I think it’s fair to say that Jeff Buckley’s talent as a songwriter has been somewhat overshadowed by his knack for reimagining other people’s music. With a little help from John Cale, Buckley transformed Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ from a murky, gospel-leaning meditation on the divine into a gently plucked ballad with the ornate beauty of a renaissance pocket-watch. Here, we’ve bought you another of the singer-songwriter’s classic covers, a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti cut ‘Night Flight’.
Initially recorded in 1971 for Led Zeppelin IV, ‘Night Flight’ wound up on Physical Graffiti for the simple reason that Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham needed as many songs as possible to fill their double album Physical Graffiti. Given the title, you’d be forgiven for expecting ‘Night Flight’ to be an ode to the Moody Blues album of the same name, or perhaps to the 1933 Clark Gable film. In fact, the song has nothing to do with either of these.
The bulk of the original track was written by Zeppelin’s bass player John Paul Jones, who, along with Jimmy Page, was one of the only classically-trained musicians in the group. It’s family unique among Led Zeppelin’s many records because it is one of the only songs not to feature a guitar solo. With it’s disco-grooves and tactile organ arrangements, ‘Night Flight’ is less about melodic virtuosity than it is texture and rhythm.
In this cover, Buckley strips away the ornamental foliage of ‘Night Flight’ to leave only Page’s choppy guitar and Plant’s soaring vocals, the latter of which the young musician takes great pleasure in filling with Aguilera-esque riffs. With little in between us and Plant’s vocal line, it’s easier to see how Zeppelin’s hectic lifestyle during this period influenced their lyrics: “I just jumped a train that never stops,” Buckley sings. “So now somehow I’ll know I never finished payin’ for my ride/ Just n’ someone pushed a gun into my hand / Tell me I’m the type of man to fight the fight that I’ll require.”
In 1971, many critics felt that ‘Night Tracks’ was just another song designed to placate Led Zeppelin’s rowdy, pill-popping American fanbase. To this day, there are a fair few fans who regard it as mere album filler. Buckley’s cover, on the other hand, is careful and bittersweet – a real testament to Plant’s lyrical work and Jones’ talent as a songsmith. Make sure you check it out if you haven’t already.