Joan Baez and Judas Priest: Diamonds and Rust

Judas Priest added more than a touch of heavy metal to Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust. But listen to the beating heart of Joan’s song: time and the wistful distance of memory, coming through in Rob Halford‘s voice, between the electric guitars and the crashing drum, like a blackbird singing in a deep forest. Respect:

 And what did Joan think? Was she horrified? The opposite:

I love that! … I was so stunned when I first heard it. I thought it was wonderful. It’s very rare for people to cover my songs. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is they’re personal — they don’t have a universal quality to them. And I think maybe it’s because I’ve already sung them, and who wants to compete with that? But it’s always flattering when somebody does.”                                       Joan Baez – Toronto Sun interview

Judas Priest were advised to cover Diamonds and Rust to get radio play in America, back in 1978.  The sharp contrast between Judas and Joan was part of the attraction. More recently, they’ve returned to their own acoustic version of the song. As you listen to Rob talking about Diamonds and Rust and how Judas Priest came to sing it, you can hear respect for the songwriter etched in his voice:

Their original, heavy metal cover worked because of Rob Halford’s expressive voice, because of the musicianship that surrounded him and because Judas Priest carefully washed the song clean of lyrics with distracting personal Joan Baez/Bob Dylan detail. There’s nothing about eyes bluer than robin’s eggs, no legends, Madonnas or unwashed phenomenons for Judas Priest. A telephone call, the full moon and wistful memories. The heart of Diamonds and Rust.

No wonder Joan Baez appreciated their version. They’d turned the personal into a universal. I imagine it’s what you’d want from a cover version if you’d written the original: something new, but something that reminds you why you wanted to write the song in the first place.

When you sing a cover version of a well-known song, you need to respect the original. That’s true. But respect doesn’t involve mimicry.   It involves searching for the heart of the song, the part that you connect with, the thing that makes you want to sing it.

By the way: it seems fitting that the Judas Priest chose their name from the Bob Dylan song The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.

Which version of Diamonds and Rust would you choose for company on a desert island?

© Sing Better English, 2016

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9 thoughts on “Joan Baez and Judas Priest: Diamonds and Rust”

  1. “But respect doesn’t involve mimicry.” Once again you’ve managed to sum up a world of wisdom in just a few words, Elaine. You’ve also introduced me to something I never could have even imagined — Judas Priest covering Joan Baez! Wow. I’ll admit I like Joan’s version better (probably because it’s a familiar favorite). But still … wow. And I especially appreciated your last note at the end. I didn’t know that Judas Priest drew their name from Bob Dylan’s song. But how appropriate is it that Judas Priest should cover a song Joan Baez wrote about Bob Dylan? Talk about six degrees of musical separation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Heather – thanks for that. I’m not sure which version I prefer now. Maybe I prefer them both, if such a thing is possible.

      I had expected to find Judas Priest’s hard rock Diamonds and Rust just a parody of Joan’s (I don’t much like hip-hop samplings like this one by Busdriver where he pitch warps her voice into something Chipmunkish – though maybe it’s a compliment to be sampled 40 years on – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bQNKcEwrYg )

      I remember Judas Priest from my early teenage years, though I don’t remember them releasing Diamonds and Rust over here in the UK. I think the shock of a British heavy metal band coming over to America and having the cheek to transmute Joan Baez into something loud and electric had a special ‘barbaric’ resonance in the USA and guaranteed radio play. I imagine it hitting a cultural nerve in the way the Sex Pistols singing ‘God Save the Queen,’ did over here, to the delight of some and the disgust of many.

      I find Judas Priest interesting too because of the singer’s bravery in coming out, in a time, not so long ago, when that was big news http://huff.to/22TEeyl He says that all the years of hiding his true self led to numbing his pain with drugs and alcohol. I’d say that some of that pain is tangible in the Judas Priest version of Diamonds and Rust – something of the unreachable, the ‘sehnsucht‘ of his life. (I like the word ‘sehnsucht’ – having only just discovered it in my search for an English word that means – ‘nostalgia for something that you’ve never actually been able to experience’ and not finding one (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sehnsucht)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have always loved the original but I liked the cover version too, especially the acoustic one.

        Like

      2. Love it. Actually, I prefer this to the Radiohead version, though I guess it would depend on my mood. It is a lazy Sunday morning and I am drinking my coffee, so this jazz is perfect 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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