Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Even if you can’t quite stomach the whole full-on vibe of Led Zeppelin — me, I have to admit to some yawning over the self-reverent mythologizing that can abound whenever one J. Page gets interviewed — you have to admit that “Rock and Roll” is one prime slice of, well, rock’n’roll. Astonishing, even, and one that has me almost believing it all. To be fair, at the time Zeppelin were bigger than huge, bigger than massive, and the sheer impact of side one of IV, on headphones, in a record store in Eastbourne, Sussex, U.K., had this 14-year-old boy smitten. I’d found II too guitarry (!), but this had me on their team immediately. (Side 2 less so, but that’s another story.)
Anyhow, it was in one of these long fawning articles the rock music glossies are so fond of that I discovered the back story of how “Rock and Roll” practically wrote itself in minutes, or at least the melody line. Messing around in the studio, John Bonham suddenly kicked off into an embellished drum intro, “borrowed” from Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’.” Jimmy Page instinctively banging in with the riff that basically is the song. With lyrics come from ye olde school rocke thesaurus, Robert Plant’s keening banshee of a vocal somehow imbues a meaningful basis for it all, whilst John Paul Jones’ subterranean bass underpins the whole thing. And, just when you are thinking it all a bit derivative, a final touch of brilliance: single note piano pounding it into the home stretch, courtesy of sixth Stone Ian Stewart.
It has been covered innumerably, usually carbon copies, and mostly demonstrations of what a poor vehicle for duplication that medium actually was, as most are somewhat smudgy in quality. This can include a number of all-star “spontaneous” sessions, with either the drums or the guitar just not quite right. Or there are those that assume that, just because it’s called rock’n’roll, it’s simple, right? Wrong.
These five go out of their way to reconstruct the song a little. I will go further: the first two actively deconstruct the song, not least as they both come via old-timers, both old-hands at seeing young upstarts coming in and thinking they have the rights to “their” music. No surprise these are my two favorites.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)
This had me reaching for the original and checking out the writing credits (admittedly never a particularly accurate template for this band), so entirely does Jerry Lee Lewis own the song. Had he heard the original? Who knows, but it becomes his, effortlessly, even if you allow for the presence of Jimmy Page himself on guitar. “Rock and Roll” was the opener on 2006’s Last Man Standing (and he’s still standing today, and, surprisingly, only 84), an album that saw Lewis reigniting his career with one of those cameo-studded recordings, playing a mix of r’n’r standards and newer stuff associated with his guests, including Page, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger. I love the way Lewis ad-libs the lyric, adding references aplenty (all, of course, to himself). Best one? The throwaway, almost off-mike “You remember me, don’cha” at the end.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)
So, if Jerry Lee provided the rockabilly, here now is Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown with a version evoking the early ’50s roots of rock and roll, big band style, elements of R’n (especially)B to the fore. Less explosive than Lewis, the preface of a brass interlude at the beginning seems to provide a gospel infusion, the church and hellfire always on opposite shoulders of both early bluesmen and country rockers. Brown was both and all these things, adept on any number of instruments, equally at home fiddling a Texas hoedown as hollering a Louisiana blues. His name came from schooldays, a teacher likening his voice to a gate, something that never held him back, appearing on a string of records from 1949 until 2004, when he died. This selection comes from a small series of This Ain’t No Tribute records, the others in the series devoted to Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones. Brown also appears on an equivalent set, Johnny’s Blues, devoted to the songs of Johnny Cash.
Suzie Vinnick – Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)
Is this what you call old-timey? Possibly, but I like the twist on the lyric, in which all seems reminiscence, carried along by anything but rock or roll. A little bit of swing perhaps, with mandolin, string bass and a background swirl of fairground organ to cushion the lazy (but in a good way) vocal. About Vinnick I know not a lot, what with her hiding under the stone of being Big in Canada, a six-time winner of the Maple Blues Award for best female singer.
Ana Cañas – Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)
I’ll be honest. Sometimes I like this and sometimes, um, less. Undoubtedly a little annoying vocally, a little reminiscent of the worse excesses of Sheryl Crow, but then the backing grabs me again, the bassline and, if you can bear it, hang on in until the guitar at about 2:10. This comes from her 2012 album, Volta, unusually being sung in English, as she normally sings in the Portuguese of her Sao Paulo home.
Iron Horse – Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)
So, now the bluegrass version. (Don’t go, really, please.) This is one of the best, assuming always, that is, you have a tolerance for this mountain music. I have, in bucketloads, and compared to, say, the 2D of Hayseed Dixie, Iron Horse is the real deal. I think that a rousing bluegrass band can be every bit as uplifting as a stadium rock band at the top of their game. That may put me in a minority, but get enough moonshine down you and you’ll see my point. Plus, if you listen to the phrasing of the vocal, just half a beat away from the rhythm of the banjo/mandolin frontline, you can tell they know and love the source material. This comes from their personal Led Zep tribute, Whole Lotta Bluegrass, in 2005. It is probably unsurprising they are also part of the stable of artists used for the Pickin’ On series of instrumental bluegrass albums, tackling everyone from Modest Mouse (which they were solely responsible for) to Wilco, via all the usual culprits, U2, Rolling Stones, and, inevitably, two volumes of Zeppelin.
Dread Zeppelin – Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)
Sneaky 6th cover, by public demand. OK, my wife wanted it. Yup, we’ve all heard of Dread Zeppelin, a reggae LZ tribute band with an Elvis impersonator at the helm. But are they any good? I will leave you to be the judge of that, but they’re certainly different. I confess I always thought them a British phenomenon, learning for this piece they are from the U.S. They seem to play in the U.K. a fair bit, and in tiny venues, at that, performing even at my local Rugby Club recently. None of this I can confirm from their wide and varied web presence, making me wonder if, like Bjorn Again, they are a franchise. Still, Robert Plant is on record suggesting they are his favourite LZ covers band.