ECW: Extreme Music, Volume 1

As some of you know, in addition to writing about wrestling here, I also periodically review music over at Inside Pulse. Normally, I never like to mingle the two. But recently I was thinking about wrestling-themed music releases. On normal circumstances, music themed from wrestling doesn’t really work as regular music for me. There are old WWF themes that I love, but I would never put them on my iPod or anything. There is one exception to that, though. In 1998 ECW released their hopefully-titled Extreme Music, Volume One. Mostly comprised of cover versions of ECW theme songs, this album has the kind of replay value that most other wrestling-related music never reaches.

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In his book Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman makes brief mention of the wrestling/heavy metal cross pollination and gives props to Extreme Music for the quality of its covers. Two of the heaviest hitters cover Metallica. Most are familiar with Motorhead’s version of “Enter Sandman”. That’s right, The Sandman beat HHH to the punch in having a Motorhead theme. This version still makes the rounds on YouTube to OG metalheads who weren’t familiar with ECW, it seems. Lemmy’s vocals add a little crunch and grime to the most radio-polished of Metallica’s early work, which serves them well. The prayer in the bridge sounds particularly sinister with Lemmy’s whiskey-tinted growl. However, the riff loses a little luster with Motorhead’s more stripped down guitar attack; a lot of James Hetfield’s signature fatness and depth in his rhythm playing gets aggregated into a grungy mess. Also covering early Metallica are their old buddies in Anthrax, this time tackling “Phantom Lord”. This was actually a B-side to the “Inside Out” import single they had released that year, so ECW just got the leftovers. Still, it’s a smart move for Anthrax to take on a track from Metallica’s early fantasy-lyric-laden thrash days. Definitely something more up Anthrax’s alley, and they go at it with full force and a stripped down production that gives it the immediacy and tone of an old vinyl 7-inch. This one was one that I think got cycled around a few different ECW people but it represented Mike Awesome on the album.

Other metal legends get covered to more mixed results. Muscadine (a side project of psych-folk solo artist Jonathan Wilson) do a lackadaisical cover of AC/DC’s “Big Balls”, the inimitable theme song of Balls Mahoney. Rather than attempt to mimic the late great Bon Scott’s voice, a fool’s errand for anyone including Brian Johnson himself, Wilson adopts the bored ennui of a joyless socialite and delivers all the ballroom puns as deadpan as Steven Wright himself. It’s an interesting choice, and in some ways I might even prefer that version. Rob Van Dam’s theme of “Walk” by Pantera gets a much less capable remake, by the Rhode Island band Kilgore. While they get brownie points for naming their band after a Kurt Vonnegut character, they do no justice to the Pantera original. While I certainly grasp that not just anyone can shred like Dimebag, the solo in Kilgore’s version is completely half-assed and lacking any any fretboard pyrotechnics. Even the uneven phrasing that Phil Anselmo deploys in the original is evened out by Kilgore’s frontman. If their intent was to turn one of the all time classic grind anthems into a radio-friendly unit shifter, Kilgore succeeded. Justin Credible wasn’t one of the most beloved ECW workers by any stretch but quite a few people seemed to be enamored with “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck”, by industrial cult-favorites Prong. While Kilgore did “Walk” a disservice by polishing a gritty classic, Australian band Grinspoon actually put their stamp on “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck” by not attempting to imitate Tommy Victor’s grunting vocal style. In its place the clanky industrial of Prong’s original turns into a pop-metal gem.

Speaking of Pantera: before the formation of Damageplan, Dimebag Darrell, Vinnie Paul, and Rex Brown splintered off from Anselmo to form the side project Tres Diablos, featuring Dime on vocals. Their sole recorded work was their reworking of “Heard it On The X” by ZZ Top, representing Francine on this CD. Think the southern-fried version of thrash favored by bands like Alabama Thunderpussy and REO Speeddealer and you’ve got an idea of what these Cowboys From Hell got to do when they let their Texas roots show. It fit them well and it’s a shame that they never recorded any more tunes in that vein before moving on to more butt-metal pastures. Another 90s band goes back even further than ZZ Top, as Monster Magnet covers The MC5’s classic “Kick Out The Jams” for Axl Rotten. Monster Magnet’s syrupy stoner-metal style doesn’t quite jibe with the proto-punk of MC5, but it’s a hard song to get wrong (even Presidents of the United States of America did it well, albeit by changing the lyrics and speeding it up to double time).

One last cover on this album is the standout track: as given to Bam Bam Bigelow, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden fame does a take on The Scorpions’ “The Zoo”. Trent Reznor famously said of Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” “It doesn’t belong to me anymore,” and that’s how I feel about The Scorp’s tale of debauchery and fear at Berlin’s Banhof Zoo. It might have come from a personal place for them, but where it was all cheese metal sheen in the original, Bruce amplifies the bluesy swing in the riff and unleashes the voice, his unparalleled bleacher-reaching howl over the chorus. Klaus Meine has a similarly big voice but when it comes to metal vocals, you DON’T win that arms race with Bruce fucking Dickinson. Without having to compete with the riffage in Maiden, and able to go back to the blues roots that all NWOBHM heavyweights sprung from, Bruce sounds like he’s having unadulterated fun on this track, and it must be heard.

Of course not all the songs on this record are covers. White Zombie’s “El Phantasmo and the Chicken Run Blast-O-Rama (Wine, Women, and Song remix)” was Lance Storm’s theme for years. It originally appeared on their remix album Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds, and if you’re familiar with any of the electronic-influenced remixes of Rob Zombie’s music, you know about where this one stands. It’s still one of the standout tracks from the 90s classic Astrocreep 2000, so it comes off well here. Megadeth chimed in with an instrumental version of their track “Trust” for Jerry Lynn. I actually prefer this instrumental version to the original. While the original has a very different tone, with Dave Mustaine singing about “my body, your body” and just generally trying to sound intimate (and Mustaine trying to be sexy is not a mental image I’m comfortable with AT ALL), the instrumental reveals the guitar track that sounds like a score for an epic battle in a fantasy film.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the bookends to this album, Harry Slash & The Slashtones originals. “This Is Extreme!” is the ECW Theme song any real ECW fan remembers well, and it serves as an intro here much as it did on Hardcore TV. It’s a great atmospheric track but without the images of Tommy Dreamer waffling Raven with a chair and the like it doesn’t have the same effect. Sabu’s “Huka Blues” theme closes out the album. The Arabian vibe, the haunting saxophone, and the monster-plod riff all play together really well, making one of the very scarce original theme songs in ECW their best (I’d take this any day over “Total Elimination”). That even today Bully Ray’s TNA theme sounds like a mashup of his old Dudleyz theme and “Huka Blues” speaks to the lasting influence of Harry Slash’s original.

So there you have it. Twelve songs from ECW during its early days of PPV and expanded TV presence. A few years later, they followed up with the much less interesting Extreme Music Vol. 2: Anarchy Rocks, but that one was mainly filled with drab nu-metal that didn’t correspond with most ECW entrance themes. Not much of ECW’s side merchandise was worth its salt (I’m thinking here of their terrible video games and hideous action figures) but Extreme Music, Vol. 1 tied into the excellent musical tradition that ECW brought to North American wrestling and cemented its place as the only wrestling album worth listening to, in my book.