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Memes and Mix Tapes

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Warren Bell | 12:52 UK time, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Indulge me. I'm going to take you on the mental journey that led to this post. It begins with me studying for an exam some years ago. Being a practised procrastinator, I tended to leave such things until deep into the night before a morning of horror staring at an exam paper wondering why it didn't feature the one question I had revised an answer to. Anyway, at about 1am when I was still trying to decide via a complex analysis of probability which single topic I would chance my arm with, a housemate crashed into my room armed with a typically bizarre question: "are you familiar with the concept of memes at all?"

Normally, I would have sent him on his merry way like a travelling salesman ("not today, thanks") but we all know that, when you're meant to be revising for an exam, almost ANYTHING else becomes preferable. Years earlier I had happily sat through episodes of 'A Country Practice' and 'Take The High Road' to avoid doing any work.

So, it turns out that memes are more or less ideas that pass in and out of people's brains. Anything you see, hear or experience is essentially a meme that, once you have encountered it, maps itself to your brain where it nestles in with all the other memes to create the little ball of wonder that is you. Wikipedia probably explains it better, but that's what I recall. Sadly, the exam the following morning was completely free of meme-related questions. Ah well.

To get to the point, when we start thinking about something and end up thinking about something else that appears at first glance entirely unrelated, it's basically a load of memes playing tig in your brain.

Here's how mine went...

It's raining again. It ALWAYS rains here recently. My car lets the rain in to make small swimming pools on the floor on the driver's side. My car is old, and rubbish. It still has a tape player for goodness sake. Mind you, that does let you rediscover some old classics you have on tape. Like 'Just Got Paid' by the unfortunately named Rapeman, one of Steve Albini's many, many projects. Or 'Winterlong' by the Pixies. Brilliant covers both, of ZZ Top and Neil Young respectively. Used to think doing covers was a bit of a cop out, but actually come to think of it, there's plenty of brilliant ones by bands I love. If I made a mix tape of them I could play it in my rubbish car to help alleviate the depression of driving around in a moving puddle while it rains.

Mix tapes are making something of a comeback it seems, as was perhaps inevitable give that cassettes now have a kind of retro appeal. In fact, we even heard on the show last week that Not Squares are selling cassettes of their own material at gigs. Old Skool. So that's it really. Mix tapes are back - what are you going to do about it?

Here's what I did - I made a mix tape of some of my favourite cover versions. You may wish to dispute whether these versions are indeed as brilliant as I reckon, add some choice cuts of your own, pour scorn on my tragically indie tastes, or suggest your own mix tapes on different themes but, nevertheless, here's what I made, just about squeezing it all onto a C-90...

1. Just Got Paid - Rapeman (original by ZZ Top on album 'Rio Grande Mud')
2. Winterlong - Pixies (original by Neil Young on album 'Decade')
3. Superstar - Sonic Youth (original by Delaney & Bonnie on B-side of single 'Comin Home', although best known is The Carpenters' version)
4. Gin and Juice - The Gourds (original by Snoop Doggy Dogg on album 'Doggy Style')
5. It Must Be Love - Madness (original by Labi Siffre, single A-side)
6. Like A Virgin - Teenage Fanclub (original by Madonna on album 'Like A Virgin')
7. Renegades of Funk - Rage Against The Machine (original by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force on album 'Planet Rock: The Album')
8. Stop Breathin' - Boxstop (original by Pavement on album 'Crooked Rain; Crooked Rain')
9. Polk Salad Annie - Elvis Presley (original by Tony Joe White on album 'Black and White')
10. Baby Please Don't Go - Them (a blues standard originally recorded by Big Joe Williams but probably best known by Muddy Waters' version prior to Them's cover)
11. The Times They Are A-Changin' - The Brothers and Sisters (original by Bob Dylan on album 'The Time They Are A-Changin')
12. California Uber-Alles - The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (original by the Dead Kennedys on album 'Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables')
13. Personal Jesus - Johnny Cash (original by Depeche Mode on album 'Violater')
14. We Can Work It Out - Stevie Wonder (original by The Beatles, single double A-side with 'Day Tripper)
15. Shocker In Gloomtown - The Breeders (original by Guided By Voices, on album 'The Grand Hour')
16. (Now) I Know (Where I'm Going) Our Kid - The Shirehorses (spoof of 'Love Is The Law' by John Squire's tragic follow-up to the Stone Roses, the Seahorses)
17. Hey - "Prince" (cover of Pixies original by a guy called Matthew pretending to be Prince - genius)
18. The House of the Rising Sun - The Animals (a complicated history to this tune, but surely one of the best covers ever)
19. Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam - Nirvana (original by The Vaselines, adapted from the Christian standard 'Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam)
20. Brass Buttons - The Lemonheads (original by Gram Parsons on album 'Grievous Angel')
21. Viva Las Vegas - The Dead Kennedys (original by Elvis Presley)
22. Life On Mars? - Seu George (from 'The Life Aquatic' soundtrack, original by David Bowie on album 'Hunky Dory')
23. I Call Your Name - The Mamas & The Papas (original by The Beatles)
24. California Dreaming - Bobby Womack (original by The Mamas & The Papas, A-side single)
25. Last Caress - Metallica (orignal by The Misfits on album 'Static Age')
26. Star Spangled Banner - Jimi Hendrix (cover of American national anthem)

Hard to know what makes a good cover. Maybe this is a whole other blog posting in itself. I mean, you could possibly argue, for example, that every single Elvis song is a cover seeing as he didn't write any of the music he recorded. But I reckon that would be cheating. My tape is made up of songs that are either interesting or entertaining takes on songs that I already knew well (4, 6, 8, 11, 14, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26), versions that are in my opinion indisputably better than their originals (1, 5, 7, 9, 10, 18), or covers that may not be that remarkable but that alerted me to the work of the original artist (2, 3, 12, 13, 15, 19, 20, 25). I kinda debated whether things like Root Down by the Beastie Boys qualified as a cover of the Jimmy Smith original it sampled, Beck's 'Jack-Ass' as a cover of Them's 'It's All Over Now Baby Blue' (itself a cover of the Bob Dylan classic) which it samples, or Young MC's 'Know How' as a cover of the theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes, or even '?Do The Digs Dug?' by The Goats, which uses the theme from Mission: Impossible magnificently in its chorus. And what about something like '99 Problems' as it appears on Danger Mouse's Grey Album? A mash-up of 'Helter Skelter' by The Beatles and '99 Problems' by Jay-Z, itself a cover of Ice T's original. I opted to keep them out of this one, but you may beg to differ.  


  • Comment number 1.

    Glad you've got some Nirvana in there, the choices of covers for the MTV Unplugged set are superb - every one an absolute treat.

    Also, what does it say when your favourite track by an act is a cover version they did?

    Like for me, with Paul Wellar's version of 'Thinking of You' by Sister Sledge!!

    Oh, and if you like interesting covers, both Tom Middleton's 'Crazy Covers' double albums are a 'must have' and a decent conversation starter at parties - check out the track listings via google!

  • Comment number 2.

    I've always been a big fan of the cover version. You see a different side of an artist or even a different way of interpreting a song. For example, one of my favourite bands, the Manic Street Preachers, have covered both Umbrella and Last Christmas. Covers can be comedic at times (not to mention god-awful) but there are always a few gems within the rough. Katy Perry's cover of Electric Feel is an example of this. We're all used to the MGMT original with beautiful synths and awesome drumming but our hearts skip beats when Katy croons sultrily with an acoustic guitar in the background. Beautiful.

    The king of covers, however, must be Jose Gonzales. Who listened to the Knife and imagined Heartbeats on an acoustic guitar? His cover of Hand On Your Heart is quite frankly heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and actually makes us consider the surprisingly wonderful lyrics.

  • Comment number 3.

    Personally, I love nothing more than a good Elvis cover. Gareth Gates has done some crackers, as has Robbie Williams. Both artists seemed to improve on the original versions. I guess you've either got it or you don't.

  • Comment number 4.

    Harvey, you have reminded me of my idea that there should be a kind of 'National Trust' of songs so that good tunes cannot be covered by terrible artists. Such a system would naturally preclude the likes of Gates or Williams covering 'Suspicious Minds', and also prevent a horrible covers abuse coming our way shortly - the winner of X Factor covering Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'. Oh dear.

  • Comment number 5.

    A solid idea.

    It may have prevented James Blunt from singing Caribou by the Pixies.

    He did this in public. There were witnesses. And yet nothing has been done about it.

    ditto Gates and Williams.

  • Comment number 6.

    Sonic Youth seem to consistently do intriguing and interesting covers. The aforementioned Superstar is a good 'un for sure, Madonna's Get Into The Groove was inspired and Ca Plan Pour Moi actually makes Thurston's gibberish seem fun.

    Dunno about a 'national trust' of songs...to be fair if that happened then, some white, pasty dudes from Belfast would never have been allowed to cover Baby Please Don't Go...it's cover version FASCISM man! And Mark Owen of Take That would never have been allowed to touch Love Will Tear Us Apart, oh, on second thoughts....

  • Comment number 7.

    Rather than a National Trust of songs too good to be covered by crap artists, how about a 'Guantanamo Bay' of artists too awful to be allowed to cover anything, even mediocre songs?

    And as for the X Factor winner doing Hallelujah - I'm ok with that, so long as someone makes them explain, in detail and on live television in front of all the little children, *exactly* what the song is about.

    I can't think of any favourite covers off the top of my head that haven't already been mentioned, but one particular to this time of year does come to mind - Red Sirus's cover of Mariah's 'All I Want For Christmas' for ATL a few years back was class. Actually there's loads of class Christmas covers now I come to think of it.

  • Comment number 8.

    good call about that red sirus cover, lisa brady did a lovely job on backing vocals - probably my favourite of all the really poppy christmas songs as well.

  • Comment number 9.

    I could never abide the Mariah version of it till I heard the Red Sirus one; now the Mariah has become slightly less nausea-inducing.

  • Comment number 10.

    There have been many cracking covers in the ATL Carol Service over the years. Probably should have mentioned it in the initial post. For anyone looking for it, you can listen to the Red Sirus version of 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' on the ATL Carol Service page, as referenced in the ATL Round Up #1 post. My favourite was Cashier No.9's take on East 17's 'Stay'.

  • Comment number 11.

    Oh yes! This year's ATL Carol Service has some cracking new turns including a Lafaro track that is hilarious yet utterly rocking. also newbies from Cutaways, John Shelly and the Creatures and Lowly Knights. Yeooo. 22nd December, put it in your diaries!


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