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