Some time around 2004, my family got iTunes for the first time. This was kind of a big deal because I never Limewired music. This was the moment that the world of music blew up for me. Suddenly, all I had to do was type in the name of an artist or a song and they’d all pop up on my screen and in my speakers. I could buy tracks, but mostly I just spent hours listening to the 30 second clips on iTunes.
Something I picked up on quickly: If you searched for a famous classic rock song by title, there were a bunch of covers of that song available on iTunes. I loved, loved looking for ridiculous covers of songs. I never dropped the 99 cents, but I would listen to the clips five times in a row.
As my interest in music grew throughout high school and into college, and I started reading a lot about music, I noticed a general critical derision towards covers, ESPECIALLY punk covers. I kind of get it: We all know and love Modern English’s version of “I Melt With You” — Why should we be interested in hearing Bowling For Soup play the same song slightly faster and louder? I can understand why someone would interpret covers as laziness or filler.
On the other hand, some of our greatest songs ever have been covers. Elvis’s “Hound Dog,” Aretha’s “Respect,” Jimi’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Sinead O’Connors “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” can all make interesting cases as one of the best songs of their decade. Every one is a cover.
Above: 32 covers in eight minutes
I think it all comes down to interpretation and selection. If bands can artfully find a new dimension to an existing composition — preferably a song that’s somewhat unknown — then maybe the product will be worth listening to.
And then Me First and the Gimme Gimmes came in and gave us all a big “fuck you.” A punk supergroup — borrowing members from NOFX, Foo Fighters, Lagwagon, and more — The Gimmes do nothing but play old standards fast and loud, bashing drums and guitars and vocal chords with reckless abandon and pristine craft. They’re the greatest cover band of all time, and it’s not even close. They’re also one of the most fun bands to listen to, period.
The Gimmes formed in the mid-90s to contribute occasional tracks to compilation albums. Those recordings were popular, so they started recording two-song EPs that featured collections of covers of a particular artist: Denver featured two John Denver songs, Billy two Billy Joel songs, Garf two Simon and Garfunkel songs, etc.
And then they started making albums. They released Have a Ball in 1997. Eight of the twelve tracks were from their EPs. It’s largely pop songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s (“Uptown Girl” of 1983 is the only exception, I believe).
The album was a minor sensation — as much as a punk covers album can be, at least. Here’s how Fat Wreck Chords, the band’s label (run by their bassist, Fat Mike from NOFX), pays homage to it almost 20 years later:
By now, everyone knows Me First and the Gimme Gimmes as the all-star-punk-rock supergroup-cover-band that exploded on the scene in the 90’s, and made every other shitty pop punk band’s ironic covers obsolete with their debut Have a Ball.
It’s a damn fun album and not a bad place to start with the Gimmes, since you’re guaranteed to know pretty much every song. But it’s also one that I rarely spin these days. There’s a noticeable lack of polish compared to later albums, particularly with Steve Slawson’s vocals.
Have a Ball also sets the standard for Gimme album titles: predicates to follow “Me First and the Gimme Gimmes,” so it looks like a complete sentence on the album cover. E.g.: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes Have a Ball.
The Gimmes have reunited pretty much every other year since then to record an album and some EPs, occasionally going on tour (they rank about #1 on bands I’d like to see live).
In 1999 they released their next album, Are A Drag, which is probably still my favorite album of theirs to date (I included it as one of my 30 favorite albums in our Everything Music survey). It’s a collection of showtune covers, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Cabaret” to “The Rainbow Connection.”
Each of the twelve tracks clocks in shorter than three minutes except “Cabaret,” and there’s a rip-roaring giddiness about the album as they tear through a dozen Broadway classics. It’s hard to pinpoint specific highlights, but I find myself blasting “Tomorrow,” “Summertime,” and “It’s Raining on Prom Night” most often.
I love Are a Drag because it’s the most unlikely collection of songs for punk covers (at least until the recent EP Sing in Japanese) and it’s done pretty much without irony. It’s a blast, with great reverence for the source material.
Next up for the Gimmes was a return to covers of pop, this time all ‘50s and ‘60s. Blow in the Wind is probably the best intro to the band, as it contains oldies radio staples, but with an improved polish.
Blow in the Wind also introduces what has become a Gimme staple: Opening covers with famous punk or rock riffs. For example, they open a cover of “Elenore” by The Turtles with the “London Calling” guitar riff, and it works perfectly. (In fact, “Elenore” is one of my favorite Gimme songs for that very reason.) “Sloop John B.” appropriates the Ramones, while “All My Lovin’” references the screeching guitar of The Dickies.
The Gimmes again pushed into divergent territory in 2003 with Take a Break. This time, the focus was R&B music. Not only was the band’s source material expanding, but their stylistic reportoire was growing. A cover of “I Believe I Can Fly” opens with ukulele, “Nothing Compares 2 U” features an old-school ska background, and “End of the Road” dials the BPM back to double digits (at least for the first minute).
Tongue-in-cheek humor had gradually crept into the Gimmes’ recordings, but they blew down the laughs door with their 2004 live album: Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah. As the title implies, the recording is from the Bar Mitzvah of a kid named Jonny. Mixed in with the pop and rock covers are two renditions of “Hava Nagila” — one traditional version (plus some guitair licks ripped from The Offspring), and one to the tune of “Feliz Navidad.” And, just for the hell of it, they perform “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s as strange as it sounds. Throw in the hilarious stage banter, and you have a damn masterpiece.
Two years later, the Gimmes were back with a studio recording, this time a collection of country covers Love Their Country. I have to admit — I knew fewer than half of the songs on the album before I heard the Gimmes’ versions. But they continue to show minor bits of maturity and evolution.
Their flippant version of “Jolene” has become one of their most famous pieces, but by far the best song on the album is a cover of Garth Brook’s “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” The cover is a finger-plucking tribute before launching into the Gimmes’ trademark hyperactive style. If I’m being honest, it’s one of my 100 favorite songs, period. Can’t get enough of it.
Unfortunately, Love Their Country is the last full album of originals The Gimmes have released to date. In 2008, they released a bunch of their backlog of EP B-sides called Have Another Ball that is a mixed bag for me: I adore “The Harder They Come” — which blossoms from a reggae masterpiece to a punk-rock masterpiece in the Gimmes hands — but skip over some of the older, rougher recordings.
In 2011, they dropped six-song EP Sing in Japanese in which they — you guessed it — sing in Japanese. I don’t know any of the songs, and will probably never listen to any of the six tracks again, but I admire their versatility.
Fat Mike, the Gimmes’ bassist, says a new album of originals is on the way, this time focusing on divas: Streisand and Xtina and Gaga and the like. I am totally, totally pumped.
In the meantime, I will just have to listen to the five albums and assorted EPs and keep checking their tour schedule every other day. Come to DC, Gimmes. I will shout along to every song.
Me First and the Gimme Gimmes either elevate the tradition of covers to a higher art, or desecrate the originals, or probably both. It’s impossible not to love them and admire their craft.