Beth Hart: ‘The Crunge’ Is the Most Difficult Led Zeppelin Song
Beth Hart is known as a versatile singer. So it wasn't difficult to imagine her doing justice to an entire album of Led Zeppelin songs. Still, she admits there's one song of theirs that put her through the wringer.
The Los Angeles blues-rock singer tackles nine classics from the British hard-rock legends on A Tribute to Led Zeppelin, including time-honored staples like "Kashmir," "Stairway to Heaven" and "The Rain Song."
But, as she shares with UCR, it was "The Crunge" from 1973's Houses of the Holy that flattened her confidence at first. "These guys were on some form of acid that I don’t think anyone else in life has ever found," she laughs.
Hart just wrapped up the first leg of touring in support of the album and will return to the road for more shows starting on April 11. She talks to UCR about the tour, the record and Led Zeppelin.
What was the most challenging thing about singing Led Zeppelin songs?
Everything was challenging. Everything was terrifying. I turned down the project three times. I said, “There’s absolutely no way I’m going to do this frickin’ thing.” But then I made the mistake of having my mother come stay here for six months. My God, what a bad idea that was. So that sent me into a total full-blown panic. Then I [told] my psychiatrist that if I didn’t fire him, I would have killed myself. So I finally fired him after 14 years and went back to my trauma coach. I got off the antipsychotics, and then I’m watching way too much news. I’m reading all of the scholars, the different guys from Harvard and Oxford, just different people that are scholars of all American history, all of the presidents and all of that stuff. So I was learning stuff that I’d never known anything about, nor did I care.
[I was] a total apathetic spoiled American who lives in her own head in life, not really knowing about how things work. I started learning about it, and I got so fucking angry and disappointed within myself. So I called up and I’m like, “Dude, I want to learn this record. Will you send me everything you’ve already recorded?” Because [producer] Rob [Cavallo] had already done this project. He’d done an 88-piece orchestra. It was for a Broadway show, it was not meant for a singer at all. It was only meant for an orchestra. And it fell through.
When we were making the War in My Mind album [in 2019], he goes, “Hey, you know that song ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ you did a DVD years ago and you did that song. Would you mind laying down the vocal really quick?” We were just in the control room. I said, “Yeah.” I laid it down and I looked over and he was filming. I said, “Are you good with that?” He goes, “Yeah, just do it one more time.” I do it one more time and he goes, “OK, cool. Let’s get back to work.” So I didn’t know anything about what was going on. Then [they] approached me and I said, “Hell no.” A) I don’t want to be killed by massive fans of Zeppelin on the street if I let them down. B) I’m a chick doing major man’s-world [stuff] at that time. That was men-dominant, period. You have some rock 'n' roll girls out here now. It’s way more accepted now than what it was. But then no way. And I always wanted to do “Black Dog.” I always wanted to do “Babe I'm Gonna Leave You.” But I didn’t know Led Zeppelin’s material. I only knew “Whole Lotta Love,” because my band had me learn it. So when I asked for that material, I didn’t just want the string arrangements. I wanted all of their live stuff and then all of their records and the different versions they would do of it, so I could really dig in and learn as much as I could about them.
I knew it was hallowed ground. I knew I had to respect what [Robert] Plant was doing, but I also knew [I had to figure out] if I had to write it, what it would be in me personally, so that was the biggest challenge, learning that and then seeing where it would apply to me personally. And then, of course, you’ve got his range, which is massive. Thank God for my vocal coach. I’m still with my [same] vocal coach since I was 16. He taught me a lot about getting up into the highs. Then when I got to be in my late 30s, I got a really deep low end, like a really low man’s end. So I’ve still got my highs, but now I’ve got a low end. That made it a little easier.
Listen to Beth Hart Cover Led Zeppelin's 'Black Dog'
That makes sense.
When it came to doing “The Crunge,” I remember calling Rob and saying, “Dude, these guys were on some form of acid that I don’t think anyone else in life has ever found.” I don’t know anyone that can write that many time signature [changes], never repeating. It’s impossible. I said, “I don’t have the talent to do it. I will never be able to learn this song.” He’s like, “Just keep listening.” Finally, one day, I said to Scott [Guetzkow, Hart’s husband], I was like, “Dude, this is an homage to James Brown.” We went and did the research and it was. When I found that out, that’s when I went, “Oh, my God. I think I can do this.” So I [was] still trying to respect Plant, but I approached it more from a James Brown vibe. That gave me the confidence that I could do it. Because I grew up listening to shitloads of James Brown. That’s what made me go, “OK, I think I can do it.” The one that I came across that I actually loved is “When the Levee Breaks.”
I called up and I go, “Dude, this is genius. But they didn’t write this, did they?” He goes, “No, that’s why you love it so much because it’s the kind of [blues] shit you loved as a kid.” So, “When the Levee Breaks” kills me. We opened up the show every night on this last tour with “When the Levee Breaks.” That song is badass. We do a little bit of “Dancing Days” into it and then another one that I fell madly in love with, “No Quarter” into “Babe.”
Listen to Beth Hart Cover Led Zeppelin's ‘No Quarter/Babe I’m Gonna Leave You'
You reviewed Zeppelin's live recordings. They evolved in such fascinating ways over the years.
This blew me away. When I would hear the way Plant would sing, I would go, “This is someone who is listening to a lot of Black blues singers from the United States.” Then when I listened to the way the production and the songwriting, in terms of chord changes and time signature changes, that kind of thing, that’s when I went, Jimmy Page must have grown up not just listening to American blues and soul. He was also listening or had a family member in the household that was playing a lot of classical music. Because I can hear [Sergei] Rachmaninoff in there, I can hear Joseph Haydn in there. I can hear Beethoven in there. You’re hearing a lot of drama and a lot of those crazy kind of chord changes. You’re hearing a lot of moving of tempos. Nothing stays 4/4 the whole time. You’re breaking in and out. Also, the pieces are really long. So that was a thing that I went, “There must have been some classical influence from him.” “The Rain Song” and “Kashmir” are perfect examples.
You can clearly hear someone who has a vocabulary of classical music, which you know, is all European. It all came out of Europe. That’s one of the things that blew my mind. Another thing was Plant’s narrative. He didn’t just have the narrative based on being a young guy, [who] wants to have sex with a lot of gorgeous women. That’s normal and natural. But he also had this thing about war and the Vikings. You look at it and he’s [part] Viking, which I love because my husband is a Viking. That kind of thing really turned me on. I also didn’t want to make it where I changed the lyrics into everything being about me, talking about a guy when it was sexual stuff. I wanted [to keep it as it was], talking about a female. I think the only time I make it into me being a female is in “Good Times, Bad Times.” Otherwise, I’m always trying to keep that real lyric there. That was important for me to do. I didn’t want to mess with that too much.
Listen to Beth Hart Cover Led Zeppelin's 'The Rain Song'
You've said you don't want to know what they think of your versions, but if you had the chance to sit down with Plant or Page, are there things you're still curious about?
I would not in any way, shape or form, have the balls to be able to sit down in the same room with either one of them. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I get really starstruck. I did meet them when I did the Kennedy Center Honors with Jeff [Beck]. It was lovely. My husband had the balls to talk to Aretha Franklin, who was a goddess to me. I loved listening to them converse. I [couldn't] talk to her. He walked right up to Bill Clinton and brought me with him and had a whole conversation. I could hardly take it.
Yo-Yo Ma, I was a cellist for years as a kid, so I would go see Yo-Yo Ma. He was a child prodigy. He was there, and this was the highlight of the Kennedy Center Honors, after the show, we had to get dressed for some night gala. I’m going into the elevator to go upstairs and there’s Yo-Yo Ma in the elevator. He makes eye contact, comes up and grabs on to me and rocks me like a baby and makes goo-goo-gah-gah noises. That right there was probably the most incredible experience of my life. But yeah, in terms of asking questions or anything like that, I think I’d just feel like a fool. Because when I hear people being able to be that genius at that young of an age, I don’t look at art, period, as a human thing anyway. I look at it all as a spiritual thing. There was just something about them as friends and as a group that somehow, they were all open enough to allow all of that creativity to come through them. To have courage and not so much fucking ego that would block out that creativity.
Because they were rule-breakers. That’s why they were so inventive. It takes a lot of balls to be a rule-breaker. When they released that first record, of course, the critics murdered them. Said they were shit. Because they were doing something that no one else had done. That’s the human nature. We get afraid of things that we don’t know or understand or haven’t heard and haven’t seen. So how do we handle it? We rip it apart. It’s almost like a vote of confidence when you release something and they say it’s shit and you’re just coming out. It means you’re doing something different. They were doing something so different. Even to this day, just like [Black] Sabbath, when you hear Soundgarden or Alice in Chains, you can clearly hear that they were Sabbath-influenced, but nobody has ever done Sabbath. No one ever will again. No one will ever be able to do Led Zeppelin again. That’s just it. They did such a niche [thing]. They created such a sound. There will never be another Beethoven. You just have these rare things that come along and they’re incredible. They’re like the Grand Canyon. They’re like the seven wonders of the world, as music.
At that same Kennedy City Honors, Ann Wilson sang "Stairway to Heaven" in front of the Led Zeppelin guys.
You knew she’d sing her ass off. And they’re freakin’ legends themselves and they probably know the guys. You know what I mean? I hear they cover some of their stuff from time to time in their shows anyway. I remember watching that and thinking that was pretty incredible. Then I remember Lenny Kravitz coming out and doing “Whole Lotta Love,” and I just wanted to throw a tomato at his head. I’m like, I don’t understand why they chose him to cover fuckin’ “Whole Lotta Love.” God bless Lenny Kravitz, he can write and he’s a total rock star, but I just didn’t think vocally [he was the right choice].
It’s ridiculous. It’s like asking Joni Mitchell to cover fuckin’ Black Flag. It’s just not going to work. I remember thinking that. I was sitting next to this senator and she was rockin’ out. I wanted to say to this senator, “Isn’t this the most ridiculous fucking thing you’ve ever seen?” But whatever. I mean, people love him. He’s a rock star. But dude, you’ve gotta sing if you’re going to fuckin’ sing that shit, man. You can’t be doing that light fuckin’ pop shit. I just didn’t get that at all. But when it came to Heart doing “Stairway to Heaven” and what they did, it was brilliant.