The Bad Beats’ Off the Hook is titled for an early Rolling Stones song, a Jagger/ Richards composition appearing on the 1965 album The Rolling Stones Now!. The Bad Beats give a powerhouse reading, but it might be even more pleasing to you if you caught the Vancouver band at Keithmas in 2017, where they gave their debut rendition of the tune. The present author was there, and the Bad Beats sent me scurrying to find a copy of The Rolling Stones Now! Because, to my shame, as of 2017, I didn’t know the song.
“I didn't know it either,” Bad Beats vocalist Cam Alexander consoles me during a brief interview. “When we had to pick three songs for Keithmas, we just started scouring the Stones' back catalogue, trying to find stuff that was a little lesser known. I figured everybody else could scrap it out over the big hits. Adam (Payne, guitar) found ‘Off The Hook,’ and it just fit so well with our sound that we held onto it. As for the album title, we just thought it had a nice ring to it...”
Phone jokes aside, Off the Hook made for an excellent premise for an album cover, too—an appropriately retro, comic-book rendition of a person (gender unknown) under the covers, one foot sticking out, apparently going down to Ladytown on a female participant, whose high-heeled leg sticks up from the sheets.
You might be forgiven at a glance for thinking there’s only two people under there, but look closer and you’ll see the drooling head of a grizzled lech; a tentacle (whether hentai or Lovecraftian, take your pick); a handcuffed hand; and another arm, in a velvet glove, wielding a baton.
“Off the hook” indeed—it’s a truly fun album cover.
Alexander replies, “Right?? Yeah, that's Darren Merinuk, an artist out of Winnipeg. I came up with a very vague idea, Adam sent it off to him and somehow he nailed it first try. Everybody, check that dude out. He's done some amazing work.”
Returning to the titular cover song, however, in point of fact, the Stones aren't really a huge influence for Alexander.
“I mean, with all due respect to the Stones! I just came at garage rock from kind of a different angle. I grew up listening to a lot of soul and R&B as a kid. My parents and their friends were really into that stuff, like Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Solomon Burke. Those are my influences. So I guess a lot of the same guys that influenced the Stones.”
In fact, even an R&B neophyte can hear the influence in Alexander’s vocals: musically, the Bad Beats sound like they’re channeling the Sonics, with a heavy debt to American garage rock, but Alexander’s vocal phrasings add an essential frisson of soulfulness to the proceedings, pushing the music to the next level.
Their choice of covers helps, too. The Straight’s review enthused about songs by the Lyres, the Sparkles, the Animals, and Townes van Zandt. No member of the band was fortunate enough to see any of Townes Van Zandt’s rare Vancouver appearances (twice at the Vancouver Folk Festival in the 1980s, once at the Queen E opening for the Cowboy Junkies, and, lastly, once in 1992 at the Cultch, with Guy Clark). But Alexander describes himself as a huge fan of Van Zandt.
“Actually, Paul Pigat and my old friend Monte got me into Townes Van Zandt when I was a young punk, back in the early 2000's,” he tells the Straight. “They used to cover a bunch of his songs with their band that would play at Bukowski's (now the Charlatan on Commercial Drive) on Sunday nights. That music really moved me. I was surprised when Adam put it past me to cover that song, but I jumped at the chance.”
Alexander also never seen the Lyres (“But Adam has,” he notes, “a couple times.”) And the Sparkles, whose “You Ain’t No Friend of Mine” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHKb4ZclkMU originally was originally released in 1967, were around probably a little before any Bad Beats were up and crawling.
But Alexander has “always wanted” to cover that song, he enthuses. “The Sparkles were from Texas. They didn't put out many songs, but the ones they did are bangers. We've covered two of them now” (The other one is “Hipsville, 29 BC,” off the Bad Beats’ 2016 CD, His Vengeful Hand.)
Not all bands appreciate the art of the cover song, or tackle their source material so ably. As the Straight's Adrian Mack noted in his review, the line between covers and originals on Off the Hook is drawn so thin—with the possible exception of Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Around to Die,” which kind of sticks out—that you could mistake the covers for originals or the originals for covers.
So does the band have a philosophy for covering songs, or any staple go-tos?
“We try to have a good balance of covers and originals, but we always keep a bunch of our favourite covers in our back pocket. For awhile we were trying to do a lot of obscure Canadian songs, but right now we have a real mix. Adam picked one called ‘Time Machine’ by a Hamilton band called the Chessmen. We've been doing ‘You're Gonna Miss Me’ by the 13th Floor Elevators. We do ‘Leaving Here’ by Eddie Holland, though we play it more in the style of the Motörhead version. We got some killers.”
And speaking of the covers on the album, it’s curious to me that John and Alan Lomax—noted ethnomusicologists who recorded tons of old delta bluesmen—are credited as co-writers on the Animals’ song on the album, “Inside Looking Out.” So does Alexander see a lineage from the Mississippi Delta to the American garage?
“Ah yeah, I think there is definitely a line from the Delta to the garage! Well... maybe from the Delta to England to the garage. I'm pretty heavy into the American roots music. There is a lot of beautiful and strange stuff in there, particularly old gospel music. I'm crazy about that.”
That said, Alexander doesn’t really know if "those Lomax guys" should be credited for writing that song.
"Maybe for writing it on paper. But I think it seems more likely the Animals just reworked an old prison song that the Lomaxes had recorded that had probably been around for years and years. I mean, I could be wrong. But I'm definitely not the first person to accuse them of theft.”
The album is not, however, entirely covers; of the eight original tunes, one of the standouts is the album opener, “What You Tryin’ to Say,” an original that Alexander wrote the words for (as with other originals on the album).
Listening to it (and not being able to discern all the lyrics) I tingle with fear that he’s addressing a rock critic, when he sings that “You ain’t ever done nothin’ for nobody, but I guess that somehow you know best.” But Alexander shrugs off the observation with a “nah.” “That song's just about how a lot of people seem to think they know the best way to be, or how things should be done. Passing judgment on other people without ever doing any kind of self-reflection. It's about live-and-let-live, I guess.”
The album release for Off the Hook will be this Saturday at the Railway, a venue that the band has long experience with, both in its previous and current incarnation.
“I reckon we all played the old Railway a bunch of times with our various bands,” Alexander says. “I'm looking forward to this one. I have been to a couple shows at the new incarnation. The sound and stage were great! They seem pretty professional. We're certainly ready to go. I got high hopes.”
The gig will see the Bad Beats sporting a new bassist, Troy Zak, previously of “the Mahones, the Real McKenzies, and the Isotopes,” and also, somewhat wildly, a former member of the UK punk band the Vibrators. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxIEa7Cgbc0 (“He was the touring bassist for a few US tours when their guy couldn't get into the country due to visa issues. But Troy’s a Canadian, straight outta Esterhazy, Saskatchewan.”)
What’s the weirdest gig they’ve ever played, anyhow?
“Weirdest gig we've played was probably a corporate party that we played in a conference room in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday. It was pretty strange for us. Everyone in the crowd was sober, which isn't normally how we operate. It was like, everybody pours in, grabs a beer and an appetizer, we play 35 minutes, everybody goes back to work. It was a lot of fun, though. The people were really cool and they seemed to enjoy it. And they paid great! We made off like bandits!”
Hear the Bad Beats’ Off the Hook here.
Visit their Facebook page here for more.
And go here for more information on the Off the Hook CD release party at the Railway on Saturday (April 6).