Friday, March 2, 2007

LED ZEPPELIN and others...

It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by 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. Now in my mid fifties, 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.It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by 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.
Zeppelin was uncanny in their ability to keep it simple and yet seem sophisticated musically;it 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, the assault on the nervous system that gives us pleasure and empowerment. Dispite the interest in musical ideas far afield of the blues, the band kept it visceral, punchy. They were like a friend of yours who was already ready for brawl.

Like the Beatles, or Steely Dan, Zeppelin was a studio band, 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.
Led Zeppilen 1V 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 with out losing a greasy, fry-cooked crease in the seam. The Song Remains the Same is an unfortunate release , album and film, and confirmed my feeling that Page had devolved to the worst live rock guitarist extant. The BBC sessions, recently released on a two CD effort, shows Page and the boys in full throttle: the guitar work is rangy but crisp and cutting. Plant, likewise, is in full voice, a plus if you liked the way he sang.

The attraction, though, is the guitar work.The only real bad after shock 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 out 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"Muswell "Lola", Hillbillies" and "Village Green Preservation Society" , 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 with the hope that the music is good, the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition.

What makes The Beatles' "Revolver" an album? Good, varied songwriting, inspired performances, and production that rises to the task at hand. Albums have always been song collections, regardless of what the current press hype might have been. What Brian Wilson introduced with the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" introduced were specific musical and production techniques that changed the sound of rock albums to come after his pioneering work, but the work on "Pet Sounds" and other releases are linked sets of songs, period. The genius is what he does within each song, and where those songs get placed on the album. And actually, that is not that much different than what artists and producers had been doing all along. The crucial distinction is that the artist finally had some say in what was released under their name. Authenticity is such an elusive quality that it's mostly useless when judging as subjective as whether someones 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 least 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. Interesting art doesn't “make you work”, but it does render more rewards if one considers it at depth deeper than a Rate-A-Record session on American Bandstand. But for rock and roll, the interesting "art" ought to be imbued with significant amounts of fun that should , seriously, inspire nothing more in a listener than to dance, thrash, get wild and make a fool of themselves, with the hopes they don't get killed in such a
lowbrow rapture.


  1. I was 15 the year John Bonham died and Zeppelin broke up - heartbreaking to me at that tender age. They have always been my favorite band, and I apply no discrimination whatsoever to any of their music. I love the progressive later stuff almost as much as the early stuff. I have never been more enamoured of anyone's guitar playing than Jimmy Page's, never loved anyone's gyrating blues more than Robbie Plant's.

    Now they're my favorite old band, along with Pink Floyd. My favorite later bands are Radiohead and Tool, both heavily influenced by Pink Floyd.

    I saw Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their No Quarter tour. They were pretty good - better than I expected. It's always a pleasure to read about them. Thanks.

  2. Hey dawn

    Thanks for the comment.Led Zeppelin still sound great. They didn't release a single bad album.
    I first saw them in Detroit at at the Grande Ballroom in the late Sixties, and Page and Plant were absolutely unbeatable in chops and voice. Besides Zep, my favorite band was Mountain and the Jeff Beck Group, with strong measures of rhythm and blues ala Motown, Otis, Aretha. These days it's mostly jazz, old school, progressive/fusion, and blues. I love music because it doesn't need words to tell you what it is or what it's about.

  3. I had a collector's item first pressing of Mountain Climbing that an audiophile friend "borrowed" and never returned. He'd also given me a 45 of Immigrant's Song, with Hey Hey What Can I Do on the B-side, and then "borrowed" that back, too. He hung himself in November, so I guess I'll never see those disks again...

    I like a lot of the ambient stuff these days - Hotel Costes and Thievery Corp. I know there's a lot of good stuff out there. If I was more industrious, I'd do my homework.

  4. I don't know much about ambient music, but I like what I've heard in passing. I was at one point obsessed with songwriter and sought to construct a coherent auteur theory about scribes who work in the context of bands, but too many of my favorites--the Police, Steely Dan, Elvis Costello,Joni, Dylan King Crimson, Captain Beefheart--either broke up, jumped the shark, or just vanished. It's hard to create a working theory of rock and roll when your heros output ceases or starts sucking. Jeff Buckley, son of the late Tim, was the last guy I paid attention to, and he died young. A pity, a real tragedy, since he had a big heart , an angel's voice, and a gift for lyric poetry.

  5. 2¢, here:

    1. It makes my teeth hurt to even think of the Beach Boys being compared to the Beatles.

    2. Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy...? ehh. wudn't so hot.

  6. There was a brief period in their heyday when the Beach Boys might rival the Beatles in innovation, especially with the Pet Sounds, Surf's Up, Holland . Brian Wilson became a basket case, though, and effectively turned the BBs into an oldies act.

    I like Houses of the Holy quite a bit. Robert Plant's lyrics are and always have been inane, but the songwriting here is among their strongest--great riffs, unexpected shifts, intriguing moods.

  7. THE VERY LIPS OF HELL by Spermweaver is, hands down, the gnarliest hard rock album ever recorded. Changed my life and yours, though you may not know it.

  8. dave marsh8:13 AM PDT

    Soylstack rocks!


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