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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

208. "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Requested by Chris Huff.

Well, it was, as a few people have already pointed out, sort of inevitable that this would happen in this (or any) request format; in fact, in the back of my mind I think I've always known this was a specific part of my mission here. And I have so much to say about this one that I'm starting to write about it even before my cover is complete.

Firstly, let me say that I don't particularly dislike Lynyrd Skynyrd, although it is of course true that I have heard this song and "Sweet Home Alabama" a few too many times. And you shouldn't take the artwork on my cover version, which appears to show me offering you, the listener, a bunch of brussel sprouts, to mean I'm giving you something you don't want: I took that picture a few days ago because I thought the sprouts-on-a-stalk looked cool, and everyone in my family including myself actually enjoys lightly steamed brussel sprouts.

The truth is, completely apart from the music itself, I'm kind of fascinated by how, when, and through what confluence of circumstances "Free Bird" became the standby request to be shouted out at any given concert, and, from there, the cliché joke fake request to be yelled out or made fun of in movies and so forth. I know my dad used to get requests to "play some Skynyrd" back in the '70s; he's told me that, not knowing that Skynyrd was a band and not a dude, he would always reply "Hell, no, we're not gonna play Lynyrd Skynyrd-- he never plays any of our songs!" which must've sounded like an even better joke than he intended. The first time I remember seeing a flat out parody of the "Free Bird!" request was in one of the early, pre-MTV Beavis & Butthead shorts in the late '80s. I've always wondered how it came to pass that the pronunciation of the title when yelled out is always "FREEbird", when as far as I can tell the song doesn't suggest anything other than saying it as two words, free bird, with equal emphasis, but just now I've hunted up the original single's sleeve art (above), and right there, on the song's first appearance and despite almost all official listings of the tune since then reading "Free Bird", it's built right into that (kinda bizarre) design work as "Freebird".

(I've also been puzzled by why so many people, including a lot of the band's fans, spell their name incorrectly as "Skynard". It's not like it's a word that's ever seen spelled any way other than "Skynyrd", so the misspelling seems like something you'd have to go out of your way to invent. But, you know, I'm puzzled by a lot of stuff that doesn't bother anyone else.)

Okay, so I've gotta cover one of the most covered songs ever. Fine, I thinks, time to haul out the bag of tricks I've stashed aside for a rainy day. First unused idea: sing the lyrics to the song over a karaoke track for a completely different song. To keep a little bit of randomness involved, I hit the shuffle on iTune and waited for a song to appear for which a karaoke track was likely to be available. First one to pop up was "I Am the Walrus" (which, oddly, I'd already sampled once on 39-40, for the wildly popular Braine cover of "Egg Man"). Seemed like that could work, so I bought a karaoke track for the song off of iTunes (settling on the absolute cheesiest backing track of the many available, for maximum unsettling effect).

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed I could do something a little more interesting than just bending the words to a different melody. So I pulled up the online tabs for the two songs to see what keys and chords I was dealing with. Not a lot of overlap, but... what if I diced up the karoke "Walrus" into chords and retuned them as needed, and build a new "Bird" out of "Walrus" parts? Doable. So I went through that painstaking-ass, multiple-application-requiring process, knowing I had the pesky problem of the lack of minor chords in my source song, and the need for an E-minor in my final product. Once I had the thing lined up, I set to work on seeing if setting an organ stereo left and an acoustic guitar stereo right, both playing the E-minor where it was supposed to be, covered up the E-major on the mellotron. Seemed to do well enough, and to my delight Paul McCartney's bassline, after going through my musical food processor, still played as a pretty cogent bass part for "Free Bird". Thanks, Sir Paul-- I forgive you for that "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae" thing!

Other ideas started to arise... I needed some ambient washes here and there and I've started to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. I felt like backward folk music would fit here, and what I used was an old single by my dad, one of his few recorded original songs, called "Big Bad Bird" which expressed almost exactly the same sentiment as the song I was covering. Dad's song was written earlier than Skynyrd's, and it is, for my money, a bit better. I also used some ancient, unused overdubs that were recorded and abandoned around the time that single was being recorded... in 1968, I believe.

The vocal... surprisingly I decided to play it fairly straight, at least to begin with, although it shows signs of faltering when it lapses into Cat Stevens and Neil Young lyrics, and it goes to hell completely at the end in the fast section. But all bets are off at that point. The basis of it is radically retuned loop of the crazy percussion part from The Fall's "I'm Into C.B.", which I'd been saving as the basis for the backing track to the next hip hop track I got, but it works well as a skittery mekanik backbeat when sped up, too. I had to record part of that bit separately in order to facilitate the tempo change, and there's a little more madness incorporated in there: a big chunk of Maurice Rickard's "Red Fiber", which is a far more artful (and anagramatically titled) deconstruction of "Free Bird" than mine, is woven into the entire playout section, getting a featured role when all of the rest of the instruments die off. And my final touch, the coup de grace if you will (and you will) was the thing that I didn't do: I played no electric guitar on this recording. If you wanna hear me shredding it up, you'll have to go back to the Bob Mould cover or one of those other ones where I wailed my ass off for ya.

And there you go. I hope you're happy.

Personnel: Rex
Embodies big fat greasy chunks of "Big Bad Bird" performed by The Thunder Hill Singers and "Red Fiber" performed by Maurice Rickard.


  1. Since I knew (guessed) that this was what you were going to be covering, earlier today I found myself thinking of how it might be done...and oddly, perhaps, I found myself pretending it was a Hüsker Dü song circa Zen Arcade. That would be amusing.

    Also: WTF is up w/that cover art? Why a baseball? I mean, the dumbass flag I get...and skeletons are part of the whole Lynyrd Skynyrd iconography cuz, you know, skeletonz R kewl - and the gun, okay...but is that supposed to be, uh, a tongue? And how the hell do they all go together?

    Serves as a reminder that in the early seventies, everyone involved with rock'n'roll was still thoroughly baked all the time.

  2. I almost posted the cover on FB just to ask ZOMG WTF IS THAT COMIN OUTTA TEH GUN???/?/ because maybe it's a tongue, but it's very... wrong for a tongue, and in general. It looks sort of more like a fleshy ovipositor with some kinda magic sparkly tip.

    My take on it is that the skeleton has thrown the baseball at an antagonist, and is now sort of taking cover behind the ball in flight and peering around it to shoot the same guy with... well, once again it all goes to hell with the tongue... thing...

  3. See my last sentence, above. That's all I've got to say, I think.