In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
This post is not about the Ukrainians forced by circumstance onto the world’s stage. All our hearts bleed both for them and their country, subject to the cruelest and vilest of misjudgments, victims of Putin seeking to leave his mark. But it is closely related, being about the Ukrainians, the Leeds, UK-based band, who have been touting their postpunk take on the folk music of the mother country of founder/guitarist Pete Solowka for nigh on thirty years. And a whole lot more than just the folk music of Ukraine, as covers of their musical cohorts and influences, performed in a Cossack/Slavic style, all stentorian voices and balalaikas, also feature large in their repertoire.
Originally, and sometimes contemporaneously, Solowka has been a member of the Wedding Present, and it was that band that sparked the idea into ignition. When venerable and iconic DJ John Peel asked them to perform a session on his long running evening radio show, the Wedding Present decided to perform in the Solowka family language. They played “Hopa,” a traditional song the guitarist had been brought up listening to and singing along with.
Given the favorable reception, and with Solowka’s own grasp of the language not being up to it, they seconded in the presence of Len Liggins–or, to give him his full name, the legendary Len Liggins, a Russian (and Ukrainian) scholar, fluent in each language and a dab on the fiddle besides. This too went down well with the listeners, bar one Roman Romeynes, just possibly not his real name, a musician from another Leeds band, who jested they were taking the proverbial and bastardizing the tradition. So who better to then enroll, this offshoot now having a life of its own, spinning free from the Wedding Present. (The band had sacked Solowka; he said this was due to the greater acclaim given this experiment than the parent band.)
That groundbreaking 1989 Peel session, and the later sessions that followed, all eventually became available in recorded form, with 1991 seeing the debut release by the now-official band, with both band and release being named The Ukrainians. When Romeynes left shortly afterwards, the band consolidated as a more regular unit, leaving the Wedding Present linkage shattered behind them.
They initially found an appropriate home on the maverick and left field record label Cooking Vinyl, home also of Jackie Leven and Oysterband. After making a further pair or so of albums with that label, they started their own label Zirka, through Proper. They have been relatively prolific, with three further studio albums of (largely) original material, two live recordings, a covers compendium (which we reviewed here), and a glut of EP and singles. These have encompassed further covers, including of traditional Ukrainian folk songs, as well as all sorts of idiosyncratic songs drawn from sources as unlikely as varied. All transcribed into their well-worn mix of fiddle, accordion and balalaikas, accompanied by crashing bass, resounding guitars and pounding drums.
Perhaps classifiable as a niche taste at home, they have become superstars in the eastern European diaspora, not least Ukraine itself. Under the cataclysmic events of the the past six or so weeks, the band have decided they cannot stand idly by, and have launched a tour, all monies going in support of the refugee crisis.
Let’s look at some of their covers….
Hopak – The Wedding Present (Traditional cover)
The tune that started it all off, although this is a considerably longer version than the sub-two minute version played for John Peel. This is a live version from 1989, the same year, and still under the Wedding Present banner. Wedding Present bandleader Dave Gedge probably hoped it a novelty interlude. Odd to think that, thirty years later, the Ukrainians would still feature it a stalwart of their set. Or maybe not.
Batyar (Bigmouth Strikes Back) – The Ukrainians (The Smiths cover)
In 1992 the band decided to devote some time to fellow band on the circuit, the Smiths, and found their style eminently suited to the material, Morrissey’s vocal style translating well to the more guttural approach of Liggins. From an EP, Pisni Iz The Smiths, it later appeared also on Culture, their 1994 LP. The other songs on the EP were “The Queen Is Dead,” “Meat Is Murder,” and “What Difference Does It Make.”
Radioactivity – The Ukrainians (Kraftwerk cover)
When the Chernobyl disaster occurred, Chernobyl being in the Ukraine (and, gallingly, very nearly cracked open again in recent weeks), the band registered their dismay with this never more appropriate cover of the Kraftwerk song “Radioactivity,” the melody fitting very well into their template. (See also “Model,” from the later A History Of Rock Music In Ukrainian.)
Purple Rain – The Ukrainians (Prince cover)
I almost hesitate to include this, from an EP of Prince songs that slunk out in 1998. Finding the band flirting with a new slightly dance direction, I fear it a dog’s dinner that I wish I hadn’t found. Please don’t let it put you off the rest of my offerings. In faint-praise defense, let me assure you that it’s better than their “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Anarkhiya (Anarchy In The UK) – The Ukrainians (Sex Pistols cover)
Ah, that’s better. A much more satisfactory transformation, maintaining the punk energy of the original, with an overall somewhat disturbing and subversive vibe that Lydon and co. would surely approve of. They also do a fine “Pretty Vacant” and an interesting “God Save The Queen.” By now the band are developing a more convincing blend of traditional instrumentation with the powerhouse rhythm section.
Chekannya (Venus In Furs) – The Ukrainians (The Velvet Underground cover)
By contrast, rather than allying a new wave punky clatter with folk instruments, this beautiful version of the VU bondage ballad comes over as if it were always a traditional air, and they perform it straight and as if it were. Who’s to say? Maybe it was, not least given producer (*cough*) Andy Warhol’s family came from not so very far away, in what forms part of Slovakia.
California Dreaming/She’s Lost Control – The Ukrainians (The Mamas and Papas/Joy Division covers)
A brave segue of two very unlikely bedfellows. The lyrics of the ’60s Laurel Canyon hippies mingles surprisingly well with the post-rock motorik bedding. One of the highlights from the A History Of Rock Music In Ukrainian album, which revisits some of their earlier covers with several new, some of which work better than others. If you want to know how Nirvana, Mötörhead and Led Zeppelin may sound given this treatment, it is worth a punt. Elvis Presley, less so.
Shchedryk (Carol of the Bells) – The Ukrainians (Traditional cover)
There’s plenty more cover treats I left for you discover (Slade and Marc Bolan among them – good hunting!). But to round things out here, I’ve chosen another traditional song, with a hefty waft of paganism infusing the nominally Orthodox Christian origins, at least in the video. Shchaslyvoho Rizdva!
I am mindful I may have left you with the feel of a band content to merely subvert the offerings of others, and must add that covers make but a small part of their overall output. They are so much more than a novelty band, and I heartily commend you seek them out, or, better still, find them live. In the meantime, if you have enjoyed this piece, why not dip in here.