Beautiful Obscurity: Lay Lady Lay, and doing the impossible

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In this series we look at some fine, but also less well known, covers of Dylan compositions with Aaron making the selections and Tony playing the game of writing a review while the song is playing.

A list of previous articles in the series is given at the end

Aaron:  Lay Lady Lay has been covered well over 100 times so it’s quite a challenge to pick out 4 or 5 interesting or unusual versions. Here’s my attempt!

First up as a tribute to the late great Don Everly, it’s the Everly Brothers from their brilliant reunion album “EB84”.  As sometimes happens there are regional restrictions on this recording, so we’ve put it in twice.

Tony: We all know it so well that just re-running the song in the style of Dylan isn’t going to do any artist or the audience any good, and here the Brothers with subtlety  change the rhythm of the lyrics (the rhythm being is at the core of the song).  So by and large we get the melody as was but with enough rhythmic change to catch us out each time with every line.

I used to love the music of the Brothers but then the attraction faded as I found there was simply not enough therein to keep me going back to songs.  But it was very refreshing to hear those distinctive harmonies once more.  And to listen to subtle changes that really can refresh a song – simply by changing the way the title line is spread out, leaving a rest on the first half beat of the bar.

Aaron: Duran Duran – from their critically derided 1995 covers album “Thank You”, (Q magazine voted it the worst album of all time!) This was one of the better tracks from that album.

Tony: So what was I doing in the 1980s?  Bringing up three tiny daughters, and setting up my publishing company and ad agency.  Which is probably why Duran Duran didn’t make an impact on me.

Of course I know them now, and I liked this all the way through to the last 20 seconds or so which seems to me like a fill-in because the producer has said, “we need another 20 seconds guys”.

But it’s nice and gentle and unchallenging which is fine for a song we all know by heart. And the way “big brass bed” is extended just slightly does a bit more for grabbing attention, along with the contrast of the two voices.

It’s nice, enjoyable, the orchestration works fine so there must have been something pretty awful in the rest of the album for it to have such bad reviews and reputation.  The think the arranger loses it a bit in the middle 8, trying too hard to make it different, but it’s not the first time that has happened.

Aaron: Pete Drake played with Dylan on the original version. He also played on all three of Bob’s Nashville albums, as well as All Things Must Pass for George Harrison and Beaucoups of Blues for Ringo Starr.

Tony: Wow that guy has a cv and a half, which makes me wonder why he decided to use such a similar percussion background in his instrumental version.  Surely he has enough musical knowledge to take this somewhere else.

Actually I really don’t like the guitar technique in this – it all seems very gimmicky – including making the guitar sound like a voice and vice versa.   What is the point?

This really is my issue with covers: I want cover versions that give me new insight into the original song.  Otherwise it is just like we used to do as a semi-pro band touring the local clubs: playing other people’s hits with just a tiny bit of variation, but mostly trying to sound like the original group.

Not for me this one: I would have expected more.

Aaron: Pete explained how he gets the strange effects on the vocals.

“You play the notes on the guitar and it goes through the amplifier. I have a driver system so that you disconnect the speakers and the sound goes through the driver into a plastic tube. You put the tube in the side of your mouth then form the words with your mouth as you play them. You don’t actually say a word: The guitar is your vocal cords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It’s amplified by a microphone.”

Tony: And was it worth it?

Aaron: Let’s finish up this time with another of Bob’s old Greenwich village buddies. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott from his 1970 album Bull Durham Sacks And Railroad Tracks.

Tony: What gives cover artists a hard time is the opening chord sequence.  It is so very unusual such that I am sure most people would only have to hear the chords to know the song, even if they had no musical knowledge at all.

That sequence is A, C#m, G, Bm.

In fact I don’t know any other song that uses that, and indeed if anyone did compose a song using that sequence, those listening would immediately say “That’s Lay Lady Lay”.  This doesn’t mean that each song has to have its own sequence – and they don’t.  A billion songs have the 12 bar blues sequence of three chords.   No, it is just that I don’t think anyone had written a popular melody around this sequence before, which means we always associate it with this song.

So to do something different is more difficult – especially as the rhythm is so distinctive too.  That’s why I like the Everly’s version.

Here there’s nothing done to change melody or chords or rhythm – everything depends on the voice and that simple guitar accompaniment, and that is very clever and very effective.

And yet this is the one I could play again and again – I know the song inside out and upside down of course, but this is so subtle in its changes, it is beautiful.  It is exquisite, and so suddenly a song I do know inside out is given a new life for me.

The technique is so simple, so clear, and ultimately so downright beautiful, I must hear it again.  He has done the impossible – improved on the original.

Thanks Aaron, not for the first time, I owe you for introducing me to something old in a wonderful new guise.

Previously in this series.

And also…

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