vernon_1997This week I’ve been discussing a reunion of my old cover band Spare Parts with the original participants – Maureen Leeson (vocals), Duanne Welsh (drums) and Geoff Wilson (guitar). We were a ‘thing’ from 1993 through 1997. By thing I mean a true-blue working act at clubs across southern (and north-eastern) Ontario getting paid to make people drink beer, dance, grope inappropriately and puke in restrooms. Achieving all four in an evening was considered a success by bar owners and audience members alike. More times than not we could do all four or at least fashion a passable trifecta. Oh, and we were really fucking good at what we did which might be why we were employed every other weekend for four years straight.

SparePartsTHUMBWe made a pact at the beginning of our run: we would disband if any single member left the group. No subs. No replacements. No flogging a dead horse. It had to be all four of us…or nothing. In 1997 Geoff indicated his desire to get married, buy a house and start a new life. We called it a day. No hard feelings. No acrimony. No tears.    Spare Parts

HealeysWith that we were able to reunite in 2005 with a splash at Healey’s Roadhouse in Toronto – a gig that promoter Mike Stortini and Jeff Healey himself arranged for us…on a Saturday night no less. From there we returned to our most popular haunt called the Arlington Hotel in a tiny one-horse town called Maynooth at the foot of Algonquin National Park on this very weekend 8 years ago.

SPMaynooth_1It was originally at this venue that we gelled as a band. Slick, mullet-wearing Toronto musicians doing our best to impress fishermen, loggers, and cottage dwelling College students trying to escape their Toronto parents for a weekend. We started on a cold February weekend in 1995 – it was -23C and we almost didn’t get home again as the batteries in our vehicles had frozen. What we thought was a one-off favour for our drummer to show off to his Homies from nearby Bancroft became a return engagement. And another return engagement. Pretty soon we were the favoured act for ALL long weekends in this smoky, beer stink room that held less than 80 people standing – and that’s only if the women danced on the pool tables [which, sadly, no one ever did]. More than a few times we closed the place early…only because the owners ran out of alcohol.

Spare Parts_Maynooth_Nov96It was here that the three guys in the band found true love with the women in our lives (all of us are still married!); It was here that some American tourists flashed Maureen mid-song – and Geoff fell off the stage laughing so hard; It was also here that an old drunk woman shoved a firecracker down my pants to celebrate Canada Day. I was wearing shorts and the incendiary device fell out and burned my leg instead; And it was here that we watched Princess Diana’s death one Labour Day weekend in real time from England. You can’t compete with that. So we didn’t. You gotta know when to fold ‘em.

Returning to The Arlington seven years later was bittersweet because the old crowds – particularly the young locals – had all grown up and moved away. The room was no longer the hot spot. Those that did find out we were playing welcomed us back. But it wasn’t the same. You certainly can’t go home again…or even go to a home-away-from-home again.

BlackSwanAfter 2005 we reunited a few times – not the least of which was 2011’s appearance at the Black Swan in Toronto where we decided to help me raise money to keep a roof over my head. Dr. Lawrie Ingles – who had been in the solo Maureen Leeson Band during the intervening years with us – joined in on keyboards for a killer set of our old ‘classics’…including this:

SharonSisterPart of our appeal – and the reason for this entire blog post – was our interpretations of songs not performed entirely like the originals. Aside from our refusal to play the worn-out dregs of bad classic rock (hello, “Mustang Sally” and “Brown Eyed Girl”, I’m talking to you), we would take lesser known songs from popular acts and make them our own. Case in point – our version of U2’s “Running To Stand Still”. The original was an oddball, uncharacteristic minimalist weeper featuring Bono, a steel guitar and tack piano. With some wink-wink, nudge nudge cleverness we took the song and made it sound like everything else off of the album it came from (‘The Joshua Tree’). People never knew the difference. They just knew it was U2. We’d record this for our one-and-only studio album ‘Steeped’ in 1996 under the name Sharon’SISTER. Here’s our live take on it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrInIjVoly8
Moe4Maureen went on to front her own band and release a solo album on my record label. The idea of doing straight-up cover versions was now a thing of the past. Moe is great at imitating and even better at re-interpreting. Producer Creighton Doane (of Harem Scarem and Honeymoon Suite fame) believed this as well. The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” was a show stopper for Spare Parts, but Creighton thought the song needed more room for Moe to stretch vocally and changed the time signature so that the cliché I, IV, V blues arrangement would give her space. Some hate this…but others think it’s a bold take on an otherwise buried Beatles album track.

For me, a cover tune either needs to be 100% recreated like the original – even if it’s on kazoo – or completely driven off the rails and re-designed to showcase the talent of the performer. Elvis did it great. The Beatles did it even better. Here are some of my favourite cover versions that add a new flavour to the originals:

HARRY NILSSON – “You Can’t Do That”
HarryHarry was a brilliantly gifted songwriter (he wrote “Cuddly Toy” for The Monkees and “One” by Three Dog Night just to name a few) with a truly twisted outlook on life and music. He never coloured within the lines but was always respectful of material he occasionally covered by others. His take on Badfinger’s “Without You” stands as a high water mark for 1970s AM radio (fuck you, Moronah Carey) but with the recent release of his complete RCA Records output in a boxed set this track from 1967’s ‘Pandemonium Shadowshow’ is an overlooked gem. He doesn’t just sing a Beatles song – he sings 23 of them in under 2 minutes!

JULIE NUNES – “Build Me Up Buttercup”
Julie_3Can’t remember how this gal first came to my attention. Most probably someone’s post on Facebook. But this College student turned pro-ukulele player started posting her vlogs on YouTube to entertain her friends – doing mostly uke interpretations of modern standards by Justin Bieber, Pink and other contemporary pop acts. Somewhere she acquired the pop sensibilities of a generation 40 years before her time and started making a name for herself re-interpreting pop classics. The Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” not only benefits from this uke arrangement, but the homemade living room video is very, very clever (and cost her nothing to make…stick it out to the end). It’s an early performance. She’s honed her skills and her vids since then. Check out her versions of “Sweet Caroline” and “All My Loving”.

good-bad-uglyTHE UKELELE ORCHESTRA OF GREAT BRITAIN – “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”
Speaking of ukes…
There is no denying the sheer cinematic brilliance of the marriage between Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western and Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The Ukelele Orchestra take this classic theme song and mix a balance of formality and frivolity to it simultaneously….and it’s completely LIVE.

VAN DER KILL – “Echo Beach”
echobeachWhat would happen if everybody took classic 1980s synthpop songs, stripped the synths and sang them like Leonard Cohen or Michael Stipe? Well, Gary Jules & Michael Andrews did it first with Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4N3N1MlvVc4 on the ‘Donnie Darko’ soundtrack. In response, producers scoured the cosmos and got Van Der Kill to deconstruct Martha & The Muffins’ “Echo Beach”. Hard to wrap one’s head around a non-bouncy version of the song, but there’s a creepy soundtrack feel to this that suggests a noir visual of back-alley heroin overdose.

CHRISTINA BIANCO – “Total Eclipse of The Heart”
BONNIE TYLERAndre Philipe Gagnon was once the standing champion singing mimic of the world. Since then comedian/singers have become funnier and more entertaining. Rick Miller grabbed some attention at the Just For Laughs Festival many years back for his rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6mZvsWHs4M)  and now comes Christina Bianco putting a female spin on one of the most over-played 1980s songs by Bonnie Tyler. Her spin on some classic and modern divas is brilliant. Celine Dion never looked better. 

RICHARD CHEESE – “Enter Sandman”Cheese

Dick” Cheese is the foremost king of twisted cover tunes featuring stylistic perversions and double entendres. He and Weird Al fought for the premiership of the long running Dr. Demento Show for years. Al Sold His Soul for Moroccan Roll while Dick remained underground. Rich stepped it up a notch in recent years tackling some hard-rock fodder on his ‘Aperitif For Destruction’ album in 2005 which included the “Mr. Sandman” mix of this Metallica classic. Pat Boone’s “No More Mister Nice Guy” pales in comparison. 

jaymzbeeFollowing the demise of his long running band The Look People (imagine Alex Trebek fronting The Mothers of Invention), Bee assembled his version of a swinging 1960s Lawrence Welk tribute act to create jivin’ versions of classic pop and rock songs. His ‘Cocktail’ series of CDs worked great for hipster coffee clatches and gallery openings. From ‘Shaken ‘n Stirred’ comes this happenin’ version of the Men Without Hats hit.

MILEY CYRUS – “Jolene”
MileyIt was a particularly intense media week for Billy Ray’s little girl – what with her dry-humping Robin Thicke on the VMA’s in a rubber bikini. The backlash was unprecedented across social media. Most comments revolved around her lack of talent. But the hatred doesn’t match the facts. Cyrus has always been a decent country singer. Her take on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is flawless (right down to replicating Parton’s wallpaper shredding vibrato). Don’t forget that Herb Albert used to distract audiences with naked models covered in whip cream while still providing the goods on the vinyl within. Cyrus might be abandoning her Disney innocence and even her country roots for pop stardom, but underneath the shock and awe is someone that can step up to the plate when required. When she’s 30 she’ll shock everyone again with an album of standards. 

Sometimes, well, cover tunes just don’t work out. No one knows what high school this was recorded at but it typifies the challenges of organizing musicians into a cohesive unit. Both composer Richard Strauss and film-maker Stanley Kubrick are rolling in their graves.

P.S. Spare Parts will debut their 20th anniversary tour with a performance at the Jubilee Pavilion in Oshawa, Ontario on Sunday, October 6th as the musical accompaniment at the CIBC Run For The Cure event to raise awareness and funds to beat cancer!


Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 35 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 17 of those years. He is also the author of the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ both of which are available at Amazon.com or http://www.bullseyecanada.com

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