Monday, January 12, 2009

Remembering 40 Years of Good Times, (during some) Bad Times

Okay, so I said I'd talk about Coldplay. We're getting there - I mean, at least it's a band widely accused of having plagiarized a cut or two. But, disappointment to follow: I'm not going to talk about Led Zep's plagiarism, not even after hearing Bert Jansch play what must be the original version of "Black Mountain Side" a year ago or so. Zep's alleged plagiarism of Willie Dixon and others is old news. So are their other alleged nefarious misdeeds, like beating the crap out of one of Bill Graham's concert managers. In fact I think I've mentioned them before in this blog, so why beat a dead, er, whale? Besides, after watching Jimmy Page pop out of that bus at the Beijing Olympics and perform the next to impossible task of convincing us that we should pay any attention to England after that phantasmagoria of sporting prowess and technical wizardry, I am inclined to let the past be the past.

But not quite. Today, you see, is the 40th anniversary of Led Zeppelin's eponymous debut album. (I know, you thought Eponymous was by R.E.M.; and I thought R.E.M. was something you do in the middle of the night.) After spending the day discussing with my brothers whether this was the greatest post-Beatles album of all time, I could not help but want to add a few thoughts to settle the matter. I'm sure my brothers will agree wholeheartedly that this is the end of it. Not that I dare look at the comments for a year or two.

Actually I don't really want to settle whether this is the greatest post-Beatles album ever. (It's not technically post-Beatles, because Abbey Road and Let It Be had yet to come out, but we all know The Beatles were pretty much history by the end of 1969, the year Zep I was released.) There are, for those of us inclined to discuss such things, a few contenders for the crown - Dark Side of the Moon, being a prime candidate, maybe The Yes Album or Close to the Edge, maybe In the Court of the Crimson King. (If I have to say who the bands are you probably won't appreciate this post much. Please move to the next one, where I promise to mention Coldplay at least once.) Not too many more options, though if you want to push it you could maybe make a case for Born to Run or Never Mind the Bullocks or Nevermind (hey... never noticed that before). No question, though, Zep I is sort of in a class by itself, and all I want to talk about here is why it made the impression it did.

And, let's just say, it did - indisputably, indelibly, left an imprint the size of a cattle brand on the belly of rock music. For me, it was the first album that created a sort of mystical communion with the music: lying behind a bar at my summer camp when I was 14 years old, in a kind of makeshift isolation booth with some pillows on the floor and a set of Koss headphones, I and everyone else on the staff spun it on a reel to reel, vying nightly for a chance to listen. There were other albums - Wheels of Fire, definitely, I think maybe Days of Future Passed was among them, and CCR's Bayou Country (the one with "Proud Mary") but the album that summer was Led Zeppelin. Nothing compared.

And that alone is amazing. T
his was July-August of 1969. I'm not sure of the exact release dates, but among the other albums that came out that year were In the Court of the Crimson King, Abbey Road, Let It Bleed, On the Thresshold of a Dream, The Band, 2 or 3 of CCR's best albums, Live Dead and Aoxomoxoa, Clouds, Crosby Still and Nash, The Soft Parade, Hot Rats, The Velvet Underground... and that is really just a snapshot. To say nothing of the equally unbelievable output of 1967-8. Yet, coming at the tail end of what my be the three greatest years ever in popular music ("may be" is a concession to objectivity; shine a light in my brain and you're going to see something like "without the slightest shadow of a question, the 3 greatest years that ever were or will be in popular music" - but I have to be more objective since I'm pretending to be a sort of journalist here) Led Zeppelin demanded and got your undivided attention, from the two opening beats of "Good Times, Bad Times" to the last bowed elephant whine in "How Many More Times". Why? What was so special? I suppose this has been answered before, but I don't really care; I'm going to answer it again.

Start with this: those two opening beats - what are they? Where on earth did they come from? What can you compare them to? Nothing, really; but here's what comes to mind: Bill Haley bursting out, "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock!"; the first guitar chord in "A Hard Day's Night"; or Mick Jagger insisting, "What a drag it is getting old..." at the beginning of "Mother's Little Helper". If not that, then the first line of Moby Dick ("Call me Ishmael"); or the opening of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ("Let us go then, you and I..."). Or, the best analogy I think: the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The point is, it is absolutely as dramatic a statement as you could make, and they did it with two beats. No other album or song intro quite like it in the history of music.

And what happens next? Well, they build. The two beats (dunk-dunk) develop a tail in the form of John Bonham's tap, tap, tap. Then the taps double (dunk-dunk tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap). Then they add a dotted note, and finally, after a perfectly crafted 2-bar drum intro all hell breaks loose. And here already you can pick up, if you are alert, what will be one of the defining aspects of this album: the drums have become an absolutely equal, in fact essential, part of the music. This is not to diminish the brilliant work that had already been contributed by such percussionists as Ringo, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, Mitch Mitchell, Dennis Wilson, Spencer Dryden, Corky Lang and of course Ginger Baker. Ringo's brilliant work on "Come Together" - a lesson in how to make a "rhythm section" into the essence of a song - came out later the same year, but he had made himself an essential part of other Beatles tunes, starting at least as far back as his dynamic fills in "Boys". Baker and Moon were perhaps the closest to breaking out of the backup role and putting the drums in a place of prominence. But with Bonham and Zep the job was completed, and it was not limited to this song or that, it was a totally defining component of the band's sound. Oddly enough, one of the few songs on which Bonham would ever play a straight backbeat was "Kashmir" - perhaps their most "progressive" tune, where the 4/4 backbeat is intentionally at odds with the 6/4 of the meter hammered out by the guitar and keyboards. Never mind the introduction of 30-minute drum solos, the doubling of the bass drum, or other of Bonham's innovations. By the time he provided that slightly off-center 2-bar lead-in, you could pretty much say that rock had entered a new era.

That was only a part of what happened with Zep I, though. The next big story has to be the voice of Robert Plant. Throughout the album, on nearly every cut, Plant's voice is an instrument. Just as the drums have jumped out from behind the curtain and become an instrument, so has the voice. It is no longer confined to singing. It is not confined, period. It sings, it screams, it wails, it whoops, it slides, it practically fornicates with the rest of the sound. It imitates the guitar, the guitar imitates Plant, they go back and forth - "imitates" is a lousy word here, because this is not "imitation" as in a Bach fugue, but a real blending, melding of voice and instrumental sound, until you cannot tell them apart. There are some nice harmonies here, and the singing itself is comparable in emotional quality only, perhaps, to that of Janis Joplin. (I Got Them Old Kosmic Blues Again, Mama was yet another great 1969 release.) But the story here was not just the singing of the lyrics, but the use of the voice as yet another new instrument.

This alone would be enough to turn a page in rock history. But of course, there was Page and his guitar. For one thing, there could be no question, none whatsoever, that this was the most aggressive guitar playing ever seen. Clapton was great, and those who hold him in higher esteem than Page - for his incomparable tone, his clean and graceful lines, his taste, not to mention the incredible double solos on Wheels of Fire - certainly have an argument, just as there are plenty of people who would rate John McLaughlin higher than Larry Coryell. For me, I like something who takes chances, and gets away with them, brilliantly in most cases, even if he sometimes falls, misses a couple of notes, makes some unpleasant noise. Page took chances no one even thought of taking before, and the result was - well, just listen, if you haven't recently, to the solos in "Good Times, Bad Times", "Dazed and Confused", and "Communication Breakdown", for instance. Paganini, the great 19th c. violinist, was accused of having sold his soul to the devil to be able to play the way he did. Page's solos have bat-out-of-hell quality that has been imitated about a billion times by now, but no mere technician can play rock and roll the way he did. I remember a friend of mine at the time dismissing Page as not very clean, and holding up Alvin Lee of Ten Years After as a better guitarist (Lee's work on the cut "Going Home" is justly famous.) Be that as it may, nothing Alvin Lee, or Zappa, or Jerry Garcia, or even Jorma had done would influence the style of rock guitar playing the way page did. He showed what could be done, in a way that only Jimi Hendrix had done before. If you wish, you could say that Jimmy perfected what Jimi had started. And it all came together, a mature, new, challenging sound, on the band's debut recording!

Page did more than just play fast solos, of course. He practically took the place of two guitarists, turning complex rhthms into leads and leads into the main backbones of songs. He moved beyond the reverb-and-wah-wah effects of the psychedelic era and challenged the echoplex to become part of the aural landscape. In spite of being the godfather of heavy metal, he brought in acoustic guitars with uncompromising fingerstyle technique that retained more than a bit of the feel of British folk music. Easy enough when you are helping yourself to a tune that Jansch had arranged, but "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" was to the best of my knowledge a Page original; and there would be plenty more folk material, from "Gallows Pole" to "Nobody's Fault But Mine". Here he was doing anything particularly new - Jorma's acoustic work, Harrison's sitar, and much else preceded him, but there had been a tendency to get away from it in acid rock. The concentration on both acoustic and Chicago-style urban blues brought a sense of roots-rock authenticity to Zep I that few recent groups could claim. Cream, for sure, The Beatles in their early days, Jefferson Airplane to some extent, maybe Canned Heat - but it was hard to miss the in-your-face attention to serious roots music on this album, even as it moved rock onto a whole new platform. At the same time, the technique of bowing the guitar, especially in "Dazed and Confused" and "How Many More Times", lent an almost surreal quality to the music, beyond psychedelic, not yet space-rock, but something totally futuristic and different and fascinating. "How the hell is he doing that?", was the natural reaction, and on finding out the answer - "I didn't know you could do that!" Well - there you go.

I have not even said a word yet about how Page played the blues. Perhaps because I don't have the words for it. Maybe that is best. There have been great blues players since - Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thoroughgood, many others - but with all due respect, there are few recordings in the history of rock that even equal, much less surpass, the two (properly attributed) Willie Dixon cuts on Zep I, "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Babe". You can laugh at Page's imitation of Chuck Berry's patented shuffle on stage, but I've heard, I think, every major urban blues guitarist before Page, and I mean from Tampa Red and Lowell Fulson to B.B. King and Muddy Waters, and nobody played the blues quite like that. Of course, they couldn't: because he didn't just play the blues, he used the most cutting edge electronic effects to their full potential, and achieved a new kind of blues vocabulary in doing so. Again, only Hendrix compares as an innovator. And if you have any questions about his taste, I urge you to jump a couple of disks forward to Zep III, put those headphones on, and settle in with "Since I've Been Loving You", one of the most tasteful blues recordings ever made, to my ears.

Have I missed anything? Yes, indeed; a quarter of the band, in fact. No, make that two-fifths, since he was not only the bass player but the keyboard man. John Paul Jones - what can you say? There are so many places where his playing is so crucial to the music, I could almost repeat everything I said about Bonham but substitute "bass" for "drums". Caution suggests that I should not, though: as great as he was, and as important as he was, there were too many others who pioneered that trail, not least of them Paul McCartney. I tend to think that if there is anything McCartney hadn't done with a bass by 1969, then Jack Bruce or Phil Lesh or Jack Casady had. But whatever: from the little fills in "Good Times, Bad Times" to the opening of "Dazed and Confused" to that enormous avalanche of sound that plummets into "Oh Rosie, Oh girl..." in "How Many More Times", Jones was there, a helluva lot more than just a solid bottom. Maybe he wouldn't prove his full mettle until "The Lemon Song" on the next album, but he was already in top form on the first one.

So, how much can you say about a single album? A lot, I guess, since I recently saw a series of monographs on various rock classics for sale in B&N, I think. Come to the PL, folks, we're better and cheaper. But it's time to wrap up, and say goodnight to what is certainly one of the monuments of rock history. There have been some other great debut albums - King Crimson and Blue Oyster Cult, for example. For the most part, though, when you think about it, it has taken even the greatest groups a couple of disks to work up to their full potential. That Led Zep achieved this earth-shaking triumph with their first recording is truly in the realm of the incredible, an Opus 1 equal to the best that anyone else has to offer. To do that and not be a flash in the pan, but go on to record another seven albums packed with brilliant material, that is a feat equalled only by The Beatles, to my mind - and Led Zep's first recording was a greater achievement than anything the Beatles did until at least A Hard Day's Night, if not Revolver. And with that I bid you goodnight.

No comments: