at that time) to find our seats during the opening band and they were quite the sight, all active and dancing and gesturing in white flowing robes and so many of them, they filled the stage. It was one of the few concerts that I didn’t try to get a grasp on the opening act in advance but they made such an impact on all of us that I hit the internet the next day to investigate. I learned that The Polyphonic Spree were a symphonic rock collective orchestrated by Tim DeLaughter after the dissolution of his 90s alt-rock band Tripping Daisy (“I got a girl”). I checked out their debut and loved it but still distrusted them a bit, given their garb, almost impervious sunshine, and cult-like feel. My friend Tim’s assessment, after playing them for him, was that they sounded good but that they were ‘too damned happy’.

Between the releases of their second and third albums, The Polyphonic Spree released an EP called “The wait” that included three covers amongst its five songs. It’s likely obvious by now that one of these was the subject of this post, a cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium”, and well, I love it.

The muscular guitar intro from the original is turned into the plinkety-plink of piano keys. Kurt’s hurting angst becomes Tim’s unending hopefulness and he’s joined by a choir of angels. Of course, both versions turn it up at the chorus, the original, a raging mosh pit and the cover is a symphony gone psycho. Fellow blogger, Steve for the deaf, in his post on this very same cover, described it as “like wearing [Guernica] as a T-Shirt because you like horses”, which I found hilarious and more than a little apt. Indeed, Steve’s comparison reminded me of the gen-x parents I saw out one night who had dressed their toddler in a onesie that featured the iconic image of Che Guevara and the words: “I don’t even know who this is”.

I find it’s usually best not to take ourselves too seriously. What are your thoughts? Good fun? Or is it too soon?

The cover:

The original:

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