Monday 2 April 2018

Serious Drugs

Cover version of the month #35
Super 8 cover BMX Bandits

Serious Drugs is BMX Bandits most celebrated song. Written by Bandits leader Duglas T Stewart with his good friends Norman Blake and Joe McAlinden, this melodic, melancholic and reflective song is a truly beautiful, with great depth.

The opening lines speak volumes and the scene is set;

I said I don't think I can take it much longer
She said maybe your tablet should be stronger
Get some serious drugs

And then we have the glorious break/chorus;

The trouble with me
I can't give in, you see

Throw in trademark backing vocal harmonies and a sax solo and the song is deceptively simple and straightforward. Yet it does have that remarkable depth to it, covering depression and someone longing for love.

Joe McAlinden sings lead vocal on the original recording, with Norman taking over on the single version. It's a song I have heard so often down the years, yet mainly with Duglas himself singing through regular live performances in and around Glasgow. I've seen Duglas sing with a 7 or 8 piece band accompanying him, other times with only the likes of Stuart Kidd and Marcus Rea from The Wellgreen backing him. It felt quite weird going back to listen to the original versions. When I think of this song it is Duglas' voice I hear in my head.

And the song became the title for a brilliant documentary on the band by Bandits fan Jim Burns, who found Duglas' music at just the right time as he was going through a difficult time. For me, that took the song (and a lot of Duglas' catalogue) to another level.

Duglas T Stewart

Duglas T Stewart is such a rare and unique talent, someone with exceptional musical taste and knowledge. I regularly discover brilliant music, from the past and present, courtesy of Duglas' social media postings. Earlier this year I was led to check an album by a band called Super 8. I'll be blogging on the album in the near future.

Super 8 - aka Paul Ryan

Then some weeks afterwards when digging around to find our more information about the band I discovered they had covered Serious Drugs.

The Super 8 cover has a lovely warm and rich feel to it. Super 8 is just one guys - Paul Ryan. Paul plays everything, harmonies with himself and creates a truly beautiful version of Serious Drugs. One that Duglas himself says is better than the original.

So although I still hear Duglas when I think of this song, the Super 8 cover is like a warm blanket on a cold day. It is gorgeous. I hope you enjoy it.

Please read on for interviews with both Paul from Super 8 and Duglas from BMX Bandits.

Super 8 interview

You've covered Serious Drugs - what made you decide to cover the song? 
I wore it out on 7” vinyl when I was younger! I remember hearing it on the John Peel Show then rushing out to buy it the following day (from my local Woolworths if my memory serves me well!) It’s just one of those songs I instantly connected with. Anyway, as much as I loved it (and still do!), I hadn’t heard it for years when it popped up on an old mix tape. I just picked up my acoustic and began to strum along. It seemed to suit my voice so I actually got in touch with its main writer (Duglas from The BMX Bandits) via social media and asked him if it was okay for me to have a stab at covering it (and, if so, what were the PROPER chords!) I was very pleased when he replied …. and in the affirmative! And that was that, I recorded my version that same evening and sent it to him as a thank you.   

What feedback have you received? For ‘Serious Drugs’? 
Well, Duglas has gone ‘on record’ saying he likes it! As for my album … yeah, the folks I know who have heard it so far seem to dig it which is rewarding. I could just do with a few more folks hearing it!

Do you have a favourite cover version of all time? 
As a rule I tend to prefer the original version of a song but, off the top of my head, both the Harpers Bizarre & BMX Bandits takes on ‘Witchi Tae To’ are awesome (and preferable to the original IMHO!)

If Duglas was to cover one of your songs, what song would you like him to cover? 
Erm, WOW! Anything at all! Duglas from The Bandits covering one of my tunes would be an honour so yeah, anything you like Duglas – dive in! (In fact, thinking about it, there’s a new song that’s earmarked for the next album which I think would be perfect for Duglas.)

Duglas T Stewart interview

BMX Bandits have covered many songs over the years. Could you select your 3 favourites? (I know Love and Mercy means so much to you)

I always love singing the Brian Wilson song Love and Mercy, we've never recorded it but I've done it live quite a few times. I've had the honour to sing it t celebrations of people who have died and at happy occasions. Like so much of Brian's music it's healing music. It's  the musical equivalent of getting a hug from someone who loves you and is looking out for you.
My 3 favourite covers that we have recorded are (in no real order):

You Don't Wanna Be My Girlfriend Phoebe. It's a song by a duo from Hong Kong called My Little Airport. To my ears the beautiful melody is like a mix of later Velvet Underground and Gainsbourg. The lyric is very 21st Century, about online love and people manipulating others for the sake of their own gratification. Our arrangement is version is very different to the original. I wanted to make our version darker but still very tender from the point of view from the narrator. The key sounds for me are little casio keyboard flute sound, omnichord and a baritone electric guitar. I generally like to sing quietly and close to the microphone, that's what they were invented for and that way you can get a more intimate and subtly nuanced vocal performance that I think brings the listener in to the recording. Jim McEwan and Stuart Kidd are the other people on this track.

Just a Memory. This is a cover of a song called Mais Do Que Valsa by Marcos Valle, who is an artist really worth exploring. I was in really bad way regarding my mental health and emotional well being and Stuart Kidd offered to help me record some stuff as he had the time, the equipment and the skills that you need to do that. I think he was trying to offer a positive distraction. My good friend Cineplexx had introduced me to the album featuring Valle's original version. I couldn't understand the lyrics of this song but it made an immediate emotional connection with me. It was very beautiful but also seemed to capture the state of my mind, the mournful tone, those sad chords and the way it goes round and round. One night I played it in a loop for many hours and just started to sing a long my own words while he was singing in Portuguese. I took it to Stuart and we had it recorded in 4 hours. Music is an international language, the specifics of situations in lyrics aren't always so important. I think it more important to capture the deeper things that the music says in a translation than a literal and accurate translation, sometimes they can sound clunky and awkward. One little note of interest is we accidentally recorded a door slamming from a neighbouring flat but the timing was so perfect and we loved the sound of it so we copied it and put it in again later in the song. A happy accident.

Hopelessly Devoted To You. I think almost everybody knows the O.N.J. version from Grease and I wanted to use that sense of familiarity that listeners would have and twist it. When I recorded the song I was feeling like my heart was breaking like a teenage girl, like Sandy in Grease, but I was the hulking, clumsy middle aged man I think singing this song puts me in vulnerable position but I wanted to express that sense of vulnerability and longing with this song. To have a slight sense of discomfort that I thought would help the aforementioned vulnerability I decided I wanted to perform it with what I hoped might create the feeling of me performing it with a house band rather than musicians who I was really familiar working with and were familiar with working with me. I had gotten to know the guys in The Attic Lights and I thought they would do a great job with the track. So Stuart Kidd and I went into Riverside, rehearsed it a bit with them, but not too much, and then we recorded it. 

Have you had any direct feedback from artists you have covered? (if so, what did that mean to you)
When we recorded Jonathan Richman's That Summer Feeling Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley said they were going to play it to Jonathan when he guested on their radio show. We were nervous because Jonathan could be dismissive of versions of his songs by other artists and it meant a lot to me as he was the guy who made me know that I wanted to make music. When he heard it on the show he was very enthusiastic he said he loved it and he thought it was one of the best versions of one of his songs, including his own versions. That made us happy.

One of the songwriting team behind the song That Lonely Feeling, a great pop writer John Carter, gave our version of the song his blessing. He said he liked it and gave me permission to write an extra verse that made the song have a deeper connection to me and what I was feeling when we recorded it. I was very pleased that he let me do that. It was very generous of him.

How did you hear about the Super 8 cover of Serious Drugs?
Paul Ryan of Super 8 contacted me through Facebook and sent me the track. I didn't know his music or him at all before that. When I played it I instantly thought it was better than our original recording or other versions we've done of it. I loved his arrangement ideas, starting with a taste of the end hook is a great idea. I also thought it sounded perfect for how he sings it. I love the handclaps. It sounds very natural and uncontrived. There's also something very exuberant about how he's done it that mixes nicely with the song's poignancy and makes it very human. Norman Blake who I co-wrote it with also loved it when I played it to him. I went on to discover Paul / Super 8 has a lot of great songs of his own. I've become a real fan of his work.

Is there any song in your extensive back catalogue you would love to hear covered or reworked?
I still think someone could have a proper hit with I Wanna Fall in Love. When we did that track we thought it could have and should have been a mega-hit. I have to give Francis Macdonald most of the credit for that song. He wrote the biggest part of that one.

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