Friday, March 2, 2007
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