The rapid spread of sampling in pop music in the late 80s made the idea of a cover version passé. A cover, after all, was generally a form of tribute to pop’s rich history. Sampling as an artform ripped snatches of that history from its original context, juxtaposed it next to other slices, and created tapestries of sound which sounded utterly new¹.
In that context, it may seem odd that two Scottish bands – contemporaries of each other, and both having made an evolution (one gradual and organic, the other almost overnight) from playing sixties-tinged indie rock, to producing utterly contemporary sample-heavy psychedelic dance music, should both cover the same song, at the same time.
After its 1966-68 peak, psychedelia was for many years a musical outlier, but it never truly died. It took until the rave boom, and in particular the acid house craze of 1988, for it to once again become a vital form of musical expression.
The Shamen formed in Aberdeen in the mid 1980s, and evolved out of an early incarnation called Alone Again Or, named after the opening track of Love’s classic album Forever Changes. Their debut, Drop, was a spiky piece of indie pop, produced by psychedelic veteran Wilf Smarties and though pleasant enough, in no way was it obvious that this was a band with their eye on the future. By 1988 though, co-founder Colin Angus had been turned on to the nascent club scene, recruited a new bassist (the late Will Sinnott) and shed the rest of the band for whom there was no obvious connection between what was happening in the likes of Shoom or Spectrum, and The Shamen’s musical trajectory. Angus and Sinnott thought otherwise.
Their follow-up album, In Gorbachev We Trust, mashed samples, drum machines and agit-prop; the political undercurrent of their songwriting – although evident in earlier songs such as “Happy Days” and (a personal favourite) “Do What You Will” – was now front and centre, as evinced by songs such as “Jesus Loves Amerika”. Their concerts also evolved as they began to use club DJs, so that the band’s performance was only one part of a continuous musical experience, much like a typical club night. In this regard their influence was huge, and – because of their later chart success – tends to be overlooked.
One band clearly influenced by The Shamen’s “Synergy” events were their Glaswegian contemporaries Primal Scream. They too had begun with an eye to the flowery side of late 60s pop (“Velocity Girl”, the B-side to their debut single “Crystal Crescent” is a musically sparkling but lyrically dark 90-second burst of pop genius, and a major influence in turn on The Stone Roses’s “Made of Stone”). But by their second album, they aped instead the moves of rockers such as The Stooges or The Stones, and were something of a music journalist’s joke. Then they discovered acid house.
The Scream’s volte-face (aided by the maverick touch of the much-missed Andrew Weatherall) is better documented than that of The Shamen. But now we find both bands in 1990 on the verge of a third album. Screamadelica is a full year away, but half of it will consist of tracks previously available. In the case of The Shamen, the under-rated En-Tact will come out in the autumn. At the same time, Imaginary Records invite them onto their tribute album Through the Looking Glass: 1967, featuring covers of songs from that year. The Shamen are the stand-out contributors. The album title nicely connects both to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, but also to Jonathan Miller’s (late ’66) psychedelic adaptation of the Lewis Carroll book for BBC Television. Simultaneously, Primal Scream appear on Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson alongside REM and Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie’s alma mater, The Jesus And Mary Chain.
Significantly, on these two albums the bands cover the same song: the 13th Floor Elevators’ 1967 psychedelic epic “Slip Inside This House”.
It’s much rarer for an act that started out making dance music to do a cover version than it is for a conventional band. What would be the point? Remixes, yes, but how many actual cover versions of club tracks can you name? It’s not insignificant that both these acts were bands in the traditional sense, who – before they discovered the output of Chicago and Detroit – had roots that owed much to the likes of the 13th Floor Elevators.
Both bands must have grappled with how to tackle a song as unusual, distinctive, and lyrically esoteric as “Slip Inside This House”. The original is eight minutes long, with around a dozen verses, a droning bassline and it ripples with the sound of the Elevators’ unique electric jug.
The production on the Primals version, by guitarist Andrew Innes and Creation Records labelmates Hypnotone, is a muddy affair (sounding fresher on the 20th anniversary Screamadelica remaster) in which the sampled beats and droning sitar (a nod to the Eastern mysticism of the lyrics) create a soundscape that’s – despite the very different instrumentation – in keeping with the intensity of the original.
By contrast, The Shamen’s production is beautifully crisp: their sound up to mid-1989 could be quite trebly and harsh, but after signing to One Little Indian and the release of the gorgeous “Omega Amigo” they developed a much cleaner style. Their use of sampling is more foregrounded: a sample in tribute to Hall’s electric jug is presumably taken from a radio or TV interview with the Elevators.
Tommy Hall’s words distil a number of strands of esoteric thought. The two later bands understandably jettison many of the lyrics. Both bands cut out (different) verses (The Shamen add a significant amount of their own in a rap²) and amusingly, both make an identical switch. The original – perhaps keeping in mind the lessons that Siddartha learns from the river in Hermann Hesse’s eponymous novel – talks of “the unending / subtleties of river power”. In the wake of acid house and raves, this becomes “rhythm power” in both covers.
The lyrical choices the Primals make foregrounds the rave experience, also changing the chorus to “trip inside this house” which works really well (they also change “subtleties” to the equally interesting “subtle ties”). The Classic Albums “Making of” programme dedicated to Screamadelica also revealed – and I’d long wondered why the vocals sounded ever-so-slightly out of keeping with Bobby Gillespie’s singing elsewhere on the album – that Gillespie didn’t, in fact, record it. Presumably too fucked-up to attend the recording session, guitarist (Th)Robert Young stepped in and did a fine impression.
The Shamen – surprisingly for a band so outspoken about the positive transformative potential of psychoactive substances – don’t take the “trippy” approach and instead retain much of the original’s mysticism, though they mimic the effect of the electric jug by a heavy use of gating – the stuttering echo technique – to an extent unheard of elsewhere in their back catalogue (and that’s saying something). While the Primals’ version, with it’s ascending and descending bass adds a verticality to the track, and with it some impetus, The Shamen’s is closer in this respect to the bass drone of the original and, static, it seems to hover.
A key difference between the two, though, comes from the DNA of the two bands. Screamadelica mimics the effect of a trip – through an inspired use of producers and mixes, it’s one of the most perfectly-sequenced albums ever – from the initial buzz, through a state of bliss, to the long comedown.
The Shamen (and I say this as someone who loves their 88-91 output) never quite manage to achieve a sense of jouissance in the way the Primals do: they talk about trance-states and feelings of ecstasy, but their music rarely lets go enough to let you feel it: often as not, the vocals telling you how to feel get in the way of allowing you to feel it…
“Slip Inside This House” is a case in point: Robert Young’s singing is distorted and woozy, losing itself in the mix but Colin Angus’s vocal is as exhortative as ever, clear, sharp and front and centre.
Yet I’m being unfair on The Shamen. After all, at the same time as they covered “Slip Inside This House”, they also did two versions of “Purple Haze”. And the difference in approach is fascinating – and also a key factor in understanding their ultimate career trajectory.
Imaginary Records also put out a Hendrix tribute album (If 6 Was 9) to which The Shamen contributed “Purple Haze”. A remix (the punningly-named “PH1”) appeared on the “Omega Amigo” single in late 1989. If the Elevators’ cover was Colin Angus’s baby, Will Sinnott undertakes production and vocal duty here: Sinnott talks or raps, never sings, and here he again does so in his native accent and why the hell not? The result is a more deconstructed, experimental track in which shards of sampled Hendrix spear the listener; there’s much less of a flow, sounds are disjointed and it stops and starts. Although you couldn’t call it Hip-Hop, it’s an evolution of the type of beatbox & sample tracks that Sinnott contributed to Gorbachev. It’s a far more playful cover and less reverent toward the source material, and in this respect it’s more in sync with the sample-based tracks pioneered by M/A/R/R/S and popularised by the likes of Coldcut and Bomb The Bass. In an era typified by a smash & grab approach to pop history, this is a cover that frees itself from the conventions of something as static as a “band”.
And here we see some of what was lost from The Shamen when Will Sin tragically drowned off the Canary Islands in May 1991. A charismatic performer with great presence, by the time of En-Tact he’d finally found his mojo (let’s face it, however well-disposed you are to his tracks, “Negation State” is nobody’s favourite Shamen song). There are (as far as I know) four other tracks from this period for which he is credited: the B-sides to “Make It Mine” and “Hyperreal” (the 2010-sampling “Something Wonderful” and the alien ambience of “In The Bag” respectively), and on the album itself the thirteen-minute proto-tribal trance “Evil Is Even” and one of En-Tact‘s highlights, the glorious, poignant “Lightspan” (“life is never enough / but it’s all you get”).
Although it was clear the band were chasing the pop dream at the time of his death (“Hyperreal” had made the Top 40, and they’d been filming the video for the soon-to-be-massive “Pro>Gen ’91” when he died), it’s tempting to imagine that Sinnott’s continued presence might have prevented – or at least diluted – the cheesiness of their output from 1992 onwards. Or at least they could have maintained the Top of the Pops approach on the A-side of a 7″ single while subversively putting out weird shit on the flip-side. But we’ll never know.
As far as I can tell, these were the band’s last covers. They’d connected the psychedelia of the late 60s with what was happening 20 years later; thereafter their metamorphosis into a dance act with both feet in the present was complete. As the ripples from the initial big bang of acid house spread through the early 90s we saw the first splinterings into different genres, and the one The Shamen took (after their brief chart success) was that of Goa Trance – the subgenre most recognisably psychedelic, but also the least fashionable at a time when (for example) Underworld were scoring immense chart success with “Born Slippy (NUXX)”.
For Primal Scream, the loved-up acid house explosion was simply one step on their particular musical path. Their 1994 follow-up saw them revert to rock n’ roll as harder drugs took their toll on the band. The blissful moment had passed.
¹ There’s a highly readable overview of the sample era called Will Pop Eat Itself? (Faber, 1992) by Jeremy J Beadle (no, not that one).
² Don’t worry, it isn’t by Mr. C.
Beadle, Jeremy J – Will Pop Eat Itself? (Faber, 1992)