Monday, June 17, 2002

'Hey Joe': Robert Plant song review of the day (No. 5 of 10)

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Today's song is "Hey Joe." It's a traditional song although sometimes credited to Billy Roberts. Other times, it's credited to the lead singer of Quicksilver Messenger Service -- Chet (or Chester) Powers, a.k.a. Jesse Oris Farrow, born as Dino Valenti.

Prior to the most famous cover version by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1967, "Hey Joe" was covered and reshaped many times by bands including the Byrds, Love, the Leaves, the Shadows of Knight, the Music Machine and Tim Rose. Then came the Hendrix version, after which almost every cover of "Hey Joe" sounded mostly the same: Nearly all tried to sound like Hendrix! (Even Plant took a shot at it in the same year as Hendrix, recording a demo version in the Band of Joy with John Bonham on drums.)

But the new arrangement by Plant and the Strange Sensation is definitely different from any previous version. From the first note, that's obvious. Justin Adams' contribution is not on a guitar but a three-stringed Northern African instrument called the gimbri (and spelled various ways).

Conventional guitar? You'd better believe there's conventional guitar there too. Porl Thompson handles the electric guitar duties. Drawing from a lesson learned in the Jimmy Page technique, Thompson echoes some of Plant's higher vocal lines.

An underlying drone supports the verses while Plant sings the call-and-response lyrics. He told the BBC, "I made it sort of like a news broadcast, a sort of adventure in the middle of a drama. The musicians make it into this amazing soundscape."

"Hey Joe" sounds like a really good film score ("The Robert Blake Story," anyone?). The whole band leads the song into a very gradual crescendo, but what stands out most instrumentally are the drums. Throughout the buildup, Clive Deamer lays off and then sporadically inserts fills around Plant's vocal lines.

The drone of the verses finally gives way to a fortissimo peak. At that time, the band switches into the song's familiar rolling bassline, only uniquely played at lightning speed.

The instrumental break of this song is one of my two favorite moments on the entire album. At the end of it, Charlie Jones quotes from the descending bassline of "Dazed and Confused," whether intentional or not. I'll describe this song with only one more word. Exciting!

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