As I wait for another fine, upstanding artist to find time in their busy schedule to provide me with answers to the Q&A I’ve sent their way, I thought I’d tackle one of my favorite obscure various-artists collections.
Alvin Lives (In Leeds): Anti Poll Tax Trax isn’t by any means what you’d call the most consistent compilation, but I’m a huge fan of cover songs, and I always find it fascinating to listen to how some artists play it safe and do straight-up Xeroxes of the originals while others have the balls to switch up the arrangement or even the melody to make a song their own. This 12-track compilation came out on Midnight Music in 1990 as a reaction against the so-called Community Charge, which was instituted by good ol’ Maggie Thatcher in 1989 and proved so tremendously unpopular that it led directly to her departure from office. Her successor, John Major, alleviated the problem by replacing the Community Charge with the Council Tax system, but Brits can still relive their painful memories by revisiting this CD and remembering just how up in arms they got about it back then.
I stumbled upon this compilation when I was in the UK for the first time, back in 1992, and was scouring through every CD store that crossed my path, looking for all the obscurities I could possibly fit into my bag. This mission ultimately proved so successful that I needed to mail an entire box of CDs home, which was a pricey endeavor, but I don’t regret it for a moment, as just about everything I purchased on that trip remains in my collection to this day. At the time I purchased it, I was familiar with less than half of the artists, but it really only took six words for the disc to find its way up to the cash register:
Robyn Hitchcock does “Kung Fu Fighting.”
It’s a completely ridiculous cover, done a cappella and featuring many strange shrieks and squawks, but Hitchcock sounds like he’s having a ball. I had the chance to ask him about it when I spoke with him a few years ago, and he remembered it fondly, if vaguely:
“Well, it was the last days of Midnight Music, and it was a benefit for somethingâ€¦I donâ€™t know what it was; I know we werenâ€™t seeing any money for it. We went into a studio in North London somewhereâ€¦I think it was just me and Andy Metcalfe. Oh, God, needless to say, I havenâ€™t heard that in decades, and I donâ€™t have a copy. But Iâ€™ve always liked that song, and we did a ‘Naff â€™70s Hits Against the War’ thing a couple of years ago after they invaded Iraq, to raise money for recent benefit for MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res, which we do occasionally. Michele sort of promotes them and makes the tickets and books the gig in this pub in East London. And I think we did ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ thereâ€¦possibly with Jon Brion; I know he was in town. I love digging that one up at parties.”
Although that cover was what dragged me into the proceedings, it was the first song on the album which actually ended up being featured on more of my mix tapes than Mr. Hitchcock’s inclusion: Lush’s performance of “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.” Both this song and the one that closes it (The Perfect Disaster’s take on Lee Marvin’s “Wand’rin’ Star,” from “Paint Your Wagon”) are the most definitively British inclusions on the collection, in that neither had anything approaching the kind of success in the States that they did in the UK; I’d never heard either track until I picked up this comp, and, frankly, Lush’s track is so damned good that I’ve never actively sought out the original, lest it totally ruin their version for me.
Other winners on the album include The Popguns’ “Bye Bye Baby,” which shows that The Pipettes’ sound existed long before they got around to forming, as well as the Corn Dollies’ rendition of Chic’s “Le Freak,” which sounds pretty cool. The Siddeleys do a version of “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” that can best be described as shambolic, but at least they’re having fun; same goes for Five Thirty’s “My Sweet Lord,” which is decidedly rough around the edges. As for the Wedding Present’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me),” well, if you’ve ever heard any of that band’s covers, you know that David Gedge definitely makes other people’s songs into their own, and this is no exception.
If Lush wins the award for Best Cover of a Song I’d Never Heard Before, then The 14 Iced Bears take the victory for Best Reinvention of a Song I Already Liked with their gothed-up “Summer Nights.” The group actually has a best-of collection that I’m tempted to check out, but, again, what if this turns out to be the only thing of theirs that I enjoy? I’d hate to ruin it, y’know?
As noted, it’s not all brilliance here. The Close Lobsters’ version of “Float On” is barely worth a shrug, and Crocodile Ride take Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and waste seven minutes of your time, but of all the versions you’d probably never want to hear again, special mention must be made of Cud’s attack on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which can in no way be called good…and, yet, I feel like I should applaud them for taking on such a supreme sacred cow and totally fucking it all to hell. To be fair, though, Cud’s pretty much an acquired taste even under the best of circumstances, with only one of their songs – the wonderful “Rich and Strange” – warranting repeat spins on my MP3 player.
In short, Alvin Lives (In Leeds) ain’t 100% brilliant, but it’s mostly a fun listen, as I’ve now reminded myself; if you’re a cover-song aficionado like myself and you see it in a used bin, it’s certainly worth picking up.