Forty years later, we still can’t shake off Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut album, (Pronounced ‘l?h-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd), all thanks to four of its songs: ”Gimme Three Steps”, “Simple Man”, “Tuesday’s Gone”, and “Free Bird”. But really, just “Free Bird”.
The common douche bag practice of screaming “FREE BIRD!” at concerts has been around for what seems like ages. Too many (inebriated) fans think it’s hilarious to yell it from the crowd, and musicians and fellow concertgoers hardly tolerate it anymore. Modest Mouse frontman and grump extraordinaire Isaac Brock was so sick of it that he even included a small rant about it on their live album, Baron von Bullshit Rides Again. And over the years, it’s somehow managed to crossover into other live mediums, like comedy clubs, as you’ll see from Bill Hicks’ historic meltdown on a guy who yelled it during his set:
Regardless of the mayhem that ensues from some John Barleycorn in a backward hat, the song maintains its status as the sweeping rock ‘n’ roll opus it’s always been. Someone like myself, who’s starting to rekindle his passion for extended guitar solos, loves the four-minute, triple harmonic riffing at the end of the song. Hey, I’m not alone, which explains why we’ve all heard some band in some venue at some ungodly hour try to cover it. Oftentimes, it doesn’t work out so well. Other times, it can totally blow your mind.
This dichotomy inspired me to find the very best and worst “Free Bird” covers out there (listed here from worst to best). I’ve also assigned a rating based on their fidelity to the Lynyrd Skynyrd original, as well as given them a grade based on Skynyrd’s Confederate flag logo (aka “the stars and bars”) — a trademark they later denounced but have since brought back as a symbol of their heritage.
So, we must be travelin’ on now. Let the rock begin.
Will to Power’s “Frampton Meets Skynyrd”
Here goes the pitch: Look, Andy, we need to make a song with as little money as possible that will make us as much money as possible. So, I’ve been thinking, you know that Frampton jam, Baby, I Love Your Way, and Skynyrd’s Free Bird? Well, they’re basically the same key, so I played around with the chords, and they fit perfectly. Both are songs theoretically about lovers, so we have the woman saying how much she loves the man with Frampton (always the woman, am I right? Ha ha), and then the man sings Skynyrd. He’s the free bird just trying not to get tied down, man. Best part is, we can do the entire song on two keyboards. Synthesizers are the future, Andy. Plus, I’ve got this chick singer who looks like Stevie Nicks and a guy that looks kinda like Kenny Loggins. It’ll be perfect.
Epilogue: Will to Power’s Baby I Love Your Way/Free Bird medley hits #1 for a week in 1988. Andy made the right choice.
Faithful to Original? It’s a mash-up of Peter Frampton and Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1988, by a band named after a key work of non-fiction by Frederich Nietzsche, so fuck you.
Stars & Bars: One bar. One long, metallic, studded, ramming bar.
Capitol Offense, a.k.a. former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Band
The only thing worse than a band of actors is a band of politicians. From The Singing Senators to the Second Amendments, straightlaced politicians playing rock music is about as anachronistic as you can get. Except for Capitol Offense, which is headed up by former Arkansas governor, 2008 Republican candidate for president, and Mr. Sandy Hook happened because we removed god from schools, Mike Huckabee. This video of Huckabee’s ragtag band of what I assume are Sunday school teachers and RNC flunkies performing Free Bird for a handful of New Hampshire conservatives is as milquetoast as you can find outside a mega church. Right from the start, Huckabee is able to somehow equate the New Hampshire state motto (Live free or die) with a song written by a bunch of stoner hippies from Florida. So… fuck you flow of logic! I’m Mike Huckabee! LET’S ROCK! ::light swaying and strumming::
Faithful to Original? The guitar player does kind of rock it, but the karaoke vocals and embarrassing dad jeans detract.
Stars & Bars: I give it three stars and one strategically placed bar.
Juliette Sims on The Voice
Vocal competitions turned reality shows (i.e. American Idol, America’s Got Talent, The Voice, etc.) put the spotlight on hopeful young stars, who sing their little hearts out to songs they’ve been belting in their showers since puberty, all without any real knowledge of why the words were written (just ask Harry Connick Jr.). This leads us to Juliette Sims and her rendition of “Free Bird”. The fledging singer rocks it like Joan Jett as a strong woman tellin’ her man to suck a dick because this bird ain’t gonna change. She warbles like a seagull and adds in scratchy ad libs that cause nice guy Adam Levine to move like Jagger around a backhanded compliment. In the end, though, who wins when a rock treasure is drowned out by the sound of fog blasts and Cee-Lo’s jewelry?
Faithful to Original? As faithful as Carson Daly to black nail polish.
Stars & Bars: One bar. Two stars glimmering in her childlike eyes.
The Made Famous by Band via Guitar Hero 2
Some of my favorite classic rock artists have had their songs skewered by the Guitar Hero/Band franchise, and I’m not sure why. Money probably has a lot to do with it, but how much do these bands really get paid? Is there a loophole that Activision and RedOctane have found where they don’t have to pay royalties? (Interesting bit of info on all that here.) Regardless, it was only a matter of time before Free Bird was included in the maelstrom–the second game in fact. While the song is all there–the melody, the solos, the whatever–it just hurts my heart to have this song included. Kudos to the player for getting it all correct. I suck at Guitar Hero, mostly because I actually play these instruments, and my brain can’t separate the actual notes from the buttons on that damn machine.
Faithful to Original? Close enough for horseshoes.
Stars & Bars: Blue-Red-Blue-Blue-Red-Yell… oh, fuck this.
The Bronx Casket Co. frees that bird from his gothic lair
Do you have trouble reconciling your love for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird and your love for slow, drudging gothic metal? Do you often wonder what the song would sound like if Billy Powell had played a cathedral pipe organ rather than a Hammond B3? Do you wish that Ronnie Van Zandt would’ve listened to a lot more Gregorian chants and that the song was produced by Jim Steinman? Well, worry no more, friend, because The Bronx Casket Co. has every answer to every question. Their version starts out like a black mass and then rolls and creeps along like soy sauce until the 7:34 mark hits, and then it actually gets really awesome for the last minute-and-a-half. It’s as if Trans-Siberian Orchestra decided to cover the song and all of the epic enormity that both epic and enormous actually denote.
Faithful to Original? Faith is false hope in a false god.
Stars & Bars: One giant exploding supernova star.
Disarray’s A Lesson in Respect
When looking for covers of one of the most pivotal and well-known songs in history, you tend to find versions across every genre. I can’t count the number of dubstep remixes I found, but, while all really bad, I couldn’t include any because it’s not really a cover. Disarray’s black metal cover from their 1999 album, A Lesson in Respect, is a pure cover. It takes the Skynyrd idea and then coats it in virgin blood, burying it in a shallow grave. There’s a level of aversion at first, but after a few listens and realizing the joke, this version is a grower. The lyric change of If I stay here with you girl to If I stay here with you bitch is especially choice and delectable. Plus, the closing solo really does sound a lot better with barreling double-bass drums behind it.
Faithful to Original? Most of the words are the same, maybe same key, but the devil is strong with this one.
Stars & Bars: There are no stars in hell, and The Master will keep you behind bars until you’re ready, slave.
Andre Braugher/Arnold McCuller, from the movie Duets
Duets is a fairly awful movie for a couple of reasons: 1. Bruce Paltrow casting his daughter Gwyneth made her think she was actually a singer and 2. It manages to somehow completely waste the talents of Paul Giamatti and Andre Braugher, two of the finest actors of our time (seriously, go back and watch Braugher in Homicide: Life on the Street). But it did bring us two great things: 1. Huey Lewis back in mainstream conscience and 2. A beautiful cover of Free Bird. While this version in the film is actually a melding of Andre Braugher and vocalist extraordinaire Arnold McCuller, it doesn’t take away from the soulfulness. I could find no other version that takes the words and feelings of the song to such a personal and meaningful place. This song is remembered as big and loud, but this take brings it all back in to the words and the love.
Faithful to Original? Cuts it straight to the core, man.
Stars & Bars: Sing it like this at a bar, and you’ll probably be a star! Ahem, you’ll get laid.
Brad Smith (username: Sakanakao) and his 8-bit Free Bird
There’s nothing kids of the ’80s love more than a good 8-bit-rendered jam. It works extremely well for computerized albums like Kid A, but ’70s swamp rock? Well, the Internet will always realize the dream of every Nintendo hillbilly. Brad Smith, or Sakanakao on YouTube, created a note-for-note cover, including every second of the end solos. According to the comments, Smith transcribed every note into his program, showing all of us, yet again, that the Internet is overflowing with people that have way too much time on their hands. It’s an incredible listen, though, and it makes me wonder which game would be its suitor. Dukes of Hazzard? A level on Cruisin’ USA?
Faithful to Original? Note-for-goddamned-note.
Stars & Bars: Both bars and most of the stars, but the last few are hidden in the dragon’s cave. Use this jewel to retrieve them.
Built to Spill’s unexpected nirvana
A Southern Rock band like Molly Hatchet pulling out a cover like Free Bird during a show is no big shock. Those dudes probably partied with Skynyrd and shed a lot of real tears when Ronnie Van Zandt died. It’s something else entirely for a Pacific Northwest indie-rock stalwart like Built to Spill to dive headlong into the Southern anthem. This live version dates back to 2001 and appears to be the last song of their set. It starts pretty well, with Doug Martsch and company sticking close to the song. However, the real magic comes around the 3:16 mark when the solos start. From here until the end — nearly five-and-a-half minutes later — dueling guitarists Brett Nelson and Jim Roth do Skynyrd proud and there’s a fantastic breakdown in the middle that’s so Built to Spill. When they finish, they shrug it off like nothing happened. What a lucky crowd.
Faithful to Original? Except for the breakdown, and Martsch’s more lethargic vocals, it’s rock solid.
Stars & Bars: Both bars and 8 of the stars in a totally unironic way.
Molly Hatchet Proper Tribute
In the grand scheme of things, and if I’m really honest with myself, the only bands that I feel comfortable with covering Free Bird or Lynyrd Skynyrd at all are bands that knew Ronnie Van Zandt and crew personally. The highest on that list is Molly Hatchet. They were both from Jacksonville, Florida, shared the same managers for a while, and Van Zandt even helped with their song arrangements. This version is from Molly Hatchet’s 1985 live album, Double Trouble Live, and opens with lead singer Danny Joe Brown saying, Here’s to you, buddy. You’re gone, but your song remains. While I’m sure Molly Hatchet played this song quite often, it doesn’t diminish the impact it has on the band and the fans who know the band’s backstory. It’s a pretty electric tribute, and also the longest cover on this list at around 11 minutes.
Faithful to Original? Right on, man. Fuckin’ A.
Stars & Bars: All the stars and both bars.
The Original Lynyrd Skynyrd featured in Devil’s Rejects
And finally, the original: the tribute to a past lover and an unspoken memorial to a lost friend. Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers were a big influence on many bands to come, and Duane’s death in 1971 hit many musicians hard. Lynyrd Skynyrd decided the best tribute to him would be a three-fold, full-on guitar attack. When this song was played live before the plane crash that killed Van Zandt and many others, it would often extend to 15 minutes or more. After the plane crash, the band would only play the song as an instrumental, leaving a lone solo spotlight over the lead vocals mic in tribute to their fallen bandmates. I looked for a long while to find a proper, fitting version, and I finally decided on the best use in a movie of the song: the final scene of The Devil’s Rejects, directed by Rob Zombie. It’s a rousing finale with broken-down psychopaths, whizzing bullets, and too many cops to count — all while Free Bird wails over the top. Accept no substitute. Fly on.
Faithful to Original? Nothing beats the OG.
Stars & Bars: 50 stars. 13 bars.