As conundrums go it was pretty hard to beat: a bunch of Italiano-Glaswegians notching up their biggest hit with a rocked-up remake of a song originally made famous by an American funk group with a codpiece-wearing frontman. You couldn’t have made it up.
But don’t go running away with the notion that Gun’s unlikely version of Cameo’s 1986 Top 5 smash hit Word Up was a novelty launch pad for their own career. By the time the band recorded it as part of 1994’s appropriately titled album Swagger they already had two other albums (1989’s Taking On The World, and Gallus from 1992) to their name, plus no less than eight self-penned Top 75 singles. The idea of adding rock guitars to Word Up actually began as a bit of fun.
“As much as Gun loved bands like AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and UFO, [vocalist] Mark Rankin and I also appreciated dance music,” begins guitarist Giuliano ‘Jools’ Gizzi. “Because it was such a big hit for Cameo it had been all over the radio. But in a dance club it just sounded unbelievable.”
Just for kicks, the group – then completed by bassist Dante Gizzi and drummer Mark Kerr (brother of Simple Minds’ Jim) – worked up their own rehearsal room arrangement.
“When I heavied up those guitar chords, I joked to [producer] Chris Sheldon that it sounded like Metallica, and we tried to make it sound like those guys playing it. It began as a good laugh, but we ended up making the song our own. And as the album’s single it really did the business for us.”
Jools says that Rankin had no problem relating to the lyric which used dancefloor patois to diss ‘Sucker DJs who think [they’re] fly’.
“Mark was into some really heavy rap music – as we all were”, the guitarist recalls. “We were fans of Prince and Parliament, too, so the fact that the words were a little bit unusual didn’t even register with us. Everywhere we went, the fans would shout them right back at us, so they had no problem with it either.”
Backed up by a simple, partially black-and-white promo, the single climbed to No.8 in the UK. The band also received a gong at the MTV Awards in Berlin in 1994 for the year’s Best Cover Version.
“From there it snowballed. All the venues sold out,” Joolz recalls. “It just goes to show how one song can change everything. If I’d written it, I’d be talking to you now from Miami or something.”
Years later Pamela Anderson, the then Mrs Tommy Lee, would disrobe to Gun’s version of Word Up in the 1996 movie Barb Wire.
“Aye,” Jools nods enthusiastically. “I once met Pamela in a hotel and she told me how much she loved the song. She seemed like a really cool girl.”
Nobody from Gun ever encountered Larry Blackmon, the writer and lead singer of Cameo’s original version, although he did send word of approval.
Unfortunately Gun began to misfire after one more album, 1997’s disappointing 0141 632 6326. With hindsight, they level some of the blame at Andrew Farriss (INXS keyboard player) for the record’s lacklustre production.
“It’s still a sore subject to talk about. The demos were much better,” Joolz sighs. “But some of it was our fault. We were trying to cross over and make a pop-rock album, our equivalent of [INXS’s] Listen Like Thieves. In the end it just didn’t work.”
Though 0141 632 6326 delivered the killer blow, the success of Word Up also played its part in the band’s downfall. “The fans didn’t know whether we were a pop band or a rock band – sometimes neither did we,” offers Jools, who as well as keeping in his hand musically, writing for other artists and via a band called El Presidente, also invested in Gizzi’s, the family’s Italian restaurant in Glasgow.
In 2008 Gun surprised their fans by reuniting after 14 years away, performing half-a-dozen songs at a charity gig in Glasgow in aid of Nordoff Robbins. Though former Little Angels singer Toby Jepson was in place of Mark Rankin, original drummer Alan Thornton returned to the Gun line-up, and Word Up was part of the set.
“Playing it for the first time again after so long…," recalls Joolz. "Jesus, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. What a blast!”
The original version of this feature first appeared in Classic Rock 127, in November 2008.