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Paying tribute

It's been 50 years since artists put their own spin on famous records

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Art MacIntyre, the founder of Transistor 66 Records, hopped on the tribute album bandwagon in 2003 with Guess Who's Home, an album of Guess Who songs covered by Winnipeg artists.

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Art MacIntyre, the founder of Transistor 66 Records, hopped on the tribute album bandwagon in 2003 with Guess Who's Home, an album of Guess Who songs covered by Winnipeg artists. Photo Store

Feb. 9 marked the 50-year anniversary of the Beatles' debut on The Ed Sullivan Show -- a milestone that was feted in a variety of ways, including a star-studded television special and the release of The U.S. Albums, a CD-box set comprising all 13 American versions of the Fab Four's records.

Lost amid all the Sullivan hubbub has been another Beatles benchmark: 2014 also marks the golden anniversary of an album that put a unique -- and high-squealed -- spin on the music of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits was issued on Liberty Records in 1964. The record -- arguably the first tribute album of the rock era -- featured Alvin, Simon and Theodore warbling their way through a dozen mop top standards.

The resonant rodents couldn't have known it at the time but the LP turned out to be a groundbreaker. Tribute albums -- that is, collections of cover songs celebrating the work of a specific artist -- have since become as big a part of the recording industry as greatest hits packages and contractually-obligated Christmas sets.

Art MacIntyre is the founder of Transistor 66 Records, a Winnipeg label specializing in roots rock, garage rock and rockabilly. Soon after MacIntyre put the finishing touches on his company's inaugural CD -- 2003's Rubberneckin' by the Rowdymen -- the married father of one asked himself what he should do for an encore. A number of tribute albums were popular around that time -- most notably We're a Happy Family: A Tribute to the Ramones and White Riot: A Tribute to the Clash -- so MacIntyre figured that might be an avenue worth exploring.

Guess Who's Home featured 18 acts performing hits made famous by Winnipeg chart-toppers the Guess Who. Tunes were chosen on a first-come, first-sing basis, MacIntyre says, but because there were so many Guess Who classics to choose from, nobody had trouble getting the song they wanted. (The Dust Rhinos were one of the last groups to sign on and were shocked to discover nobody had staked a claim on Share the Land, yet.)

A few weeks after the CD's release party at the Pyramid, where acts like Combo Combo, Romi Mayes and the D-Rangers reprised their contributions in a live setting, MacIntyre hopped in his car and personally delivered a copy to the Guess Who's former frontman.

"I dropped it off at (Burton) Cummings' house on Park Boulevard; he had this big, gothic mailbox and I left it in there, along with a hand-written note," MacIntyre says, citing It's My Pride, a B-side from the band's early days, as his fave Guess Who tune. "I heard that Burton got it -- and that he really liked it." (Hey, what's not to like? Because MacIntyre had to pay almost $5,000 in royalties up front, Cummings and Randy Bachman, the group's other chief songwriter, have earned more from the project than MacIntyre ever will.)

The trend probably peaked in the 1990s when everyone from Leonard Cohen (I'm Your Fan) to Led Zeppelin (Encomium) to the Carpenters (If I Was a Carpenter) received the tribute treatment. But that doesn't mean there aren't acts left to salute. To wit, another whack of tribute albums are slated for release in the coming months, among them Making Patterns Rhyme: A Tribute to Duran Duran and Bob Dylan in the 1980s - the latter a collection of tunes drawn from "Dylan's most turbulent and divisive decade."

Of course, some compilations have been more miss than hit. Who knew the world wasn't ready for Broken Keys: The Piano Tribute to Korn? Or Kiss My Grass: A Hillbilly Tribute to KISS. So on the eve of The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits' 50th anniversary, we decided to look back at some other tribute albums that made heads -- if not turntables -- spin.

 

HARPTALLICA

We're not stringing you along; Harptallica consisted of two school of music grads who rearranged Metallica classics like For Whom the Bell Tolls and Master of Puppets for a pair of concert-grand pedal harps. (Talk about heavy metal: the average concert harp tips the scales at 50 kilograms.)

 

BACK IN BAROQUE...THE STRING TRIBUTE TO AC/DC (2003)

The Vitamin String Quartet re-recorded the AC/DC classic Back in Black in its entirety, replacing the Aussie band's vocals and guitars with violins and cellos. One reviewer granted Back in Baroque two and a half stars, stating "the songs' robust riffs and blue-collar rhythms translate pretty well."

 

SHOT SPOTS (2001)

Trooper's Hot Shots is one of the biggest selling records in Canadian history. So it probably wasn't too much of a stretch for 30 homegrown punk groups -- among them SNFU, D.O.A. and Dayglo Abortions -- to raise a little hell by breathing new life into chestnuts like We're Here For a Good Time and Janine. One question: when does everybody reconvene to take on Max Webster?

 

MISSION TO MALMñ (1999)

Gabba is a British band that performs ABBA tunes in the style of the Ramones. Gabba's debut album -- Mission to Malm -- contained the "hits" Fernando es en Punk Rocker, Me & Mamma Mia and The Pinhead Takes It All.

 

THRILLER: A METAL TRIBUTE TO MICHAEL JACKSON (2013)

Members of Motrhead, Queensrøche and other umlaut-heavy bands turned their amps to 11 in a bid to -- according to the promos -- "raise the dead." Judging by sales, the King of Pop's fans didn't exactly beat it to their local Walmart to nab a copy.

 

DISCOBALLS: A TRIBUTE TO PINK FLOYD (1979)

Critics have called Pink Floyd a lot of names through the years but "dance band" isn't one of 'em. Fortunately, that didn't stop the French group Magma from overhauling Floyd classics like Money, Have a Cigar and Interstellar Overdrive so that they sounded like outtakes from Saturday Night Fever.

 

DEVO E-Z LISTENING DISC (1987)

New wave band Devo has been the subject of a few tribute records, including the aptly-titled We Are Not Devo. But the Ohio group beat their admirers to the punch in 1987 when they released an album of their own tunes re-done as elevator Muzak.

 

STRUMMIN' WITH THE DEVIL: THE SOUTHERN SIDE OF VAN HALEN (2006)

Jamie's Cryin' as a waltz? Eruption played on a banjo? Those are only two of the treasures on Strummin' With the Devil -- a collection of Van Halen ditties performed by 11 bluegrass acts. Points for good taste: none of the selections on Strummin' are from VH's Van Hagar days.

 

GREEN DAYS OF CHRISTMAS (2007)

Ho ho huh? Ten Green Day tunes are reinterpreted as seasonal ditties by Santa Claws and the Naughty But Nice Orchestra. Silent nights will be a thing of the past, thanks to Welcome to Paradise and Brain Stew performed with sleigh bells, chimes and flutes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2014 D11

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