January 03, 2016

Covered classics

I like k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” the best. There’s Jeff Buckley’s, and I recently heard a great rendition by Francesco Yates, and of course there’s Leonard Cohen’s original, but, for me, it’s got to be k.d.

To riff on U2, it’s even better than the real thing.

The upcoming “Live In Ireland 87 In Scotland” concert got me thinking about the pipe band habit of being original, at least when it comes to medleys and concert material. Pipe bands of course play the same 2/4 marches, strathspeys and reels for set events as a matter of course, but have pipe bands ever – in competition or not – “covered” another pipe band’s work? I can’t think of an instance.

Sure, bands will take single tunes introduced by other bands and put their own spin on them, at least with a new percussion score, but entire medleys or suites first brought out by another pipe band? Never.

Even the reunion of players and some extra-special friends from the 1987 78th Fraser Highlanders’ concert in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, won’t be truly covering material, since you can’t cover music that you came out with originally.

But, it seems to me, it’s high time that pipe bands started to break down that unwritten rule that they can’t play creative material done by other bands. I would think it’s the next big step or trend for pipe bands: make a classic medley of the past new and exciting once again with a new arrangement with different harmonies, bridges, even subtle time signature and tempo tweaks to celebrate it again by, to use the American Idol cliché, “make it their own.”

To revisit the jazz composer Don Thompson’s “Journey To Skye” by the same group that did it first is fine, but I’d love to hear, say, Inveraray & District make it perhaps even better, with different harmonies and tempos, with a modern bass section arrangement. Or how about the medley that Victoria Police used to win the 1998 World’s updated and reinterpreted by, say, St. Laurence O’Toole? Or a 1980s Vale of Atholl concert suite done by Field Marshal Montgomery? Or go way back and take a selection from the 1960s Invergordon Distillery (“Old Woman’s Lullaby,” anyone?) and give it a modern makeover.

Or could a Grade 3 band of today take on the “Detroit Highlanders” Strathclyde Police medley of the 1980s? Why not? It’s excellent fundamental music that is eminently within the grasp of many modern mid-grade bands. It’s not sacred and untouchable; it’s music that deserves to be appreciated again in a new way.

I have heard people wonder often why some pipe band suite or other isn’t heard again. “If ‘The Megantic Outlaw’ was any good, then why do we never hear it today?” is a thought I’ve listened to not a few times. Whatever your personal opinion of that or any other piece of music associated closely with a particular pipe band, the reason their music isn’t heard again is simple: there’s an unwritten code that pipe bands don’t do that, that they always have to be 100 per cent original.

To be sure, it’s fun and challenging for a pipe band to create whole new medleys, but it doesn’t have to always be this way. There’s tons of room to be original with existing content, to resurrect well-kent classics, to make them your own.

In fact, if I were a band hoping to be noticed, or step up in the ranks, I would take a cue from budding pop stars. More often than not, they get noticed by doing a great cover of a well-known song. They eliminate the burden of having to rise up with their own material, knowing that songwriting can come, after they are discovered via their covers. Originality can come in many forms.

k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” does not diminish Leonard Cohen’s song one iota. She celebrates and honours it, just as Jeff Buckley did, putting a personal and fresh complexion on it, bringing it to another generation, and Francesco Yates does it again.

It’s all good, and it’s all possibly even better.



  1. Good examples I can think of are SFU playing Hallelujah at the Nous Somme Prets concert and Alicia Keyes’ New York at Lincoln Center, also Vic Police, Shotts and the Vale using songs in medlies, usually as Slow Aires. Perhaps you can convince Spirit of [Scotland] to cover the entire Vic Police 1993 medley?

    1. Right, plenty of examples of bands covering music from other genres, dating back at least to the Edinburgh City Police doing the famous theme from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards covering the African-American spiritual “Amazing Grace,” or, even Who-Knows first playing “The Green Hills of Tyrol” from Rossini. But are there examples of pipe bands covering other pipe bands? I suppose the group playing the Ballymena material isn’t the 78th Fraser Highlanders, so, strictly speaking is covering that material, but it comprises the folks who played it originally. That’s complicated. Also interesting is that, at least in the UK and Canada, “moral rights” mean that a band could put a legal halt to another band playing its material, but that would never happen. Anyway, the central question and point are, Why don’t pipe bands ever cover the material of other pipe bands? Seems to me that, as bands strive to balance the new with the familiar (listen to all the re-arranged traditional tunes these days), why not achieve both with a new take on history’s greatest pipe band medleys?

  2. Excellent article Andrew and very true. Often thought about it while PM at Polkemmet but never done it for the very reasons you said. Would be great to hear one of the old medleys played by a top current band. Would love to hear my old band Dysart’s 1980 medley done again!

  3. I can think of a fmm album where the pipe corp played cliffs of doneen/Quaker’s wife/queen of the rushes as they did in a previous world’s medley alas the new drum corp couldn’t resist putting their own score over it and imho losing the appeal of the initial overall setting. Rearranging doesn’t necessarily mean it will sound automatically better

  4. I dunno. Like comparing “Proud Mary” versions: Ike and Tina just didn’t do Fogerty justice. For that matter, I would rather listen to the Strathclyde “Detroit” medley more than any modern medley. Pitch, tempos, drum arrangements, all right where they should be. I’ll sit on the back porch listening to Fogerty and Strathclyde and let the kidlets whiz and bang away to their heart’s content. This old geezer is fine with his LP’s. You brats, get off my lawn!!!! *sip*

  5. I remember the City of Detroit playing the 78th Frasers’ Walking the Plank medley back in 2001 or 2002. They even played the original drum scores. I think this was more of a beer tent party piece rather than competition material but I might be wrong.

  6. Perhaps “cover” artistry reached its logical extreme this past fall with Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift’s “1989” album in its entirety, done in the style of the Smiths. As a (not necessarily positive) commentary, Father John Misty (former Fleet Foxes) then covered Ryan Adams’ covers, this time in the style of the Velvet Underground.

    While I agree with you that there are loads of covers so good the original artist’s iteration pales in comparison, this matryoshka doll-like referencing sort of underlined how cheap and easy it can be to “cover” someone else’s work wholesale, rather than the odd song or two.

    That said, how about Field Marshall covering Vic Pol’s “Masterblasters” in the style of 1980’s Vale of Athol. And Stuart Liddell covering those covers in the style of Rufus Harley. I’d buy in.

  7. What about the rendition of Leonard Cohen’s HALLELUJAH performed by Simon Fraser last summer at the concert pre-Worlds? That was as beautiful a rendition of Hallelujah you will hear anywhere–and played on the pipes with string accompaniment. You can hear it on you tube along with other music performed by Simon Fraser at the same concert.

  8. ‘Steam Train to Mallaig’ was taken to the end of the line by the Vale and then FMM, both in recorded concerts. Albeit about 6 years apart. I’m sure it’s been thrashed elsewhere too.

    I’m getting so tired of the notion that pipe bands have ‘evolved’ and are now on the cutting edge like never before. It’s nonsense. I’d argue we have reduced the variety of what we do, rather than expanded it. The formula/trend/fad has narrowed, and the motivator is the fear of failure via straying from the template. It has nothing to do with the music, only the result.

    For example, the very notion that a Gr1 band, in this day and age, would play pointed reels in a medley is so far-fetched that the thought isn’t even entertained. We have zero expectations of hearing them and are resigned to this idea they are for the MSR only. It is such an anti-music viewpoint, yet it is now convention.

    With rare exceptions, contemporary medleys are confined to ‘Hornreel’ openers or, of late, some minor key march in simple time. An old 4-part Jig and a contemporary 2-part one either before or after. Metronomic slow airs in simple time (so the drummers don’t have to apply themselves too much). Two little strathspeys with mandatory key change, followed by generic round reels with the ubiquitous key changes and harmony overload. Strategically placed ‘familiars’, amongst all the whistle music, are also standard.

    It is also apparently very passé to just play a classic as it was written. It must now be rearranged because the belief is it will make the tune more interesting/contemporary, or more credible. What the…? The question then begs: why select the tune in the first place if it requires an immediate facelift before being seen in public? As classic isn’t a classic, it would seem.

    The medleys of the 80’s were more diverse and unique than they are in the current scene, in my opinion. Redoing a medley from the 80’s, on much better instruments, would probably give rise to the novel thought that music is music, regardless of whether it is dot/cut or round. Play it well and the results will (should) still come, in theory.

    The pointy end will always shape what the rest try to do. The pointy end is also more scared (of losing and/or straying too far from the template) than anyone else too. Therein lies the problem. The trendsetters are probably the least inclined to really push the envelope. When they do, they get howled down. Toronto Police come to mind.

    In many ways, I think that drumming has also contributed towards a narrowing of the variety of music, not just paranoid PM’s. Everything has been homogenised for them.

    Any medley that the 78ths did in the 80’s still rocks along. The Vale often nailed it too. Heck, even Boghall played interesting stuff back then. To the question of doing a straight cover of a competition piece, it really all comes down to male ego (not wanting to completely dip the lid to another band) more so than anything else, methinks. Sure, pick a tune here and there, but to play a whole piece seems to have either no appeal, or has never been considered. It seems that the Gr1 bands think there are still many more forgettable round ‘reelpipes’ to be inflicted.

    1. Yep. Very well put. Even concerts follow a formula and can’t stray too far due to the lack of imagination and also the lack of application the instrument. Let’s get real here – an evening of non-stop piping only appeals to pipers, and not all of us.

      Everything has been done. Not like popular music, where instrument sound can be altered, distorted, contorted, bent, endless ‘genres’ seem to be invented etc. It is so very easy to change the entire feel, colour, mood etc. of popular music because you’re really only limited by your imagination, not your instrument. They also aren’t at all worried about winning contests which, to a professional musician, is just about the most amateur and pointless thing you can ever do. In our world, creativity is stifled, almost driven out of people. We have rules that don’t even bend. Music should never have rules that can’t be bent or broken. Take Piobaireachd for example; try playing anything but the Nicol-Brown style at most contests and you’ll be roasted. We will destroy a band for dodgy F’s rather than listen for everything else that’s going on and enjoy those aspects. We can very rarely look past the things we see as flaws. We are to blame. The instrument has it’s limits, yes, but we set even tighter ones via our lack of imagination and our fear of being different (thus not ‘winning’).



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