Earlier this week, Guided by Voices performed on Late Night with David Letterman, and bassist Greg Demos fell down. This really has nothing to do with anything, but it’s still funny to watch. Anyways, yes, GbV: their new album, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, though not as good as Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes, is still a fine record, with many of the best contributions coming from the band’s George Harrison to Bob Pollard’s Paul Lennon/John McCartney, guitarist Tobin Sprout. That got me thinking, what are some other great songs not sung by a band’s primary vocalist?
Some self-enforced rules that I sort of followed: they have to sing five or fewer songs in the group’s discography (which actually eliminates Tobin—we still love “Atom Eyes—as well as Dave Davies, George Harrison, Claudia Gonson, and John Entwistle); and they have to be a primary member of the group (meaning no “Have a Cigar” by Pink Floyd because it’s sung by one-time-only guest Roy Harper).
Photo by Nadia Chaudhury
“After Hours” by the Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker
For a band that recorded only four albums (not including all the posthumous releases and Squeeze, which NEVER HAPPENED), the Velvet Underground used no fewer than five vocalists: Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, Doug Yule, and Moe Tucker, who so tenderly sang “After Hours.” (Sterling Morrison never sang lead; he contributed a single line to “I’m Sticking with You” and recited parts of “The Murder Mystery.”) Reed has said that he asked Tucker to sing this sad little song about isolation because it was too “innocent and pure” for his voice. She is now a member of the Tea Party.
“It’s Just That Simple” by Wilco
Assuming you don’t count “Less Than You Think” as being performed by Jeff Tweedy’s Migraine, “It’s Just That Simple,” from their underrated first album A.M., is the only Wilco song not sung by front man Tweedy. Rather, bassist John Stirratt takes the lead, and the result is a swaying, steel guitar-assisted ode to a relationship gone sour.
“Chatterbox” by New York Dolls
Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers > Buster Poindexter
“The Guns of Brixton” by the Clash's Paul Simonon
Paul Simonon was the epitome of a bass player: he was always doing a lot, but you never noticed. He came up with the name of the band, designed their posters, picked their clothing, and it’s his silhouette you see on the cover of London Calling, arguably the greatest album cover of all-time (not to mention all the solid bass playing). He also sang lead and wrote three songs for the Clash, including “Red Angel Dragnet,” “The Crooked Beat,” and “The Guns of Brixton,” the best of the bunch. It’s my favorite song about social discontent occurring in a southern borough of London. You?
“Lonesome Cowboy Burt” by the Mothers of Invention's Jimmy Carl Black
He’s Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian of the group, and he’s singing what I assume is a parody of the Velvet Underground’s “Lonesome Cowboy Bill.” Either way, it’s a great song, especially when he rhymes “Californy” and “gets me so horny.”
“Marigold” by Nirvana's Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl originally recorded “Color Pictures of a Marigold” in 1990, under his pseudonym Late!, approximately three months after the drummer joined Nirvana. In 1993, while working on In Utero, Grohl decided to re-record the song, now simply titled “Marigold,” with his new band mates, or at least one of them. Grohl sang and played drums, while Krist Novoselic assisted on bass; Kurt Cobain was absent from the studio that day, which is probably one of the reasons why the song didn’t make it on the album. Instead, it was the b-side to “Heart-Shaped Box” and holds the distinction of being the only Nirvana song not sung by Cobain (assuming you don’t count the intro to “Territorial Pissings,” which I originally thought was recited by Weird Al, not Novoselic).
“Listen, the Snow Is Falling” by Galaxie 500's Naomi Young
This track, originally written and performed by Yoko Ono, appeared as the B-side of “Happy Christmas (War Is Over),” but 20 years later, Naomi Young and the rest of Galaxie 500 blew Mrs. Lennon out of the...snow, I guess? It begins as precious as its title implies before exploding into a blizzard of noise. Between this track, “Isn’t It a Pity,” and “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste,” Galaxie 500 sure knew their way around a cover.
“Gigantic” by The Pixies' Kim Deal
“So Long” by Rilo Kiley's Blake Sennett
I might have been on Team Blake Sennett in the Rilo Kiley split if every one of his songs sounded as good as “So Long.” (Technically, he sang lead on eight Rilo songs, but “Dreamworld” and “Ripchord” stink, and six is close enough to five.)
“Kennel District” by Pavement's Spiral Stairs
The number of songs Spiral Stairs sang in Pavement is hovering right around five, too, if you don’t include an expanded edition tracks or selections from the Kids In the Hall movie soundtrack (“Painted Soldiers”). But whatever, Wowee Zowee’s “Kennel District” is a great, looping song, and about a billion times better than “Hit the Plane Down.”
“Black Flowers” by Yo La Tengo
Impossibly pretty, with James McNew on lead vocals.
And now! three terrible tracks:
“Out of the Blue” by the Band's Robbie Robertson
Because having three of the greatest rock vocalists ever wasn’t enough for Robbie Robertson, I guess.
“Numb” by U2's The Edge
Name kind of says it all.
“Fitter, Happier” by Radiohead/A Computer
That singer, Macintosh SimpleText, totally gets the second half of OK Computer off to a bummer of a start.