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.


kashmeir said...

I see you dont know much about Zeppelin. They owned the 70's,no band comes close to record sales and ticket sales for concerts then Zeppelin. They played all types of music. Jimmy Page for one first met John Paul Jones doing session work in the mid 60's, on donvans "hurdy Gurdy Man".
Jimmy Page is one of the best guitarsist that ever strapped one on, he was a great song writer and producer. Robert Plants vocals are not to be matched by any other rock singer of that era. John Bonhams was such a strong drummer, live he almost took the roof off of the arena whereever they played, and John Paul Jones held everything together with his bass and string playing. In My Time of Dying was and incredible song, the vocals complamented the music, the guitar playing was unreal as it was on Kashmeir and Achilles Last Stand, you should have heard them live, i know because i saw them in 1977 and all three songs i mentioned they played and it was the BEST show i ebver saw and i have seen over 100 concerts

Stefan Becket said...

I know this was posted a long time ago, but I came across your post after Googling (Googleing?) "Doesn't anybody remember laughter?" and found a mighty good read. Kudos to you for the in depth examination of a great band, even if you were left with a less than stellar impression of the albums themselves. I'm kind of in a Zeppelin phase right now, and I'm discovering a lot of great tracks. I've known IV for a long time, but the others I'd never listened to. I particularly enjoy III, the second half especially. Anyway, great post!

Lezlie Kinyon, Ph.D. said...

Thanks- A child of the era, I remember Led Zeppelin as electrifying the stage in their live shows & (of course) all the girls were in love ... er lust.. with Plant and his golden locks. They are often mis-cast as a "metal" band, but their roots were in blues and even blue grass during a time when American youth were only *just* discovering this rich heritage. In many ways they were the quintessential rock band - just when the "pop" industry were trying to shove ultra-produced canned act down our throats, Zepplin put power, stage presence, and- of course - a lot of just plain good rock and roll attitude behind actual musicianship. Unlike the "metal" bands that followed - and tried to say that Zepplin was their forerunner, Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones played (and, in the case of three - still play) clan licks, creative interpretations, lyrical writings and soulful vocals. Of course the members of the band have grown musically and as artists - as we all have over the last 32 years. When I pull out hat old vinyl, these days I hear the musicality missing so often in the popular music of a later era. What amazes me is the way this music has continue to draw fans of a much later generation. Plant's latest successes with Kraus proves beyond any doubt that the musicians of the day are not - and never were - flashes in the pan. And - they can still rock.

Hit counter