Songs That Freak Out Fans

There are those who stroke their fanbases, and those who appear to delight in leaving them reeling. Some so-called “chameleons of rock and roll,” David Bowie, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, are legendary for shedding their images (and all but their most hardcore fans) every few years to tread go new directions with new sounds. Both bands of the 60s and 70s and those of the present constantly must wrestle between appeasing their fickler fans, or daring their base to follow them to whatever depths to which they may descend.

These are tracks that I’ve selected not necessarily just because they sound different than other tracks from these artists– in some cases, they really don’t. I have chosen these tracks simply because for reasons philosophical or commercial, they freaked people out. Whether it was on purpose or not, they managed to jar at least portions of these artists’ fanbases. However, as you will see, they did so in many different ways:

We begin with the now-legendary track off from Ten Years After that depending on who you ask is either a charming example of rock and roll irony, or an affront to to the values not just of a fanbase, but of a movement.

Ten Years After, to the layperson, probably conjures fond memories of the band’s ten-plus minute version of “I’m Going Home” that is included in 1970’s Woodstock documentary. However, their most legendary hit, written in 1971, seems like anathema to the hippies’ idealism and peace-and-love attitude.

A seeming jumble of various political perspectives, from the somewhat predictable “tax the rich/ feed the poor/ ’til there are no rich no more” and “stop the war” to the somewhat revolting “everywhere is/ freaks and hairies/ dykes and fairies/ tell me where is sanity?” whatever message “I’d Love to Change the World” might have is so convoluted that it should be taken with more than a grain of salt. The overwhelming sentiment of lazy apathy in the song’s refrain, “I’d love to change the world/ but I don’t know what to do/ so I’ll leave it up to you” has been defended by singer and guitarist Alvin Lee, who wrote the lyrics. According to Lee, the lyrics were inspired because while Ten Years was a part of the “peace and love” scene, he was “very frustrated that [he] could not do anything about it.” No matter the true beliefs behind “I’d Love to Change the World,” it is considered an anthem by many. However, many still are confused and appalled by some of the song’s lyrical content.

Another lyrical affront to a fanbase– perhaps an even larger one, as it involves a total flip in philosophy, is that of Bob Dylan’s now-infamous “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”

“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says,”Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What ?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run…”‘

These are not the lyrics of a bible-thumper. They are, in fact, the lyrics of one Bob Dylan, circa 1965. However, after a motorcycle accident and several years out of the public eye, things began to change– fast. By the late 1970s and the Slow Train Coming album, Dylan had become a born-again Christian, and refused to play his secular works onstage. He frequently evangelized, and regularly extolled his new faith in interviews and during public appearances. You can only imagine how his 60s fans must have responded to the sudden change in this countercultural icon.

Not only does this song’s extremely self-righteous presence seemingly drip with condescending reminders of Dylan’s faith– and he would go through several more “phases” as the years went on– but perhaps the most infuriating part of it is the quality of the lyrics in general. Despite his controversial choice of topic, Dylan’s words are still well-composed and excellently-crafted. In some odd way, it almost makes it seem more awful.

With all the unsavory characters in rock and roll, there are obviously many offensive lyrics in songs, but this next entry is more a musical and stylistic affront than a philosophical one:

After The Clash released their classic third album, London Calling, in 1979, much of their fanbase was at the very least confused at their new world-influenced, polished sound, which lacked much of the furious Punk thrash of their first album, and of their live performances. However, this album was a massive success, and while they might have lost some of their more staunchly Punk fans, they gained many more in their place. Looking to their next album, the band made a few controversial choices. First of all, they decided on a triple LP. Second of all, they decided that London Calling‘s popularity and critical acclaim meant that they could do anything. The result, the jumbled Sandinista! album of 1980, which incorporates a children’s chorus, dub, and rap among other things, has been referred to as “Punk’s greatest folly.”

In reality, the majority of tracks off of Sandinista! could be given this spot. This was an album that, to be blunt, made very few friends. The band itself admits its many flaws, and as result, it has fallen far under the radar compared to their other albums. However, context aside, “Rebel Waltz” pissed off Clash fans simply with its music. It is, if I am not mistaken, the first Clash song in waltz time, with an opening that at least to me distinctly connotated sledding through fake snow. This is not a terrible song by any means, but it is most assuredly not what fans expected from the group now most famous for their frenzied performances of tracks such as “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” and “Clampdown.”

Next is a song I sincerely debated leaving out– it almost seemed too obvious. In fact, it was the goal of its writer, Lou Reed, to make an entirely unlistenable album. Some would say he succeeded excellently.

If any of you are listening to this as you read, you are probably wondering why this somewhat violent-sounding feedback intro is lasting so long. Well, I warn you, the uninitiated, that what you are hearing is no intro– it is the entire song. In fact, it is actually the entire album. Composed of four quarter-hour walls of noise with no keys, rhythms, or lyrics to speak of, Lou Reed sought to create the Metal Machine Music album in 1975 for the sole purpose of alienating people. Reed himself claimed that he never sat through the entire album, which he “created” and mixed himself. Ironically, while some would probably argue that this commercial flop of an album has hardly a song at all, it is probably the most influential out of all the tracks on this list. Many industrial rock, heavy metal, and noise rock acts have credited Metal Machine Music as a great inspiration– despite the fact that it is basically a auditory migraine, it has had quite a legacy, and has since been rereleased and digitally remastered.

This is a track so completely impenetrable that sitting through the entire thing has become something of a badge of honor among many young fans. It is often said to be the most returned album in history. Infamous and celebrated all at once, it is clearly an attack, but what exactly is it attacking? Probably, RCA Records, to begin with. Reed felt they were not giving him enough artistic freedom so that by this, his fifth solo album, he was simply interested in getting anything different made and out there. Besides that though, Metal Machine Music is a challenge– a dare  to a near-physical onslaught of some of the vilest noises around.

Lastly, a song that one could say is equally offensive, but for what is essentially the opposite reason.

Thank god we are able to associate Paul McCartney with his often brilliant songwriting instead of this rather unfortunate Wings cover of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” a nursery rhyme. Upon its 1972 release as the A-side of a seven-inch single, McCartney claimed that Wings recorded this song because the BBC had banned his previous political single, “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” However, since then, McCartney has maintained that in actuality, Wings recorded this song in an honest and well-meaning effort to record a song for children. No matter the motivation though, critics and fans alike were positively merciless in their summation of this admittedly uninspiring track. Some critics even went so far as to claim that the track was recorded ironically, perhaps in some vague effort to keep their faith in McCartney intact.

I placed this track very deliberately in this list. It follows “Metal Machine Music, Part I,” which is one of the most hair-raising tracks rock and roll had ever seen in 1975. “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” though, is arguably just as unsettling for the average rock listener. One of the most interesting things about the rock and roll phenomenon is the emphasis on shock– some fans value their music more on shock and on novelty than on anything else. “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is one of the gentlest songs you can find– but the question is, is it shocking? It is certainly shocking to consider a track like this coming out of Paul McCartney, but in truth, what song could be less shocking? So, I suppose it is more for that fabulous paradox than for anything else that I include this, Wings’ early-1970s cover of what I guarantee is one of the first songs you ever heard.

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Unlikely Covers

Covers are strange beasts. They can either bore us by rehashing the original version of a song in ridiculously exacting fanboy/girl detail, or they can bring something entirely new and different to a song– essentially, breathe new life into a piece of music we thought we knew. Without covers, it’s hard to say where music would be. Covers were absolutely critical to the development of a multitude of now-legendary musical acts. In particular, the early 60s British Invasion scene sprang up from homegrown skiffle and covers of early American rock n’ roll, R&B, and blues songs.

Some songs were covered over and over again– “Louie Louie” (albeit with big variations in lyrics– originally written by Richard Berry in 1955), “Gloria” (originally by Them), “Love in Vain” (one of many now-standard tracks by Robert Johnson), King Bee (originally a Slim Harpo number)– the list is endless, although it varies somewhat across the years. Now a lot of covers are rather predictable. When we know how many years young Eric Clapton spent drooling over Howlin’ Wolf, we aren’t surprised when he does “Killing Floor.” We’re not even surprised when The Sex Pistols do “Substitute.”

But then there are those “what are you thinking?” covers that seem entirely off-the-wall, illogical, and unexpected. And while those covers can be ridiculous trainwrecks, they can also revolutionize the way we think of a song. The list I’ve compiled here is in no way complete– just a small sampling of many decades of unlikely covers

I’ll start off with a whopper.

Sid Vicious- “My Way”

Why it does(n’t) make sense: Nothing I say can possibly say will do justice to how much this doesn’t make sense. It’s bloody Sinatra sung by an ex-Sex Pistol unmusician. The lyrics are different, thankfully (or not thankfully depending on whose side you’re on, because they’re pretty brutal), but that does not change the fact that it is perhaps Sinatra’s most legendary standard. Everyone… Sid Vicious ≠ Frank Sinatra any way you look at it. I’d be glad to go into further detail, but there’s almost too much to say.

Why it works: I wonder. In writing this article, I’m on my ninth play in a row, and I’m still ascertaining that myself. This recording emphasizes something that was very much Punk– despite the sneering and the eighth notes, it’s still “My Way.” I believe that Punk never strayed all that far from its rock n’ roll roots (perhaps someday I’ll post that essay…), and this song is a perfect example of that. When you really look even at the original words, they’re honestly on the smug side, but it took a skinny, homicidal punk to give it some real bite. There is some strange black magic in this track. And Sid actually doesn’t sound half-bad, as Punk vocals go.

Johnny Cash- “Hurt”

Why it does(n’t) make sense: I don’t know about you, but when I think about the archetypical American country singer Johnny Cash, I don’t tend to associate him with a band that is often described “industrial rock.” It seems almost like comparing Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, or any two drastically different kinds of fruit. “So what,” you might say. “The Nine Inch Nails have been dusting off their old country records. People can have very unlikely influences.” Well, that would be one thing, but this is not the Nine Inch Nails covering Johnny Cash– it’s Johnny Cash covering a Nine Inch nails song. What?

Why it works: It’s hard to do wrong by such an incredibly beautiful song with heartbreaking lyrics and delicate, gradually ascending instrumentation. Cash’s seventy-one years gives “Hurt” more gravity than the Nine Inch Nails’ original version– also a beautiful track, but without the deep melancholy of the cover. Cash’s low, aging voice seems all at once out of place and perfect for the song. Since even Trent Reznor himself admits that he felt the notion of Cash covering this song was “gimmicky” before hearing the final result, this is a maximally unlikely cover, but one that will stand the test of time– when Johnny Cash died only months after the track was released, this song and the video made for it (which features footage from all through Cash’s career) have become something of a musical epitaph for him.

If this track didn’t completely gut you, the next one is a little more light-hearted:

The Slits- Heard It Through The Grape Vine

Why it does(n’t) make sense: In a weird way, it almost does. One might not immediately picture a Punk/post-Punk group who boasted being “your number one enemy all for the hell of it” covering a Barrett Strong song popularized by Marvin Gaye. Then again we are talking about The Slits, who even in 1979 played a sort of fusion of punk and dub reggae. However, “Heard It Through the Grapevine” seems like a bit of a stretch even considering.

Why it works: People say that the beat can make a song, and maybe that’s the case for The Slits’ version of this Motown standard. It’s completely infectious, clean, and danceable, punctuated by Viv Albertine’s reggae-influenced guitar relatively low in the mix, and Ari Up, who plays with the melody and phrasing just enough to keep it interesting and make it her own. One of my favorite things about the track is, incidentally, Ari’s accent– a cross between Munich, Germany and London, England, which lends a brand new sensibility to lyrics we all thought we knew.

And if you thought this wouldn’t get any more random…

The Ramones- “7 and 7 Is”

Why it does(n’t) make sense: This song was originally recorded by the L.A. psychedelic band Love fronted by Arthur Lee, a seemingly far cry from leather-jacketed punk godfathers. Then again, the geekiest Ramones fans reading this might know what makes this unlikely cover seem almost plausible: Joey grew up a hippie. Before he found what we now consider protopunk music like Alice Cooper and The Stooges, he loved the psychedelic sounds of California in the late 60s– it’s only natural that on The Ramones’ 1993 Acid Eaters album, which consists entirely of cover songs, some of that sensibility would come through.

Why it works: Although people nowadays tend to think of Love as a pure hippie group, they had a lot more raw garage energy than many people realize. The combination of their raw, high-energy song with an incredibly high-energy band is positively relentless. And technical capability be damned, The Ramones’ “7 and 7 Is” definitely holds up. While the band replaces the dynamic garage-psych sensibility of Love’s original with the ferocious pulse they they were famous for from the mid-70s until their very last show, it keeps the spirit of the original (and yeah, slavishly fanboy-copies a few bits) while still giving it something new.

Lastly, one that might not have crossed your mind:

The Beatles- “Boys” 

Why it does(n’t) make sense: In 1960, when The Shirelles recorded the original version of “Boys”, you can bet that they didn’t expect that a group of four white boys from Liverpool would be singing it on Shindig only four years later. Especially not without changing lyrics like “well, I talk about boys, now.” Yeah, the Fab Four tweaked the words a little bit, but the point remains the same– Ringo’s still “talkin’ ’bout boys,” and that might not exactly fly for the kind of audience acts like The Beatles were playing to in the early 1960s.

Why it works: The Beatles were one of the acts that made covers like this okay. They didn’t overplay it, they didn’t underplay it, they didn’t make it any sort of gimmick, they just did it. Paul McCartney even said of their recording, “if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song.” What’s more, it was fun, and it was catchy, and both The Shirelles and The Beatles made it danceable and exciting. The Beatles, would go on to change the entire face of popular music by their introduction of what were considered “girl group harmonies,” and this is a great example of what they did with them. It’s no wonder that for better or for worse as the British Invasion wore on, more and more male groups began to tread on girl-group turf.

Notable omissions:

Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop” covered by Heart
Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song” covered by The Doors
“Little Drummer Boy” covered by David Bowie and Bing Crosby
The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” covered by Santana