In the late 1970s, when the raw emotion and energy of punk started to wear out, the post-punk genre came along to finish the job it started. Part of that involved tearing down the canon of rock heroes, ditching direct blues influences in favour of dub, funk, and electronic music.
However, some of the best post-punk bands honoured the spirit of the accepted old favourites rather than condemning them. They freshened them up, forcing people to hear them differently. Below, I’ve chosen five legendary standards given new life by ingenious post-punk interpretations. That’s not to say these versions are better than the originals, but they just might change the way you listen.
‘Take Me to the River’ – Talking Heads
David Byrne of Talking Heads strikes me as a naturally disconnected man who, through sheer effort, has rectified this by becoming the most connected man in the world. He begins the concert film Stop Making Sense as a twitchy, buttoned-up figure playing ‘Psycho Killer’ on acoustic guitar. By the end he’s backed by a full band, intoxicated by the joy of it all. Talking Heads’ sly version of ‘Take Me to the River’ follows a similar trajectory.
The tiptoeing melody lines transform Al Green’s self-assured soul classic into a measured, stagey piece, tighter than the skin on an apple. Then Byrne begins to sing tentatively, as if he’s not sure about this whole take-me-to-the-river business. He’s just stuck his foot in, and it’s – ooh – a bit chilly, and there’s a sign saying ‘NO DIPPING ANYONE IN THE WATER’. But gradually, his voice gains a bold edge and he starts to play about, squeaking and whooping and having a good time. Didn’t I tell you, Dave? It’s all right once you’re in.
‘All Along the Watchtower’ – XTC
In the early days, XTC were sometimes seen as British equivalents to Talking Heads, but the treatment that Swindon’s finest new wavers give to Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is anything but tentative. If Jimi Hendrix’s version is the definitive reading because it sounds like the world’s about to end, XTC’s cover is what happens after the dam breaks.
Over apocalyptic synths and a bobbing, eddying, obsessively repetitive bassline that Jah Wobble of Public Image Ltd. might have concocted, frontman Andy Partridge bellows his lungs out like a man possessed, rendering the lyrics barely comprehensible. When he punctuates the track with bursts of blazing harmonica, it sounds as if he’s coming up for air. As the song nears its end, he’s so worked up he can’t even spit the title out.
(Extra fact: the chord progression in the song’s intro is called the ‘Andalusian cadence’. It crops up in songs ranging from ‘Hit the Road Jack’ to Davey Graham’s folk-guitar instrumental ‘Anji’.)
‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ – The Slits
I have a confession to make. Having become familiar with it through adverts, I never really got the appeal of Marvin Gaye’s original – at least, not until I heard the version by the Slits, and then everything clicked into place. Ari Up’s wiry vocals are quintessential female post-punk, thoroughly ticked-off and slightly robotic, and push the accusatory tone simmering through Gaye’s version to the forefront. Things are no less tense in the background, as the spiky, scrawny instrumentation rattles and jars where the original rolled along as smooth as velvet.
Suddenly the bitter jealousy at the heart of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ becomes clear in abundance, and I find myself wondering how on Earth I mistook it for comfy complacency the first time round. The Slits’ version is that rare cover that, while being ace in its own right, reveals exactly what made the original fantastic.
‘Lost in Music’ – The Fall
Of all the covers that the Fall knocked out over their long career, few hit the spot like their interpretation of Sister Sledge’s ‘Lost in Music’. Like the Slits’ effort above, it nails an idea at the core of the original – in this case, dancefloor delirium – but in such a cryptic way that it’s harder to pin down why it’s so good.
The rhythm guitar churns away like factory equipment while piano chords and shards of lead guitar rise out of the murk, hammering home the steely edge. Mark E. Smith, slurring his way through the words, junks most of the original lyrics in favour of his distinctive poetry. Phrases like ‘il money il sur la table’ may be baffling, but they snag in my memory like sticky burrs and when they resurface days later I’m convinced they’re genius. Hideaway!
(Contains swearing in French. If you’re wondering why a cover of ‘Lost in Music’ would contain swearing in French, well, that tells you a lot about the Fall.)
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ – Devo
As different as it sounds, Devo’s ‘Satisfaction’ does much the same thing as the Rolling Stones original – it speaks to the youth of the day by tapping straight into their feelings of disenchantment. Thing is, it’s twelve years later and the people listening to Devo aren’t rock-and-roll rebels but nervous geeks, both frustrated and wired by the demands of the fast-paced modern world.
Recalling Captain Beefheart, the disjointed twang and clatter of the instrumentation suggests sensory overload and constant pressure while working up a surprisingly danceable groove. Even though the whole thing feels like a Heath Robinson contraption assembled from spare parts rather than a Beat Generation-style howl of inner pain, it’s just as good as the original at giving a voice to the angst of teenagers at odds with society.
There we have it. Five post-punk covers, all of which are radical in their own way. But do you think they’re brilliant or blasphemous? The next time you look for a musical fix, would you go for the originals or the covers? And which inventive interpretations have I unjustly left out? Feel free to have your say in the comments.