“Are you guys playing Roxanne? Cos if so it’s kind of against the rules…” The Police are at the door but they’re not here to play. Four uniformed coppers and a sniffer dog are conducting a random spot check at The Victoria in Swindon. The dog freezes in front of one of the band members and suddenly it looks like The 12 Bands Of Christmas might have to be just 11.
The Vic’s annual shindig, The 12 Bands Of Christmas is in it’s ninth year now. Tonight’s sold out days in advance. The rules are simple: 12 local bands, all playing two songs each. The catch: the songs must be unlikely cover versions. So punk bands can’t cover punk songs, indie bands have to leave Wonderwall alone and metalheads are more likely to play Madonna than Motorhead. The result is four hours of genre-shagging greatness that, just maybe, points to the future of ‘proper music’.
First up, Born Ideal make Mariah’s All I Want For Christmas Is You sound like Pavement. Neil Mercer strips all the grace and whimsy from Kate Bush’s Babooshka and turns Katy Perry’s Firework into a rock anthem. Lagered-up indie rockers The Racket suck the PWL production out of Dead Or Alive’s You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), chew on it, gargle it and by the time they spit it out, it sounds like the Velvet Underground. Their take on Blur’s Tender gets the audience singing (although, strictly speaking, looking like Oasis and playing Blur is not exactly a radical genre switch). Buswell turn Stop The Calvary and Prince’s Kiss into folky ragas.
Famously, Silent Night was sung simultaneously in French, English and German by troops during World War I’s famous Christmas truce of 1914. It was the only carol that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew. 70 years on, we’re all clueless, godless drunks so ska/rocksteady band The Erin Bardwell Collective wisely hand out hymn sheets for their version. 200 skanking lunatics singing ‘Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah/Christ the Saviour is born’ while tipping pints of San Miguel over each other is possibly not what the writers had in mind, but they’re dead and we’re not.
If that was all there was to it, it’d still be the best open-mic night you’ve ever been to. But it’s not.
Can you imagine what Curtis Mayfield’s Moving On Up would sound like if Curtis had been a teenage goth in 1980s Leeds? Three piece Yves do just that. More Sisters of Mercy than Stax, with icy guitars where there should be horns, it’s a brilliant recreation. Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby, meanwhile, is welded to a rhythm nicked from the Kinks’ All Day And All Of The Night and driven into a hedge.
Imagine YMCA played by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and you’d be close to SN Dub Station’s party-starting take. In a fair world, that and their welcome reinvention of Slade groanfest Merry Xmas Everybody, would be the songs cluttering the charts.
Rockabilly trio Roughnecks – featuring Billy Bragg-lookalike Nick Baker and ex-Meteors bassist Lee Brown – are rattling through Jilted John’s Gordon Is A Moron and Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass when it sinks in. Meghan got it wrong, didn’t she? It’s not all about the bass – it’s all about those songs. Forget all the hot air about rock being in its death throes, about there being no new stars or great songwriters. Maybe we’re trying too hard. The Beatles didn’t start off with A Day In The Life, they covered Money and Please Mister Postman and made Twist And Shout their own. The Stones had hits with songs from the likes of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly before they’d learnt the ropes enough to do it themselves with The Last Time and Satisfaction.
All these years of The X Factor has changed that. Cover versions seem like a cheat. A shortcut. Creative bankruptcy. But there’s a difference between the cack-handed karaoke Cowell peddles and the creative reinvention of a great song. Here, maybe, is how we get great music back in the charts: we steal their weapons and use them against them.
Talking of Cowell, local sophisto-pop act Colour The Atlas are signed to RCA and there’s a local rumour that front woman Jess Hall was offered a place on_ The X Factor_, with producers promising her a clear route all the way to the finals. She turned them down. Tonight she leads her band through a cover of the Jack White/Alicia Keys Bond anthem Another Way To Die. The place goes nuts.
Indie band British Harlem go for the jugular with takes on two 90s classic that now seem like power-pop classics to stand alongside The Cars or The Knack – Bowling For Soup’s Girl All The Bad Guys Want and Sum 41’s Fat Lip – and prompt a stage invasion. Mobile Funk Unit keep the chaos going with a band that looks like a stage invasion (but is actually a collection of musos from other bands) and lead them through a couple of funk classics. ‘Get up offa that thing and dance ‘till you feel better’? Oh, OK.
The X Factor can dine on their dingles and lunch on their labia. We’ve seen the future of rock’n’roll and its name is… Swindon.