While discussion of the rock music of San Francisco tends to revolve around It’s a Beautiful Dead Airplane and the Holding Messenger Service, all us really good weirdos who read and/or work for Dangerous Minds know that the truly insane stuff landed after the hippie era. The moment in 1972 when The Residents moved to S.F. and established Ralph Records to release their work and the music of other like minded head cases was a bellwether event in freakmusic; Ralph would go on to release underground classics by fellow San Franciscans like Tuxedomoon, Rhythm & Noise, MX-80 Sound, and Voice Farm, all innovators who were too weird to quite fit the mold of the city’s storied punk and hardcore scenes. (They released much excellent non-S.F.-based music too, it merits mentioning, including Art Bears, Snakefinger and Yello.)
Ralph label compilations were always worth picking up—they were doorways to a distinct kind of weirdness no other American label would touch. Releases like Frank Johnson’s Favorites, Potatoes, and the Buy or Die 7” series introduced a much younger me to excellent art-rock oddities well beyond my imagining. But the one that’s stuck with me most is 1979’s Subterranean Modern—which apart from a Schwump 7” in 1976 was the first Ralph release to include artists other than The Residents or Snakefinger—a four-band V/A release that introduced me to Chrome. Their three songs on that comp constituted the total of all music Chrome released on Ralph, and it included a warped, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “cover” of Tony Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Indeed, all four bands on the comp covered that tune in some fashion, the other three being The Residents (naturally), art-punk guitar terrorists MX-80 Sound, and gloomy experimenters Tuxedomoon. Bonus: cool Gary Panter cover art.
Chrome’s version of the song is a noisy psych swirl all of 27 seconds long, fading out as quickly as it fades in, and you can hear someone saying the title if you listen closely enough. The track would eventually resurface on Cleopatra Records’ Chrome Box. MX-80’s is an instrumental that I expect few listeners could peg it for a cover were it not for the title. The Residents’ version is a typically Residentsy transformation, perfectly in step with that band’s many, many, other cover songs, warping the original to the edge of recognizability and drenching it in synthesized menace. Along with the other 3 Residents tracks on this comp, it appeared on the CD reissue of their album Eskimo. Tuxedomoon’s offering is another quickie, a minute-long harmonica rendition of the original underneath a recorded phone call in which a man tries to prove residence in guess which city in order to collect welfare from the state of California. That track eventually re-surfaced on the band’s Pinheads on the Move collection.
Despite the fact that every band pretty much completely jettisoned the actual song they were supposedly covering, the album notes credit the remakes to original composers George Cory and Douglass Cross. It really couldn’t be more obvious that that Chrome, Tuxedomoon and MX-80 bristled against the stipulation of covering that song and contributed piss-takes. In fact, a contemporary NME article explicitly spells it out:
The most controversial aspect of the album is the inclusion of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” a rather sickening piece of hackwork popularized by Tony Bennett. None of the groups, with the exception of the Residents, were thrilled about recording the song. Chrome sarcastically included less than a minutes’ worth of white noise as their “interpretation.” Tuxedomoon recorded a one minute conversation between an unemployed transient attempting to qualify for welfare and a welfare office bureaucrat, while the melody to “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” is played on harmonica in the background. MX-80 Sound cut the song as an instrumental, giving it a full force heavy metal reading.
“It’s not that great a song,” says [Residents spokesman Hardy] Fox, “Who wants to do something that you don’t think is too great? It was a challenge. But it is the official San Francisco song. Sanctioned by the city. So we had no choice.”
More after the jump…