Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thin White Rope - Under The Covers

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, May 13, 2007)

I came aboard the Thin White Rope train just as they released their second album, "Moonhead", in 1987. I was the tour manager for their second tour of America. I wish I could have been there for the first one, "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly" tour. But I was too late and I'll have to survive on all the stories I heard about it. As the tour was winding down, I decided that I loved the band and I was getting along with the four guys so well, that I approached them about becoming their business manager as well as their road manager. It was decided in my favor and I was part of the family for the rest of their existence.

There were several things I wanted to do with the band right off. For some reason that still escapes me, the guys thought of themselves as a rock band in the mold of the Replacements. I like the Replacements as well as anyone, but I thought that Thin White Rope was a much deeper, more elegant band than the sometimes-silly American punk rock that the Replacements played. So I set about convincing the band of this, trying to get them to come up with an image that fit them and the music they played. That included everything from the way they dressed, to the way they took pictures and interacted with the press and public. Some of the things I wanted them to do they went along with. Some other things they weren't all that hot on. But all-in-all, I think we worked together to make a compelling looking, acting and sounding band, although that pesky "desert band" thing kept getting in the way. (Really folks, they weren't from the desert.)

One of the main things I wanted them to do was really think about the cover versions they wanted to do. I think that cover versions are a great thing, but only if the band manages to take that song and make it one of their own. I just don't see the purpose of re-recording a song exactly the same way as the original was done. When I came on board, they were already doing Suicide's "Rocket USA" and Jimmy Reed's "Ain't That Loving You Baby", both of which I heartily approved of. But they were also doing "I Want To Be Your Dog" and while I love that song, I thought it was cliché ridden and overdone. I convinced Guy that if they wanted to do a Stooges song, they should change it to one that wasn't covered so much by other bands. So it became "Little Doll", which was actually pretty much the same song, but it just sounded better saying they were doing "Little Doll" instead of "I Want To Be Your Dog". At least, I thought it did.

I think the band was also doing Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" at the time as well. I wasn't all that thrilled with them doing that song either, although again, I love the song. I remember Guy and I going back and forth about other Sabbath songs and I think "Into The Void" was discussed. But truth be told, they did "Paranoid" so damned well that it just stuck. And there was that incident in Berlin that I talked about in an earlier blog (or did I?) that sort of cemented the song into the TWR set list, at least whenever they played Berlin.

Touring was a good time to try to turn the guys on to songs and artists they weren't that familiar with. Actually, they did the same for me. I always had a fond spot for the popular country & blues artists like Johnny Cash, but I knew little about Marty Robbins, Howlin' Wolf and Lefty Frizzel. I'm a huge fan of them all to this day because of the band's influence. But I tried to influence them as well. I would bring tapes of many bands on tour hoping that some of them would hit a nerve. And it worked out a good many times. I turned them on to Lee Hazelwood and out of that came their cover of "Some Velvet Morning" and I played Can for them and "Yoo Doo Right" came from that.

When Guy told me they were covering "Some Velvet Morning", I was originally somewhat put off due to the fact that they weren't going to do the Nancy Sinatra vocal parts. But it ended up working out extremely well, especially in Europe where, in the live setting, the audience would sing the lyrics themselves much of the time while the band played. And I still remember the band bringing me into their practice studio, telling me they had a new song to play for me, and then breaking into their surprising version of "Yoo Doo Right". Can have always been one of my favorite bands and I was so damned pleased that they were going to cover that song. It became one of their most popular live songs and even became somewhat of a club hit in Germany, I've been told. I'd also been told a story that really pleased the hell out of me. We were playing in Cologne, Germany, the birthplace of Can, and the promoter told me that well-known Can member Holger Czukay, was thinking of coming to the show. I was nervous as hell because I had read an interview with Czukay once where he stated that he hated it when other bands covered Can songs because they never got it right. I mentioned that to the promoter and he told me not to worry. He said that Czukay had told him that he loved TWR's version. He said it was one of the only Can covers he had heard that actually did something new with the song. I was floating above the clouds when I heard that. Unfortunately, Czukay never did show up at the show, so I was never able to actually find out if what I was told had any truth to it. But I prefer to believe that it was all true. And its one of the moments in TWR's history that I'm most proud of.

It didn't take Guy long to start thinking outside the box and before I knew it, they were covering Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity", Marty Robbins "They're Hanging Me Tonight" and Glen Campbell's "The Man With The Golden Gun", all of which went on the "Red Sun EP". We found that we were touring Europe at least twice a year and needed a record to tour on. So we started putting out 12" EPs, starting with "Bottom Feeders" and going through "Red Sun" and "Squatter's Rights". These EPs gave the band a chance to record some of the cover versions they were doing live, as well as collect various tracks that had been placed on compilations and the like. "Yoo Doo Right" was the one and only time a cover was placed on an actual album because Guy felt that it fit so well with the sound and theme of the songs on "Sack Full Of Silver".

Compilations also gave the band a lot of fodder for cover versions. This really started when a fellow named Alan Strawbridge got in touch with us about doing a Byrds' cover for an upcoming tribute album he was putting together. Alan had done several tribute albums before this time and we had actually wished that he would have asked the band to do a song for his Captain Beefheart album. But that didn't happen and the Byrds worked out pretty well. Guy couldn't decide whether to do "Everybody's Been Burned" or "I Knew I'd Want You" and when I told this to Alan, he just told me to have the band record both of them and he would use one as a bonus track on the CD. Problem solved. Then he asked us to do a song for his next album as well, which was a Jimi Hendrix tribute and the band choose to do "May This Be Love". All three of those covers eventually made their way onto a European-only EP ("Squatter's Rights") along with Chuck Berry's "Road Runner" (which they were doing live), Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and a band cover of a song that Guy originally recorded with an Italian band called Avion Travel that was used in a Lina Wirtmuller film. This was originally called "On A Moonlit Night", but the band retitled it as "Film Theme" on the EP. I was really pleased with Guy's choice of "Caravan" as I thought that was about as far out of the box as he could think and they did a wonderful job on the song.

Later, we did yet another song for Alan for his Bob Dylan tribute. "Outlaw Blues" was recorded for that album and someone in the studio thought the song might sound great with a piano on it. I called a friend, Robert Lloyd, who had played in the Lopez Beatles and in bands fronted by Chris Cacavas and John Wesley Harding, and he came down, and in one take added the piano part that was on that track.

It was around the time of the Byrds tribute that we were doing a big tour of Europe. We had a show in Bielefeld, Germany, playing with the Lemonheads and Grant Hart's band, but we had a day off before that show. It was suggested by Christof, our German promoter, that we do an unannounced show at a club called the Forum in Enger. It had to be unannounced due to the fact that it was less than half an hour from Bielefeld and the people putting on the concert there wouldn't be pleased with us for cutting into their show. So we came up with the idea of billing the show as "The Swingin" Danglers", which was the name of the band's fan club, and doing an all-covers show. Of course, the billing didn't fool anyone and the show was sold out in minutes. As we were heading to the show, we were in deep discussion over the songs the band should do. It was already decided to do some of the covers that were in the normal set, or had been at one time. But they wanted to do a few new things and it had to be songs they could learn quickly, as the show was happening in just a few hours. Our sound guy, Elliott, put a tape in and over the speakers we heard the strains of Roky Erickson doing "Burn The Flames". None of us, with the exception of Elliott, had heard the song before and we just all flipped out. It was decided to learn that song, as well as Roky's "Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)" and do those at the show. Somehow or other, the idea came up that I should sing the song with the band. I can't remember where that came from, but I'm always happy to get up on stage and act the ham.

The time of the show came and the club was packed. We all had been drinking heavily. It wasn't a "serious" show and we decided to just go for broke and have a drunken good time. I can't remember much of the set anymore, although I do remember the audience going apeshit and me getting on stage and doing a horrible, drunken version of "Burn The Flames" before Guy gently led me off the stage as the band continued on with the set. And that was the last we expected to hear about that song.

But within the first week we got home from tour, I read that Warner Bros/Sire Records were working on a Roky Erickson tribute album. I was determined to get the band a spot on that album. The good thing was that I was already working for Poster Children and had signed them a year earlier to the same Warner Bros/ Sire Records. And I got along great with the compilation supervisor, Bill Bentley. (Bill had earlier got me tickets to see the Velvet Underground reunion in London, which later led to an interesting meeting with Sylvia Reed. To this day, Bill is one of only a few people I still respect from those Warner Bros days.) So I asked for a meeting and presented the idea of Thin White Rope to Bill. He knew about the band already and thought the idea was a good one. But there were other people involved that had to okay the band. I met with each one and eventually persuaded them all that TWR would be a great presence on the album. The original plan was to record "Two Headed Dog", but Sire act Sister Double Happiness had already claimed that song, so it was decided to record "Burn The Flames", except with Guy singing of course.

An old friend of mine, Bill Noland, ex-Human Hands and Wall Of Voodoo, had been bugging me for a while about working with the band as a producer. We were unsure about that and decided to use the recording of this song to test him out. While we were planning for this, Clawfist Records in London, run by another friend of mine, Nick, who also owns a great record store called Intoxica on Portobello Road, approached me about doing a 7" single for his singles club. For each single, he would get two bands and each band would cover the others' song. He knew I was managing both TWR and Poster Children and thought it would be a great idea to get the two of them to cover each other. Both bands were fans of the others and agreed to do it. TWR decided on the Poster Children song "Eye" and we decided to record that at the same time as the Roky song with Bill producing. It worked out great because we got paid for both songs, but recorded them both for the price of one. I think Bill did a great job on both of them and we presented the song to Sire and they seemed very happy.

But then the games began and I had to keep using my Poster Children leverage to get what I wanted for TWR. First Sire told me that there were too many tracks and that TWR were going to get bumped. I called a few meetings and let everyone know I wasn't happy and suddenly the band was back on the list. Then I was told that they were only going to be a bonus track on the cassette version. Again, I had to throw a minor fit and let them all know I wasn't happy. Keep in mind that at this time, Poster Children hadn't been signed very long and Sire had great hopes for them, so keeping me happy was an important thing to them. That didn't last long, but I took complete advantage of it while it did. Bill Bentley was really behind the band and with both of us working at it, we finally got the approval for TWR to be on the CD and everyone was happy, except maybe for the three bands that got bumped to the cassette-only bonus tracks.

The album ("Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute To Roky Erickson") came out to much acclaim and I was proud to have TWR represented on it. All proceeds went to Roky's medical fund to help him fight his mental problems. And that Christmas, I finally got my payment for all the hard work when I received a Christmas card in the mail addressed to me from Evelyn Erickson, Roky's mom. In the card was a note that said:

"Dearest ML & the band:

I wanted to put in writing how much I appreciate your kindness and generosity in contributing your time and talent to learn Roky's song 'Burn The Flames' for the Tribute Album put out by Warner Bros.

Roky was thrilled and pleased by the demonstration of your love and concern. Thank you again.


Evelyn Erickson

(Roky's mother)"

Guy later said in the liner notes for "Spoor" that he never saw the note, but that's not true. They all saw it (and one of them even tried to "accidentally" steal it). But it was addressed to me and it remains on my shelf next to a lovely Christmas card I got from Mo Tucker a few years later. (I don't have much TWR memorabilia. Just that card, the original art for the European Sploodgeman poster, which I bought from Joe Sacco, and the original painting used on "Sack Full Of Silver", which was given to me by artist Robert Carroll. The story about that will arrive here at a later date.)

By the way, I'm extremely happy to hear that Roky has finally begun to defeat his demons and is back on the touring circuit as of this year. I hope I can catch one of his shows soon.

There's just a couple more cover versions I should mention. During the "Moonhead" tour, the band was asked to do a cable-access television show in Saint Louis called "Psychotic Reaction". They played "Valley Of The Bones" and "Ain't That Loving You Baby" on that show and you probably can find clips of those performances on You Tube. But it was a Christmas show and we were asked if it was possible for the band to do a Christmas song. So right there, in the television studio, the band taught themselves "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and taped a short performance of the song. We later used the audio track from that on "Spoor" as an extra-added surprise.

Then, later, the British fanzine, "Bucketful Of Brains", which was probably the magazine most responsible for TWR's eventual discovery back in the early days, asked the band to contribute a song for a single to be given away with the next copy of the magazine. The band had been covering themselves by playing a punk-rock version of their song "Moonhead" live. I'm don't remember what the reasons for this were. In the liner notes for "Spoor", Guy says it may have been because the set was "plodding so hideously", but I don't ever remember a TWR set that plodded hideously. Whatever the reasons, we had an audience recording of the song and gave that to BOB to use as a single, renaming the song "Skinhead" to project its new fast pace. As with all the loose tracks, it was eventually collected on "Spoor".

A word about audience recordings. With the permission of the band, I always had a policy of allowing the audience to record any and all of the band's live shows. I actively encouraged live bootlegs. I've always felt that bootlegs were the ultimate tribute to a band. If no one cared, there would be no bootlegs. (Bootlegged studio recordings were another matter though and Frontier and I actively shot several of those down.) If I saw someone taping the show, I always introduced myself, told the person it was okay, and asked for a copy of the recording. This worked out great as we ended up with recordings of "Little Doll" and "Skinhead" that were used on singles. And there were no recording costs! To this day, if I see a listing for a TWR show that I don't have, I ask for a copy. Some of the best TWR recordings are on these tapes. (For example, I love the sound of the "drowning dinosaur" guitars on "Little Doll".)

And speaking of live shows, there were a couple of covers that turned up on "The One That Got Away" that hadn't been heard elsewhere. "The Wreck Of The Old '97" was a modern traditional song that was originally a hit for Vernon Dalhart in 1924. It is thought that it was the first ever million selling country record in United States history. Guy loved the song and the band had been doing it on and off for years. I think Guy was just waiting for the right time to record it. But it never happened and fortunately it became part of the final set and TWR history.

The other cover is Hawkwind's "Silver Machine". A year earlier, I played the song for the band on an old jukebox in a club we were playing in England. The guys had never heard it and flipped out over it. It became part of the set and the plan was to record it and several other tracks for a 12" EP for the next European tour. There was even talk of doing some remixes for that EP and I was already talking to Jim Thirwell/Foetus, who I had worked with years earlier, about doing one for us. But the band decided to call it a day and that recording never happened. Again, its fortunate that it was part of that final set and will be forever documented.

And that should be all the stories about the Thin White Rope covers. If I forgot anything, be sure to ask and I will tell. I'll be back next week on another topic and a month from now with more tour stories.

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