One of the avenues we’ve worked on for both blog posts and our own entertainment has been covering songs written and recorded by other artists. We’ve labeled our endeavors ‘Messin’ With The Music’ although we were doing some cover songs long before we decided on that current format. We’ve already recorded over twenty songs in the series and are constantly discussing and working on more. One of the reasons we’ve worked on covers was to keep up our recording and playing chops. When you’re interpreting a piece of music that is already written, it allows more time to work on recording and arrangement techniques. You don’t have to work out chords and lyrics or worry if the song is ‘good’. We obviously pick songs we already like and think we can do something different with. I don’t really want to do a cover song and try to closely match the original recording. It feels like it would become a watered down version of something that I really like. What fun is that? When I was younger there was a big market for live cover bands. There were a lot of clubs that booked cover bands and if you were one of the better known bands you could make decent money doing it. When I was in college I made extra money playing in a wedding band. Most of those gigs are now handled by DJs or recorded music although there are still places where you can see cover bands live. The bigger trend tends to be in ‘tribute’ bands that take on the works of one specific band and try to match the sound and sometimes even the look and performance as closely as possible. I guess that’s fun for a lot of people that never had an opportunity to see the original band live, but I’m more interested when I hear someone reinterpret a song adding their own personality and flavor to it.
‘Covering’ songs has been around a long time. In popular music (where the term ‘pop’ music started – now ‘pop’ is used more to denote style than the fact that it is popular) songs were not always written by the bands who recorded them. There were song writers and there were recording artists. Some well known recording artists never wrote their own songs. That still exists today although I think that when most people hear a song, they think the artist doing the recording actually wrote it. If you look at the songs copyright, you may see a large number of people who wrote the tune as well as multiple people listed as ‘producer’. The ‘producers’ usually have decided on the instrumentation used as well as the song’s structure and sequencing. Think of a legacy rock band like Three Dog Night. They had three songs that were number one hits. All of them were written by different songwriters: ‘One’ was written by Harry Nilsson; ‘Mama Told Me (Not To Come)’ was written by Randy Newman; ‘Joy To The World’ was written by Hoyt Axton. Some of their other well known songs: ‘Old Fashioned Love Song’ was written by Paul Williams; ‘Celebrate’ was written by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon; ‘Eli’s Comin’ was written by Laura Nyro. The songwriter versus recording artist split was probably greater in the early days of radio music, especially when you’re discussing songs that became ‘hits’. Even Jimi Hendrix had hit singles written by other songwriters. ‘Hey Joe’ was written by Billy Roberts. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is a Bob Dylan song. These days most bands in the ‘rock’ genre (we won’t open the ‘genre’ and ‘sub genre’ can of worms in this post) tend to write their own songs. If you look at pop chart hits you’ll probably still find a lot of well known performers who do songs written by or with other people.
With that background in mind the impetus for this post was some songs I came across while scrolling through the internet. Led Zeppelin has remained one of my favorite all time bands. I still listen to their albums frequently and love the variety of songs they put out that don’t always fit neatly in to the ‘rock’ stereotype. Robert Plant has recently done another collaboration album with Alison Krauss who is a remarkable talent and has put out great material in a variety of styles but is most known for country and bluegrass. They have been out on tour and decided to bring in songs from the Led Zeppelin catalogue for their live shows. To do this they’ve reworked the original versions of the songs. First, to fit the songs in to the style they do as musical collaborators. Second, Plant’s vocal range has changed since his Led Zeppelin days, so they had to take that in to consideration. Let’s start out with something with a pretty big change of style. ‘Rock And Roll’ is a hard rock guitar classic. Plant and Krauss have reworked it with a wonderful bluegrass country sound. There’s pull back on the tempo. Replace some of the guitar leads with fiddle. The biggest difference for me is the change from 4/4 rock pile driver to country swing. This is my idea of fun. If you’re going to cover your own songs, let’s really give it a twist. I’m going to put up the cover version first, then the original for comparison.
The next song we’re looking at is ‘When The Levee Breaks’. This song is not actually a Led Zeppelin original. It was written in the 1920’s by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Led Zeppelin reworked it for their fourth album and that is probably the version most people are familiar with. John Bonham’s drumming and the recorded drum sound really set it apart and it’s a sound people have been trying to duplicate since then. You can find entire articles dedicated to how the drum sound was achieved. The live version by Krauss and Plant really creates a ‘graveyard at night’ sound with the softer percussion but especially the haunting fiddle parts. Those changes and the more restrained vocal lines give the song an entirely different feel.
The final song we’re going to look at is ‘The Battle Of Evermore’. This song has the least amount of change from the Led Zeppelin version to the live version by Krauss and Plant. The reason for this is the original song was based primarily on a mandolin part. That sound crosses over pretty directly to what Krauss and Plant are doing. The song is also very spare in it’s instrumentation. You could add more instruments to the live version, but it would probably destroy the feel of this vocal-centric song. Another similarity is that the original version was recorded with Sandy Denny from the band Fairport Convention doing the call and response vocals with Robert Plant. I believe this is the only song Zeppelin recorded with a vocalist other than Plant. Krauss takes over the Sandy Denny parts in this live version. They have pulled back the tempo a bit for the live version. Sometimes a tempo change by itself can make a difference in the feel of a song.