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“Not Just Rock n Roll” by The Great Pretenders /Russia/

19th February 2024

“Not Just Rock n Roll” by The Great Pretenders – a band hailing from Moscow, Russia playing mostly covers in a Rockabilly style whilst blending music from many eras and styles.

The band has four members; Sergei “Paul Peek’ Kuteinikov – vocals and guitar, Oleg Ivanin – vocals and guitar, Dmitry “D-Jazz” Ilvin – double bass, Georgeii Matveev – Drums

This album in an eclectic mix of covers that covers 1950s rockabilly songs like “Big River” and “The Train Kept a Rollin’”, as well Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking”, Billy Ocean’s Northern Soul classic, “Red Light Spells Danger” and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”. If Forrest Gump were listening to this album, he’d say “Life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you’re gonna get”, such is the mix of genres included in one album.

Track 1 – Razor Alley.

The album launches with a cover of The Jets “Razor Alley” - a track that featured on their 1988 LP Cotton Pickin’. The Great Pretenders’ version is slightly slower than the original. It starts with the same kick-ass guitar riff, quickly followed by the double bass, then drums. The bass pounds in your chest all the way through, keeping the rhythm guitar just high enough in the mix. A clean, well- executed guitar solo comes in mid-way through. The band chooses to include an electric drum kit – this is not something that would ordinarily have interested me, but it works! You don’t get any rimshots or variation in drum tone, but you do get a very solid and tight performance with some interesting rolls.

Track 2 - Waitin in School

The second track is “Waitin in School” (no G – RIP Steve Wright), popularised originally by Ricky Nelson. This version has much more drive, with that pounding bass and snare really cutting through. The second half of the guitar solo adds a twist on the original. While the vocal was never going to have the soulful lilt we are so familiar with from Ricky, Paul Peek’s vocal adds a more Rockabilly, less commercial sound to this track. The second guitar solo is something the axe man has penned himself and helps put their own stamp on this cover, and where the original ends with a clunky roll on the drums, this version has a super-tight roll with the whole band finishing together.

Track 3 – Big River

Next up is a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River". It’s a brave thing to do when you attempt a cover from one of the legends of the Rockabilly genre, especially when the song is so well-known. But this really works. The guitar intro is familiar and then behind it is something new; a different take on the rhythm guitar we’ve become so accustomed to on many of Cash’s early songs. The drums drive the track on down the road (river) and the slapless bass pounds on through the track. This is a really interesting, well executed, brave attempt at one of the all-time greats.

Track 4 – Personal Jesus

The fourth offering on this album is a cover of Depeche Mode’s 1989 song “Personal Jesus”. A song that gives us a clue that at least some members of Depeche Mode were into music that hailed from a less synthesised past. And incidentally a song that made it to Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, entering their “chart” at number 368. This version pays homage to the original without trying to copy it exactly. There is no reverse crash cymbal at the start of this version; instead we get a slightly distorted, powerful guitar intro with the bass and snare coming in together after a few bars. It’s not an easy job for the rhythm section to keep a song this slow together but like the other tracks on this album, it’s super-tight all the way through. We hear an occasional hi-hat cymbal but it stays really subtle in the mix. The rockin’ vocal helps make the song much more powerful than the original.

Track 5 – Train Kept a Rollin’

Track 5 is a cover of Jonny Burnette’s “Train Kept a Rollin’”. The song kicks off with a big bang from the snare and then an awesome guitar lick follows. A bit like Big River earlier, I think it’s incredibly brave when a band attempts a cover of such a classic Rockabilly song. They seem to try and put their own spin on the tracks without wishing to sound exactly like the original, which has got to be a good idea right? Otherwise, we’d just listen to the original. The song packs a real punch. The guitar is quite rightly higher in the mix here and no attempt is made to replicate Paul Burlison’s sound, instead opting for a cleaner/sharper sound. I couldn’t let this track go without noting that the vocalist appears to “forget” the lyrics in places. You may find this a little irritating but could you imagine having to sing a song in Russian? This is still another driving, pounding, rockabilly track that will make you want to get your boppin’ shoes on and hit the dance floor.

Track 6 – People are Strange

We go to 1967 for inspiration now and a cover of the Doors’ “People are Strange”. Not an obvious choice for a rockin’ band but wow this works really well. A nice acoustic guitar kicks this track off before a great sounding electric, again sitting high in the mix, comes in with the bass and drums. You could image a dancefloor packed with girls strolling to this song. It’s got a great groove and some lovely guitar fills, as well as a beautiful guitar solo mid-way through that is accompanied by a thumping, walking bassline. This is possibly the cleverest cover on the album and by that, I mean the band does more to this track to make it their own by deviating more from the original.

Track 7 – You Made a Hit

Back to the 50’s for track 7 which is a cover of the great Ray Smith’s You Made a Hit. That beautiful guitar comes in first quickly followed by a great drum roll and then we’re rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’. No piano like the original, but hey, who needs piano when you’ve got a driving bass like this. There are some cracking guitar fills throughout the track and a great solo again. The beat is kept with a pounding snare drum and nice fills following the stops that pepper this song and it all wraps with an ending that many tunes from the 50’s seem to share. This is a great version and probably one of my favourite tracks on the album (I’m probably a little biased as I’m a big fan of Ray Smith).

Track 8 – All I Can Do Is Cry

Stickin’ in the 50s for track 8 for a cover of Wayne Walker’s, “All I Can Do is Cry”. They take another cracking rockabilly tune and bring it right up to date with more modern production. This track stays pretty true to the original in terms of tempo but the guitar work is so much more imaginative. The bass and drums keep everything tight and allow the guitar to stand up in the mix and and while there are nods to the familiar, original riffs, the guitar work here is far superior in every way. Get your boppin’s shoes back out as this is another stand out track.

Track 9 – I Was Made for Loving You

A different tempo for this track. A cover of Kiss’s disco/rock classic “I Was Made for Loving You’. It took me a few listens to even recognise that this was a cover of the Kiss song. I even spent some time Googling this song to see if there was an earlier version that maybe Kiss had covered – there isn’t; the song was credited to Kiss in 1979. This is an incredible version that is so different that if it weren’t for the lyrics, could stand as a self-penned song. The song is under-pinned by a driving snare drum and pounding bass and they do a great job of taking a tune from such a different genre and making you think this could have been a rockin’ song to start with. The guitar sounds amazing again and I particularly like the little riff at the very end.

Track 10 – Rockabilly Boogie

Back to the 50s again for track 10 and another Johnny Burnette classic – Rockabilly Boogie. This track is best played loud. Very loud! The words may not be 100% accurate again but the feel, temp and drive of the track more than make up for it. The guitar work is again clever and pays homage to the original without copying it. Lots of crashes on the drums in the solo add to the drama of the track. And a brilliant, tight ending again draws this song to a close. Boy, your feet are gonna be aching from all the bopping by the time you get through this album.

Track 11 – Red Light Spells Danger

I was really excited to listen to this track. The Billy Ocean song is one of my all-time favourite non-rockin' tunes. I love the key changes and the way it builds and drops, The Great Pretenders have nailed it again! I guess they’ve done what bands like the Rocker Covers and the Baseballs have done before them. They’ve taken more modern songs and made them sound like they could have been made much earlier. This song retains the excitement and tension of the original and while you don’t get all the orchestral backing that the original song had, you do get a slap bass and brilliant twangy guitar lick.

Track 12 – These Boots Are Made for Walking

From the 70s back to the 60s for this track and a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 track, “These Boots Are Made for Walking”. I hadn’t realised it before but the bass rundown on this track lends itself to a rockin’ tune. And that’s how this track kicks off before a country-sounding guitar riff comes in. You could be listening to James Burton playing guitar on this track. The song is so synonymous with Nancy that I wasn’t sure whether a male vocal would work – but it sure does! It’s another clever interpretation of a song that you would not expect to hear on a rockin’. It works really well and had me “air drumming” all the way through.

Track 13 – Pink Thunderbird

Straight back to the 50s for this up-tempo Gene Vincent classic first released in 1956. With some added reverb and the vocal sitting higher in the mix on this track, this is a great version. It’s always ambitious taking on any track that featured Cliff Gallup on guitar, but again they nail it. A nice clean bass accompanies the guitar picking and a spectacularly executed solo comes in about one minute into the tune with the second solo appearing around 45 seconds later – you can’t have too much of a great thing. The ending to this song is clever; they make it sounds sloppy at first but it all draws to a nice tight conclusion.

Track 14 – Summertime Blues

Sticking with 50s’ classics for track 14 with a version of Eddie Cochran’s 1959 hit “Summertime Blues”. It’s never easy covering such a well-known song as people naturally look for similarites to (and differences from) the original. Well, this is a more powerful version with the drums and bass playing a prominent role. The intro sounds like Duane Eddy has taken over as the axe man and then familiar chords cut in. The original didn’t have a guitar solo, but very cleverly the Great Pretenders have written their own and it works incredibly well. They’ve also added some interesting drum rolls which weren’t present in the original and their own ending which works really well.

Track 15 – New Orleans

The penultimate track on this album is a version of New Orleans. It's a real rocker of a song. I first heard this tune when Restless included on their 1989 album “Beat My Drum”. It was originally performed by Gary U.S. Bonds and appeared on his 1961 album “Dance Til Quarter to Three with US Bonds”. There is so much power in this version provided by the drums, vocals and driving bass. The guitar sits up in the mix again providing the riff all the way through. There’s a great Chuck Berry style guitar solo in the middle before it comes back in with “hey, yeah, yeah, yeah” and lots of drums. Another twist comes at the end with their own interpretation of what an ending should sound like. Very clever!

Track 16 – Trouble

The album closes with a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Trouble” penned by the legendary Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. This version has a grungy blues feel about it with some clever twists on the 1958 original. The vocal takes on a similar style Elvis. This song will probably be known to a casual listener as it featured in the 2022 Elvis movie starring Austin Butler. Here though, we have no brass section, just guitar, bass and drums which gives it more of a blues (rather than New Orleans jazz) feeling. The run down is a clever interpretation of the original and a brilliant bluesy guitar solo lifts the middle of the song. Towards the end where the song changes tempo, the feel changes too and it is a great way to finish a really good album of covers.

Summary

This is a great collection of covers from a band hailing from Moscow, Russia by the name of the Great Pretenders. They mix genres, styles and different decades and add a rockin’ twist to every song. They take 1950s originals and bring them bang up to date too. There is some great guitar work throughout this album and some really clever tweaks to the original songs.

Darrell Johnson



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