After praising The Marshall Tucker Band I reckon it’s time to break out the big guns.
Everyone can list a handful –or more– songs that have presented lyrical challenges. I can list dozens, and there are more than a few that I still am not certain about. And if I were to isolate the one band whose lyrics have been pound for pound most incomprehensible it would without question be Led Zeppelin. When I consider that they are one of my all-time favorite bands, and other than possibly The Beatles the band whose output I’ve logged more hours listening to, it’s curious, bordering on bizzare. This, of course, is not my fault; it’s on the singer. And the fact that we’re talking about one of the great vocalists ever, it is bizarre, bordering on unbelievable. This is the Golden God himself, but just because he has the best pipes doesn’t necessarily translate linguistically: it’s an enigmatic equation when snyntax meets delivery and the only thing that matters is intention: does it work; does it rock? Of course it does. And despite how impossible he often was to understand on every album after Houses of the Holy, it’s never been an issue. In fact, for all the years I struggled in vain (and without the Internets) to decipher what he was singing on songs like “Achilles Last Stand” or “In The Evening or especially (the ever-underrated) “Carouselambra”, it never hampered my experience. In fact, it just might have augmented it. And now that I can easily figure these riddles out, I’m not particuarly inclined to. Not knowings keeps that silly air of mystery alive and, frankly, after three decades and change of singing (and/or lip-synching) the wrong lines, it would at this point be like learning a new language.
I have more to say on this (in particular) and the mighty Zeppelin (in general) another time. In fact, I’m long overdue for some sustained analysis of Led Zep; after having –or taking– the opportunity to write about some of my BFFs the past several years (including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Beatles, The Who and Black Sabbath), I’ve not made it a priority to pontificate on the only quartet that can challenge the Fab Four for title of “best band ever”. So, more on that, to be certain (and that is certain to occupy some real estate in the work-in-progress on all-things-prog-rock).
For now, I want to single out (and celebrate) what might be the song that has caused me the most confusion and joy over the years: “Burning Down One Side”. It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard it, and I still reckon I could guess half the lyrics, if I’m lucky. Let’s go to the back of the rack, from 1982 (!!), and revisit the first song from Robert Plant’s first solo album (!!!) Pictures At Eleven.
Okay, let’s catch our breath and review a few key points.
One: seriously, does anyone have any idea of what he’s saying, other than the times it’s obvious what he’s saying?
Two: how great is this song? Considering the wounds from John Bonham’s death were still raw in ’82 (they are still raw today, thank you very much), it’s remarkable bordering on heroic that Plant was able, much less willing, to make music so soon. (Quick sidenote: for all the people who want to slag off Zeppelin for the myriad reasons people feel obliged to slag off Zeppelin, let’s get one thing on the table: they were the only band to hang it up and keep it hung up. This would have been a no-brainer if Page or Plant had died, but considering it was “only” the drummer, not that many people would have protested if they had made a go of it into the ’80s with new blood. Not Zeppelin: all for one and one for all; they could not imagine being a band without John “Bonzo” Bonham, so they bloody well were not a band after John “Bonzo” Bonham. And they were absolutely correct: their legacy remains unsoiled in ways that we wish The Stones, The Who and at least a dozen other middleweight contenders could claim. They were Jim Brown walking away from the NFL while he was still, by far, the best player in the league, and possibly the best running back ever. They get eternal street cred and props for this, even if none of them ever made music nearly as good again.) Plant, to his credit, tried, and even though his solo career seemed a bit…superfluous by the early ’90s, who can fault the dude for wanting to do what he does?
Three: How magnificent is that guitar? Robbie Blunt should have become much more known and beloved than he happened to be, but he positively shines throughout Plant’s debut. If you slept on this release, it’s worth it not only for “Burning Down One Side” but also “Pledge Pin” (complete with sexy sax solo!), the rocking “Slow Dancer” and especially the sublime “Moonlight In Samosa”.
Four: that is Phil Collins pounding the skins. Yes, Phil Collins. A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. More on that (and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, another band that will occupy serious screen space in the work-in-progress) soon.
Five: Isn’t it endlessly invigorating the way music (in general) and specific songs (in particular) can bring you right back to exactly where you were at a certain time in the past? I listen to “Burning Down One Side” and I can tell you precisely where I was, what I was doing, and what I was all about in January, 1983. I can tell you that I was reading Carrie by Stephen King (and missing Sissy Spacek’s unsettling but still-sexy shower scene from the movie version) while patiently waiting for Cujo to become available at the local library (and, having not read it yet, having no clue how awful the subsequent movie would be). I was in 7th grade and the two key achievements of that winter were the first games of spin the bottle and working on the wooden wall clock in shop class –the clock that still hangs at my old man’s house (for anyone reading this who went to Langston Hughes, can I get a shout out for Mr. Goss?). I was “going steady” with “G” but still hung up on “T” and probably already getting nostalgic about that first kiss with “S”. Above all, I listened to music in my room on a clock radio.
Six: I can’t figure out the words of this song, just like I can’t recapture those feelings and fears and discoveries from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is the primary reason I can’t –and won’t– look up the lyrics online: because it’s more important to feel it than to know it. Wasn’t that true of everything from your childhood? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was still true, today?