As the puzzles went, it was pretty hard to beat: a band of Italo-Glaswegians landing their biggest hit with a remake of a song originally made famous by an American funk band with a frontman carrying a cod. You couldn’t have invented it.
But don’t run away with the idea that Gun’s unlikely version of Cameo’s 1986 Top 5 hit word up was a novelty launching pad for their own careers. At the time the band recorded it as part of the appropriately titled 1994 album bluster they already had two other albums (1989 Conquer the worldand Gallus from 1992) to their name, plus no less than eight self-penned Top 75 singles. The idea of adding rock guitars to word up actually started out as a bit of fun.
“Even though Gun loved bands like AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and UFO, [vocalist] Mark Rankin and I also enjoyed the dance music,” begins guitarist Giuliano ‘Jools’ Gizzi. “Because it was such a big hit for Cameo, it had been all over the radio. But in a dance club, it just sounded amazing.
Just for fun, the band – then completed by bassist Dante Gizzi and drummer Mark Kerr (brother of Simple Minds’ Jim) – came up with their own rehearsal room layout.
“When I accented those guitar chords, I joked, [producer] Chris Sheldon that it sounded like Metallica, and we tried to make it sound like those guys who played it. It started out as a good laugh, but we ended up making the song our own. And as the single off the album, it really did the trick for us.
Jools says Rankin had no problem with lyrics that used dancefloor patois to dispel thinking Sucker DJs [they’re] fly’.
“Mark was into really heavy rap music – like all of us were,” the guitarist recalled. “We were also fans of Prince and Parliament, so the fact that the words were a bit unusual didn’t even stick with us. Everywhere we went, fans were yelling at us, so they had no problem with that either.
Supported by a simple partially black-and-white promo, the single climbed to No. 8 in the UK. The group also received a gong at the MTV Awards in Berlin in 1994 for Best Cover Version of the Year.
“From there, it snowballed. All the rooms sold out,” recalls Joolz. “It just shows how one song can change everything. If I had written it, I would now tell you about Miami or something like that.
Years later, Pamela Anderson, then Mrs. Tommy Lee, would strip naked for Gun’s version of word up in the 1996 movie Barbed wire.
“Yes,” agrees Jools enthusiastically. “I once met Pamela in a hotel and she told me how much she liked the song. She seemed like a really cool girl.
Nobody from Gun has ever met Larry Blackmon, the writer and lead singer of the original version of Cameo, although he did send word of approval.
Unfortunately, Gun began to misfire after another, disappointing album in 1997. 0141 632 6326. Looking back, they partly blame Andrew Farriss (INXS keyboardist) for the record’s lackluster production.
“It is still a painful subject to discuss. The demos were much better,” sighs Joolz. “But part of it was our fault. We were trying to cross paths and make a pop-rock album, our equivalent of [INXS’s] Listen like thieves. In the end, it didn’t work. »
Although 0141 632 6326 dealt the fatal blow, the success of word up also played its part in the group’s downfall. “The fans didn’t know if we were a pop band or a rock band – sometimes neither were we,” suggests Jools, who in addition to keeping a hand musically, writing for other artists and through a group called El Presidente, has also invested in Gizzi’s, the family-run Italian restaurant in Glasgow.
In 2008, Gun surprised fans by reuniting after a 14-year absence, performing half a dozen songs at a charity concert in Glasgow in aid of Nordoff Robbins. Although former Little Angels singer Toby Jepson was in place of Mark Rankin, original drummer Alan Thornton returned to the Gun line-up, and word up was part of the whole.
“I’m playing it again for the first time after so long…”, recalls Joolz. “Jesus, the hairs on the back of my neck have stood up. What an explosion!”
The original version of this feature first appeared in Classic Rock 127, November 2008.