100 best covers: #80 Teenage Fanclub “Nothing to be done”

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One quick glance at my best tunes of 1990 and 1991 lists and you’ll likely notice I tended towards British music in that decade. It got worse when Nirvana’s explosion meant that the American (and Canadian, to a slightly lesser extent) music industry looked to grunge for the template to all things ‘Alternative’. So in the world before the internet, of course, it made sense that I would find my way to the British music magazines that managed their way to the shelves across the Atlantic and that I would constantly peruse these pages in search of new bands to explore. My favourite of these magazines was the now-defunct “Select”, champion of all things Britpop.

“Select” was also known for the cassette tape compilations that it would include with certain issues. Personally, I was always surprised when I’d find a copy that had somehow survived the voyage with the cassette still attached so it would invariably join me on my return home. One such cassette that I remember, mostly because it is still in a shoebox along with other preserved cassettes in my basement, was the 1995 compilation titled “Exclusives”. It was so called because the songs or versions thereof were only supposed to be available on this tape. It included tracks by Spiritualized, Boo Radleys, U2, EMF, and this cover by Teenage Fanclub.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know it was a cover. I had never heard of The Pastels, the highly influential Scottish indie rock band who did the original. I just loved the laid back groove of the Teenage Fanclub track that came out just one month before their fourth album, “Grand prix”, the crisp production and jangling acoustic giving a foreshadowing impression of what to expect when the new CD was to hit my carousel. And I couldn’t possibly know that the female vocalist tracing barbs with Francis MacDonald on the recording was Katrina Mitchell, a then member of the band being covered.

The original appeared as the opening track on The Pastel’s sophomore record, 1989’s “Sittin’ pretty”, and is more raw sounding than the Fannies cover, vocals even more lazy and guitars raunchy and keys plunking. It sounds a lot like Teenage Fanclub, themselves, sounded like in their early days, not far-fetched given the two bands’ shared geography. And I don’t know if the bands always knew each other or they met due to the recording of this cover but the collaborations didn’t end here. All of MacDonald, Norman Blake, and Gerard Love would lend a hand on later Pastels records.

Anyway, despite enjoying the original, my preference here is the cover and I think it is not just because I heard it first. The aforementioned vocals in the original were performed by founding Pastels members Stephen McRobbie and Annabel Wright (Katrina Mitchell had not yet joined the band when it was recorded) and though fun, they lack the melody of the cover. The Fannies’ version is also slightly more cheerful and playful.

What about you folks? Pastels fans? What’s it to be – the original or the cover?

The cover:

The original:

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

100 best covers: #81 The Pogues “Dirty old town”

<< #82    |    #80 >>

Ok. So it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted one for this series, well over three months for sure. And this is another that I didn’t know was a cover for the longest time. The Pogues recorded “Dirty old town” for their second album, 1985’s “Rum, sodomy, and the lash”, and it’s here that I’ve heard and sung along to these words countless times.

It was originally written in 1949 by actor, poet, playwright and songwriter, Ewan MacColl, who is, incidentally, the father of Kirsty MacColl. (I’m sure you all see the connection.) He wrote it for one his plays, “Landscape with chimneys”, as an ode of sorts to Salford, the town of his birth. He later recorded it in 1952 and it has become a folk classic, apparently covered dozens and dozens of times. Perhaps it was most famously done by The Dubliners in 1976, whose version (check it here) was upbeat and raucous, with banjos, fiddles, and shout along vocals, and likely influenced that of The Pogues.

MacColl’s original, at least the recording in the video below, is by contrast scratchy and hissing and full of cobwebs, sounding forgotten in the darkest corner of your grandparents’ attic. It is a soft strum on the guitars, almost an afterthought to the sorrowful vocals, MacColl warbling all over the place. It is only 2 minutes 45 but feels a whole lot longer.

The Pogues’ cover is also sad but decidedly more upbeat. It is not hoarse and roaring like The Dubliners do it, nor as punk-influenced as other tunes in The Pogues back catalogue. It is a song to sway to with a frothy pint in hand, the band off in the pub’s corner, a harmonica crying sadly, the mandolin waffling and sniffling, the fiddles creaking like a squeaky old door, and Pogues’ vocalist Shane MacGowan slurring roughly, as he is wont to do. All in all, there’s plenty of memories and regret in each note and tap on the drums.

So in sum, I think all three of the versions here are great but the one by The Pogues is my preference. Thoughts?

The cover:

The original:

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

100 best covers: #82 Travis “Baby one more time”

<< #83    |    #81 >>

So here’s one that you can place firmly in the fun column.

I came across this particular cover during a brief period in 2001 where I was a bit obsessed with Scottish alt-pop band Travis and I was on the hunt for everything they’d recorded. Appearing as a B-side to the 1999 single “Turn”, it was recorded live and you can actually hear the laughter from the audience as they start to recognize the song. The band themselves can be heard snickering at the beginning, especially at the forced falsetto moments, but by the end, they are indeed performing it in earnest.

I also didn’t recognize the tune at first during my first sampling of it. It’s slowed some, performed stripped down to only an acoustic guitar with Fran Healy being joined, gang style, by the rest of the band on vocals. When it clicked, I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing and that’s what I think is so wonderful about it. It’s the surprise factor. A teen pop song performed by a pop band of a different sort and it works. I think so anyways.

As for the original, I’m pretty sure I don’t have to work too hard to jog your memory about it. Which is good because I can’t say I know much about Ms. Spears. However, I certainly have been overexposed to a bunch of her songs over the years and this one was particularly ubiquitous at the end of the nineties. I remember watching the video for the first time in disbelief. It was so obviously a ploy, a riff on the catholic school girl fantasy, but it worked. The song was huge, making her over from a former Mouseketeer to a pop star in the blink of an eye. Still, she likely got too big, too fast, given her tabloid ready lifestyle, and has had to forge more than one comeback over her career.

It’s probably pretty obvious by now which version I prefer. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a hate on for the Britney, nor her version of the song. It’s well written and has a great hook. Her style and sound is just not to my taste.

Do you have an opinion on the matter? I’d love to hear it.

The cover:

The original:

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