How to Cover Stairway to Heaven, or any wildly famous song

“After all the years of hearing the song misinterpreted and played backwards and all of that nonsense, I never thought someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘And by the way, that was a lovely piece – and to prove it here’s another way of looking at it.”                                                               Robert Plant

“Another way of looking at it” is the perfect definition of a cover version worth singing/hearing. You have to add something to the original. To make it your own. Otherwise, why bother singing somebody else’s song?

Before you add something new, you need to reassure listeners that you appreciate the original. Introduce the song properly. Why, if you’re singing a cover version? Because, even if your listeners hate the original, they’ll have the original as the ‘proper’ version in their heads. Watch Dave Grohl, 12 years earlier, making naughty mischief with Stairway to Heaven. His parody would have ground to a halt if his audience hadn’t known the words and didn’t share Dave’s fond, clear memories of Robert Plant’s precise, British pronunciation:

Dave plays the beginning of the introduction perfectly. You can hear the audience recognise the song, about 15 seconds in. Once he’s sure they know what he’s playing, he slows down to a ponderous pace, makes faces, huffs and puffs at the microphone and becomes every teenage boy guitarist amazed at his own virtuoso chord changes. The joke is a shared joke. We love it because he obviously loves the song. He knows it too well to have learnt it just for this show. Dave’s being his teenage self, he’s being Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and he’s being all the pretentious cover versions that have come before him.

Ann Wilson uses the same ‘recognisable beginning’ technique, for a different purpose. She sings the first line of Stairway to Heaven completely straight, with love and respect in her voice. So we listen to her, and feel safe to listen. But watch Ann’s slight shrug as she puts an extra flip of sound into the ‘sure’ at the end of that first line. It’s the first of her subtle changes to the original and it alerts us. It tells us: “Watch me”. Ann isn’t going to sing an exact copy of the original. It’s the signal we need to wake up and listen to her closely. She’s not going to sing the song exactly as we know it. She’s pulled us in and we want to see where she’s going to take us. Her being a woman is not the only difference we need to notice.

Ann softens her voice to lullaby level in the first part of the song, giving herself room to go full throttle once the drums come in. She sings as if she’s telling a story. A woman singing about a woman. She doesn’t sing it as a ‘version of’. She sings it as her own.

The gospel choir is a masterstroke, but Ann Wilson also benefits from the freedom that singing a famous cover gives you: everyone knows the words. When Robert Plant first sang Stairway to Heaven nobody knew where the song was going, or what it meant. So he had to sing the unexpected words with unusual precision, to lead his audience through the song. (Which provided the fuel for Dave Grohl’s parody).

By the time Ann Wilson sings the song back to Robert and the Obamas, 41 years after its birth, her audience knows every word and every guitar lick, by heart. Which gives Ann’s slight changes to the well-known original the extra power of noticeable difference. We know the original and we notice every time she moves away from it. Luckily for us, every change has a reason.

Granted, Stairway to Heaven means a lot to her and she’s been singing it since she was 19:

“…before Stairway, Zeppelin were perceived almost exclusively as a band for men. So I’d hear them mostly when I was on a date, or when I was with a boy at a party. But when Zep IV came out, it just really spoke to me, and they opened themselves up to everybody. Prior to Zeppelin IV, I was just barely getting into rock bands. I was still the only woman in the band, and the one chosen to sing the ballads and stand around and bang a tambourine. I didn’t really take on my rock core until around ’71, when we started to do songs off that album, and no one in the band could sing high enough except me.”

If you’re going to sing a cover version, imagine the original songwriter/band watching you from the balcony. They don’t have to like what you do, but you need to show them why you’ve chosen their song to sing. To turn it slightly, so that the light catches it differently. To bring on a gospel choir or to show the original band something new about their song, something they hadn’t realised:

Rachid Taha’s version of Rock the Casbah pointed out the unintended Orientalism of the original. It was a wake up call for the Clash: you can see Mick Jones join Rachid on stage here.

A cover version needs to be something fresh. Something new. Words aren’t always necessary:

Music isn’t always necessary:

So what is necessary?

  1.  The intro and the first words need to be clear. Why? So that your audience knows which song you’re covering and knows how it goes. This saves time, frees you to interpret the song in your own way and it draws your audience close. Watch each video and you’ll see a point, about 10 seconds in, when the audience realises which song is being covered. That’s when door opens for you to show how you’re going to do the sing differently.
  2.  Use your freedom well. Decide what you’re going to add or change and why. Decide what you’re going to leave alone.
  3.  People cover songs because they love them. Even parodies are born of love and familiarity. Share the love with your audience. Why? If it’s a private joke, you’ll just alienate them. Bring them with you:

By the way – just because Stairway to Heaven seems to have been around forever, never forget that it wasn’t born into the world fully formed. Listen to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham rehearsing the song, with lyrics, in 1971:

© Sing Better English 2018

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4 thoughts on “How to Cover Stairway to Heaven, or any wildly famous song”

  1. I’m amazed there are no comments! I’m going to spend some time with these covers, simply because I was so blown away by Ann Wilson’s performance I can’t continue. I have always revered Led Zeppelin. I’m still kicking myself with letting my vinyl go of their stuff. Wilson’s performance and collaboration with “Stairway” is indeed masterful. Not only does she stay faithful to the original, she, in effect, gives the song away to the rock ensemble, to the orchestra, then to the gospel choir before… with the final vocal… reminds those listening that it is she who is singing the tribute. Good stuff. I loved the cameras’ lingering on the faces of the the distinguished guests, the drummer’s face and some of the crowd. There’s a palpable sense that this tune is indeed a revered classic. It was wonderful to revisit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right – I think her master stroke is, as you put it “giving the song away to the rock ensemble, the gospel choir and the orchestra”. Ann Wilson is indeed marvellous, but without those extra dimensions of sound and voice I have a feeling that after a minute or so, her version would have settled into just another interesting version. I think it was the extra layers of humanity and the way they were so beautifully woven into the original that brought appreciative smiles onto the faces of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones, up in the gallery. I imagine Led Zeppelin knew that the cameras were pointing at them throughout and they had arranged their faces into interested, polite smiles – like the Queen at any performance she attends. There are two points where their smiles really come alive: first when John Bonham’s son comes in on the drums and then when the song builds into a rich tapestry of multiple voices and multiple instruments. That’s when they turn to each other in shared joy, partly, I imagine, because they can feel their song being reborn.

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  2. Rodrigo y Gabriela: Classical guitars paying tribute to a Led Zeppelin classic: What fun! And, their command of the instruments certainly helps them lay claim to their own interpretation. What a contrast to the tomfoolery of Grohl. (I enjoy the Foos!)

    Liked by 1 person

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