For whatever reason, at some point in 2016 I found myself compelled to listen to each and every version and cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. You know the song, right? It’s the one that your dad and/or stoner friend gets really amped for right after the one about the hobbits or the other one that’s also about the hobbits? It’s not one of the “borrowed” Blues jams and, as far as I can tell, it’s not one of their songs that they probably “were inspired by” [stole] from other bands they toured with.
The original song is shortish at just under two-and-a-half minutes. The tempo is fastish. Not, like, EDM fast or anything, but for a 70’s Rock/Pre-Metal song, it’s pretty fuckin’ fast. Less technically, the song is a romping, wailing, thumping jaunt as a semi-historical Viking ripping through Europe in search of new lands. It’s fun and borderline inspiring, if a little silly.
But that’s not the part that interests me. I mean, sure, I like spinning up my running playlist with haunting screams of war just like any other red-blooded sociopath, but that doesn’t sell me on an afternoon of frantic wiki-ing and frustrated listening. What does is the sudden realization that it has been covered so many times and by so many artists. I mean, just look at this list! I don’t even think that list is complete, nor is what I found on wikipedia, though I have to admit to losing track of which band did what when pretty quickly.
The realization came to me after stumbling on the 2016 cover of it by SOAK, an experience I think I had in reverse of most paired with “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, which is also a cover that has been covered a zillion times over, though I did not find that out until going through this exercise (original by Bonnie Raitt, and you might be surprised at the list of artists that have covered it. Go ahead, google that shit). The latter has since become one of my favorites and is in regular rotation, but I also super-duper dig that cover of “Immigrant Song”.
Almost immediately after having the thought that it has been covered a whole bunch, I also had the thought that there aren’t many of those covers that I like. So now I had a mission – I was going to listen to every damned cover of this song and find the good ones. About ten songs into this mission, I decided to change the parameters of success – I was going to “give a chance” to “as many I could easily find” covers of this damn song. It was either that or being overwhelmed by dozens of covers ranging from very bland to very bad. In other words, I was not going to be an archeologist and dig up every cover or iteration, nor was I going to listen to a whole song that immediately rubbed me the wrong way. To be fair, I listened to a fucking lot of them, all the way through for most of them. They’re just a few minutes long, for corns sake.
What I didn’t do, and plan to the next time I get a wild “have to hear them all” bug for another popularly covered song, is log my opinion of each one I hear as I go. What I do want to do is offer some opinions on the standouts. I re-listened to a handful of these today, just to double-check my memory, but I didn’t do that for all of them. So no, this isn’t a definitive guide. It’s also a highly subjective thing, so you know… just opinion here, folks, no need to be dicks about it. Maybe some stuff I hate you love or whatev’s.
Before we get started, let me first say that I am a fan of the original album version, as it appeared on Led Zeppelin III. My Dada is and, as far as I remember, always has been a huge Zeppelin fan, so I grew up listening to it. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the real original, as performed live in Bath as a part of the tour that inspired it, but maybe that’s for the best as I have found I don’t much care for most live versions, including those done by Zep themselves. I’ll have links to listen to a few of these done there. If there isn’t a link, sorry? You can find just about all of them with the tiniest amount of googling or searching your music streaming service of choice. Some can also be listened to through a somewhat clunky interface in the list linked above. Alright, enough preamble.
Here are the standout covers of “Immigrant Song” with light annotation.
- SOAK – The cover that sent me off on this ill fated quest in the first place. It’s. Fuckin’. Rad. It’s muted and stark but very clear. No unnecessary appeals to overdrive peddles, no wailing that will never live up to Page, no burning guitar that can only mimic Plant. It’s its own thing, but it feels good.
- Galactic, ft. Boots Riley, Chali 2na, and Laidlaw – When someone on the Internet labels something as “Best”, you can be assured it will likely be pretty far from it. In this case, I personally wouldn’t call it the best, but wow… yeah, I do dig this. It varies up the repetitive instrumental with some saxophone – yes a fucking sax – and then pours some raw rap fuel onto the fire. In this recording, I find the lyrics largely incomprehensible and maybe, I suppose, if I could follow them, that might be a knock against. But I don’t, so I don’t fucking care, it’s just another interesting twist. Though maybe this one hits me a little harder because I’m a sucker for a crossover.
- Karen O w/ Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – I guess most people first heard this song in a trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is where I found it in some googling. I lost the link and am too lazy to find it again, sorry. Anyway, it rings as sort of a halfway mark between original and SOAK, and you can really feel the Reznor in it, which I like. Especially in the drums, which I feel like must be drum machine driven. It’s on Spotify if you’re hard up for a listen.
- Adagio – Also found on Spotify. This is a pure metal, instrumental version that is twice as long as the original and, by all rights, should absolutely suck. But it doesn’t! Surprise! It nails the original feel while laying down a good plaster of its own personality. Right around the end, when it should really start to drag ass, they start noodling around in Solo Land, which is a lot of fun. It does, however, make me lament the lack of double bass and variation in the original.
- Al Chez and the Brothers of Funk – I swear I can hear this behind the opening sequence of a Bond film. It’s real jaunty and fun! More horns!
- The Bad Plus – At this point, I’m starting to feel weird about how populated this part of the list is by oddball covers, but… fuck it. That’s what makes it work for me. It’s like… jazz. Piano, drums, and I’m pretty sure an upright bass.
- Vanilla Fudge – This version is SO CLOSE to being on the list below, but the singer is doing such a strange thing with the melody that it is just fuckin’ nifty.
- Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro – Give it a minute. In the first few bars, I thought this was another one for the pile of generics, but nawh. Just stick with it a sec. There’s some really good funk guitar and bass and, oh, what’s this? That’s right, a Wurlitzer!
- Airship – It’s really not that bad, really. And I’m sorry for using this band as my straw man, especially since their version is at least listenable. The problem is that this is the best of the worst, the top of a pile doing their best to carve out an exact copy of the original, and I’m sorry… you just don’t have the voice. Your tuning is good, your effects are good, but the amp sounds off. Is that a Crate or something? Okay, fine, I have one, too, and they are great, but they don’t sound like 1970’s Brit Rock. Also, you can go ahead and swap out this pick with just about any other band trying to do that “exact cover” deal, or any version on a Karaoke track.
- All the Queen’s Men – It’s not my favorite and honestly it kind of feels like something from a transitional era of music. Somewhere near an Industrial park, a Folk Metal band tries to get in a commercial.
- Amber Brooke Band – Better than Airship, but pretty bland.
- Arjun Kaul – Good voice, but it’s boring. There is an ocean of folks doing a cover of this song an an attempt to put it in “their style” and it’s… not. Everything is almost spot-on the original, just a little off-brand. While we’re at it, let’s throw the following under that label:
- Hollywood Undead
- Dark Angel
- Ken Tamplin
- Mighty Sphincter (gotta love that name at least, right?)
- and countless more
- Tomoyasu Hotei – Coming in from the late 90’s, I feel like this is the start of artists actually trying to do something different with the underlying music. They just don’t do enough. Also, it’s just dripping with too much late 90’s for me.
- Informatik – See above.
- Infectious Grooves – ALMOST gets me going by starting with some groove/funk bass, but then falls flat shortly before the vocals barge in without welcome.
- The Sword – I love this band but this cover does not do it for me. To be fair, I could only find a live version, so… if you can dig up a studio version, I’ll give it another shot.
- L.A Band – apparently from Shrek the Third? I don’t know, but what I do know is it is wincingly unnerving. I don’t even know what’s wrong, it’s like it’s discordant but rather… like the original was discordant in a way that feels real good and this tries to clean it up, thus killing off the personality. It’s like they are trying their best to sound just like the original but all the notes that should be flats and sharps are just… there. It feel kind of icky and I can’t put my finger on why.
- Ann Wilson – I shouldn’t hate on this. I shouldn’t. All of the parts on their own are pretty good, and some are genuinely great. The singer and namesake of the group is really nailing it, but I as good as her performance is, I just find it to be another, “how much can I ape Page”. It just doesn’t do it for me. I do applaud the effort, though.
- Anno Daemonicus – This sucks and I hate it. I understand you might like it yourself, but duder… Why is Opera Man hanging out with The Crypt Keeper? And why are they on the set of A Muppets Movie? Yucko. I’m sorry, but I got super sick of the various iterations of “demon voice” in Metal a good while ago, to a degree that it has put me off of even some of my previous favorites, and this version of that voice just makes me wince.
- Minimal Compact – Nope.
- Dread Zeppelin – I guess I couldn’t make the list without including this cadre of goofballs. I get what they’re going for, and bravo to them for really giving it an honest go. Pffffftttttt, no. Just, no thanks.
- Coalesce – Another instance of them giving it a go and genuinely doing something different (at least for the time), but I just don’t like it.
- There is a Moby cover, I guess… I don’t know, I found links but they were all either broken or blocked by copyright. Though to be fair, I didn’t look that hard.
- Same for a Nirvana version that I couldn’t be bothered to find.
- Cyro Baptista – I think I might hate this but I think I might love this… I’m so conflicted… is that a Concertina? Falsetto apropos of nothing? What is happening here?
- There is apparently a series of Bluegrass covers of it? I’d like to hear that.
- Zoffy – Let’s be clear – it’s awful. But holy smokes, they are going for it. There is something I have to admire about that.
- I could have sworn there was a Cindy Lauper one, right? It was good, I think? Was it only live? I’m in the weeds here, kids.
There are a bunch I left off of the list because I hit a point of being uncomfortable slagging off so many artists that really seemed like they meant well. Also, a mountain of string covers, mostly Quartets, that don’t deserve to be publicly ranked and judged. All of them are pretty good, but I don’t think I’d enjoy them past the first listen or as a novelty thrown into a live performance.
What did I miss? What do you disagree with? What’s your favorite from the list, or do you think nothing lives up to the original?
While I’m on the subject, here are a handful of songs off the top of my head that I might want to give this treatment (or better) to in the future:
- Halleluja – Leanord Cohen
- All Along the Watchtower – Bob Dylan
- House of the Rising Sun – Unknown
- Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
- That Summertime song from Porgy and Bess
- I don’t know, something by the Beatles, probably.
And finally, a Bonus:
Corinne Bailey Rae – Since I’ve Been Loving You
I found this by accident in my half-assed research for this post and have to share it with anyone whom hasn’t seen it yet. This thing is rad and that’s all I have to say about it.