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Blowing The Cover

Stuart Bailie | 16:01 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2012

What exactly is punk rock and what constitutes a good punk cover version? These are the questions that have occupied some of our thinkers since the Great Northern Songbook went live on Tuesday night from the Ulster Hall, Belfast.
Not too many people have quibbled about Katherine Philippa and 'Days Of Pearly Spencer'. Likewise with Ciaran Gribben and the historic wrench of 'The Island'. Also, Bronagh Gallagher was well regarded when she divined the beauty in Duke Special's 'Freewheel'. Exceptional moments these. But it was the punk songs on the night that sent a few malcontents onto the social networks for a right old moan.
So how do you honour 'Teenage Kicks', 'Big Time' and 'Alternative Ulster'? Does this require loud guitars and ferocity? Is it simply about style, or should we be looking for a more significant measure?
I always look to the American writer Greil Marcus for his definition of punk. Two words: Question Everything. You keep your wits sharp and you mistrust convention and tradition. There are no given rules, no received dogma. So, Patti Smith could rewrite the soul stomper, 'Land Of The Thousand Dances' and make it a transcendent fever. Devo could direct 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones into utter strangeness while The Flying Lizards made 'Money' sound like the coinage of another planet.
Back at the Ulster Hall with the well-regarded And So I Watch You From Afar. It was their remit to play the 1978 tune by Rudi, 'Big Time'. The first release on the Good Vibrations label, y'know. It changed my life actually. But ASIWYFA aren't going to be literal with the song. Instead, they settle on a few riffs and then abstract the rest. They encourage the Ulster Orchestra to go ape. Only in the closing moments does it sound much like 'Big Time'. Yet I recognised the same audacity, the assurance of a band in their own domain. They are basically true to the song.
It's punk, alright, but perhaps not as you know it.

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