Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jefferson Airplane

IT was Grace Slick’s acerbic, ironic lyrics on Lather which was probably my first experience of Jefferson Airplane. We heard it on one of those underground music compilation albums, but I even recall us having it on a seven single somewhere along the line.

“Lather was 30 years old today, he put away all of his toys…

It was a tricky song for a teenager to come to terms with, because it raised all sorts of questions – existential questions – at an age and stage when trying to find your own identity is no easy thing at the best of times.

Another single from the time that caught our fancy was the bizarre Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil, from 1967.

This was a band that seemed to be the height of cool. It formed part of rock culture almost the moment it was born, with Donovan referring to it in the song, Fat Angel, from 1966 and included on his 1967 album, Sunshine Superman (“Fly Jefferson Airplane, gets you there on time”), and Eric Burden and the Animals including them in the lyrics of that classic memoir of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (“The Byrds and the Airplane did fly …”).

I recall going to the home of a friend, whose nickname was Jakkals. He was at art school with my elder brother, Ian, and was a real character. He was no mean guitarist and also played some good blues harmonica. Unusually for the time in apartheid South Africa, he would sometimes bring his family’s domestic worker’s son, George, along when he visited us in Bonza Bay. Anyway, one Saturday I recall us visiting his home – for the first and last time. I do remember that one of Jefferson’s albums was playing, Crown of Creation. The house was totally characterless. There were joke’s about his parents’ apparent drinking problems, and we ourselves were soon imbibing some cheap white wine, Paarl Perle probably, and savouring the flying ducks on the wall and the formica-topped table in the kitchen. Somehow Jakkals had emerged from a family that one could probably describe as culturally deprived, with an astute appreciation for great music.

Paul Kantner

Jefferson Airport later changed into Jefferson Starship, and, I sense, became more commercial. At one point Slick and Paul Kantner did a duo album which we had and listened to avidly for many years. But there was much I missed in the Jefferson canon, so I hope to scrape together some useful gen on another immortal outfit from the late 1960s. So let’s see what the oracle, Wikipedia, has to say.

In its opening synopsis, it says Jefferson Airplane was from San Francisco and was a “pioneer of the LSD-influenced psychedelic rock movement”. It adds that their performance at Woodstock in August 1969 was “widely considered one of rock ’n roll’s most memorable moments”. After various Starship incantations, the original Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

I always wondered where the name came from. Wikipedia notes that the term “Jefferson airplane” is slang for a “used paper match split open to hold a majijuana joint that has been smoked too short to hold without burning the hands, an improvised roach clip”. If this came before the band, then it seems a plausible source for the name. Certainly, in my dagga-smoking days we’d hold the resin-soaked last half centimeter of joint between two match sticks. But Wikipedia says band member Jorma Kaukonen claims his friend Steve Talbot invented the name “as a parody of blues names like 'Blind Lemon' Jefferson”.

The band, says Wikipedia, had its origins, like so many of the era, in the mid-1960s, and was inspired by the likes of the Beatles, the Byrds and Lovin’ Spoonful. It was formed in the summer of 1965, which seems like a helluva long time ago, yet if you think about the people and their music, it seems like just the other day. During what was called the San Francisco Bay folk music boom, singer Marty Balin teamed up with folk musician Paul Kantner, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, jazz and folk vocalist Signe Toly Anderson, drummer Jerry Peloquin and acoustic bassist Bob Harvey. The Matrix Club in San Francisco was where they performed and garnered support, with their first public appearance there on August 13, 1965. Peloquin, a seasoned musician, quit after a few weeks in protest at the others’ use of drugs. Skip Spence replaced him on drums. As the group became more electric, in August 1965 Harvey’s acoustic bass was replaced by the electric bass of Jack Casady, a long-time friend of Kaukonen. They must have been instantly recognised, because they signed with RCA Victor late that year, and recorded their first album.

Jefferson Airplane Take Off

Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was released in 1966. Wikipedia says it was much influenced by folk music, and included folk standards such as John D Loudermilk’s Tobacco Road and Dino Valente’s Let’s Get Together. There were a few original ballads too. Two cuts off this album, It’s No Secret and Come Up The Years, are on a “best of” CD I picked up cheaply called Jefferson Airplane Journey. They reveal a group that has yet to find its full identity. Written by Balin and Balin/Kantner, these are akin to early Beatles rock and roll tracks, with the lyrics about romantic love. The harmonies, this time between the men only, are already in evidence.

Grace Slick

The big change came later in 1966, when first Spence was replaced by Spencer Dryden and then Anderson by singer Grace Slick. She had been with another San Francisco group, The Great Society, and “brought with her a powerful and supple contralto voice, well suited to the group’s amplified psychedelic music, as well as a number of important compositions, including White Rabbit …”

It was again that June 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival which catapulted them to fame. Wikipedia says this “epochal” event saw them spring “from local to national renown”. Many of the bands were featured in resulting TV and film coverage of the festival, while syndicated TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, also helped provide a wider audience. Their performance of White Rabbit on the show, says Wikipedia, was the stuff of legend. It also saw the pioneering of “the Chroma key process to simulate the Airplane’s customary psychedelic light show”.

Surrealistic Pillow

The new lineup recorded five more albums until 1970, with Surrealistic Pillow from 1967 considered one of the defining moments from the so-called Summer of Love, alongside the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album. It features Slick’s White Rabbit, which was one of our first introductions to the group’s music. Wikipedia says the song was inspired not only by LSD, but also Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and, obviously, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Another feature of the album was the “rousing anthem”, Somebody To Love, while Kaukonen’s acoustic solo “tour de force”, Embryonic Journey, “helped establish the popular genre exemplified by acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke”. This song is on that “best of” album, and having given it a fresh listen, I found the comparison to Kottke more than accurate. This is a wonderful guitar solo which, in a way, also echoes the work being done across the Atlantic by the likes of Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.

Incredibly, the album reached No 3 in the US, which just shows how progressive the record-buying public already was in 1967. Of course I’ve referred to this album earlier. Because it was Grateful Dead guru Jerry Garcia who, as “shadow” producer of the album, helped give it its name when he said that the music was “as surrealistic as a pillow”.

This, of course, was the great Grace Slick debut album with Jefferson Airplane. Fusing folk-rock and psychedelia, Wikipedia says it was the “first blockbuster psychedelic album by a band from San Francisco”, and continued a line of creative bohemian life that started in the 1950s with The Beat. Suddenly, the national media was focused on the area, and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture in particular. The album peaked at No 3, thanks largely to the hits White Rabbit (which reached No 8) and Somebody To Love (No 5). Both are on that compilation album, with Somebody To Love giving one of the first examples of why Grace Slick would become such a star. She brings an aggressive, in-your-face approach akin in a way to Janis Joplin, and the other musicians feed off that energy. The male vocal harmonies also add greatly to the Jefferson sound. Still essentially a love song, it starts: “When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies – Don’t you want somebody to love? Don’t you need somebody to love …”

But, of course, it was White Rabbit which defined this album, and indeed for a long time became synonymous with Jefferson Airplane. Here Slick’s voice assumes an eerie, almost sinister tone, as she takes you on a journey into the psychedelic world of … well, I’m not quite sure what. Certainly at the time one heard references to Alice in Wonderland, but let’s check out the actual lyrics, courtesy of the world wide web. The song starts with a tight bass riff, before the introduction of military-style drumming. Then Slick describes that weird odyssey. “One pill makes you larger / And one pill makes you small / And the ones that mother gives you / Don't do anything at all / Go ask Alice / When she’s ten feet tall.” Not, surely, the sort of stuff we should have been hearing at a time when drugs were an ongoing temptation, though thankfully I went no further than smoking pot. “And if you go chasing rabbits / And you know you’re going to fall / Tell ’em a hookah smoking caterpillar / Has given you the call / Recall Alice / When she was just small.” This has to be seen for the poetry it is, a clever combining of Lewis Carroll with popular drugs culture. “When men on the chessboard / Get up and tell you where to go / And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low / Go ask Alice / I think she’ll know.” Because, even on marijuana, or dagga, things can get a bit distorted. “When logic and proportion / Have fallen sloppy dead / And the White Knight is talking backwards / And the Red Queen’s ‘off with her head!’ / Remember what the door knob said: / ‘FEED YOUR HEAD / FEED your head’.” And of course that’s what they did in those days. With LSD, cocaine, mary-jane and a plethora of other things. Miraculously, many survived to tell the tale.

Balin’s Plastic Fantastic Lover, from this album, is also on that best-of CD. While it starts with acoustic guitar and bass, a heavy, steely lead guitar soon imposes a blues-rock feel. This was not part of our upbringing, but the lyrics sound interesting – I heard references to IBM and television – so let’s take a look. “Her neon mouth with the blinking soft smile / Is nothing but an electric sign / You could say she has an individual style / She’s part of a colourful time.” It seems to be about robots, a kind of science fiction android lover. “Super-sealed lady, chrome-colour clothes / You wear ’cause you have no other / But I suppose no one knows / You’re my plastic fantastic lover.” Further on comes the verse: “The electrical dust is starting to rust / Her trapezoid thermometer taste / All the red tape is mechanical rape / Of the TV programme waste.” Finally: “Data control and IBM / Science is mankind’s brother / But all I see is drainin’ me / On my plastic fantastic lover.”

Certainly, this was an epochal album, full of innovative songs. Not surprisingly, in 2003 it was ranked 146 on that Rolling Stone magazine list of the top 500 albums.

After Bathing at Baxter’s

After this auspicious start, Wikipedia says the band “delved deeper into acid rock” with their 1967 album, After Bathing at Baxter’s. This comprises “long multi-part suites, which demonstrated the group’s proficiency with psychedelic rock”, while its cover, drawn by artist Ron Cobb, is a “whimsical re-imagining of the group’s Haight-Ashbury house as a Heath-Robinson-inspired flying machine”. For me, it has echoes of the animated sections of that delightful movie from 1965, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines – or am I conflating that with the wacky Roland Emett flying machines from the 1968 film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Impossible, since the film followed the album, though of course Emett’s art had been around for decades.

Like its predecessor, we initially knew about this album from that crazy single, The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil which, if I remember correctly, had the song Two Heads on Side B. The group’s third album, it was released in 1967, the same year as Surrealistic Pillow. However, this time the album was pure psychedelic rock, with no commercial pop-type songs, such as Somebody To Love. As a result it was, says Wikipedia, a “watershed album”. They had become “a much heavier rock group”, with Kaukonen’s electric guitar “more to the forefront in both volume and tone”. The “suites” on the album comprise lengthy, “more experimental” songs like the nine-minute instrumental Spare Chaynge and “Grace Slick’s mammoth and unusual reJoyce, a homage to James Joyce’s novel Ulysses”. I like the adjective used on Wikipedia for Jack Casady’s bass-line on this track: normally associated with a voice, it describes that bass as stentorian. For good measure, the website adds that “many of the album tracks reflect the band’s heavy use of the drug LSD”.

Before giving this album a listen – courtesy of my late brother AB’s CD, which sounds quite alphabetical – I ferreted among some old seven-singles and pulled out a peach, a 1967 Jefferson Airplane original with The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil on Side 1 and, yes indeed, Two Heads on Side 2. Both are off this album. But what an experience to take oneself back to those heady days of the late 1960s when we were listening to this stuff. Because these are truly two highly progressive, ground-breaking tracks. And Two Heads must rank as one of the earliest examples of a female songwriter bursting into the male-dominated world of heavy rock, and having more balls than the lot of them, as it were, so to speak. Of course she had done it on the previous album, but this song really ratchets things up several notches. From the very outset the assault begins, thanks to heavy lead guitar, bass and thumping drums/cymbals. Then Slick sidles in with that same somewhat menacing tone: “You want two heads on your body / And you’ve got two mirrors in your hand. / Priests are made of brick with gold crosses on a stick / and your nose is too small for this land.” I have to confess this is the first time I have read these lyrics, so before their import was garnered from the snippets properly heard and the method of delivery. I am not let down by what I read, though the meaning remains elusive. After this initial barrage, the song quietens: “Inside your head is your town / inside your room your jail / inside your mouth the elephant’s trunk and booze, / the only key to your bail.” The imagery becomes increasingly disturbing: “Two heads can be put together. / And you can fill both your feet with sand. / No one will know you’ve gutted your mind / but what will you do with your bloody hands?” Needless to say, this is accompanied by searing lead guitar. “Your lions are fighting with chairs, / your arms are incredibly fat; / Your women are tired of dying alive / if you’ve had any women at that.” Bizarre concept that, “dying alive”. One of the lines that sticks in my head from all those years ago is the first from the next verse: “Wearing your comb like an ax in your head / List’ning for signs of life; / Children are sucking on stone and lead / And chasing their hoops with a knife; / New breasts and jewels for the girl, / Keep them polished and shining; / Put a lock on her belly at night, sweet life, / For no child of mine.” Then back to that unforgiving chorus. Phew! Isn’t this frightening stuff? And there I was, a young teenager trying to unravel these Slick thoughts – and today I realise what a privilege it was.

That long-titled Pooneil track, a Paul Kantner composition, is every bit as powerful as Two Heads. It starts with a guitar that soars and howls before the song slips into quick-fire rock. As the vocals begin, so too does the underlying bass. Here it is the guys doing the singing, with Slick adding the higher harmonies: “If you were a bird and you lived very high, / You’d lean on the wind when the breeze came by, / You’d say to the wind as it took you away, / ‘That’s where I wanted to go today / And I do know that I need to have you around …’ ” As with Two Heads, the song then slows to ballad pace: “Love like a mountain springtime, / flashing through the rivers of my mind; / it’s what I feel for you.” Then Slick intones the word Armadillo before the next verse resumes at pace: “You and me go walking south / And we see all the gold around us, / The colours blind my eyes and my mind to all but you, / And I do know that I need to have you around, / And I do, I do know that I need to have you around.” Tight and, to my mind, well before its time, it is worth just recounting the remainder of the song for those who, like me, did not pick up on the lyrics the first time round: “I have a house where I can go / When there’s too many people around me; / I can sit and watch all the people / Down below goin’ by me; / Halfway down the stair is a stair / Where I sit and think around you and me; / But I wonder will the sun still see all the people goin’ by. / Will the moon still hang in the sky when I die, / When I die, when I’m high, when I die?” I like this final verse, which has a delightfully surreal air to it: “If you were a cloud and you sailed up there, / You’d sail on water as blue as air, / You’d see me here in the fields and say, / ‘Doesn't the sky look green today?’” In essence, I suppose, what a “good trip” was supposed to be like – before all the negative side-effects soured things forever.

I have to confess, apart from these songs and the last track, Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon – which I recognise from the band’s Woodstock performance (it’s on the director’s cut CD), I am not familiar with the rest of this LP. So let’s give it a listen, and see if the Wikipedia comments hold water …

Awesome! Radical! Far out! You really got bang for your bucks in those days. This album certainly contains a wealth of what Paul McCartney would call “information”. And yes indeed it is arranged in “suites”, at least that’s probably how you explain the fact that several listed tracks all show up as “track 1” or 2 on the CD player. Having given The Ballad of You Etc another spin I was again struck by Jefferson Airplane’s love of distorted lead guitar. It is a grungy, deliberately fuzzy sound which became their hallmark. A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You Shortly is listed as a Blackman/Dryden/Thompson composition and is 1:39 minutes long. I think it was that bit of partying following the opening track, with all sorts of voices and sound effects, including the words “no man is an island”, as a piano jingles along. There is a strong parallel here with the experiments Pink Floyd and the Beatles were doing about the same time. While still part of the same suite, the Balin/Kantner track Young Girl Sunday Blues is a more traditional blues-rock number incorporating the by now standard excellent combination of interesting lyrics, great harmonies, a crisp melody and vital, unremitting electric lead guitar.

Suite 2 seems to kick off with track 4, Martha, a Kantner song which starts almost folk-song like with smooth acoustic guitar, but is soon given a solid rock cloak as the vocals, lead guitar and rhythm section settle in. Like so many of the great blues-rock bands, each song becomes a vehicle for artistic expression, with Kaukonen’s guitar up there among the greats. This is true, too, of Wild Thyme, another Kantner composition, which emerges from Martha’s shadow. There is almost a Mammas and Pappas quality to the combination of male and female voices – “It’s a wi-i-i-i-ld thyme…” – with the key distinction that this band has taken folk-rock and added a sharp blues edge, creating an entirely new aesthetic. Indeed, their sound – steeped in audacious experimentation – must be deemed among the most original to come out of the era.

The next suite kicks off with The Last Wall Of The Castle, a Kaukonen composition, which again showcases his mastery of the lead guitar. The melody is typically listenable, built around the lines “understanding is a virtue hard to come by / you can teach me how to love if you only try”. Again, the song is used unashamedly as a mode for great creativity across all facets of the group.

Then that song about Joyce, Grace Slick’s Rejoyce, which starts with a deliberately wobbly sounding piano, before she regales us with her thoughts. There was one line that caught my ear – “I’d rather have my country die for me” – which makes this song worth examining closer. “Chemical change, and lace / you’ve shattered the warning amber light / Wake me warm / let me see, you, moving, everything over /smiling in my room / you know, you’re being inside, of my mind soon.” As much as Joyce’s work was often inaccessible, so too this obviously requires expert analysis. Ulysses aficionados will no doubt know what she’s on about, but here the other lyrics are anyway; “There, are, so many of you. / White shirt and tie, white shirt and tie, / white shirt and tie, wedding ring, wedding ring.” Then an apparent bit of Irish allusion: “Mulligan stew for Bloom, / the only Jew in the room / Saxon’s sick on the holy dregs / and their constant getting throw up on his leg.” And more: “Molly’s gone to blazes, / Boylan’s crotch amazes / any woman whose husband sleeps with his head / all buried down at the foot of his bed.” It gets weirder: “I’ve got his arm / I’ve got his arm / I’ve had it for weeks / I’ve got his arm / Steven won’t give his arm / to no gold star mother’s farm; / War’s good business so give your son / and I’d rather have my country die for me.” The Vietnam conflict must surely have sparked this comment, with its shadow hanging over the world. The song concludes: “There, are, so many of you. / Sell your mother for a Hershey bar / grow up looking like a car / there are; / All you want to do is live, / all you want to do is give but / somehow, it all, falls, apart!” I’m not sure about the line breaks and punctuation here, but clearly Slick was, as they say, not just a (very) pretty face (and powerful voice).

Watch Her Ride is another classic blues-rock Kantner composition with more excellent lead guitar-work, but it is when the song seques into the surreal Spare Chaynge, a Casady/Dryden/Kaukonen work, that the fireworks really begin. This long jam session for me recalled Pink Floyd. Playful and innovative, the lead guitar ranges from fuzzy to long-held pure single notes. There is feedback that even Hendrix would have been proud of, while excellent drumming keeps the song surging along. At 9:12 minutes, there has to be a lot of unrehearsed improvisation here, yet at no point do you get the sense that the guys are bored or going through the motions. Everything “works” in the formation of a remarkable blues-rock composition.

After the heady, abstract escapism of that track, Two Heads brings you back down to earth with a bump, before the album ends on the contemplative note of Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon. Here again, it is the quality of the distorted, grungy lead guitar which sets this song apart. There is some audacious experimentation as guitar notes and vocal harmonies go into counterpoint, again and again. Truly, Baxter’s was a remarkable album.

Crown of Creation

But it was the next album, Crown of Creation, from 1968, which I remember so vividly as being part of my upbringing – indeed a vital part of my education. This was the one we encountered at Jakkals’s house that wine-sodden day, probably in the early 1970s, with a cover featuring a picture of the group within the warm embrace of an orange, mushroom cloud. Wikipedia calls it a “transitionary record, more structured than its predecessor”. It was here that the Grace Slick song Lather was to be found, though again I recall us first encountering it on a compilation album, or via the single. Wikipedia says Lather is said to be about drummer Spencer Dryden, “with whom she was rumoured to be having an affair”. Elsewhere, the website says it was written to mark Dryden’s 30th birthday, which makes sense, and also for Casady’s “arrest for nudity at Santa Cruz under the influence of LSD”.

We first heard Dave Crosby’s Triad on that seminal Crosby Stills Nash & Young album, Four Way Street. But I see from Wikipedia that when he was with the Byrds, they decided not to record it because of its “objectionable” subject matter, a ménage a trios. The album also contains “the searing sex and drug anthem, Greasy Heart”. Wikipedia tells us that the title track, Crown Of Creation, was inspired by the novel, The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham, with many of the lyrics coming from the book. But let’s give the AB CD a spin.

Lather, the opening track on this album, was the Grace Slick song that really got to me. There seem to be two sides to Slick’s voice. On one hand, she can sound sublimely beautiful, but a menacing element is always lurking – the product, of course, of the subject matter of her lyrics. This song starts with the word, Child!, stage-whispered, before Slick, accompanied folk-song-like on acoustic guitar, tells the tale of this character with the bizarre name of Lather. It is not long before a plethora of background sound effects add a new layer to Lather. A look at the lyrics will illustrate why this song caused this teenager a certain amount of emotional disquiet. “Lather was thirty years old today, / They took away all of his toys. / His mother sent newspaper clippings to him, / About his old friends who’d stopped being boys. / There was Harwitz E Green, just turned thirty-three, / His leather chair waits at the bank. / And Sergeant Dow Jones, twenty-seven years old, / Commanding his very own tank.” At this point, a nicely timed shell being fired can be heard. However, Slick who – as noted earlier was apparently singing about Spencer Dryden – is about to put the knife in, metaphorically: “But Lather still finds it a nice thing to do, / To lie about nude in the sand, / Drawing pictures of mountains that look like bumps, / And thrashing the air with his hands.” This is the first time I’m seeing these lyrics, so it’s a pleasure to get the full import of what she was singing: “But wait, oh Lather’s productive you know, / He produces the finest of sound, / Putting drumsticks on either side of his nose, / Snorting the best licks in town, / But that’s all over…” Behind can be heard the muzzled, crazed tones of what sounds like a kazoo, one of those plastic devices which were popular even in this country at the time, with our friend DJ Grant often walking along, in another world, playing Hendrix lead breaks on his kazoo. Back to Lather: “Lather was thirty years old today, / And Lather came foam from his tongue. (Can that line be right, I ask?) / He looked at me eyes wide and plainly said, / Is it true that I’m no longer young? / And the children call him famous, / what the old men call insane, / And sometimes he’s so nameless, / That he hardly knows which game to play ... / Which words to say ... / And I should have told him, ‘No, you’re not old.’ / And I should have let him go on ... smiling ... baby-wide.” Ah, the rigours of growing up and growing older …

As I listened to this album for the first time in decades, I tried to establish just how familiar it was to me. Obviously a song like Lather was deeply embedded in my memory. But what of the others? In Time, a Balin/Kantnor composition, definitely rang bells. Here snaking lead breaks overlay lovely acoustic guitar, as the tempo rises and falls. The next track, Triad, I was obviously familiar with from CSN&Y’s Four Way Street. If anything, this is a better version than David Crosby’s original, with the extraordinary acoustic guitarwork providing a perfect platform for some superb Slick vocals. “You want to know how it will be / Me and him, or you and me…” At times, as she sings about the possibilities of a ménage a trios, her voice takes on a decidedly jazzy texture: “No one has ever said such a thing to you…” Throughout her voice and the guitars are beautifully in synch: “What can we do now we both love you …”

Jorma Kaukonen’s Star Track was definitely familiar to me. While the words were never clear, it was those three words, “If you can”, which were an instant reminder. This is a good, straight, heavy rock song with superb lead guitar breaks.

Balin’s Share A Little Joke was equally familiar. It starts with a thwacked drum and some high lead and bass notes. Again, there is a strong folk element, embellished with typically searing lead guitarwork.

Dryden’s short (1:20 minutes) Chushingura is a Pink Floydish bit of experimentation, the various sound effects creating a decidedly sci-fi feel, ahead of the surging bass- and wah-wah lead guitar-led blues-rock number, If You Feel, a Balin/Gary Blackman composition.

But if I needed an instant reminder of this album, it came in the form of the title track. It may have been more commercial, more accessible, but Crown Of Creation also, for me, really encapsulates the Jefferson Airplane sound. Those big notes from bass and guitar send one stridently into the realm of some beautiful harmonising between Slick and the male members: “You, are the Crown of Creation / You are the Crown of Creation / and you’ve got no place to go.” What was Kantnor on about? Perhaps we’ll discover? “Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for / in the only way that it’s granted / in a place among the fossils of our time.” Now those words I never deciphered in my many listenings to this song, which then slows for the following lines: “In loyalty to their kind / they cannot tolerate our minds. / In loyalty to our kind / we cannot tolerate their obstruction.” As noted earlier, this song was inspired by the novel, The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham, with many of the lyrics coming from the book. Might well be worth giving the book a read… Anyway, it is the bass guitar which stands out as the song progresses, as it sets the pace, and slows again for the following: “Life is Change / How it differs from the rocks / I’ve seen their ways too often for my liking / New worlds to gain / My life is to survive / and be alive / for you.” Clearly not a superficial pop song, I am delighted to say. How many artists today are exploring literature in this way? The Doors did it, too, as I’m sure did many other groups I have covered and will cover. It was a mark of the Renaissance nature of the era that all the arts became, in a way, interactive – even though there was little of the digital technology which makes such interaction so readily achievable today.

Ice Cream Phoenix, a Kaukonen/Charles Cockey song, was again fairly familiar, with acoustic guitar again providing a nice layer of texture within a fairly heavy track. Slick’s voice takes on a Buffy Sainte Marie quality at times, especially when she sings note for note in tandem with the guitar: “Still not cry when they have to go…” Also familiar was Greasy Heart, another Slick classic, especially the line: “He wants to sell his paintings, but the market is slow…” Again, that Kaukonen guitar tears along, wah-wah to the fore. But what was the song about?

Finally, in something of a sequel to The Ballad Of You And Me and Pooneil, we have The House At Pooneil Corners, which starts with the same guitar pyrotechnics and sound effects, before slowing, with an organ taking centre stage. There is a moody, threatening quality as Slick and the guys sing what is again a familiar refrain: “You and me keep walking and we see all the bullshit around…” Again, the bass guitar is superb, as the upper reaches of the fretboard are explored. There is even a possible synthesizer towards the end, as the song culminates in a progressive array of sounds.

Bless Its Pointed Little Head

My late brother, Alistair (AB), kept far closer tabs on this group than I did. I know he adored, even if just for its title, their 1969 live album, Bless Its Pointed Little Head, recorded at the Fillmore and the Fillmore East. Wikipedia says four of the songs were never recorded in the studio, while the others were “completely transformed into much heavier versions”. Jack Casady’s “walking line bass playing” is said to dominate, while the blues track, Rock Me Baby is a “harbinger of Casady and Kaukonen’s later band, Hot Tuna”. Now there’s a band I had not thought to include here, though I did pick up a vinyl album of theirs from the second-hand shop. Another stand-out is said to be the line-up on Donovan’s Fat Angel, with the musicians not playing their usual instruments, demonstrating their versatility. An 11-minute “improvised jam”, Bear Melt, is also said to be a highlight. One day I hope to listen to this album…


I do not recall an association with their next album, Volunteers, from 1969, though I’m fairly sure they performed the title track at Woodstock that year, during an early morning set they called “morning maniac music”: “Volunteers of America, volunteers of America…” This would square with Wikipedia’s description of the album as “their most political venture”. Other highlights cited are We Can Be Together, Good Shepherd and Wooden Ships. This track, which we became so familiar with thanks to the Woodstock version by Crosby Stills Nash & Young, was composed by Stephen Stills, Dave Crosby and Paul Kantner.

Wikipedia says it was originally intended to call the album Volunteers of America, a sort of ironic reference perhaps to the draft which saw so many young men sent off against their will to fight in Vietnam, as we would soon be forced to do in our own “Nam” – Namibia, or South West Africa, as it was then known. Wikipedia says pressure from RCA, the record company, led to the original name being dropped. Guest artists on the album include Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar, veteran session pianist Nicky Hopkins, Joey Covington who would join the band later on drums, and Crosby and Stills. Despite all the controversy around the album’s supposed hippie philosophy, it emerges that Volunteers of America was not about the draft. Wikipedia says it was inspired “by a Volunteers of America garbage truck that awoke singer Mary Balin one morning”. The opening track, We Can Be Together, also elicited some negative reaction do to the line, “Up against the wall, motherfucker”, while conservatives also baulked at the use of the word, shit, several times on Eskimo Blue Day. Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s “razor sharp guitar work” on Hey Fredrick, Good Shepherd and Wooden Ships is considered superb, says Wikipedia.

But this was Airplane founder Balin and drummer Spencer Dryden’s last album with the band, and the last for the group for two years, as Casady and Kaukonen turned their focus on the nascent Hot Tuna, while Kantner and Slick became parents to daughter China in 1971. Something to look out for on the 2004 CD re-release is, says Wikipedia, a “magnificent rendition” of Wooden Ships from a Fillmore East, New York, concert in November 1969. Indicative of how this group is revered, Volunteers is ranked No 370 on that Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums.

Bark, Long John Silver, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, Early Flight

Kantner’s obsession with science fiction would find an early outlet in the 1970 single, Have You Seen The Saucers, the B-side to Mexico, which criticised President Richard Nixon’s Operation Intercept, aimed at blocking marijuana imports. The early 1970s saw major changes in personnel. With Balin and Dryden gone, the group released Bark in 1971 and Long John Silver in 1972, on their own label, Grunt. Joining new drummer and vocalist Joey Covington was brilliant Afro-American blues fiddler Papa John Creach. But of these albums I recall little. With Kaukonen and Casady embroiled in Hot Tuna – they released the acoustic Hot Tuna in 1970 and the electric Pull Up, Then Pull Down in 1971 – further changes were afoot. Their second live album, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, from 1973, Wikipedia says is best remembered for its cover art of a squadron of flying toasters, said to have inspired the After Dark computer screensaver design. Finally, Early Flight, a collection of singles and B-sides, was released in 1974, the last Jefferson Airplane album.

Because the airplane was about to go into space.

Blows Against the Empire

Blows Against the Empire (1970), for us, was as important a “Jefferson” album as Crown of Creation, though without some prompting at the moment I cannot recall anything on it. It was, says Wikipeida, a concept album by Paul Kantner featuring an ad hoc group of musicians he dubbed Jefferson Starship. It included Dave Crosby and Graham Nash; Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart of Grateful Dead, and Airplane members Slick, Covington and Casady. While the album is so distant in my memory, it seems it was about a group of people escaping earth in a hijacked starship. And in 1971 it was nominated for a top science fiction prize, the Hugo Award.

While the album was credited to Kantner and Jefferson Starship, the actual band of that name was only officially formed in 1974. I would dearly like to hear this album again, because the Wikipedia information has been unable to spark concrete memories. All I can relate is that it ranges from light folk (The Baby Tree) through to “proto-grunge” (Mau-Mau [Amerikon]), with the general mood being “the kind of improvised, free-form rock & roll epitomised by the Bay Area bands of the day”.

Given its title, it not surprising that lyrically the album “celebrates counter-culture idealism”. It is, says Wikipedia, set in a future where “the counter-culture is about to unite and decide their own fate away from planet Earth”.

Side 1 opens with the lengthy Mau Mau (Amerikon), followed by the brief The Baby Tree, Let’s Go Together and A Child Is Coming. As I read these tracks a memory is ignited. The Baby Tree. I recall this gentle folk song, juxtaposed against the heavier stuff. A Web search reveals that it is indeed familiar. Written by Rosalie Sorrells, the song had a whimsical quality that was perfectly apposite: “There’s an island way out in the sea / Where the babies they all grow on trees / And its jolly good fun / To swing in the sun / But you gotta watch out if you sneeze-sneeze / You gotta watch out if you sneeze.” These lyrics are so familiar, yet the song itself defies all attempts at recollection … unless, of course, I waste a bit of Internet cap and YouTube it… Ah, the marvels of modern technology. There were several versions of the song to choose from. There did not seem to be any with actual live footage of the band, but I found a delightful offering complete with pictures of babies. Kantner sings to the accompaniment of acoustic guitar and banjo. It is a classic folk song, almost in the Pete Seeger tradition. Quite bizarre, indeed, in the context of the rest of the album. The lyrics are lovely: “Yeah you gotta watch out if you sneeze / For swingin’ up there in the breeze / You’re liable to cough / You might very well fall off / And tumble down flop on your knees-knees / Tumble down flop on your knees.” Verse 3: “And when the stormy winds wail / And the breezes blow high in a gale / There’s a curious dropping and flopping and plopping / And fat little babies just hail-hail / Fat little babies just hail.” Finally: “And the babies lie there in a pile / And the grownups they come after awhile / And they always pass by / All the babies that cry / And take only babies that smile-smile / They take only babies that smile ... / Even triplets and twins if they’ll smile.” What were we, as teenagers bent on exploring the depths of underground music, to make of this song, which was almost full-blown English folk? The point is that we were open to all kinds of music, so this was taken in our stride. It was just another facet of the Kantner genius. YouTube is a dangerous thing. You can get sucked into its tube and never re-emerge to continue writing. So, after samples of half a dozen other Jefferson tracks, none of them off this album, let’s leave it at that. It will be great, one day, to hear this album again.

Side 2 is the Blows Suite, comprising tracks titled Sunrise, Hijack, Home, Have You Seen The Stars Tonite (which in fact I did see just now on YouTube and which sounded very familiar), and finally Starship. Wikipedia goes to great lengths in its critique of this album, which signifies its significance, if that isn’t a tautology. I can almost feel this album trying to reinsert itself in my psyche, from all those years back, from Slick’s acoustic piano, to her duet with herself on Sunrise. I got a sampling of Have You Seen The Stars Tonite, from a 2005 concert by a clearly reunited outfit, and that gives a clear indication of the beautiful music which abounds on this album, with acoustic and electric instruments melded together. There are two “sound effects” tracks on the Blows Suite “simulating the starship engines and the flight through space”, whilst various other “sound bites” and “heavily processed background vocal tracks” are present, including a clip from the 1953 War of the Worlds movie, in which a woman calls out “Let me through!”, followed by the sound of a ray gun firing. Let me at this album! I say.

The album sleeve featured a brightly clothed figure against a black background, with the words Blows Against the Empire at the bottom. It is, says Wikipedia, a piece of Russian folk art from a painted lacquer box. Kantner evidently liked the idea of “stealing” the art from a then Soviet Union where so many of their albums were bootlegged on the black market. Indeed, the original gatefold sleeve contained a wealth of “extras”, including a full-colour booklet with lyrics, poetry and drawings, mostly done by Slick during recording sessions. Happily, much of this is contained in the latest CD releases of the album.

It is interesting to note Wikipedia’s analysis of the album’s narrative concept. It tells the story of a “counter-culture revolution against the oppressions of ‘Uncle Samuel’ and a plan to steal a starship from orbit and journey into space in search of a new home”. Uncle Samuel is clearly Uncle Sam, Establishment USA. The song Mau Mau (Amerikon) is a “counter-culture manifesto and call to arms”. With the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya no doubt fresh in the global memory, this is a clever way of driving home the revolutionary message. While seemingly unsuited, The Baby Tree, as I thought too, is seen to fit neatly into the narrative, as an “acid-induced daydream about pregnancy”. Anyone buying this album is advised to consult Wikipedia for an in-depth analysis of the work, which Kantner says was based on the novel, Methuselah’s Children, by Robert Heinlein.


Another album by Kantner and Slick, this time without the Starship appellation, called Sunfighter, was also part of our experience, though I have been unable to get much info about it on the Web. It was, says Wikipedia, “an environmentalism-tinged album released in 1971 to celebrate (their daughter) China’s birth”. I’d dearly love to hear it again. It was followed in 1973 by Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun, which, says Wikipedia, is titled from the nicknames David Crosby gave the couple. The album included bassist-keyboard player-vocalist David Freiberg as an equal partner.

With teenage guitarist Craig Chaquico also part of the line-up, this would form the basis of Jefferson Starship in 1974. Other key members were drummer John Barbata and legendary fiddler Papa John Creach and bass and keyboard-player Pete Sears. And, with Balin also rejoining, it seems the band did gradually beome more commercial. Wikipedia says some Airplane fans were “less than happy with its more mainstream direction”. Albums like Dragongfly, Red Octopus, Spitfire and Earth all proved big sellers. But, sadly, we had basically had our fill of the band at that stage and moved on to other pastures, having experienced the group at its genesis, when a new musical revolution was being born.

I was saddened to read that Slick was beset by alcoholism by the late 1970s. Once, during a concert in Germany in 1978, in a drunken stupor she “shocked the audience by using profanity and sexual references throughout most of her songs. She also reminded the audience that their country had lost during World War II”. Hardly the way to win fans. Soon afterwards she quit the band. However, she returned a few years later, as it continued to undergo personnel changes, up until its final two albums, Winds of Change (1982) and Nuclear Furniture (1984).

Wikipedia says Slick embraced the new rock-video age, and often appeared on MTV. While the band’s albums were “only modestly successful”, they remained “a gold-selling (and thus commercially credible) act and a popular concert draw”.

Then the Starship jettisoned Jefferson. Wikipedia notes that in 1984, Kantnor – the last remaining founding member of Jefferson Airplane – left the group, and took legal action to prevent remaining members retain the Jefferson name. Starship was born, with Freiberg also quitting. As my father used to say: go commercial! Knee Deep in the Hoopla was their 1985 album, and it contained two No 1 hits – We Built This City (on rock and roll), which was written by former Elton John songwriter Bernie Taupin and three others – and Sara. The album reached No 7 and went platinum.

When Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now hit No 1 in 1987, Slick became the oldest female vocalist to sing on a Billboard Hot 100 No 1 hit. She was 47. Wikipedia says Cher broke the record in 1999, at age 52, with Believe.

Other successes followed, but this was not the Jefferson we grew up with. And Slick came to recognise that, because she left Starship in 1988, “having become disillusioned with the band’s new pop image”, says Wikipedia. It adds that “to this day, Grace maintains that old(er) people ‘don’t belong on a rock and roll stage’”. This is a point I have continually made, especially in relation to the likes of the Rolling Stones. Thankfully, in 1990, the band finally disbanded.

Numerous reunions and hive-offs followed, with Wikipedia dealing with them in depth. Suffice to say, the key players in Jefferson Airplane all survived into the 21st century, and continued to live by their music. Some are still keeping the Jefferson sound alive, but all would acknowledge that it was that heady first few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Jefferson Airplane really took off and controlled the skies. Their mellow West Coast sound formed part of a powerful and influential group which included The Byrds, The Doors, Grateful Dead, Lovin’ Spoonful and Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Wikipedia says this blending of elements of folk, jazz and rock would be continued by bands like Steely Dan and the Eagles.

Be that as it may, there was a time, as the Sixties became the Seventies, that Jefferson Airplane were the best thing going, and we were privileged again to have been caught up in the musical revolution which they helped instigate.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Led Zeppelin

At the outset, let me be honest, I wasn’t a great Led Zeppelin fan. I know it’s a serious admission, but there it is. I remember the band primarily due to two songs: Whole Lotta Love and the sublime Stairway To Heaven, which is surely one of THE great songs of the modern era.

Oh, and the record covers. It was surely a masterstroke to use that image of a zeppelin and make it the centerpiece for the design of so many of their albums. And for some reason their fourth album, the one with the old man carrying a load of sticks, or suchlike, on his back, seems to be more familiar than the others. Perhaps I borrowed it from one of my classmates for a while. I suspect it was also the album with Stairway To Heaven on it, but we’ll find out in due course.

I have never been a great heavy metal fan, although I did go through a phase in high school where I enjoyed blasting my brain with the sounds of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad and, well, Led Zeppelin. But it was Stairway To Heaven, with its folk-like subtleties – particularly in that opening section where just an acoustic guitar and flute accompany the high-pitched tones of vocalist Robert Plant – that captured my imagination. I even later tried to play it myself, which impressed on me just how complicated those chords are. And then, recently, I gave the song a fresh listen, not having heard it for probably 30 years, and I realised afresh just how inept my attempts had been at replicating that iconic work of musical art.

I always associated the term, heavy metal, with heavy industry. This was working class rock, for people who worked with iron and steel. People who got off on loads of distortion and fiery lead guitar. Yet Stairway, and I’m sure many other songs by Led Zeppelin, show that the band was capable of incredibly nuanced music. Just as it is dangerous to generalize about people, such as those working in construction or heavy industry, so too is it folly to dismiss groups based on simple categorisation.

It is time, however, to see what the experts have to say about the band – and where it got its name from.

Robert Plant

For starters, Wikipedia tells us that they became one of the most successful groups in modern music history. Like the Beatles, there were four of them: lead guitarist Jimmy Page, vocalist and harmonica-player Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham and John Paul Jones, who played bass guitar, keyboards and mandolin. That last instrument gives a hint that folk music must lie at the band’s heart. Indeed, listening to Stairway, it is notable that, as with so many other classic rock hits, it is the acoustic guitar which provides the underlying structure to the song. It is, to my mind, the rock musical equivalent to the art of drawing in the visual arts. In order to create a great painting, even a sculpture, it is essential you experience the discipline, and joy, of mastering the art of drawing from life.

But back to the band. They were relatively late-comers to the 1960s renaissance, having been formed in 1968. Wikipedia says they are “best known as pioneers of hard rock and heavy metal”, but also drew inspiration from blues, rockabilly, reggae, soul, funk, jazz, classical, Celtic, Indian, Arabic, folk, pop, Latin and country. That is one mean eclectic mix! One wonders whether THEY realised they were that diverse. But with over 300 million album sales, a third of that in the US, they certainly proved popular.

Jimmy Page

Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds in 1966 – as a bass player, would you believe, after the original bassist left the group. He soon realised he was on the wrong instrument and switched to playing second lead guitar, creating probably one of the first dual lead guitar bands with the legendary Jeff Beck, who however, left in October of that year. Wikipedia tells us Page wanted to form a super group comprising himself, Beck, The Who’s Keith Moon on drums and John Entwistle on bass, with Donovan, Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott considered as vocalists. What a shame it never happened, although Page, Beck and Moon did record one song together for Beck’s 1968 album, Truth. It was here that Page first worked with bassist John Paul Jones.

In order to fulfill a Yardbirds obligation in Scandinavia, Page formed a band the New Yardbirds, which included Birmingham singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham from Redditch, and Jones on bass. The New Yardbirds soon became Led Zeppelin, a name – wait for it – Keith Moon got from John Entwhistle’s term for a bad gig. Wikipedia says he would describe it as “going down like a lead zeppelin”. In order to prevent “thick Americans” from pronouncing it “leed”, they changed the spelling to Led and it stuck. Indeed, it has become one of the great rock group names of our time, up there with the Stones, Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Who. Significantly, the band secured an advance deal from Atlantic Records – without ever having seen them, apparently based on the recommendation of singer Dusty Springfield. Even before their first album, they did a tour of several major US cities.

I acquired a CD box set from 1990, which contains key songs from the group’s main albums and gave it a listen, taking the tracks album by album. It became a journey of discovery, or rediscovery in the case of the few Zeppelin songs I was familiar with.

I was bowled over by just how advanced and progressive their sound was/is.

Led Zeppelin I

The first Led Zeppelin album was released in January, 1969, and is seen, says Wikipedia, as “one of the pivotal records in the creation of heavy metal”, though it blends blues, folk and eastern influences with distorted amplification.

While the album purports to contain several “blues standards”, their treatment is altogether fresh and well, metallic.

Communication Breakdown has all the right ingredients of a heady, head-banging bit of heavy rock, from pounding bass and drums to high-pitched vocals and a mean lead break. Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You opens with subtle acoustic guitar, a la Traffic, but soon gets a whole lot heavier … before softening again. Indeed, this seems to be the key to the early Led Zeppelin blues rock sound. While Page is renowned as an electric guitarist, it is surely his acoustic lead, played on shiny steel strings, which is a hallmark of this and so many other songs, along with some excellent finger-picking which gives the works an added dimension.

I Can’t Quit You Baby may be a Willie Dixon blues standard, but here it takes on a Hendrix-like quality, with the lead guitar searing ahead ineluctably, although there is one delightfully subtle section before the macho power is again unleashed – and all for the sake of a woman! This then leads into Dazed And Confused, a bluesy song marked by the eerie sound of an electric guitar played with a bow which yields sounds ranging from wild elephants to Jurassic-park like dinosaur calls. Then, as if to break free, the song ends with plectrum-struck notes.

That finger-picked acoustic guitar sound again blossoms on Your Time Is Gonna Come, which is a lovely song about a lover’s vengeance. I even detected some slide-guitar, which shows a country music influence.

One upshot of this first album was the scathing criticism from Rolling Stone magazine, which later regretted maligning the group when it later made good, very good.

The album cover, based on images of the Hindenburg crashing in flames in 1937, also got the band into trouble – from none other than a relative of the creator of the Zeppelin aircraft. Wikipedia tells us that they did a concert in Copenhagen in February, 1970, and had to be billed as “The Nobs” after legal action was threatened by aristocrat Eva von Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin II

There is no denying the primordial, primeval force of Whole Lotta Love – Wikipedia calls it bludgeoning – which is the first song on Led Zeppelin II, which was also released in 1969 and reached No 1 in both the US and UK.

But what are those opening lines? To me, growing up in sunny SA, it sounds like he’s asking if his chick needs a cold, refreshing drink: “Do you need KoolAid?”. In fact, a web lyric search reveals, what Plant is saying is: “You need coolin, baby, I’m not foolin / I’m gonna send you back to schoolin, / Way down inside honey, you need it / I gonna give you my love / I’m gonna give you my love.” The chorus: “Wanna whole lotta love?” repeated four times. There is an interesting “abstract interlude” soon after the song starts, with drums and screeching sounds, before the melody returns in all its searing glory. The sexual allusions seem clear. “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” is surely meant to be taken literally, as is “Way down inside, woman, / You need love.”

I know I never really got into this album as a young un because the other tracks on the compilation disc from it were not familiar to me – though most enjoyable. Ramble On, for instance, contains that combination of acoustic and electric guitar which is a classic Zeppelin trait. Interesting, at a time when The Lord Of The Rings was not nearly as popular as it is today, the song contains the lines: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor / I met a girl so fair, / But Gollom, and the evil one crept up / And slipped away with her.”

On Heartbreaker, what seems like an ordinary heavy track suddenly is interrupted – by silence – against which a lengthy Page lead break pounds. There is a mystical quality to What Is And What Should Never Be, with the vocals acquiring an echo effect. But again, the song intersperses subtlety with driving aggression. On Thank You, Page’s acoustic lead is given full rein in another fine song about love, something that surely only the young are qualified to talk about with this sort of passion.

Led Zeppelin III

Led Zeppelin III, which had a cover with a wheel that rotated, displaying various images through cutouts in the main jacket sleeve, was released in October, 1970.

The band, little beknown to me, acquired a nickname thanks to the powerful, catchy rock ballad, Immigrant Song, which references the Norse invasion of Britain (in imitation, perhaps of the earlier Roman “immigration”). Written by Page and Plant after the band’s recent visit to Iceland, the critics evidently loved the song’s imagery of Viking conquest and Norse mythology, leading to the group becoming known as “gods of rock” or “hammer of the gods”. It is indeed one of the more memorable Zeppelin songs, which the more I hear it the more it takes me back to those days of legendary music: “Ah, ah, / We come from the land of the ice and snow / from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow. / The hammer of gods / Will drive our ships to new lands, / To fight the horde, singing and crying, / Valhalla, I am coming! / On we sweep with threshing oar, / Our only goal will be the western shore …” This was great lyric writing, and while the song itself is unashamedly heavy, it sets the tone for an album which sees the group venturing into the realm of progressive rock, and even folk rock.

The Celtic influence seemed to seep in while Plant and Page were ensconced at Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales. This gave them Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp, which, says Wikipedia, was a “complete remake of Bert Jansch’s song, The Waggoners Lad”. It features complex acoustic guitar picking and, with much stomping and clapping, invokes Morris dancing. There is even the sound of castanets, or possible the use of spoons, such my wife Robyn and I heard while attending a traditional Irish “session” at a pub in Waterford in 1991.

Another folk-rock song is Tangerine, where the acoustic guitar picking is subtly supplemented by bass and drums, with an electric lead soaring overhead in the heavier sections. A country feeling is evident in the use of slide guitar. Also in the folk-rock mould is Gallows Pole, which Wikipedia informs us is a remake of Leadbelly’s Gallis Pole, which in turn was an imported version of the British folk song The Prickle Holly Bush. There is, however, a blues feeling to Plant’s vocals: “Hangman, hangman …” There are also echoes of Steeleye Span in the use of mandolin and later even banjo. Yet, inevitably, the song gets heavier, with the lead guitar ending up sounding like an electric violin (and also a bit like Eric Clapton). The end result, would you believe: folk metal!

But the blues roots are also strongly evident in a song like Since I’ve Been Loving You, a song which starts off slowly with sharp, Peter Green-like, electric guitar lead. Like the temperamental souls bluesmen often are, the song takes one on a rollercoaster of emotions, sometimes quiet and gentle, others loud and brash, sometimes all sweetness and light, others short-tempered and angry. Plant’s vocals in places had me thinking Ian Gillian thoughts, the Deep Purple singer’s high-ranging vocals having made such an impact on a wide audience not only through the group’s own albums, but also through his performance on Jesus Christ Superstar.

Led Zeppelin IV

The early 1970s, when I was in high school, was the period when I soaked up much of my music, and Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was clearly part of that, thanks essentially to Stairway To Heaven, one of the most famous songs of all time.

Wikipedia records that the band would release their best-selling albums between 1971 and 1975. They would also become more image conscious, wearing far more elaborate clothing on stage, as others were doing, led by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Roger Daltrey of The Who, not to mention David Bowie. They also established a reputation as hotel wreckers, at a time when it was evidently de rigueur for heavy metal bands to trash their accommodation. Most importantly, they survived to record another album, and the fourth album, which never actually had a name, followed in November, 1971. It features a cover of a man carrying sticks on his back. And again the bedrock use of acoustic guitar is a hallmark of this album, and especially THAT song. Folk definitely meets metal on this song, which starts off with gentle acoustic guitar backed by what sounds like recorders, but is evidently played on keyboards. As I write, I have in fact just seen the group perform this song for the first time, snatching a couple of minutes at work to watch them on YouTube. And finally it dawned on me. It is Robert Plant who is the focal point of the group. It makes sense, I suppose. He is the lead vocalist. Page may be a brilliant songwriter and guitarist, but does not have the same stage presence. Indeed, in this live rendition of Stairway, Plant reveals himself to have a sensual, almost bisexual presence. He shakes his mane of fair hair and gestures in a feminine way with his long-fingered hands, while his sinuous, entirely fat-free body, visible in an open-fronted shirt, must have had the ladies drooling. And the song brought back memories of my late brother, Alistair (he died of a heart attack aged just 41 in 1996). “Doesn’t anybody remember laughter?!” was a line from this live rendition that AB, as we knew him, would often quote, and Plant says it just after the line “and the forests will echo with laughter”. Indeed, this live version, to my mind, is far superior to the studio rendition on Four. It enables Plant to really stamp his personality on a song which could be considered somewhat dry and remote. Yet the structure of the song is superb, with the level of “heaviness” rising with each verse as first the acoustic guitar moves from being picked to being strummed, then the bass kicks in, then electric guitar, then drums, then cymbals and finally a lead break which, says Wikipedia, a Guitar World poll conducted in 2005 voted the greatest guitar solo of all time. Of course at the time, as with several Beatles songs, the conservatives claimed if you played the song backwards, all manner of satanic messages could be heard, which was palpably rubbish. Played forward, however, the song has enough startling imagery to really get you thinking, because it seems uncannily steeped in ancient English mythology. I mean who is this lady they sing about? “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold / and she’s buying a stairway to heaven. / When she gets there she knows if the stores are all closed / with a word she can get what she came for.” It certainly does “make me wonder”. Given the band’s love for JRR Tolkien’s work, I can’t help sense a similar feeling of foreboding in this song as created in Lord of the Rings. “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west / and my spirit is crying for leaving. / In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees / and the voices of those who stand looking. / And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune / then the piper will lead us to reason. / And a new day will dawn for those who stand long / and the forests will echo with laughter.”

The sense of supernatural forces oozes from lines like: “If there’s a bustle in our hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, / it’s just a springclean for the May queen. / Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run / there’s still time to change the road you’re on…” It is good to know that in the end the song is about rock and roll (“to be a rock and not to roll”). Or at least I think it is. Whatever it is, it is a classic; one of those high points in the rock odyssey. Plant, who wrote the song apparently in a single day, prefaced the 1973 live performance on The Song Remains The Same by saying: “I think this is a song of hope.” Hopefully he was right.

But of course in those days albums were about far more than their one stand-out track. This album still includes examples of hard rock, like Black Dog, but the use of acoustic tracks continues, such as The Battle Of Evermore, which is the only Led Zeppelin song to feature a guest vocalist – Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention fame. In this mystical-sounding song, with its echoing vocals, Denny’s harmonies give the song a Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane feel, with Jones’s use of mandolin again a feature.

Going To California is evidently a tribute to Joni Mitchell. It features some beautiful acoustic lead guitar, while its strong folk qualities recall the Grateful Dead and, in parts, also the Incredible String Band.

Another song from the album which rang serious bells for me was Rock And Roll. While the title was not familiar, when I gave it a play one refrain was instantly familiar: “lonely, lonely, lonely…” This pulsating metal song, which in a way for me recalls Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock And Roll, starts: “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled / It’s been a long time since I did the Stroll.” Wishing to get back to “where I come from”, the verse ends, most often with the vocals a cappella, “Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time. Yes it has.”

This was a great album. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at No 66 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Houses of the Holy

But dare I say it? Led Zeppelin become tedious. I’ve dutifully listened to hours of their music, and have found from about the sixth album, Physical Graffiti, the inevitable heavy rock conclusion to most songs becomes repetitious, and indeed downright noisy. Perhaps I’ve got old, but I do need what Paul McCartney calls “information”, lashings of it, on songs. But I’m jumping the gun. Their fifth album, Houses of the Holy has that famous album cover featuring naked, pink children clambering over the basalt colums at Giant’s Causeway off Country Antrim in Northern Ireland. It should also be notable for The Song Remains The Same, but I found this rather tedious. The best track was The Rain Song, which indeed rang some bells. It is different because of the strong use of orchestral backing. How great to hear cellos and violins alongside bass, drums and lead guitar. “It is the springtime of my life …” The lyrics from this song, and indeed the melody, are very familiar. Again, when the acoustic guitar features, it does so brilliantly.

Physical Graffiti

On Physical Graffiti, their first double album, released in 1975 when I was 19 and just out of school, the most memorable track for me was In My Time Of Dying, which Bob Dylan had performed more than a decade earlier. Here, the use of slide guitar works superbly – until the band again allow volume to outstrip musicality. The song ends up too long and too heavy – and splutters to a coughing conclusion. This at a time when Rolling Stone said the only competition the band had for the world’s best rock band were the Rolling Stones and The Who.

I gave Kashmir a listen on the strength of a Wikipedia recommendation that it had strong Indian and Arab influences, but again found it too long, loud and repetitious. Maybe it was just Zeppelin saturation, but I battled again to get into Presence, from 1976. Achilles Last Stand was my last stand as well. I fear, and I may well be mistaken, that like so many other groups before them, Led Zeppelin had started copying themselves. The real genius from their early years was drying up – even though these later albums, including In Through the Out Door from 1978, all excelled on the US and UK album charts.

Led Zeppelin, who finally broke up in 1980 following the death of John Bonham that year, are frankly a difficult group to like. Much of their music is an acquired taste. My gut feeling down the decades has been that I am not much taken by them, yet there are those half a dozen or so songs highlighted above which to my mind still render them inextricably part of the great rock firmament of the era.

In 1995 the band were inducted into the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sadly, even at the big event, there was outward evidence of sharp divisions between the surviving members.

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