To Be a Rock, And Not to Roll

Under what circumstances can a cover of a song exceed the original?

On December 2, 2012, Led Zeppelin received a tribute during the 35th annual Kennedy Center Honors. The closest thing that the American executive has to the Queen’s “command performance,” the Kennedy Center Honors are meant to recognize and celebrate artists who have made “significant contributions to American culture through the performing arts.” As with every year, the musical inductees are honored with live performances by artists who are kept secret up to the night of the event. In December, Led Zeppelin was treated to a rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” by rock legend Heart.

(Apologies to only getting to this six months later, but I didn’t see the show at the time, and only became aware when the video made the rounds on Facebook a few weeks ago)

Watching this, I made a few observations:

(1) This is a rocking cover of “Stairway.”

(2) It takes wicked cojones to cover a band’s most famous song with that band in the audience. This is an obstacle every performer at the Kennedy Center faces – Dave Grohl and Norah Jones covered “BabyMaybe I’m Amazed” for McCartney’s tribute – but seems particularly accentuated when the song is “Stairway” and the band is Zep.

(3) How often does a band get to cover “Stairway” in front of a live audience?

Among rock guitarists, “Stairway” is almost a victim of its own monumentality, like the corpses and discarded air tanks littering Everest. Everyone who picked up a Gibson because of the hard rock of the Seventies has wanted to learn “Stairway.” Many have learned it. But when they stepped from the confines of their suburban bedroom to the rest of the world, they realized that they were, in fact, one shredder out of many, not a blessed visionary with a unique gift. No one’s jonesing to hear your take on “Stairway,” dude. Just chill.

To put it another way: you and your friends might have watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail so many times that you can recite the film from memory. But no one would pay money to see you and your friends recreate the movie onstage. Even if you were letter-perfect and could recreate every accent and every comic beat, it wouldn’t matter. Why? Because every fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail can recite the film from memory. All of them. You hardly need to watch the movie anymore; just go to an anime convention, reference a shrub, and let the quotes roll over you. “Stairway” is in a similar place in the rock canon.

(In fact, really the only time you could get away with it was a few years after the song came out, as Heart apparently did before becoming Heart)

But to be a rock (guitarist) and not to roll (with one of the best rock songs ever written) is heartbreaking. Rock music is about several things – blending rhythm and blues riffs with gospel and hillbilly vocals; skirting as close to the line of sexual innuendo as blue laws will allow; drugs – but high on the list is exhibitionism. Rock vocals are higher and louder than they need to be, rock guitar riffs more complex, because they give artists the opportunity to show off. Most artists get into rock because they want to show off their virtuosity. To have a really good cover of “Stairway” and to not be able to show it off because no one’s interested must eat people up inside.

Here, then, was a perfect opportunity for Ann and Nancy: the one place in almost forty years where you could cover “Stairway” and expect enthusiastic applause.

But it wasn’t just an opportunity – it must have also been an incredible challenge. Merely recording a good song is hard enough. Recording a song as awesome as “Stairway” is a legendary feat. Performing it live is a technically and emotionally demanding marathon. But add to that the weight of forty years of expectation – forty years of hearing it on every classic rock radio station, listening to your college roommates and cousins and high school boyfriends cover it – and there’s a whole added dimension of difficulty.

To merely see Zeppelin perform “Stairway” would be amazing enough. But any other band covering it must grapple with the weight of a skeptical audience: how can their version stack up against the masters? It would be like a painter saying, “My next work will be called ‘Guernica 2013′” – we’re rooting against her before she even picks up the brush.

To take a more accessible example ...

To take a more accessible example …

Given all that, and given the hurdles mentioned above – Led Zeppelin and President Barack Obama both being in the audience – isn’t it all the more impressive that this cover rocked as hard as it did? That it was not just a faithful reproduction of a song every rock fan has memorized, but was at the same time distinctly Heart’s own? Is it possible that this was a cover that, solely by virtue of its time and place in the historico-musical continuum, exceeded the original?

When Page and Plant first started jotting down the bits that would become “Stairway” at their remote Welsh cottage of Bron-Yr-Aur in 1970, they didn’t have to deal with four decades of anthemic weight. They were just writing a particularly powerful song. By virtue of its untouchable popularity, the song now has a grand temporal dimension as well. One can not address it without addressing its status in the canon.

To use one more analogy for the mods in the audience: it’s the difference between running a fast race and breaking a long-standing record. Running requires speed, endurance, coordination, good coaches, and good equipment. Breaking a record that’s stood for fifteen years – as Calvin Smith did in July 1983, beating Jim Hines’ time on the men’s 100 meters – requires all of the above plus a peculiar willpower. One must be motivated to push oneself past conventional limits of performance, and yet not so caught up in the record that one gets psyched out.

Cover bands and cover performances don’t get quite the same respect as original artists do, as Chuck Klosterman has ably documented. But I submit that there are rare circumstances where a particularly good cover performance, to a particular audience, can not only equal the merits of the original work, they can transcend it. They arrive onstage with the momentum of forty years of critical consideration behind them, and they impact with megatons of kinetic force. “Stairway” is such a song, the Kennedy Center is such a venue, and Heart, I would argue, is such a band.


P.S.: I don’t mean to imply that this is the only circumstance under which a cover of a song can exceed the original; vide Johnny; vide Aretha; vide Jimi. But this is a circumstance that I haven’t seen get much attention before, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to speculate.

10 Comments on “To Be a Rock, And Not to Roll”

  1. Dimwit #

    I would disagree. It’s just the fact that the vast majority of covers, suck. It doesn’t need to be an anthemic song, but a good song is mandatory. The key is it has to be *different* from the original. You gotta bring something to the party.

    The best covers are reinterpretations of what was a good song. Dave Grohl, Gary Jules, The Bare Naked Ladies, REM, Elton John, Manfred Mann, of course Jimi, the list is larger than you might think of artists who have done very good covers, in some cases you might not even know that it IS a cover, they brought enough to the table that that has become he definitive version.


    • Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

      Underthinking It: This cover was HOT. Not all that different from the original, but it made my day nonetheless. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, John.


  2. Joel #

    (3) How often does a band get to cover “Stairway” in front of a live audience?

    Um, as often as it wants? If I saw a band live, I can’t imagine I’d react to a well-done “Stairway” cover much differently than I’d react to any other Zeppelin cover.


  3. JHaas #

    You saw the opportunity to write about how awesome HEART is, and you took the shot. Respect, playa. (Seriously, that was exceptional.)


  4. Sean McCarthy #

    Nice work, John. I think in this instance the moment was huge and Heart was up for the moment, thus the performance was as epic as it should have been. In general, I like covers from professional bands that are of the “I can’t believe they’re gonna play this right now” variety. Speaking of Zeppelin, my wife dragged me to a Train show a few years back. It was their usual pop/rock stuff but then mid-show it was just the guitarist with an acoustic and Pat Monahan, the lead singer. As soon as the guitar started I knew it was Going to California and then I’m waiting for the “Seems that the wrath of the Gods” part. The guy killed it. I bet 75% of the audience had no idea what the song was but that made it even cooler. Still don’t dig their stuff but tons of respect for those guys.


    • Andy #

      I’ve listened to interviews with the members of Train, and I recall they were originally a much harder band but went with mellow pop since it’s brought them crazy success. They’re certainly open to artistic criticism, but it must be hard to turn up one’s nose at what I assume are dump trucks full of money.

      (They are also instrumental in my favorite punch line from Up All Night, so I can’t hate them too much.)


  5. Cushman #

    There was an episode of Sound Opinions (Chicago Public Radio) a number of years ago wherein guest Jon Brion* spoke about the distinction between songs and performance pieces, which has changed the way I look at/listen to music.^ Specifically, Brion cites Led Zeppelin records as the ultimate performance pieces, and you know this because it is so rare to hear an enjoyable cover of a Led Zep song — it’s about specific people in a specific room producing a specific set of sounds that are blended together in a specific way that makes the performance what it is. Under that framework, there would necessarily need to be extraordinary circumstances for a cover of a Led Zeppelin song to work because the cover performance has to approach or exceed the original, whereas a good rendition of a great song can make a great cover.

    *(producer: Kanye, Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, others; composer: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch Drunk Love, others; solo artist: Meaningless [one of my top 10 fav. albums of all time. ALL TIME.])

    ^ The segment with Brion begins at approx. 20:13 and goes to 53:00, but the clip in question is about 34:17-39:50.


  6. James #

    “But to be a rock (guitarist) and not to roll (with one of the best rock songs ever written) is heartbreaking.”

    With a capital H.


  7. Gab #

    This comment is entirely opinion-based, so I’m not really trying to tell anyone I’m right, and I don’t really think “right” is the way to put it, anyway. In fact, I’m sure most people would disagree with me here on this, but whatever.

    I’ve watched the Kennedy Center Honors show every year for… a long time. Heart’s rendition of “Stairway” is, indeed, the most epic and powerful I’ve seen thus far.

    But I’ll admit, I may bee biased, because I’m that snob that loves Zep but hates Plant’s voice when he’s trying to sing like he does at the beginning of “Stairway”- I like it when he’s doing the sort of shouting-to-a-tune thing because he 1) hits the notes better, and 2) it’s not meant to sound pretty in the first place, to it works better for me. So since there’s so much… crooning, to put it gently (for me) in “Stairway,” I don’t like listening to it normally. The last line he sings just makes me cringe. Ugh.

    Enter Heart- Anne Wilson is a better singer than Plant, and Nancy has always been a badass with her guitar. And yeah, they had that choir and the orchestra in the background, giving it somewhat of an added epicosity that helped surpass the original, too. I’d listen to this version on repeat.

    Now, the feminist in me thinks this is great. I haven’t heard anyone say they think the cover was bad, and even putting aside my dislike of the original, I understand and entirely accept the original’s iconic, hands-off nature- so the fact that anyone would perform an acceptable cover, let alone a group of women, we have something pretty interesting and ground-breaking. I don’t think anyone would dare say Heart can’t rock, but they’re women in a man’s industry, and they’ve talked plenty about how that’s constantly caused problems- for them, and for fellow women rockers. And what’s more, Anne and Nancy were on the stage rockin’ it, and the choir backing them up was an all-woman choir. I guess, to just shut up before I make someone really mad, I’d say they’re doing what they’ve done best, here- exceeding expectations as not only rockers, but as women, and carving the path for future women to rock out to great success, too.

    End rant.


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