No Johnny, You Really Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory

Another unnecessary reworking of a song that didn’t need to be messed with.

There are several ways for new bands to cash in on the nostalgic pull of a legacy artist. They can record a cover version of one of their songs – or even several of their songs – and then release it as a ‘tribute’. They can even persuade the old rocker to join them on said cover versions if the famous artist is a bit strapped for cash or hungry for that one last hit of success that they think might come from a collaboration with younger, cooler musicians.

Or you can do what the Courettes have done and take an existing track by Johnny Thunders and hammer away at it to the point where is feels unrecognisable and then tell people that this is the version that was always intended.

Well, that might be harsh. It is the press release rather than the band that implies, rather heavily, that having the Courettes playing their hackneyed retro-garage garden wall of sound Sixties revivalism – something that began to sound a bit tired twenty years ago when much better bands like the Raveonettes were doing it – has vastly improved a track that was previously lacking, despite Thunders himself taking a couple of swings at it. I’d assumed that the painfully intimate acoustic 1983 cut of You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory was that way because that’s what Thunders wanted, but maybe I’m wrong – perhaps he was hoping for a faux-Spector backing all along but couldn’t afford to pay backing musicians who could pull such a musically complex and unexplored sound off.

Johnny Thunders, of course, is conveniently dead and so can’t really tell us or object to whatever Cleopatra Records decide to do with the catalogue of recordings that have fallen under their control. This track is part of a 3 CD collection of his work that includes live cuts, demos, late recordings and all that jazz and so might be cynically seen as a publicity stunt, because old farts like us here at The Reprobate will be suitably aghast and so write outraged columns (or else will be so desperate not to be seen as old farts that they’ll resist all attempts at provocation and declare it a masterpiece). Well, so be it.

It does seem that these continual reworkings, rehashes and re-recordings of rock classics as empty ‘tributes’ has stopped being remotely entertaining. At best, you get a pointless facsimile of the original. At worst… well, something like this. Presumably we are not that far away from AI cover versions, which will entirely remove the need for ageing musicians in search of a quick payday to phone in their parts of an empty cover song. Under normal circumstances, I would shiver with dread at the thought. But for stuff like this, it could hardly seem any more insincere and empty.

Still, there’s a certain irony – probably lost on all involved – in doing a half-cocked reworking of a song called You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,  as if someone set out to say ‘no, no you can’t’. It should serve as a warning for any act who does a stripped-down version of their classic songs – once you pop your clogs, there will be eager opportunists waiting to swoop in and ‘finish’ it for you.

Here’s the new version.

And as a palate cleanser, here are both of Johnny Thunders’ versions of the song, from 1978 and 1983.

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  1. Well when you wrote that this was coming out on Cleopatra records all became clear. The sub K-Tel of Goth, Indie, Punk. I mean it as a compliment – the K-Tel cassette changer was one of the great feats of engineering. Starting a record label as an adjunct to and extension of plastic novelty items cut to the core of commodity culture, a more acute statement than even Warhol. The music’s an afterthought! Also, Cleo is super-goth in being the Marble Orchard of recording stars. Stiff records claimed to be ‘undertakers to the industry’, but Cleo can actually back up such a claim. Course, the Music Biz is awash with zombies in varying states of decomposition … This particular travesty, I mean effort is very much in the gimmick vein of electronically rechanneled stereo, or more appropriately, the kind of overdubbery layered over postmortem Buddy Holly cuts by The Picks and others (though they are actually quite good). It’s not without precedent, these chancers are just fortunate that Cleo own the Thunders recordings and can do as they please with them. ‘What He would’ve wanted’ indeed! Cheek. Actually, it’s not much different in effect to countless remixes executed in a cold-bloodedly mercenary intent. It’s hard to get new music out of a dead man. A tribute LP would be fine, but might be that bit more dispensable to the hardcore fan this effort is aimed at cut-pursing. As a novelty, I can tolerate it, but dubious and entirely spurious claims to it’s legitimacy are laughable. It would cut more ice with me if they claimed to have conducted a seance during the session, to seek Giovanni’s approval. I love Thunders, Spector, Garage Rock etc, and am cautiously grateful for any such presence in the contemporary scene, howsoever, it seems to me that the form has become so cozily institutionalised, predictable and easy as to become little more than a refuge for scoundrels! Therefore it’s Punk to dig Prog now – or stick one’s neck out even further and embrace actual individuality – or is it worth the risk?

    1. In truth, we may have mocked a wee bit too much – but as you say, this all feels very safe and predictable, which isn’t terrible in itself, because clinging on to anti-establishment anarchy sloganeering when you are in your 50s and have kids, a mortgage and a sensible job has always seemed a tad desperate… but let’s not pretend it is anything other than cozy nostalgia. There’s a place for that – hell, this site essentially lives on it – but just accept it for what it is instead of trying to imply that it somehow at the cutting edge and we’ll be less snarkily cynical. Well, that and the odd selling point of claiming that the original recording was somehow lacking and this version is BETTER. That feels like an odd way of getting the fans onside. I suppose that, unlike Junkie XL doing Elvis and so on, they can’t really claim that this is a modernised take, given that the band involved evoke a nostaligic pull to an era before Thunders even began his career.
      I like the idea of the seance though – if you’re going to go for it, go for it fully and mock the whole process while engaging in it.

      1. On refIection, I think you are being a bit harsh on the Courettes. Their ‘version’ of ‘Memory’ at least tries to pay homage to the girl group era sound that Johnny Thunders was fond of – and obviously influences their own work. If anything they play it too straight, too reverentially. But,if it helps turn any of their fans on to the godlike genius of the late great Mr Thunders so much the better. However, digging deeper and finding that it’s a ‘bonus’ cut on that upcoming Cleopatra box set kinda sticks in the craw. First up DO Cleopatra actually own the rights to those recordings? I doubt it! But it’s never stopped them before and as they seem to operate largely in areas of what could be charitably termed ‘dubious’ legality (check some of their appalling Sid Vicious releases..jeez!) I’d expect no better. Thunders estate is in a total mess and no one seems to be ‘minding the store’. The ‘Actress’ tapes I think were leased from Arthur Kane after being bootlegged extensively elsewhere..the Max’s live stuff and the Oddballs demos have all been out before many times so I guess the Courettes cut is out there now primarily to entice absolute diehard completists like yours truly to buy again what we already own….they got me there as even a bad Thunders cover (which this isn’t) is better than 99.9% of the crap that passes for popular music nowadays… You pays yer money….? DTKLAMF!

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