Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Today we conclude our series of posts about The Yardbirds.
“But wait!” you exclaim. “The headline says ‘Led Zeppelin‘. Aren’t we talking about the folk-rock ballad that originally appeared in 1970 on the softer acoustic second side of Led Zeppelin III?”
Indeed we are, and “Tangerine” has been mentioned once or twice before on these pages. But a recent re-release, widely anticipated by fans of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, The Yardbirds, has re-opened the discussion about the songs’ origins. Is “Tangerine” really a Led Zeppelin song?
When it comes to songwriting credits, things aren’t always cut and dried with Jimmy Page. As it were, this particular instance follows suit. Around the time of last year’s “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarism lawsuit – won by Led Zeppelin – Rolling Stone cited 10 other Zep tunes with cloudy origins. The article mentioned “Dazed And Confused” – a song with ties to Page’s stint in The Yardbirds – but made no mention of “Tangerine” a song sharing similar ties. Both songs were the only two non-instrumental Led Zeppelin tracks to carry a songwriting credit attributed solely to Jimmy Page. The writing credit on “Dazed” was later amended in 2012 (singer-songwriter Jake Holmes was added as Page’s inspiration), but a cloud continues to hang over “Tangerine.”
Why the fuss? Cover Me readers might be interested in some of the forensics. Two years prior to the release of Led Zeppelin III, The Yardbirds, with Page as a member, recorded a demo for a song titled “Knowing That I’m Losing You” which was never officially released. Thirty-two years later, “Knowing” was scheduled to be included on The Yardbirds’ 2000 album Cumular Limit with other live and unreleased material, but the track was pulled. Seventeen years after that, Page, as producer, included an authorized re-mastered instrumental version, with the modified title “Knowing That I’m Losing You (Tangerine)” on the new Yardbirds ’68 compilation.
Musically, “the song remains (nearly) the same” and clearly became the basis for the “Tangerine” we know. The acoustic, 12-string, pedal steel guitars and even the lead guitar break came over with Page to Led Zeppelin. Page did add a musical device known as a false start during the recording of “Tangerine” and included John Paul Jones’ mandolin to enhance the acoustic/country feel.
But the source of disagreement has been over the lyrics. Both songs about lost love share one short verse in what is essentially a three-verse song:
“Knowing’s” second verse sung by Keith Relf…
“Measuring a summer’s day
You’ll only find it slips away to grey
The hours will bring you pain”
… evolved into “Tangerine’s” first verse sung by Robert Plant…
“Measuring a summer’s day
I only find it slips away to grey
The hours, they bring me pain”
The remaining lyrics differ in both songs. By releasing the Yardbirds ‘68 track now, without vocals, Page accomplishes two things: He and the surviving Yardbirds are finally able to profit from a song that would shortly have entered the public domain, fifty years after its composition; and second, he likely avoided further issues with the estate of deceased Yardbirds’ singer Keith Relf, who has challenged Page’s claim of being the sole songwriter in the court of public opinion. However, with no existing copyright on “Knowing That I’m Losing You” a legal battle at this point is unlikely.
Was it as simple as this: Page wrote the music and lyrics for “Knowing” as a Yardbird then brought the song to Led Zeppelin with mostly new lyrics as “Tangerine?” Or, did Relf contribute to the lyrics while Page was a Yardbird? Or did Relf write all of “Knowings” lyrics, and Page brought a verse to Led Zeppelin from a song that was never copyrighted by The Yardbirds?
Only the band members know for sure, and even among those surviving (Relf passed away in 1976) there are different points of view. Page is on the record saying he wrote the Yardbirds version of the song. However in a scathing 2001 article for Perfect Sound Forever’s online magazine, author Will Shade quoted Yardbird drummer Jim McCarty on the repeated lyrics: “He [Keith Relf] should really be given a credit for that one.”
We’ll leave it to the music forums, business managers, and attorneys to debate and sort out the details. In short, the cloud will remain because people care… and there’s publishing money involved.
Meanwhile, we’ll point Cover Me readers to some great covers of the Zeppelin version…
Big Head Todd and The Monsters – Tangerine (Led Zeppelin cover)
These long-time-running Colorado rockers contributed a full-sounding take to 1995’s terrific Encomium: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin compilation. The no-doubt rock ballad features Todd Park Mohr’s gritty vocals, an arrangement with excellent rhythm guitar work, and well-placed touches of Hawaiian slide guitar throughout. The fuzzed out break before the final verse also stands out before morphing into a bit of country. The band reprised the version three years later on Live Monsters.
Life Of Agony – Tangerine (Led Zeppelin cover)
Part of what’s compelling here is knowing that these veteran alt-metal heads are uncharacteristically showing their tender side. Who knew? The rare track was an additional throw-in during the recording of their third studio album, 1997’s Soul Searching Sun. Bassist Alan Robert recently told Cover Me that the relaxed laid-back vibe the band experienced during the recording, from their playful re-enactment of Page’s false start, to the overall performance, was a result of the main album being finished and the band playing together live in one room of a barn that had been converted to a state-of-the-art recording studio. Robert also shared with us that the 12-string guitar here was played by Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante – a great guitarist in his own right and a huge Zeppelin fan according to Robert. Ironically, LOA didn’t set out to do a cover on purpose. Their own composition titled “Tangerine” (with no connection to Zeppelin’s) was written for the album. For the album’s unplugged bonus tracks, they decided to do a “once and done” Zeppelin cover rather than an acoustic version of their own song.
Rebecca’s Empire – Tangerine (Led Zeppelin cover)
The now-defunct alt-rock band from the land down under nixed the acoustic and steel guitars for this rocked out version on their 1995 Take a Look at Happiness EP. Shane O’Mara adds some Zeppelin influenced keyboards (think “Thank You”) and great guitar work that U2’s The Edge would approve of here. We heard singer Rebecca Barnard’s versatility previously covering a Burt Bacharach classic.
Jeff London – Tangerine (Led Zeppelin cover)
Get past the first verse and you might notice that London’s folk-pop dual vocals, especially on the “a thousand years between” lyric, evoke The Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz. The countryish indie-rock acoustic styling also adds some pedal steel. The simple arrangement slows in some parts and adds a unique break that includes a violin rather than lead guitar. It appeared on 2010’s From the Land of Ice and Snow: The Songs of Led Zeppelin, our second-favorite cover albums that year.
Vitamin Baroque – Tangerine (Led Zeppelin cover)
If Page can include an instrumental version on Yardbirds ’68, then we can certainly close here with one of the many available voice-less covers. The confounding Jethro Tull-like arrangement on 2004’s Chamber Maid: The Baroque Tribute To Led Zeppelin is sparse, but whither the lutes and recorders? AllMusic.com says “bass violin and bassoon wrap their dusty fingers around Jimmy Page’s serpentine licks like a medieval leeching.” We heard the influence of minstrels and “I Am the Walrus” on the track. Novelty, yes, but respectable and fun.
- Dave Matthews and Chris Cornell each with their individual acoustic takes.
- The Thermals “indie-basement” version appeared on our Full Albums: Led Zeppelin III.
- Jenn Blosil & Mimi Knowles, with a jazzy acoustic duet.
- Grass masters upbeat instrumental version featuring some banjo picking and bluegrass fiddle.
- The Classic Rock String Quartet, another instrumental string quartet with solid piano accompaniment.
Other posts in our Yardbirds’ series:
- Full Albums: The Yardbirds’ Greatest Hits
- Five Good Covers: Heart Full of Soul
- Five Good Covers: For Your Love
- In the Spotlight: Graham Gouldman
- Good, Better, Best: Shapes of Things