Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
By 1987 the angular sounds of Siouxsie and the Banshees had mellowed enough for them to be regulars in the British charts and on the accompanying TV shows. The striking appearance of icy she-wolf Siouxsie had always contributed much to their success, her atonal approach to melody both idiosyncratic and chillingly effective, the only remnant from their first appearances, wherein the grasp of rudimentary technique was echoed by the lack of any instrumental prowess. Which only goes to prove the worth of their perseverance with the punk ethos: in any other time the band wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Fresh from touring Tinderbox, an album that had cemented their reputation, the band spent the downtime back in the studio, producing the covers album they had always wanted to do. No stopgap contractual filler, this; Through the Looking Glass was squeezed in ahead of any expectation. Of course, the band had already shown their cover capabilities, with the delightfully uber-psychedelic version of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” a brave move in a time when admitting a Beatles affinity (in public, at least) might be considered poor form.
The initial choice of songs came largely from the early ’70s, a time when the old order was beginning to look pregnable, with new styles beginning to emerge, biting at the ankles of the towering giants of an increasingly bloated music industry. Bands such as Kraftwerk were showing how much (and how little) could be done with cheap electronic keyboards; Roxy Music were blurring and blending styles and genres into a sci-fi retrodelia; Television were proving outriders for the earlier and more cerebral NY take on punk. Add in the bizarre world of Sparks, quirky oddballs in their homeland, who were beginning to find acceptance in the UK. Then mix well with some of the more favored sons of the sixties: the Doors, Iggy from the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. Here were where Siouxsie and company went panning for gold. With a song from The Jungle Book thrown in for good measure. And perhaps the oddest version yet of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” for dessert.
The album’s first single, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” cracked the top 20 in the UK and even scraped into the US charts (the band claimed ignorance of the song’s co-writer, a certain Mr. Zimmerman: they claimed it was only the Julie Driscoll version they knew.) Perhaps buoyed by the single’s success, Through the Looking Glass entered the UK top 20, peaking at #15. Like so many records of this time, the passage of years have served to add many subsequent kudos. It clearly did no harm that Iggy Pop openly praised their version of his song; unusually, so did Kraftwerk, a band normally silent about such things. By 2017, Paste was prepared to put Through the Looking Glass at number 15 in their list of the best albums of thirty years ago.
But this wasn’t just “songs in the style of the Banshees,” although that was there too, the archness of some of the songs being ideal for the archness of their arrangements. Here the band showed some progression, the integration of other instruments and other styles: harps, brass, strings intrude on the guitar, bass, drums and voice template, proving welcome and worthy additions.
Through the Looking Glass opens with Sparks; “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both Of Us” had been a huge success in Europe, plummeting like a stone at home, and is a song I can well imagine the teenaged Susan Dallon singing along to, shrieking along to. With a tune so all over the place that the Banshees could have written it themselves, they both stamp their identity and show their intent. They then launch straight into “Hall of Mirrors,” and a this is for real realization kicks in: here’s a Kraftwerk cover that is decidedly not for novelty value, translating the sedate electronica into searing post-punk as if Ralf et al were really closet rockers.
Backwards guitar and glissandos of harp–has a song from Disney ever been subjected to such treatment? A full year before Hal Willner had his way with the whole catalog, certainly not. “Trust In Me” is near unrecognizable as the snake song from The Jungle Book, and makes the idea of being crushed to death a whole lot more enticing. Plus the fact that the girl can sing.
A brief downturn for the single, and then the second touch of genius, as “Strange Fruit” is ushered in by a string quartet and the sound of an ill wind blowing no one any good. Sepulchral and haunting, Siouxsie’s vocal chills to the marrow, with the New Orleans funeral band middle eight adding to the horror. I wonder how many later versions faltered on hearing this. This being 1987, it also meant the end of side one, the song lingering in the silence as, or if, you went to turn the record over.
The Doors’ deep cut “You’re Lost Little Girl” opens side two, and has an eerie and odd Motown string arrangement that feels, entirely appropriately, to have crept in from the wrong song. It moves over a prodigious channeling of Jim Morrison’s tones, were he a girl, the fairground Grand Guignol adding atmosphere to the overall sense of unsettlement. Abruptly, as the overall effect sinks in, the instantly identifiable two-chord trick of Iggy’s “Passenger” bursts through. A song needing little embellishment, the sudden entry of brass is a delight. No wonder Mr. Osterberg rated it: “it kinda improves it.”
John Cale’s “Gun” is another track that fits well the Banshees’ trademark sound; in truth, on this one they add little beyond that. But the mist-drenched version of “Sea Breezes” takes the Roxy Music track and wakes it up, extending the mood Ferry was only ever hinting at. The instrumental backing sounds more Roxy than Roxy, all lyrical bass, leslie-d guitar and falling-downstairs drums. This mood follows and extends into the album closer, Televison’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” extracting more fear into the song than Tom Verlaine ever did, and adding–strangely, within the context of the band–more than a little warmth.
That would be the end, were it not for the conceit of re-releases and remasters; the 2014 edition, alongside a couple of remixes, added a pretty unnecessary cover of Jonathan Richman’s “She Cracked,” reprising the adage that these projects are best left unsullied. So, ignore it. Stick to the original, vinyl if you have the equipment. A little crackle adds to the image of a band in their prime, at the top of their game, and very much more than the singer plus backing. The drumming of Budgie, onetime paramour and fellow Creature with Sioux, is never less than inventive, the bass and keyboards of Steve Severin ever just right. Guitarist, John Valentine Carruthers, only in the band for a couple of albums, conforms well to the standard b(r)and style, which is less the putdown it sounds, more an affirmation of the identification of the band being more than which of the many guitar players were currently on board.
Through the Looking Glass Tracklisting
This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us (Sparks cover)
Hall Of Mirrors (Kraftwerk cover)
Trust In Me (Kaa, in the Jungle Book, cover)
This Wheel’s On Fire (Bob Dylan/Rick Danko/Julie Driscoll cover)
Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday cover)
You’re Lost Little Girl (The Doors cover)
The Passenger (Iggy Pop cover)
Gun (John Cale cover)
Sea Breezes (Roxy Music cover)
Little Johnny Jewel (Televison cover)