No Use for a Name was one of the first bands signed to Fat Wreck Chords in the early ‘90s when NOFX’s Fat Mike (neé Mike Burkett) was getting the label up and running. While the band did have some minor mainstream success with the single “Soulmate” in the mid-‘90s, mostly they just plugged along for years, steadily touring and releasing albums. Along the way, No Use went through the usual rotating door of member changes that low-to-mid-level touring bands often face. The most notable was lead guitarist Chris Shifflet’s big step up in 1999 when he left the group to join Foo Fighters, a gig he still holds today. Although Tony Sly wasn’t a part of the band when it first started in the mid-‘80s, once he joined he quickly became its focal point. Sly was No Use’s singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist for two decades, and when he abruptly died in his sleep in 2012 the remaining members understandably shut down the band.
During those two decades, Burkett and Sly struck up a deep and abiding friendship. Tony’s death affected Mike deeply, to the point where he’s written songs about it for NOFX and devoted considerable space to discussing it in the band’s 2016 oral history, The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories. All this backstory may not be necessary to discuss the new No Use for a Name compilation Rarities, vol. 1: The Covers, but it does explain why Fat Wreck Chords is putting out posthumous releases for a band that was never particularly popular, even by the label’s own internal standards.
This compilation assembles every cover No Use for a Name ever recorded that didn’t make it onto one of their albums. The apparent exception here is the Pogues’ Christmas classic “Fairytale of New York”, which appeared on the band’s 1999 album More Betterness!, with Tilt’s Cinder Block singing the Kristy McColl parts. This is an earlier version, though, with Meegan Lair on the female vocals. The album version of this song is a top-notch, exquisitely produced cover that revs up the tempo and guitars while still retaining a lot of the flavor of the original song. The one here is a straight punk take aside from an acoustic guitar intro. Lair is fine but she doesn’t have the power of Block, and the recording is rudimentary, which makes it a bit of a disappointment.
As for the rest of the covers, it’s a mixture of the late ’70s and early ‘80s rock songs and tributes to early punk bands, with a couple of wild cards thrown in. The punk tracks are mostly just fine; No Use has no trouble capturing a similar level of energy, and the music is pretty simple. The best is probably their Misfits cover, “Hybrid Moments”. Sly’s biggest strength was always his singing, and while he can’t quite match Glenn Danzig, he still pulls it off. Their intense Dag Nasty cover “I’ve Heard” shows why Sly often preferred that No Use be called a “melodic hardcore” band instead of “pop-punk.” “1945” is only an okay take on a Social Distortion song, there isn’t much notable about it. D.I.’s “Johnny’s Got a Problem” is recast here as “Selwyn’s Got a Problem”, and it features bassist Matt Riddle on lead vocals, which is kind of fun. Oh, and there’s Sublime’s “Badfish”, which drops the original’s laid-back ska-lite groove in favor of straight-ahead punk.
The offbeat tracks consist of the theme songs to Laverne and Shirley and The Munsters as well as “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”. It’s hard to mess up Laverne and Shirley’s “Making Our Dreams Come True”, and the band does not mess it up. The Munsters, on the other hand, is a swing and a miss. Somehow the band neglects to include the song’s low horn bassline, which is almost as iconic as its guitar melody. Even throwing in a quick quote of “The Addams Family” theme at the end doesn’t make up for that missing bassline. “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” shows the limits of Sly’s singing voice. “A great punk singer” is not the same thing as “can capably perform a famous Broadway show tune.” Meanwhile, the rest of the band performs a rudimentary arrangement of the song that isn’t particularly interesting. Chugging guitars, simple chords, and galloping drums don’t keep the song exciting for four full minutes while Sly is busy not doing a very good job on the vocals.
Which brings us to the rock songs, where Sly and No Use really shine. The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” is easy. Speed up the song, add some drum flourishes, done. Then realize how uncomfortable the lyrics to this early ‘80s song about masturbation are in 2017. Doing Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police”? Nailed it. The band doesn’t mess with the song at all, which is the proper way to cover Cheap Trick. There’s Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”, which is given the standard punk cover treatment. Up the tempo and mostly play the keyboard parts on guitars, although they do use a synth of some sort for the solo. This is one that shows the sturdiness of the original song because it sounds just fine like this. The album closes with KISS’ “Beth”, dropping all of the balladry piano and strings and just rocking out. The song breaks down at the 2:20 mark when the band launches into the riff from No Use’s “Soulmate” and Sly gets faux-confused, making “what’s going on?” noises before getting angry and telling the band, “Stop. No! Fuck you!!” It’s a solid way to end this compilation.
For the No Use for a Name completists out there Covers will be a fun listen. For anyone else, this is not a good introduction to the oft-overlooked band. Because these are rarities, it doesn’t even include the band’s best covers. The album version of “Fairytale of New York”, the ‘80s medley from Leche Con Carne, and the unnecessary but absolutely impassioned take on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” are the tracks to look up. But it is nice that Fat Mike and Fat Wreck Chords are committed to keeping No Use for a Name and Tony Sly alive in a small way with this release and the upcoming non-cover Rarities vol. 2.