Well, that’s one way to start an argument. Many bands have covered Zepplin’s catalogue, both in concert and in the studio, and the idea of identifying a ‘best’ cover is simply asking for trouble. We start from such different places: we all have favourite original songs of Zepplin, and we no doubt admire different approaches to re-making their music.
So why broach this topic? Well, the bigger and better question here is what makes a good cover of a classic rock song? This is a far more interesting topic. But before we move on, can we set some rules or parameters here?
First off, a degree of fidelity to the original is essential. The listener needs to hear the core motifs of the original song, which may involve replicating key elements of the original melody or lyrics. I feel quite strongly about this: the connection needs to be evident and obvious. There is an umbilical chord that which, if broken, detaches the listener from the intentions of the original composer and performers. Put simply, if the original isn’t recognisable in a fairly clear and reasonably consistent way, then why not simply write a different song? (I’ll briefly note that a tendency to ‘borrow’ rather than ‘cover’ got Led Zep themselves into trouble on a number of occasions…)
But, with that connection to the original suitably maintained, here’s where the fun starts! The interpreter needs to take that essence and stretch it, bend it, warp it, transform it. This is my second ‘rule’. A good cover extracts from the core of the original and takes it somewhere else – preferably somewhere that the original artist might never have thought of treading. In short, they need to copulate with the original to produce something new. Producing a good cover is essentially a process of hard and dirty – yet transformative – love making!
So when Santana covers Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love‘ by simply replicating the same song with Carlos playing his own solos over it, this is frankly banal. Sorry, Carlos, you were my first classic rock fetish and I’ll always remember the good times … but you’ve really lost the plot as an inventive musician willing to take risks.
In fact, this is precisely why cover bands are generally dire and should be avoided (or only consumed after significant quantities of alcohol). They almost uniformly consider the cover to be an element of faithful replication rather than as a vehicle for self-expression. But why copy something when the original already exists in all its glory (and I presume we only want to cover good songs)? It reminds me of when I once auditioned as a lead guitarist in a blues-rock band that wanted to cover Cream’s ‘Crossroads’. I played along but, when it came to the ending, I gently tried to push the song in a slightly more interesting direction. I was dutifully informed in my erroneous intentions by the other guitarist who told me “that’s just not the way it goes”. He promptly pulled out his iPod to demonstrate the veracity of his claims, thereby completely missing the point that I couldn’t give a rat’s arse how Clapton played it that night (and likely neither could Eric, who was probably too stoned to tell). Needless to say, the band and I amicably parted ways at the end of that very first evening together!
So, to get back on message, in my opinion a good cover needs to be connected to the original yet transformative of it. Lets put this to the Zeppelin test! What is ‘the best’ Led Zeppelin cover? Well, there’s certainly some classy stuff out there, some interesting stuff, some weird stuff (thanks Frank!), and some real trash. (As an aside, one favourite is when Tori Amos gets down and personal with Whole Lotta Love).
But for me, if I’m looking to highlight the essence of a good cover: try Nguyên Lê and Dhafer Youssef’s version of Black Dog from Nguyên Lê’s album ‘Songs of Freedom’. You can listen to it on Soundcloud right here.
Many of you are probably asking ‘Nguyên who’ and ‘Dhafer What’? So let me digress. Nguyên Lê is an incredible French-Vietnamese guitarist who has worked at the intersection of rock, jazz and Vietnamese folk music(!). Yes, he’s fairly innovative. Likewise, Dhafer Youssef – the ‘Electric Sufi’ – has also been unafraid to break boundaries. An oud player and vocalist, he has put forward his musical talents on some distinctly interesting albums that combine combine elements of North African and Islamic musical traditions with jazz and electronica.
It’s probably fair to say that this is the odd couple when it comes to covering Zeppelin…
Hold on, there’s more. Right off the bat, let me say that while Nguyên Lê is one of my favourite artists, I really don’t like the album this track comes from. The cover of Black Dog works in a way that most other covers on the album summarily fail (e.g. avoid the cover of ‘Redemption Song’ like a pestilence). So, if you are interested in Nguyên, then check out his many infinitely preferable albums including Walking on the Tiger’s Tale, Tales from Vietnam or (my personal favourite) Bakida.
With that out of the way, what are they doing on this track and why is it so damned good a cover? Lets start with the short preface track Ben Zeppelin (not on the soundcloud recording above) with its call to pray at the alter of rock. Here Dhafer’s voice soars ethereally above Nguyen’s effected guitar using quarter note bends that hint at Vietnamese scales as much as the blues influence of the original. Then, out of nowhere, Nguyen rips into that instantly recognizable opening riff accompanied (of course) by a marimba. I know, every Zepplin song deserves a marimba on it. Yes, this is distinctly fusion: there’s ripping classic rock guitar, worldy percussion, that irrepressible marimba, and Dhafer wailing (quite literally) the melody to the song without bothering to articulate lyrics… nor does he need to. It works perfectly. This is Led Zep like you never dreamed.
Then, at 2m11, Nguyen rips into a blazing, blistering solo that would grace any hard rock tune in its pyrotechnics, before the marimba edges back in closely followed by Dhafer in scream-singing mode. Admittedly, he sounds a bit like he’s in serious pain. I mean this in a good way, because I’ve often thought the same about Robert Plant. From this climax, the song calms yet it remains edgy. The smooth marimba is jostled by the harsh guitar riffing that edges in and out, and you just know that Dhafer is waiting to get back into things once the main riff returns as the song drives towards its second climax…
Quite honestly, I imagine many people will likely hate this cover every bit as much as I love it. My attraction to it is precisely because it transforms the original: it draws approvingly on that classic riff and the main melody, yet it takes us places that Page and Plant would never have imagined (and yet surely would approve!). And it does so with stunning musicianship.
Isn’t that exactly what a good cover is meant to do?
Of course, that’s my take and I don’t expect others to agree. The questions remain: what makes a good cover? Where is the threshold between faithfulness to the original and a transformation? And who really did do ‘the best’ Led Zeppelin cover?