Sunday, August 13, 2017

A ramble about my record collection in one paragraph. Do not look for a formal thesis

It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Led Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock. By the time I turned 48, how I perceived the world at 18 - 21 is irrelevant to the fact that they've made some good, sometimes brilliant tunes. Hardly perfect: the lyrics are an embarrassment, but the band is about riff and sound, as Richard Cobeen said in the Lennon thread by way of dismissing the band, but is something I think is crucial to their rock and roll success: riffs and sounds over laid on a varied set of styles and influences that work, sonically, more often than they don't. The lyrics, with the vocals, were just part of the overlay, a part of the texture. Like the Beatles, Steely Dan, and Led Zeppelin were studio artists, where the studio was the proverbial third instrument. Live, they were one of the worst bands I've ever seen--though they sounded pretty damned good when I saw them in '67 (?) on their first US tour with Jethro Tull--but in the studio , their music was finessed and honed, typical in those days. For all his faults as a faulty technician in live circumstances, he is a producer who brought a fresh ear to the recording process, and came up with ideas that circumvented the routine dullness and rigor that's become the bane of less able hard rock and metal bands after his Zeppelin's break up. It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin again got my attention. What the new fascination revealed was a band that was more diverse, musically, than what the fidgeting knocks against them at the time allowed.Led Zeppilin IV is their high water mark for track-by-track knockouts and variety of sounds, but Houses of the Holy is where the band really stretched beyond the comfort of the hard rock style they created. I think they do reggae fine, and "The Crunge" is quite funked up-- Plant's Brown vamping is inspired, and the lyrics are , in turn, somewhat surreal without losing a greasy, fry-cooked crease in the seam.The only real bad aftershock of " Sgt Pepper's" and other "concept albums" from the period was the mistaken notion by other artists that there had to be one grandiose and grandiloquent theme running through  both sides of their albums in order for the their work to be current with the mood of the art rock of the period. The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt.Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and "Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: over lapping themes, lyrically,
are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (it's use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album. Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastrous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable 'Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Who’s Next" and the Kinks , best of all, with "Lola", "Muswell Hillbillies" and "Village Green" , both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums; finally, on the hope that the music is good, the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition. Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but not always, and I think the popular opinion that Pepper is a better disc, song by song, than Satanic Majesties is on the mark. Majesties had The Stones basically playing catch up with the Beatles with their emergent eclecticism and failing, for the most part. That they didn't have George Martin producing and finessing the rough spots of unfinished songs marks the difference. Majesties, though does have at least one great song, "2000 Man", and a brilliant one, "She's A Rainbow" For the rest, it sounds like a noisy party in the apartment next door. The album sounds like a collection of affectations instead of a cohesive set of songs. Cohere is exactly what the tunes on Pepper did, good, great, brilliant, and mediocre. The sounded like they belonged together. Authenticity is such an elusive quality that it's mostly useless when judging as subjective as whether someone's music is legitimate. It's a nice way to chase your own tail, though, which is what many like to do. Better to consider whether the music is at leas
t honest, or better yet, if it's done well: whether music , lyrics, voice, style work on their own terms, makes for a more interesting set of topics, and a more compelling record collection.
I would say that "She's Leaving Home" is one of the most atrociously three hankie wank fests ever written, but I would say that "Good Morning Good Morning" has a lyric that is defensible: it serves the purpose, it's lines and images are clipped, fitting the beats, and the words don't address anything larger than what they're supposed to, a bad mood on a fast morning. It's a self contained set of references, locked in a particular frame of mind. It is not Lennon's subtlest work, but it's not embarrassing at all. "Catch the Wind" is a lovely song, with a beautifully tendered lyric. Though obviously coming into public view on Dylan's coat tails, Donavan was no talentless amateur: he wrote good material in his "new Dylan" period, and did, remarkably, go in a direction quite distinct from Dylan's. He had his moments of good work. Anyone who is still complaining about Zep's less-than-Eliot lyrics has spent too much time staring at their lyric sheets while wearing headphones.It's better to consider Sgt. Pepper as a good album as a good album as a good album, with its historical importance set to the side. There are several good songs on it that have worn well over the decades that keep it from become the equivalent of the nutty uncle you don't want your pals to see. Realizing which songs were good after the fact isn't nostalgia, it's common sense. Catcher in the Rye remains what it is, certainly the classic of growing up twisted and feeling put upon. It makes no sense to trash it just because your reading habits became more sophisticated.