Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Thanksgiving Mix: A history

I can't actually remember when the tradition started, but in (for the sake of argument) 2001 I put together a CD of odd, kitsch, and terrible cover versions for entertainment at that year's Thanksgiving party, and then I did a couple more discs one other year, and then I didn't get round to another until 2008. I've done one every year since, so I suppose we could say the tradition per se must have begun some time after that, whatever year it was where doing a Thanksgiving mix had become essential. It was unstoppable! (see picture)
The basic idea of the first mix (conceived as a supposed soundtrack for my Nereffid the Taxidermist stories of long ago... Hero with a Thousand Excuses, it was called) was to have the listener say "what??!" in amusement and/or horror. So some of it was rubbish and not worth listening to again. Or once, really, though that was kind of the point of listening to it. Same with the second and third ones. There were also some likeable things, of course, such as a country version of "Purple Rain", or Richard Cheese's genius take on "Creep", or the cute lounge version of "Teenage Kicks". But then something odd happened in the fourth one, which was informally known to me as Nereffid IV By Crikey. After such dubious delights as the Swingle Singers' version of the Starsky and Hutch theme, Tony Christie's rendition of "Life on Mars", and a trumpet version of "Ebony and Ivory" that I don't actually remember at all, there came something I'd discovered not by simply poking around on eMusic like with everything else but by reading about it in (possibly) the Observer, Alpha Bondy's reggae cover of "Wish You Were Here". Which is really good. Well, it went into the mix because it met the criteria of not like the original, and that was as far as my thought process went for the moment. Still the focus was on kitsch/bizarre, so while we had the joy of John Otway's "House of the Rising Sun" ("Tell us about your mother!"), the less said about the Fish Brothers' cover of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (with new lyrics, it was "Gerald Durrell's Spectacled Wanking Bear") the better...
The next couple of albums (Nereffid's Fifth and Nereffid 6 FFS) represent a transition as I gradually came round to the idea that saying "what??!" in horror is less entertaining than saying it in amusement. There aren't many genuinely dreadful things on those albums, and plenty of highlights, such as Victoria Vox's "Psycho Killer", Alice's old-timey "Black Hole Sun", Petra Haden's "Don't Stop Believin'", and David Lang's recomposition of "Born to be Wild", delivered with camp aplomb by Andrew Russo. 
I finally understood what was going on with Nereffid 7 As If. There were some nods to the old days—an uninteresting flamenco "Poker Face", a not-good-enough metal "Ghostbusters"—but as the running order fell into place I realised I had a really strong final sequence. This was the first time I'd considered the possibility that I could even have a proper final sequence, let alone one that was strong. "What??!" was giving way to "gosh!". So track 13 is Bjorn Berge's acoustic "Give It Away" (storming), followed by Cake's take on "Mahna Mahna" (amusing), and then suddenly we're off, as The Bad Shepherds turn "God Save the Queen" into a folk song and Cardova realises that "Enola Gay" is, astonishingly, a soul classic. Brief pause for breath with a more straightforward cover of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" by Greg Allen (but wait! now we're doing straightforward covers?), and then holy Jesus: Gennaro Cosmo Parlato's version of "Don't You Forget About Me" is basically "Goldfinger" as a Spaghetti Western, and holy Jesus again: Mariachi El-Rocko finds a new kind of beauty in "Every Day Is Like Sunday", and before you've fully recovered we end with William Shatner snarling through "Common People". The evolution was complete: from bad music to good music.
So, for volume 8 we got serious. No more cringing, no more mere chuckling, this whole album would be one I wanted to listen to repeatedly. And actually it turned out even more than that, because it became a family favourite for car journeys. Who couldn't love The Town Pants' "Rasputin", an expert blend of disco and The Chieftains? Or The Four Of Us's slightly sinister "Sound of the Underground"? Or Lucky Uke's utterly charming "Sweet Child O' Mine"? Or—the middle track and emotional heart of the album—The Coal Porters' gorgeous folk "Heroes"? Yes, I said "emotional heart" and of course I'm exaggerating but the musical success of volume 8—now with a proper cover picture and called, inevitably, Nereffid Ate My Hamster—was going to my head. What would volume 9 be like?
It would be even better, is what. Have you never read a pompous recounting of a trivial subject before? The compilation of Nein, Nereffid, Nein! (it's not rocket science) was a new experience, because this would be the first time I used Spotify: no more 30-second eMusic samples and scurrying off to Youtube to see if the full version was there. This certainly made a more thorough search possible, although by now I was starting to realise that the available pool of music was not as large as I'd hoped. Anything on the mix had to be not only a song the small but dedicated audience might be familiar with (and some are better than others in that field), but also a musically different version of the original and a good version. There then followed a period of panic in which I was convinced I wouldn't be able to fill a CD.
But I did, and that one proved a family hit too. Running order became a big issue here when I found Triggerfinger's gorgeous "I Follow Rivers", which the kids already loved in Lykke Li's original: it would be a crowd-pleaser but not an up-tempo one and I was left with the feeling that it might be "too good" for this album. At which point I came across Diane Birch's extraordinary version of "Atmosphere", surely "too good". Well, I'd put The Coal Porters dead-centre of the last album, and although it's most enjoyable, it also stands out for what you might call its seriousness of purpose. It is "proper good music", so to speak. Same with these two new ones, but (I asked) are they "too much" for what is after all supposed to be a party album? So I gambled, and put them at the end, deciding to consider them as the cathartic reward for when the "fun" songs came to an end, and leading in to them with some more songs that aren't exactly singalongs. We had come some distance from "and now here's a funny cover version". And now we must have a portentous pause in the narrative before we talk about the 2014 mix and the philosophical conundrums faced by producers of compilation albums.