Earlier this week, I caught up with Ancient Champion about a few of the things he’s been up to lately: reflective walks around Birmingham, The Wedding Present, his latest single, and great (and not so great) cover songs. Here’s the relevant bit about the cover songs…
Alarcon: As you know, I love a good cover song. When an artist you’re not familiar with covers a song you’ve heard a million times before, and reinvents that song -- breathing new life into it -- it can be magical. Plus, it gives the listener a glimpse of what that artist is like. The first Soft Cell song I ever heard was their cover of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” and I could sense that Marc Almond was dangerous and probably a little perverted. As a musician, what do you feel about cover versions? How do you approach covering a song, especially a cherished song that everyone already loves the way it is?
Ancient Champion: Yeah, of course, there are the big beasts, the big bears that are untouchable should never be messed with because it’s highly unlikely that anything good will come of it. And, ho-hmmmm…. I’ve messed with a few of them. Bowie, Clash, Denver, Beastie Boys, Link Wray, 1810 Fruitgum Company, aside from a few bars from War, I’m straying safely on the white side of the road. I mean, there’s probably a limit to how ridiculous even I dare be. But you want to know about “Anarchy,” why now, why me?
“Anarchy in the UK” is astonishingly personal for me. The Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten, I mean I suppose the billions think that punk failed because Elton John is still making records. But the music of the Sex Pistols, the attitude and the art of Jamie Reid, the design, the clothes, opened a window that previously hadn’t even been there for so many people. Think of how many graphics designers and fine artists and fashion designers were inspired by what they heard and saw, enough to think they could do better! Or do it themselves. In the end all of that generated billions of pounds for UK economy. Keeping the establishment safe in their bitter slumber. Sometimes of course I wish I’d never heard “Anarchy in the UK,” maybe I would have done nothing at all instead. I could still be drawing airplane fuel pipe elbows and would be living in a large house. In many ways creativity without a safety net, with few resources is a lifelong scourge. But it is a trade, time is all we have after all. What do you sell yours for and is it worth it.
Alarcon: I remember that Fruitgum Company song in your early repertoire, and now that we’re talking about “Anarchy,” I love what you did with it. It’s very in line with the Champion sound, and this one has a lo-fi samba feel to it, which was my favorite part. I found myself tapping a toe under the desk while I was listening to it today.
Ancient Champion: The umpteenth cover version of “Anarchy” I think you’ll find, and I have never seen the point in listening to any of the others. Who would dare to sing such a beautiful song, it would be a pathetic pastiche. Look, I actually can barely manage the machines I use, and it just fitted into that whole “Easy Listening for Difficult People” BS thing that I do. Kind of like James Last with a furloughed Orchestra. Yeah, we can toe-tap to it, and maybe some gold-plated pensioners will rekindle their dreams and cash in their 401k’s… It’s not going to fire the starting pistol on the much needed revolution. I was surprised that there are so many cover versions of “Anarchy,” and all useless and after 40 years it looked like no one could do it justice except me.
Alarcon: From what I’ve read, “Anarchy” is part of your This Is Punk Rock and This is New Wave series. Can you talk about the next songs you’re gonna release and when?
Ancient Champion: Not a series so much as a good idea at the time… There are three or four tunes I’ve done. They’re just coming, but I can’t be bothered to talk about it or they will never wholly happen. Let’s say The Muffs, Kraftwerk and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have come under my gaze. Do you have any other questions?
Alarcon: Which artists got covers right? Can you make allowances? Which cover songs lifted the source material to a higher level? Which bands made a cover song their own?
Ancient Champion: Very few. That would be a very short list. Do you have a serious question, there are too few....
Alarcon: Interesting. OK, Champ -- pop quiz -- we’re taking the gloves off! I’m going to fire off a list of cover songs by beloved artists we here at the OL universally adore. Ready, here we go... The Slits’ “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”
Ancient Champion: The Slits, oh wow. They are probably the only band beyond motown that could ever attempt I Heard It Through The Grapevine and they make it totally their own and brilliantly so. A drum and bass heavy epic makes for an immense Grapevine. I don’t know even now if there’s a more unique and adventurous group than the Slits. I love them. Not that it matters but Neneh Cherry sang with them on their Cut LP.
Alarcon: Big Joanie’s “Cranes in the Sky.”
Ancient Champion: Yeah. Big Joanie. Do you have Big Joanie in California yet? I heard this and thought never… That can’t be. You don’t have the right. That’s not a song anyone should be covering. But Big Joanie took about two minutes to prove me wrong. I love this Solange song, and her album A Seat At The Table. The statement. But Big Joanie, great name, I wonder what it means? Black, Gay (maybe I haven’t figured that out yet - do you have to be something to be part of something?), Feminist, Punk. Rockin' good. What’s not to love? I know you’ve tried to get them into Outsideleft. Keep trying! I didn’t know they were on Kill Rock Stars there, they should be about a billion times more popular.
Alarcon: They’re a Kill Rock Stars act, right? I’m not too familiar, but I will be right after this conversation. How about The Fugees’ “Ready or Not.”
Ancient Champion: Well you know, I never think Lauryn Hill ever puts a foot wrong. Sings and writes so beautifully. No music business stooge... Everything on her own terms. And her contribution just stops the clock... “While you’re imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone and defecating on your microphone...” She can’t hold back and why should she? And I want a bow like that.
Alarcon: The Clash’ “Pressure Drop.”
Ancient Champion: Good choice, this seems entirely apt in the hands of the Clash. Total colour in a very grey world at the time. I guess that’s Mick Jones harmonizing in there. I love it all. Every sound. And of course there is that risible Robert Palmer version of Pressure Drop. Dire. Makes me want to shorten my life just contemplating it. Robert Palmer manages to sound so sub-Jimmy Buffet crap party on his version. None of Toots and the Maytals’ urgency and direction that the Clash captured. And then, well, they were the Clash too.
Alarcon: Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie.”
Ancient Champion: Amy Winehouse, so incredible and that this is a cover from an original by an entirely forgettable band, what were they called again? I sometimes imagine the writers looking up from their desks at the local council and thanking their lucky stars every time they open their banking app.
Alarcon: Bryan Ferry’s “The ‘In’ Crowd.”
Ancient Champion: Hey, does that make two or three Dylan covers on your list? Bryan Ferry, he’s made such incredible music, I don’t know, I really think he should have worked more. He’s idiosyncratic enough to.
Alarcon: Marcia Griffiths’ “Don’t Take Me Down.”
Ancient Champion: I’d rather for so many reasons bands didn’t do Beatles songs. You can’t ever go to a party, light a bonfire, get naked, hand out a couple of acoustic guitars before somehow fucks the whole vibe by playing Penny Lane or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer or something. Marcia Griffiths, I mean no one ever does me like she does me, listen to this, Lennon imitators if you want to know how it is done.
Alarcon: The Cardigans’ “Iron Man” -- I particularly adore this one.
Ancient Champion: The Cardigans did that thing that they did and no one approached their level, you know, probably because no one else had Nina Persson singing for them. Her voice could get away with murder. And her voice can get away with a super schmaltzy Iron Man.
Alarcon: King Tubby “Take Five” -- I particularly adore this one.
Ancient Champion: Oh I just love this. There’s an old Dave Brubeck Take Five single we inherited in our house and when we play it I marvel at the fidelity, the sounds of the instruments. I know that’s dull and pedantic, but the musicians and engineers, to make and capture those sounds, surely that’s a Robert Johnson-eque pact of some sort? It is magical. And what do you do with that? Unless your name is King Tubby, you’re not going to make much remaking that at all.
Alarcon: The Dum Dum Girls’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.”
AC: You know the Smiths in general are untouchable aren’t they. Although I have dabbled with Jeane, that might be one of their easier ones. And someone I know made a pretty good fist of How Soon Is Now. I used to think that if I touched the hem of Morrisey’s jeans life would be better. Remember when we had that Morrissey secret and we wanted to auction it on eBay. We should’ve done it. I wonder whether he would give us another one?
Alarcon: Finally, your version of the Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.”
Ancient Champion: Well listen to it. Essential easy listening for people who originally pogoed their way through this and now don’t fancy more damage to their hips, especially in the UK where the NHS waiting lists are so long. For angry toe-tappers everywhere. It will go down in history and later when the aliens come and they don’t speak english, they’ll get the space-age vibe, they’ll connect with the waves of sound, they’ll get it and conclude that there’s nothing to see here and move right along, to the next sappy sad dying planet. My version of Anarchy in the UK might be saving the world already.
Alarcon: Thanks, Champ. You said it all, and maybe a little too much. Looking forward to the full length soon, it's called Music Inspired By The Museumgoer of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and out in April I think? That's another story right?
Ancient Champion: That's another story.