Didn’t Hear THAT Coming! (Unexpected Covers In Concert) discusses songs I was surprised to hear covered in a live show by an act I’d gone to see.
Cover songs can add zip and spark to a rock ‘n’ roll group’s live repertoire. In their earliest gigs, most groups start out playing covers, and integrate more of their own original material into their sets as they play more dates, develop more of an identity, and attract more fans with an interest beyond just hearing bar-band interpretations of songs associated with other acts. It’s a basic long-term strategy for groups hoping to get noticed, to get somewhere; there’s a reason The Rolling Stones cut back on Chuck Berry songs and started writing their own material.
Still, a well-placed cover tune can enhance a live set, while the wrong choice can result in irritating a fan who doesn’t want to hear a fave rave act pandering to a lower common denominator. Whether it works or falls flat, the unexpected cover prompts us to say, “Wow–didn’t hear THAT coming!”
In the late ’70s, disco and punk were supposed to be at war with each other. As a self-professed punk rocker in that era, I can attest that, yeah, punks didn’t like disco, and the bumpin’-n-hustlin’ set was appalled by the loud and fast noise my people favored. Hatfields and Capulets, meet McCoys and Montagues. Never mind the fact that the mainstream rock crowd held both punk and disco in nearly equal disdain; this was war!
Except that it wasn’t. I’m skeptical of the notion that many of the Saturday Night Fevered ever took much interest in The Damned or The Dead Boys, but some among the new wave brigade did eventually allow their ears and minds to be a bit more open to non-pogo dance music, to the beat of dat ole debbil disco. Maybe it was just me, but I was a pop fan anyway; my intense dislike of disco music evolved into occasional tolerance, and tolerance evolved into a sporadic realization that some of the records weren’t bad. Plus, Donna Summer was gorgeous. I feel love.
At the age of 19 in 1979, my belated discovery and embrace of early ’70s proto-punks The New York Dolls was still at an early stage. My local Syracuse heroes The Flashcubes introduced me to the Dolls’ classic “Personality Crisis” via their own Cubic live cover in ’78. By the end of my spring ’79 semester at college in Brockport, I think I may have heard former Dolls lead singer David Johansen‘s solo track “Funky But Chic” on the Brockport campus radio station WBSU. I had heard a handful of Dolls tracks, “Personality Crisis,” “Who Are The Mystery Girls?,” and probably “Babylon,” and I was aware of the group’s importance at Ground Zero of my cherished punk movement. Given an opportunity to see ex-Doll David Johansen live, with The Flashcubes opening the show, I had just enough basic familiarity with the headliner (and abundant enthusiasm for the opening act) to declare there was no way in Hell I was missing that show.
The show took place at The Slide Inn in Syracuse. A quick check of Pete Murray’s Flashcubes timeline reveals that the date was 7/26/79. Prior to reconciliation and reunions in later years, it was the last time I saw the original line-up of the ‘Cubes, just a few days before guitarist Paul Armstrong parted company with the group, ejected over musical differences. With no knowledge of the tension within The Flashcubes at the time, I just thoroughly enjoyed their set, a set which included my first exposure to a trio of ‘Cubes originals: Paul’s “You’re Not The Liar,” Gary Frenay‘s “I Wanna Stay All Night,” and Arty Lenin‘s “Nothing Really Matters When You’re Young.”
The David Johansen Group were amazing. Johansen’s fellow former Doll Sylvain Sylvain was no longer in David’s group by the time I saw them, but it was an incredible show nonetheless. It didn’t matter at all that I didn’t know many of the songs; I knew ’em by the end of the show. “Frenchette,” in particular, floored me, and I immediately adored “Cool Metro” and “I’m A Lover,” all three of those gems turning out to be from Johansen’s eponymous debut solo album, an LP I purchased not long after hearing it played live at the Slide.
Johansen and company also did a little bit of Dolls material: “Babylon” and their Bo Diddley cover, “Pills.” The encore was “Personality Crisis.”
If you’re familiar with the Dolls’ original recording of “Personality Crisis,” you know there’s a pause in the song just before its two-minute mark, followed by Johansen whooping And you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon!, the band returning as well with wolf-whistles and guitar grunge. In a live performance of the song, it’s a natural spot to throw in a snippet of a different song as a willful non sequitur, illustrating the schizophrenic nature of a personality crisis. In ’79, I think I’d read in Trouser Press that Johansen was doing “Personality Crisis” as an unlikely medley with Bonnie Tyler‘s “It’s A Heartache” (a song which channeled Rod Stewart so effectively that I thought Bonnie was Rod; she was, in fact, bigger than Rod). That night at the Slide, I’m sure I half-expected to hear “It’s A Heartache” in the middle of “Personality Crisis.”
But…no. The song’s pause came, and a familiar guitar riff suddenly filled the Slide, as patrons like me, with senses slowed by beer, struggled to mentally name that tune in…OH MY GOD, IT’S DONNA SUMMER!!
I guess the divine Miss S actually appearing at the Slide to duet with David Jo would have been a bigger surprise than just hearing him sing a Summer song, but maybe not by much. Sittin’ here eatin’ my heart out waitin’, waitin’ for some lover to call. “Hot Stuff.” Donna Summer. One could argue that Summer’s own version of “Hot Stuff” was already more of a rock song than it was a disco song. It certainly rocked in the capable hands of The David Johansen Group.
The connection was monumental. We were punks and rockers, boppin’ with unironic intent to a song–a great song–by the reigning queen of disco. Johansen’s short cover was faithful and true, so we couldn’t claim he’d somehow redeemed the song. The song was already great; our own closed ears may have made us deaf to its charm. Until that instant.
This wasn’t my first realization that maybe some disco or disco-related music wasn’t necessarily awful. I already liked Donna Summer’s percolatin’ hit “I Feel Love,” and (as I’ve noted elsewhere) I’d already approved of “In The Navy” by The Village People, figuring that the sound of an openly gay group chanting They want you! They want you! They want you as a new recruit! on American Top 40 radio was more punk than The Sex Pistols.
But David Johansen singing Donna Summer, even if it was just an excerpt of one of her songs, performed and contained within a cantankerous classic by The New York Dolls, was an irresistible manifesto for a brokered peace between the battling factions of punk, disco, and rock ‘n’ roll. Cease fire. War is over if you want it.
Yeah, I know it wasn’t really that simple. Schisms remained, and would remain. But I saw. I heard. I wasn’t alone in that. By the ’80s, as punk and new wave had slid into new (later alternative) music and disco’s commercial day had passed for the time being, lines continued to blur. Much of the mainstream rock crowd still hated us, but that was okay. We were fighting the good fight. Looking for a lover who needs another, don’t want another night on my own. Fall in, troops. No sleep ’til victory. A New York Doll says Donna Summer’s here, and the time is right for dancing in the streets.
WHEN DIDN’T HEAR THAT COMING! RETURNS: Love, The Bangles
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