Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
The Yardbirds’ write-up in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame begins with an immediate reminder that the group started off as a blues cover band. Little did Keith Relf, Jim McCarty, Paul Samwell-Smith, and (probably) Jeff Beck know when they wrote their first band-written, non-cover hit in 1966, “Shapes of Things” would eventually be included in the Hall’s permanent exhibit of “Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” Much has been written about its recording, composition, arrangement, and socially conscious lyrics. (A check of Wikipedia or SongFacts will suffice.) Cover Me readers might enjoy hearing the jazz bass line from Dave Brubeck’s “Pick Up Sticks” that influenced Samwell-Smith. Legions of rock guitarists have paid their respects to Jeff Beck’s groundbreaking, feedback-laden lead guitar work on the song. Like The Godfather film, the ingredients combined to become a commercially popular and artistically appealing hit; the song reached #11 in the US, #7 in Canada, and #3 in the UK.
When we looked at over 40 verified covers of the song, we could see they pretty much fell into three categories: versions by the original members of the band (“All In The Family”); versions by numerous guitar gods (“The Shredders”); and other rock versions that don’t fit in either of the two previous categories (“Rock of Ages”). So for this special edition of Good, Better, Best, we’ll take a look at the top three for each category…
I. All In The Family
Jeff Beck & Steven Tyler’s version is good.
Jimmy Page & The Black Crowes version is better.
The Jeff Beck Group’s version is best.
Jeff Beck, Steven Tyler – Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds cover)
Beck celebrated 50 years in the business by bringing together several all-stars, including Aerosmith’s Tyler, in the summer of 2016 for a special concert at LA’s Hollywood Bowl. The subsequent DVD/Blu-Ray/CD was released only a few weeks ago, on October 13th. This slowed-down, bluesy, heavy tonnage version was performed near the end of the set and featured Tyler at his shrieking best, reaching back like a veteran pitcher to fire one more blazing fastball.
Jimmy Page & The Black Crowes – Shapes of Things to Come (The Yardbirds cover)
Page, last of the ‘60s trio of legendary Yardbirds’ lead guitarists, knows the song well. That’s him playing on this month’s release of Yardbirds ’68, from a re-mixed live performance at New York’s Anderson Theater. The Black Crowes version, also recorded live, was the result of two shows Page did with the band at LA’s Greek Theater in October 1999. The subsequent gold-selling Live at the Greek double album features the band playing Led Zeppelin and R&B classics. Page’s trademark heavy guitar blends well here with the Crowes’ style of R&B. The organ, piano, and Chris Robinson’s slightly strained but soulful vocals build throughout the song. Page takes the second guitar break and powers through the crescendo and finale. The sound mix, while serviceable, makes you wonder how awesome a well-produced studio version of this would have been.
Jeff Beck Group – Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds cover)
Beck stepped away from the Yardbirds in late ’66 to embark on his solo career. For his first full album, 1968’s best-selling Truth, he enlisted Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on rhythm and bass guitar to form the Jeff Beck Group. Beck slowed the original’s pace down, and with Stewart’s sandpaper vocals at their peak, they made the bluesy psychedelic hard rock arrangement “dirty and evil.” The instrumental break includes some weird effects; note the emphasis on the repeating final chords to end the track. This version served as a blueprint for most of the hard rock covers that followed over the ensuing decades, thus cementing its legacy and status as “Best” in the category.
Other Noteworthy “Family”: The 2003 iteration of The Yardbirds included this version on Birdland. Rock and metal guitar virtuoso Steve Vai joined original members Jim McCarty and Chris Dreja to supply a searing lead break to what was an otherwise faithful recreation of the original.
II. The Shredders
House of Shakira’s version is good.
Gary Moore’s version is better.
Richie Kotzen’s version is best.
House of Shakira – Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds cover)
These veteran Swedish rockers contributed their version to a 2005 tribute album for legendary guitarist Gary Moore. The arrangement is familiar but adds a rock anthem feel with the stadium-chanting “Come tomorrow” lyric followed by a kick into overdrive with the blistering guitars of Mats Hallstensson and Anders Lundström.
Gary Moore – Shapes of Things To Come (The Yardbirds cover)
Moore was most likely responsible for the trend of guitar gods using Beck’s Truth version as a means to showcase their shredding skills. The gone-too-soon Irish rocker included the track on 1983’s Victims of the Future. The dazzling lightning-fast solo is mind-numbing, and he admirably pushes his strong vocals to their limit. The following year, Moore also released a nearly-nine-minute-long live version that included an extended monster solo.
Richie Kotzen – Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds cover)
Kotzen, an October 2017 inductee to the Rock Godz Hall of Fame (yes, this exists), separates himself from the other shredders right from the opening notes. His quick warm-up riff gives no indication of what song we’re about to hear, let alone cover, but it does tip off what’s to come during the instrumental break. The first verses are powerfully played and sung but then come to a hard stop around the time of the original version’s ending… only to kick back in with a solo that would make Jimi Hendrix or Robin Trower proud. The hard rocking bluesy track from 2004’s Get Up was a bonus added only to the album’s Japanese release. The prolific Kotzen was a former member of Poison, is a current member of the Winery Dogs (now on hiatus) and a veteran of various other group and solo projects.
Other Noteworthy “Shredders”:
- Schenker-Pattison Summit’s 2004 version based on Beck’s Truth, features Michael Schenker (ex-Scorpions, ex-UFO).
- The Jeff Healy Band’s ripping instrumental version.
- Barbie Almalbis, Filipina guitarist with a slow rocking instrumental, not full blown shredding but you’ll give her props.
- Stevie Salas, on the Guitar Shredding Heroes album, say no more.
- Lizzie Moore, Berlin-based hot & heavy hard rockers.
- klaasverhoeven, an other-worldly instrumental take on Gary Moore’s version.
III. Rock of Ages:
Rush’s version is good.
Lucy Woodward’s version is better.
Black Stone Cherry’s version is best.
Rush – Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds cover)
The clarity of Geddy Lee’s vocals here helps make this version shine. It’s arranged and produced as a psychedelic rocker without being overdone. The sound is crisp, yet true to the original, with just the right amount of special effects. It’s their second Yardbirds’ tune on 2004’s Feedback.
Lucy Woodward – Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds cover)
How could virtual unknown Lucy Woodward be better than Rush? Here’s how we’d make the case: Add Woodward’s vibrant vocals, with great rhythm guitar work, some trippy special effects, and an arrangement that nods to the Pretenders “Message of Love.” With a 2:20 running time, there are no wasted notes here and the song ends with a cold hard stop. The 2016 track is included on the indie covers release, Guilt by Association 4.
Black Stone Cherry – Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds cover)
The 2006 self-titled debut album includes a frantic, hard-driving, slickly produced arrangement. The Kentucky hard rockers put a fresh and unique stamp on it with pounding drums, great vocals from Chris Robertson, and loud guitars (Robertson and Ben Wells.) A modern straight up rock & roll take on the song just doesn’t get any better than this.
David Bowie – Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds cover)
We recently caught up with Yardbirds founding member/drummer Jim McCarty, wrapping up a short tour with the 2017 iteration of the band (check out this short clip of them playing “Shapes” here last month), who told us that Bowie’s version is his personal favorite cover of the song he co-wrote. Bowie included the track on his own covers album, 1973’s Pin Ups. In the heart of his Ziggy Stardust phase, this version pulls in the quirkiness, saxes, and space-age effects of that ’72-’74 era.
Other Noteworthy Rockers:
- The Chris Stamey Experience with Yo La Tenga’s version was in our review of The Yardbirds’ Greatest Hits.
- Scorpions included a version on the Japanese edition of 2011’s Comeblack.
- The Tone Stonies, kind of grungy and weirdly interesting.
- Tim Barnes & The Five Grand Band, R&B rock with good slide guitar.
Other Noteworthy Non-Rock Instrumentals:
- Jazz Breakers, moving and grooving.
- Dixie Dregs, a prog-country version with great guitar.
- Strange Jazz Universe, a jazz jam with good sax.