Led Zeppelin: Day by Day

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Imagine Led Zeppelin in our contemporary culture, with smart phones and social media documenting their every activity and utterance—a ceaseless spectacle. It’s impossible. Literally; obviously. But it’s possible that the legend, the mythology of Led Zeppelin would never reached such heights in today’s social-media climate. The sui generis nature of Led Zeppelin’s lore is that they were at once the biggest band on the planet and—to their considerable credit—the most secretive.

More, they disdained singles, rarely granted interviews (this was especially relevant, and came to augment their street cred, considering the near-universal hostility they encountered from the press during the first several years of the band’s existence) and for better or worse, gave no quarter. As such, for a band virtually everyone knows of, relatively little, at least of substance, is known about Led Zeppelin. Certainly, after the spuriously-sourced and sensational Hammer of the Gods (the unauthorized and mostly discredited 1985 biography of the band by Stephen Davis), all bets were off, and many of the more outlandish rumors (Jimmy Page as shady fan of the occult, Plant’s young son dying because of a botched deal with the devil, etc.) were accepted as fact.

In short, if ever a rock band epitomized the famous quote “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” (from the 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), it’s Led Zeppelin. Fortunately, there have been some corrective steps taken to restore a more balanced, not to mention factual, perspective. When the band showed up wearing tuxedos to receive their Kennedy Center Honors, that likely did much to normalize them in the eyes of the average, less-interested citizen. The recent book Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin allowed fans to review the official record, courtesy of interviews given by the band itself.
Still, for such a beloved, influential and obsessively bootlegged band, a proper—if dry and exacting—document relating the day-to-day has been elusive. For fans more obsessed than simply curious, it’s been difficult to ascertain where the band was and what they were doing from the first rehearsals to the day they called it quits.
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For these fans, Marc Roberty’s Led Zeppelin, Day by Day will become an enduring bible: the good times, the bad times and even the boring times are all documented here, along with tons of color photos and visual curios. Concert promos, press releases, recording session specifics, concert reviews and, for completists, set-lists of every gig. These days most, if not all of this detail and detritus is readily available via the web, but it’s to Roberty’s credit that he was able (and willing!) to assemble everything in one aesthetically pleasing package.

Taken strictly as a historical document, it’s instructive to remember that even though the band was a super group of sorts (Page and John Paul Jones are both well-regarded session musicians and Page, recent guitar god in residence for the Yardbirds), their success was anything but guaranteed. (Of course, as most fans know, the name itself—initially Lead Zeppelin—was a sardonic prediction of how they might be received.) It’s therefore amusing to see an advertisement from December 1968 listing them as “Len Zefflin”, supporting Vanilla Fudge.

On the other hand, eyewitness testimony at the time confirmed that the Mighty Zep would be an unstoppable force. More than one concert review speculated how long they would continue as an opening act, and before long, commentary suggests they were blowing headliners off the stage. The bass player from aforementioned Vanilla Fudge is quoted as saying “There’s no way we can follow that,” as his band rather sheepishly started their own set.

It’s also fascinating to be reminded, considering the Golden God Robert Plant would become, that the group was Jimmy Page’s and, in the early days, he was acknowledged (within and without the band) as the leader. Considering how admired he was as a musician, even by naysayers of the band’s albums, it’s extraordinary how humble—bordering on reticent—Page has always been. Always content to let his art speak for him, Page remains a role model for our TMI era.

Unfortunately, not all the sordid stories are without some basis in fact. We see, even in the initial years, certain shows being lackluster, or canceled altogether due to John Bonham’s various health crises. Bonzo, as was known long before Hammer of the Gods, struggled mightily with alcohol and his antics were a recurring tribulation the others had to deal with. Still, like his compatriot and sometime partner-in-crime Keith Moon, Bonham was seldom boring. One high (and/or low) light is Zeppelin being banned for life from the Tokyo Hilton after a 1971 incident where Bonham massacred his hotel room with—wait for it— a Samurai sword. (When in Osaka…)

Even the most hardcore haters will be hard-pressed to not admire the band’s consistency and (yes) professionalism, confirmed by set-list after set-list. Led Zeppelin built their status, in part, by giving three-plus hour concerts at a time when 90 minute gigs were standard. It’s also telling to contemplate the way famous acts are obliged to play the same songs every show: that Zeppelin was capable of playing “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love” virtually every show for a decade is laudable. Again, once the hysteria and hype is stripped away, the secret to success isn’t particularly complicated: put the fans first, and make meaningful music.

Led Zeppelin has, for many years, been all-things to all people: loathed, loved, copied, scrutinized, glorified. For most, the songs are all that matters; for those who can’t get enough and can’t help needing to know it all, Roberty’s book should scratch that itch. It’s also a refreshing throwback of sorts, having this coffee table book with color photos in the service of recounting how Led Zeppelin became the biggest and most enigmatic band of their time.

 

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Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin (Revisited)

lz

We tend to not think of Led Zeppelin as actual human beings.

The reason, of course, is that they are not. At least not in the ways that can be accurately measured compared to others who made rock music. Only the Beatles have a more pronounced influence and unblemished record of achievement. Interestingly, this is at least in part because both bands called it quits long before they could (should?) have, and as such, they went out at the height of their powers unlike, say, The Who and The Rolling Stones, who have spent the latter decades making mostly forgettable music.

One of things that keeps Zeppelin so special, so bad-ass and so inimitable—and inconceivable in today’s social media over-share environment—is that they literally let their music speak for them. No hit singles, no quarter given to myopic and/or willfully obtuse critics, a minimum of glad-handing, and a modus operandi radical in its simple audacity: let the fans decide. The fans did decide, and Led Zeppelin dominated the ‘70s, playing three hour concerts before The Boss made such affairs standard.

As a result, little survives in the way of actual insight, from the band, in terms of what happened, how it was done, etc. There remains an air of mystery that can only be admirable in our contemporary environment where TMI is the default setting. To add to the intrigue, it’s not that the men of Zep were shy or boring fellows; indeed, their exploits, if half of them are to be believed, were truly the stuff of legend; equal parts Spinal Tap and Caligula. Adding still more style points, the three surviving members have been reticent bordering on tight-lipped in the years following the band’s heyday.

Think about how remarkable that is. What are the chances, by sheer percentage and possibility, that at least one of them wouldn’t feel left out of the limelight, or feel the temptation of untold millions for a tell-all tome too enticing to resist? Or, how many bands of this magnitude have not had inevitable bad blood leading to “he said/he said” potshots in the press, or autobiographies, or the horrific spectacle of a reality TV show?

For those who like their scandal supersized, Richard Cole did some heavy lifting as demon on the shoulder of Richard Davis, providing much of the lurid and heavily contested detail found in 1985’s Hammer of the Gods. Sensational and shameless, this book plays up and seeks to perpetuate every sordid story (The Mudshark Incident) and stone-brained saga (Jimmy Page as devil worshipper!). Despite being lambasted by the lads from the moment it hit the shelves, it metastasized as a de-facto, best-selling biography of the band.

During the last 30 years, plenty more books have appeared claiming to tell the authoritative story. As always, the matter of what’s reliable or worthwhile (mileage always varies when critics tell readers which songs are most significant, and why) is always an issue. So Hank Bordowitz’s collection of interviews, appropriately entitled Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin, offers what has been missing all this time: a no-frills account, compiling the actual words of the band during and after the course of their career.

If there’s precious little insight or analysis to be found here, none is especially necessary. Do we need yet another writer trying to elucidate why Zep continues to matter? Hearing the scoop, as it was recorded in real time, by the players themselves is invaluable in its way and, like the music, needs minimal explication. It is, by turns, instructive to hear the musicians (primarily Plant and Page, whose words dominate the proceedings) talk about how it felt, and feels, to be rock immortals. It’s touching to see the naiveté expressed in the very early days and the humility on offer throughout.

Yes, these incalculably wealthy and dominant demigods are consistently human, in every sense of the word, almost without fail. This telling is refreshing and does the unthinkable: it makes Led Zeppelin, beloved to the point of worship, actually likeable.

More for the Zeppelin aficionado than the casual fan, there’s plenty of information to absorb, regardless of the reader’s familiarity. Most of the writers / interviewers range from agreeable to fawning, some are refreshingly lucid and, of course, some are predictably daft. The worst of the lot has to be NME’s Chris Salewicz, whose execrable piece from 1979 is like all the worst bits of Hammer of the Gods writ (extra) small. We get the typical, and typically myopic, snipes at Presence, invocations of the anti-street cred Zep generated amongst the lean and hungry, and quite opportunistic punks during the late ‘70s.

We also get the still-difficult-to-fathom mention of bad luck and the occult, and how and why such activity may played a part in the death of Plant’s five-year-old son. Execrable stuff but good to have on record, so we can accurately point fingers and place ridicule where it’s most richly deserved. There’s a nice, entirely fitting touch toward the end of the interview when Salewicz laments that Page met him in a studio, denying him (and the fans!) an opportunity to see “how he really lived”. Well-played, Mr. Page. Seems like another instance of mission very much accomplished, and props to Page for always keeping the hysterics and bigmouths at bay.

More than a handful of quotes emerge that confirm what an intelligent, thoughtful and—under the circumstances, based on his obvious ability and popularity—humble, grounded guy Page always was: “My ultimate objective and challenge is to excel in all spheres as a guitarist and I want to attempt all styles. Maybe it will mean I will end up as a Jack of all trades and master of none but at least I will have sampled the different sweets available.” (1971).

We learn that John Bonham was an early (1975) detractor of disco, as if we needed more reason to admire Bonzo; we get to envision Plant and Page, traversing Morocco in a Range Rover, listening to Bob Marley. We get Plant not-so-fondly recovering from a major car accident in Greece, frantically sweeping cockroaches off the bed while a drunken soldier in the bed next to him, after recognizing the singer, loudly serenades him with a rendition of “The Ocean”.

Perhaps the number one service of this particular book, for fanatics and cynics alike, is our overdue ability to put to end, definitively, the farcical notion that Zeppelin denied old blues legends proper credit, with malice aforethought. In an assessment of the band’s eponymous debut, I discussed the issue of “rhyming and stealing” in some detail. (”What Is and What Will Always Be: A Fresh Look at Led Zeppelin’s Familiar Masterpieces”):

Speaking of debts, how about those controversial “cover” songs? As plainly put as possible, the band’s plundering could be considered audacious, calculated, cheeky and, above all, celebratory. It’s easy to suggest it is all of these things, and more. To be certain, on the early albums, especially the first one, the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and anything that could stick was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that they displayed by retitling (and, in some cases, not retitling!) other musicians’ work and claiming it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim (made with fervor by the uninformed and all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair) has gained cachet that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work. The reality, as reality often insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

In point of fact, the group talks repeatedly, and respectfully, about influences, naming names and turning each occasion into an opportunity to celebrate their heroes. Asked in 1971 how he felt (still) singing the infamous “Squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg”, Plant offered the following thoughts: “It’s borrowed, admittedly, but why not? I really would like to think that someone who heard that and then saw some clever critic writing about Plant living off the far superior Robert Johnson… would go and listen to Robert Johnson as a result.”

So, can we put this tired matter to bed, at long last?

A few highlights must include the stylized, very outside-the-box feature on Jimmy Page by William S. Burroughs (a fish out of water interviewing Moby Dick).

Sample #1: “I was thinking of the concentration of mass energy that you get in a pop concert, and if that were, say, channeled in some magical way… a stairway to heaven… it could become quite actual.”

Sample #2: “Rock music can be seen as one attempt to break out of this dead soulless universe and reassert the universe of magic.” (And who said professional rock critics had the market cornered on overly earnest purple prose?

Sample #3: All is redeemed by the very last line of the lengthy piece when, after hearing Page describe a three hour concert, Burroughs replies (and when you hear it in his droll, inimitable voice, it’s perfection) “I’d hate to give a three hour reading.”

John Paul Jones, speaking of Bonham in 1970, is poignant, and almost painfully prescient: “I can’t remember anyone like him… it’s obvious why these people have ended up in the same group… if anybody had to leave, the group would have to split up. Each of us is irreplaceable in this band.”

Once he was gone the band never wavered, especially in the years immediately following Bonzo’s death. A personal favorite, from Plant in 1982: “Led Zeppelin was a four-man band, we played as a four-man band, and recorded as a four-man band. And now that’s over. Led Zeppelin will never play or record again.”

As useful and enlightening as the interviews from the ‘60s and ‘70s are, it’s a welcome decision to include post-Zep interviews, as we see how the song and dance has largely remained the same. Plant sticks to his guns, mostly uninterested in any type of reunion and not above taking (fair, accurate) pot shots at the Pink Floyds and Rolling Stones and Whos who keep doing it despite the ever-diminished returns. It’s worth reading the various explanations (rationalizations?) for the Coverdale/Page collaboration, the Page/Plant “Unledded” thing, and why they didn’t invite John Paul Jones. There have unsurprisingly been some communication breakdowns during the ensuing decades, but the sense of respect (of one another, of what they achieved) is unconstrained.

The timing of this tome seems fortuitous: the entire Led Zeppelin catalog is undergoing a loving and painstaking album-by-album remastering, overseen by Jimmy Page (naturally); interest in a Led Zeppelin reunion, or even another one-off gig, has never been higher; and every year the band refuses (impressively and wisely in this writer’s opinion) to make new music, the subsequent status of their proper releases accrues value. Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin is a useful resource and a necessary corrective: no matter how grandiose the legend gets, hearing the golden gods tell their tale is at once more astounding and more real than anything anyone could ever make up.

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Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin

lz

We tend to not think of Led Zeppelin as actual human beings.

The reason, of course, is that they are not. At least not in the ways that can be accurately measured compared to others who made rock music. Only the Beatles have a more pronounced influence and unblemished record of achievement. Interestingly, this is at least in part because both bands called it quits long before they could (should?) have, and as such, they went out at the height of their powers unlike, say, The Who and The Rolling Stones, who have spent the latter decades making mostly forgettable music.

One of things that keeps Zeppelin so special, so bad-ass and so inimitable—and inconceivable in today’s social media over-share environment—is that they literally let their music speak for them. No hit singles, no quarter given to myopic and/or willfully obtuse critics, a minimum of glad-handing, and a modus operandi radical in its simple audacity: let the fans decide. The fans did decide, and Led Zeppelin dominated the ‘70s, playing three hour concerts before The Boss made such affairs standard.

As a result, little survives in the way of actual insight, from the band, in terms of what happened, how it was done, etc. There remains an air of mystery that can only be admirable in our contemporary environment where TMI is the default setting. To add to the intrigue, it’s not that the men of Zep were shy or boring fellows; indeed, their exploits, if half of them are to be believed, were truly the stuff of legend; equal parts Spinal Tap and Caligula. Adding still more style points, the three surviving members have been reticent bordering on tight-lipped in the years following the band’s heyday.

Think about how remarkable that is. What are the chances, by sheer percentage and possibility, that at least one of them wouldn’t feel left out of the limelight, or feel the temptation of untold millions for a tell-all tome too enticing to resist? Or, how many bands of this magnitude have not had inevitable bad blood leading to “he said/he said” potshots in the press, or autobiographies, or the horrific spectacle of a reality TV show?

For those who like their scandal supersized, Richard Cole did some heavy lifting as demon on the shoulder of Richard Davis, providing much of the lurid and heavily contested detail found in 1985’s Hammer of the Gods. Sensational and shameless, this book plays up and seeks to perpetuate every sordid story (The Mudshark Incident) and stone-brained saga (Jimmy Page as devil worshipper!). Despite being lambasted by the lads from the moment it hit the shelves, it metastasized as a de-facto, best-selling biography of the band.

During the last 30 years, plenty more books have appeared claiming to tell the authoritative story. As always, the matter of what’s reliable or worthwhile (mileage always varies when critics tell readers which songs are most significant, and why) is always an issue. So Hank Bordowitz’s collection of interviews, appropriately entitled Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin, offers what has been missing all this time: a no-frills account, compiling the actual words of the band during and after the course of their career.

If there’s precious little insight or analysis to be found here, none is especially necessary. Do we need yet another writer trying to elucidate why Zep continues to matter? Hearing the scoop, as it was recorded in real time, by the players themselves is invaluable in its way and, like the music, needs minimal explication. It is, by turns, instructive to hear the musicians (primarily Plant and Page, whose words dominate the proceedings) talk about how it felt, and feels, to be rock immortals. It’s touching to see the naiveté expressed in the very early days and the humility on offer throughout.

Yes, these incalculably wealthy and dominant demigods are consistently human, in every sense of the word, almost without fail. This telling is refreshing and does the unthinkable: it makes Led Zeppelin, beloved to the point of worship, actually likeable.

More for the Zeppelin aficionado than the casual fan, there’s plenty of information to absorb, regardless of the reader’s familiarity. Most of the writers / interviewers range from agreeable to fawning, some are refreshingly lucid and, of course, some are predictably daft. The worst of the lot has to be NME’s Chris Salewicz, whose execrable piece from 1979 is like all the worst bits of Hammer of the Gods writ (extra) small. We get the typical, and typically myopic, snipes at Presence, invocations of the anti-street cred Zep generated amongst the lean and hungry, and quite opportunistic punks during the late ‘70s.

We also get the still-difficult-to-fathom mention of bad luck and the occult, and how and why such activity may played a part in the death of Plant’s five-year-old son. Execrable stuff but good to have on record, so we can accurately point fingers and place ridicule where it’s most richly deserved. There’s a nice, entirely fitting touch toward the end of the interview when Salewicz laments that Page met him in a studio, denying him (and the fans!) an opportunity to see “how he really lived”. Well-played, Mr. Page. Seems like another instance of mission very much accomplished, and props to Page for always keeping the hysterics and bigmouths at bay.

More than a handful of quotes emerge that confirm what an intelligent, thoughtful and—under the circumstances, based on his obvious ability and popularity—humble, grounded guy Page always was: “My ultimate objective and challenge is to excel in all spheres as a guitarist and I want to attempt all styles. Maybe it will mean I will end up as a Jack of all trades and master of none but at least I will have sampled the different sweets available.” (1971).

We learn that John Bonham was an early (1975) detractor of disco, as if we needed more reason to admire Bonzo; we get to envision Plant and Page, traversing Morocco in a Range Rover, listening to Bob Marley. We get Plant not-so-fondly recovering from a major car accident in Greece, frantically sweeping cockroaches off the bed while a drunken soldier in the bed next to him, after recognizing the singer, loudly serenades him with a rendition of “The Ocean”.

Perhaps the number one service of this particular book, for fanatics and cynics alike, is our overdue ability to put to end, definitively, the farcical notion that Zeppelin denied old blues legends proper credit, with malice aforethought. In an assessment of the band’s eponymous debut, I discussed the issue of “rhyming and stealing” in some detail. (”What Is and What Will Always Be: A Fresh Look at Led Zeppelin’s Familiar Masterpieces”):

Speaking of debts, how about those controversial “cover” songs? As plainly put as possible, the band’s plundering could be considered audacious, calculated, cheeky and, above all, celebratory. It’s easy to suggest it is all of these things, and more. To be certain, on the early albums, especially the first one, the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and anything that could stick was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that they displayed by retitling (and, in some cases, not retitling!) other musicians’ work and claiming it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim (made with fervor by the uninformed and all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair) has gained cachet that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work. The reality, as reality often insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

In point of fact, the group talks repeatedly, and respectfully, about influences, naming names and turning each occasion into an opportunity to celebrate their heroes. Asked in 1971 how he felt (still) singing the infamous “Squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg”, Plant offered the following thoughts: “It’s borrowed, admittedly, but why not? I really would like to think that someone who heard that and then saw some clever critic writing about Plant living off the far superior Robert Johnson… would go and listen to Robert Johnson as a result.”

So, can we put this tired matter to bed, at long last?

A few highlights must include the stylized, very outside-the-box feature on Jimmy Page by William S. Burroughs (a fish out of water interviewing Moby Dick).

Sample #1: “I was thinking of the concentration of mass energy that you get in a pop concert, and if that were, say, channeled in some magical way… a stairway to heaven… it could become quite actual.”

Sample #2: “Rock music can be seen as one attempt to break out of this dead soulless universe and reassert the universe of magic.” (And who said professional rock critics had the market cornered on overly earnest purple prose?

Sample #3: All is redeemed by the very last line of the lengthy piece when, after hearing Page describe a three hour concert, Burroughs replies (and when you hear it in his droll, inimitable voice, it’s perfection) “I’d hate to give a three hour reading.”

John Paul Jones, speaking of Bonham in 1970, is poignant, and almost painfully prescient: “I can’t remember anyone like him… it’s obvious why these people have ended up in the same group… if anybody had to leave, the group would have to split up. Each of us is irreplaceable in this band.”

Once he was gone the band never wavered, especially in the years immediately following Bonzo’s death. A personal favorite, from Plant in 1982: “Led Zeppelin was a four-man band, we played as a four-man band, and recorded as a four-man band. And now that’s over. Led Zeppelin will never play or record again.”

As useful and enlightening as the interviews from the ‘60s and ‘70s are, it’s a welcome decision to include post-Zep interviews, as we see how the song and dance has largely remained the same. Plant sticks to his guns, mostly uninterested in any type of reunion and not above taking (fair, accurate) pot shots at the Pink Floyds and Rolling Stones and Whos who keep doing it despite the ever-diminished returns. It’s worth reading the various explanations (rationalizations?) for the Coverdale/Page collaboration, the Page/Plant “Unledded” thing, and why they didn’t invite John Paul Jones. There have unsurprisingly been some communication breakdowns during the ensuing decades, but the sense of respect (of one another, of what they achieved) is unconstrained.

The timing of this tome seems fortuitous: the entire Led Zeppelin catalog is undergoing a loving and painstaking album-by-album remastering, overseen by Jimmy Page (naturally); interest in a Led Zeppelin reunion, or even another one-off gig, has never been higher; and every year the band refuses (impressively and wisely in this writer’s opinion) to make new music, the subsequent status of their proper releases accrues value. Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin is a useful resource and a necessary corrective: no matter how grandiose the legend gets, hearing the golden gods tell their tale is at once more astounding and more real than anything anyone could ever make up.

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What Is and What Will Always Be: A Fresh Look at Led Zeppelin’s Familiar Masterpieces

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Shamelessly utilized other artists’ work, didn’t bother to acknowledge the source material most of the time, became famous, influential and wealthy, is celebrated years later as a creative force without peer, is, in fact, synonymous with an entire genre. Undeniably a mercenary, a self-promoter, possibly in league with the devil.

I’m talking, of course, about William Shakespeare.

But seriously. I can also talk about the ink—and crocodile tears—spilled cataloging the sins of the generation-spanning iconoclast who allegedly has taken all kinds of freedom with hymns, poems, blues songs, all while scoffing at the mere intimation of plagiarism.

But enough about Bob Dylan.

You get the picture, I hope.

Talking about Led Zeppelin is never uncomplicated. But in 2014, with lawsuits (however unpersuasive) in the news, and the Internet making it easier than ever to understand—and hear—the instances where Zep was less than scrupulous about crediting some of their predecessors, whose songs they purloined or improved upon (depending on one’s perspective), it’s at once an ideal and odd time to reassess this great band’s first three albums.

They are here, in remastered form (yawn), but for the first time since the two-part box sets in the early ‘90s, sporting previously unheard material (woah!). As is the case with so many classic acts who are in the semi-regular routine of recycling their back catalogs under the guise of ever-improved sound, this latest round is available via modest—and reasonably priced—reissues and deluxe multi-disc productions.

Let the verdict be succinct and unambiguous: the sound quality is astonishing. If you are still rocking the now-ancient first edition CD releases (which would make you, like this writer, ancient), the first two albums in particular have desperately needed a sonic overhaul that these issues deliver: you can almost taste the lemon juice running down Robert Plant’s legs. Say this about Jimmy Page: in addition to his incontestable guitar skills, he was also a first-rate producer; if new technology enables increased fidelity, who are we to argue? Each “deluxe edition” features two discs; one with a remastered original and a bonus disc with the aforementioned “new” material. These are as no-brainer as it gets for casual fans and especially fanatics.

About the previously unavailable stuff. Who, exactly, needs bonus tracks with isolated vocals on songs like “Ramble On”? Everyone and anyone, obviously. If you are hardcore or have a cursory interest in the history of rock and/or the genesis of riffs repeated and ripped off so many times they seem artificial themselves, this is all very necessary. The question will arise: is there even more material in the vaults? Undoubtedly. But for now, this is fresh Zeppelin. Any Zeppelin is good Zeppelin; previously unavailable Zeppelin, regardless of quality or novelty, is priceless in its way.

Your mileage, obviously, will vary. You can, for instance, experience “Friends” as an instrumental track, or “Since I’ve Been Loving You” a first draft of the eventual tour de force; you can also hear “Whole Lotta Love” with isolated vocals and guitar(s!) which is not unlike being inside the studio to marvel at how these Gospels got written and recorded. It’s probably worth the time and money to hear “La La”, which features the band jamming not quite aimlessly, but in a way that will make aficionados appreciate the ways some of these snippets and formulations resurfaced on later tracks.

The first album’s bonus disc is a live set recorded in Paris during their ’69 tour. Like the bonus tracks on the other two discs, some of the material has been bootlegged or available online, but now it’s finally, properly presented in official form. Again, as a curiosity, this is all worthwhile; for anyone who has spent decades worshipping at the altar of the Golden Gods; this is like India Jones finding the Ark of the Covenant.

On Led Zeppelin II the bonus tracks are variations on works-in-progress or “rough mixes with vocal”; on Led Zeppelin III there’s more of the same, only more so. The rough mix, for instance, of “That’s The Way” reveals what a technician Page was: the multi-tracked acoustic guitars and mandolin are clear and lively and we can appreciate the augmented—and wistful—feelings the subsequent slide guitar brought to the proceedings. Like many of Zeppelin’s more subdued tracks, it is deceptively simple; even on these restrained outings, Page was a gentle, astute stickler for detail.

A few words, of course, are necessary to put this material—particularly the first album—in better perspective, four and a half decades after its release. For starters, Led Zeppelin is not a debut album; it’s not even merely a revelation. It’s a reckoning, a realignment: things were simply never the same and audiences owe a perpetual debt for all that came after—including the ugly and unlistenable imitators.

Speaking of debts, how about those controversial “cover” songs? As plainly put as possible, the band’s plundering could be considered audacious, cynical, calculated, cheeky and, above all, celebratory. It’s easy to suggest it is all of these things, and more. To be certain, on the early albums—especially the first one—the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and anything that could stick was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that they displayed by retitling (and, in some cases, not retitling!) other musicians’ work and claiming it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim—made with fervor by the uninformed and all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair—has gained cachet that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work. The reality, as reality often insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable, and indefensible, out of the way right up front. On the debut album more than half the songs are borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from old blues legends; they used Joan Baez’s version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as a launching pad for their soon-to-be-patented (and, ironically, imitated) soft/heavy sensibility. “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” were initially claimed to be original compositions, but the band at least had the sense to not even attempt denying Willie Dixon full credit for both “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”.

While the band can—and must—be castigated for being too rapacious to do the right thing regarding royalties (until legally compelled to do so), there is a significant disparity between being brazen and being uninspired. To be certain, all of this original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on. Put another way, Zep’s remakes have an originality and élan that the songs British Invasion bands covered largely lack.

True, those earlier bands gave credit where credit was due, but their motives, ironically, were arguably less benign. Give me a band with deep roots in terms of appreciation and understanding a breadth of music spanning multiple genres as opposed to opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to name two, were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating sources like Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell into their arsenal, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put yet another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles, unlike the saccharine covers of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Put still another way, if I want to hear classic blues reimagined, give me Mr. Plant over Messrs McCartney, Lennon and Jagger.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of proper attribution, it could be—and probably never convincingly has been—argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work by anyone not named Eric Clapton to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the early ‘70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they loved this music, they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies.

So, after the shame and all the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influence and they have been repaid, indelibly and perhaps karmically, by being copied by thousands of eager, inferior mediocrities. When it comes to art that matters, there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, those that came before them. These touchstones can—and should—become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf to Led Zeppelin to (insert every ‘70s and ‘80s band here) to The White Stripes and The Black Keys.

In the final analysis, what really matters? The music that endures seldom needs anyone to describe or defend it. With the exception of The Beatles, no other band has loomed quite as large, to the extent that we’ll never have enough accolades. There are a limited number of bands that provide a blueprint for how to do it, even if everyone acknowledges there is no conceivable way it could ever be duplicated, much less surpassed. The first three Led Zeppelin albums are as sui generis as any documents in modern rock, and the dust will never settle because their impact can’t be exhausted and we’ll never cease to wonder how they happened in the first place.

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Taking It All Too Hard: Unironic Love For Phil Collins (Revisited)

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After taking on the “holy trinity” of classic era Genesis, wherein Phil Collins arguably got short-shrift (I mean we had to discuss Peter Gabriel!), it seemed appropriate to revisit my piece on PC from three years ago –almost to the day. So yeah, this:

There must be some misunderstanding.

Is he in or out?

(You’ve got to get in to get out…)

Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Genesis was finally –and correctly– inducted into last March (by a very nervous Trey Anastasio).

The question is: has he hung up his sticks forever? Has he set foot on his last stage, never to sing into the mic again?

(Hello, I must be going…)

It’s tough to say, based on the man’s recent remarks.

Earlier this month there were conflicting reports: is he retiring from music to focus on his family, or not? Is it temporary or permanent? And most significant: who cares? Well, I do, of which more shortly.

Last year, due to medical concerns, he disclosed that he was unable to play the drums (inviting wise-ass types to inquire how long it had been since he had played the drums anyway, if he ever did). Due to a dislocated vertebrae in his neck, his hands were affected and presumably that explained the setback. Optimistic fans could assume that once he fully recovered, he could resume his musical aspirations. The bigger question was: did he have any. Considering it was the same year his band was enshrined, it was distressing to see him mention having suicidal thoughts and expressing more ambivalence than pride regarding a career where he shares exclusive company with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for selling more than a million records with a band and as a solo artist.

Of course, some of this damage was self-inflicted (number one hit or not, you simply cannot write songs like “Against All Odds” or “Just One Night” and not expect some critical blowback, even as you laugh all the way to the bank). But once Genesis effectively closed up shop, somewhere around the end of last century Phil Collins became a living punchline and a go-to guy as shorthand explanation for all that ailed good music. This unfortunate tag was only cemented further into the public consciousness when his music was memorably satirized in American Psycho.

The ridicule and ill-will seemed to have taken their toll, best illustrated by the sensationalistic –and erroneous– headline indicating that Phil Collins has “apologized for his music career” here. For me, the low point was his being (or at least feeling) obliged to suffer the snark and unwarranted condesenscion from this jackass representing our inviolable journalistic institution SPIN. For an exhibit of insufferable disrespect and what passes these days for hipster street-cred, check out this spectacle. Suffice it to say, Collins was/is obviously not in the best of places to suffer a fool that politely, and it hurt to read. Humble and well-mannered in the finest British tradition, he was too tolerant for his own good here and deserves better.

Really, you ask?

Really, I say.

And this is coming from someone who has virtually no love for the entirety of the man’s solo career and who got off the tour bus after the ’83 self-titled release (for me the last good thing they did). Nevertheless, even in the mid-to-late ’80s when Collins was arguably one of the five best-known and best-loved musicians on the planet and made no music I endorsed, I had to appreciate the dude’s superhuman work ethic. (Full disclosure: I was never particularly fond of the soundtrack-ready “In The Air Tonight” so its subsequent ubiquity does not even provide nostalgia for Miami Vice, a show I never cared about.)

For anyone (like that snot-nosed punk from SPIN) who is too young or altogether clueless, it may be surprising to remember how huge Collins was in the mid-’80s. I don’t just mean commercially viable, I mean culturally relevant. Let’s put it this way: it was a big deal when Collins sat in for Led Zeppelin’s set during Live Aid. A huge deal. You can hear the squeals of delight once the cameras pan in on the diminutive dude behind the drum set mid-way into the song (the 6.33 mark for those playing at home), here. As an added bonus, you can revisit –or appreciate for the first time– the spectacle of a sweaty and strung out Jimmy Page drooling and slobbering all over himself: watching now it makes me marvel that the cat is not only alive, but –based on his lucid and insightful participation in the documentary It Might Get Loudwell.

And so: I reckon if no one else is going to do it, it’s up to me to defend Phil Collins.

If some of the more soporific songs don’t hold up well (and sort of sucked, even then), at worst they seem innocuous, certainly in hindsight. And speaking of hindsight, these days I find myself likening pop stars to politicians: the more time that goes by, the better they look compared to their contemporaries.
Interesting, or not, I was just thinking of Collins the other week and this is what I had to say:
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.
Listen: thus far we’ve focused on the incarnation of Genesis that featured Phil as vocalist (and his solo work); not enough people understand that back in the day Peter Gabriel was the singer and Collins took care of the drums and percussion (and brilliant backing vocals). In the early-to-mid ’70s Collins was one of the best drummers on the scene, and it’s all there in the albums if you can handle the truth. For that reason alone, Collins should be spared the sort of character assasination we should reserve strictly for Huey Lewis.
Collins, in short, has nothing to apologize for. The only people who need to feel sorry are the suckers who are not acquainted with everything Collins and his mates did during that great decade of the 1970s.
Here are five reminders of why Collins can hold his beautiful bald head high, even if he has decided to hang up his spurs once and for all.
“For Absent Friends” (one of only two songs from the Gabriel era featuring Collins on lead vocals, demonstrating his impeccable falsetto):

“The Carpet Crawlers” (two words: backing vocals bitches):

“Dance on a Volcano”

“No Reply At All”

“Taking It All Too Hard”

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #1 (Revisited)

1. Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door (1979)

There are three distinctive types of Led Zeppelin fans. The first group knows Zep is great because of the classic songs (mostly from their second and fourth albums) that get consistent radio play. These people may also own the second and fourth album and possibly a greatest hits collection. The second group are the ones who own everything except Presence and In Through The Out Door but they don’t need to, because everyone knows those are lesser efforts and not in the same class as the early stuff, especially the second and fourth album. The third type is the fan who not only owns every Zeppelin album, but understands that Zeppelin didn’t make any bad albums. This type of fan also understands that the second and fourth albums, as great as they were, do not represent the best band besides The Beatles at their best. In fact, this small (tiny?) group of aficionados realizes that in many regards Zeppelin got better as they went along, and their final two albums are as good or better than almost anything else the band did.

Who’s with me? Very few people, I know. And I could care less. All I care about is setting the record straight: I’ve been listening to people (many of whom claim to love and really get Led Zeppelin) do everything from damn this album with faint praise to categorically write it off as an embarrassment. The only thing embarrassing about this album is how few people have heard it. And by hear it I don’t mean listened to it; I mean heard it. This might even include some members of the band who have never had many good things to say. I know Jimmy Page is not crazy about the album, which is understandable considering the shape he was in while it was made. I don’t understand why even he doesn’t realize how remarkable his playing is throughout the proceedings—as if he couldn’t help but be brilliant, not matter what his physical and emotional state of being.

It has been amply documented that while Page quietly battled his heroin addiction and Bonham steadily lost control of the alcoholism that would claim his life in 1980, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones co-pilot the blimp. Certainly this can be—and has been—called Jonesy’s album, and in many regards it is. But “even” relegated to glorified session player (a ludicrous charge in any event), Page is as much a part of this album as he was any of them. His playing is arguably more refined, and he picks his spots, but he’s all over the place. Even on songs dominated by keyboards, such as “Carouselambra” and “South Bound Saurez”, Page’s guitar is crucial. It would seem that entirely too many listeners simply can’t fathom that unless Page is out front and center, he is not being adequately represented (perhaps Page himself felt this). Gone forever are the riff-laden air guitar anthems (again those second and fourth albums) and in their place are songs that employ subtlety, depth and…(gasp) humor.

But before we get to the humor and the subtlety, let’s not kid ourselves: Page is in full effect on album opener, “In The Evening”. This is, in fact, as god-like as Page ever got, and even though some may sniff at the sounds of synth in the background, they only embellish the monstrous assault from Page—and Plant. After the foreboding of the extended intro, it’s like the band is shot out of a bazooka, with Page picking up where “Achilles Last Stand” left off, creating riffs that are at once sludgy and superhuman. Of course there is the solo: from 3.43 to 4.56 that is as golden as the gods ever got, and as soulful. On album-closer “I’m Gonna Crawl”, which is most definitely a Jones/Plant joint, Page nevertheless delivers one of his most coruscating solos: it is languid and totally without frills, it is simply emotion and feeling and serves as an unintentionally perfect grace note for Zeppelin to go out on.

Getting back to John Paul Jones. It’s unfortunate enough that the band would be unable to continue after Bonham’s death; it remains tantalizing to think about how much music Jonesy had left in him, and if the band could have evolved with him taking a larger role. One of the largest misconceptions about In Through the Out Door is that it’s the half-hearted result of a band on its last legs, limping to the finish line before fading away. In reality, the band had every intention of making more music, and while Page certainly would have asserted himself more on the next effort, Jones was responsible for pushing the sound into the future. “Carouselambra” suffers a bit in comparison to other Zep epics, like “Achilles Last Stand”, “In My Time of Dying”, “Kashmir” and “When The Levee Breaks”, but it’s an ambitious, totally original composition, anticipating what music would sound like in the early part of the next decade.

The one-two punch of “South Bound Saurez” and “Fool in the Rain” are also dominated by Jones and revealing a range of influences (Latin, boogie) that Zep had never embraced so openly and effectively. On both songs Page and Bonham demonstrate that even if their heads (and possibly hearts) weren’t entirely into it, they were capable of genius by default. And while we marvel at where Jones is taking things, the unyielding force from beginning to end is Robert Plant: he never disappoints and he seldom seems satisfied. Less a bare-chested lion swinging his microphone on stage and more an elder statesman, he observes the excess and indulgence around him and always puts the music first: this is his ultimate legacy as the best frontman of the ‘70s. Even as he reigned supreme as the ultimate rock vocalist, there is always a sense of play and passion in every song he sings. That focus and flamboyance remains in perfect balance, and on each song Plant is a man spilling over, as ever, with confidence and purpose.

And then there’s “Hot Dog”. More than a few people would likely agree that this is the single-worst song Zeppelin recorded. Those people need to be reminded that Zeppelin did not make any bad songs and that, in any event, “Hot Dog” is a better song on every level than well-loved tunes like “Ramble On” and “The Immigrant Song”. On their early work Zep did not exhibit much, if any, sense of humor; certainly nothing self-deprecating. “Hot Dog” reveals the band (or more specifically, Robert Plant) at its most unguarded, and it is at once a hilarious and deeply respectful send up of older school rock. To understand—and appreciate—“Hot Dog” one needs to understand, and appreciate, Plant’s worship of Elvis. Importantly, Elvis had passed away only two years before, making this less a tongue-in-cheek tribute and than a genuine moment of worship. Also worth noting is that Page turns in one of his most truncated, but delectable solos: the mood is light, but the music is serious, and sensational.

In Through The Out Door is not Led Zeppelin’s most representative work and it is not their best work, but taken as a whole, and even song-by-song, it stands up with anything they did. In some regards it represents the band at their most mature and adventurous. It hints at what might have been, and serves as a reminder of what most definitely was. These songs are not as immediately accessible as much of the band’s work, but like the songs on Presence, they cut deeper and stay longer. They are not the songs hardwired in your mind that you nod along to on the radio; they are songs that continue to astonish, delight and, after all these years, manage to surprise. That is as close to miraculous as any rock music ever gets.

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Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius (Revisited)

5/8/2011:

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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Five From The Yardbirds To Remember Keith Relf (Revisited)

Keith Relf.

Who?

Exactly.

Quite possibly the best vocalist you’ve never heard of, you still have heard him if you are passingly familiar with rock music. Trust me.

He was the voice of The Yardbirds.

Who?

Come on. You know, that semi-influential band that gave birth to the holy trinity of English guitarists. In order: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Any questions?

Keith was born on March 22, back in 1943. His time in the sun was short, music-wise and otherwise. Once The Yardbirds briefly became The New Yardbirds (prompting Keith Moon to tell Jimmy Page a band with that name would go over like a lead zeppelin, and the rest, as they say, is history), Page broke off on his own and brought in fresh, young blood. Within a year the only band to rival The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, crashed on the scene like a…New Yardbird. Relf lost his band, and that was pretty much the end of it. He died, in unfunny Spinal Tap fashion, being electrocuted in his home (by an improperly grounded guitar, which being neither a guitar player or someone with a 6th grader’s appreciation –or knowledge– of practical science, is somewhat incomprehensible to me).

Getting back to The Yardbirds.

In addition to boasting the guitar rotation of the gods (in Clapton’s case, literally, according to the London graffiti of the time), The Yardbirds were the real deal, understanding and delivering the blues better than any of the other white boys (The Animals, with the great Eric Burdon, came closest). But even in their earliest work they were already straining against convention and concocting sounds that had not been heard before and haven’t been equaled since. Everyone knows the first big hit, “For Your Love” (the big hit from the Clapton line-up), but for my money, it was when the brash and beautiful Jeff Beck came on board that things got heavy (speaking of Spinal Tap, look at a picture of Beck from the mid-’60s and tell me who you think Christopher Guest had in mind when he invented Nigel Tufnel).

The songs made in mid-’65 and ’66 are as close to perfect as anything we got from rock. You can sense the old school sensibility, which had prevailed for decades, of writing a tight, focused hit that was ideally within the two-to-three minute range. But you can also taste the change in the air: within these succinct powder kegs are ideas, feelings and longings that would grow into the more free-flowing and, as the ’70s commenced, sprawling artistic statements (see: prog rock). As such, the sheer weight of stuff packed inside these (again not just the sounds, remarkable enough though they are, but the energy and ambition, like a cocoon waiting to explode) endure as period pieces, but manage to defy the passage of time: they still feel fresh and furious, and they still, somehow, manage to surprise.

“Shapes of Things” (from March 1966: this is the penultimate psychedelic hit single, not necessarily setting the stage of the Summer of Love but anticipating it; Beck’s solo, like a harmonica-wail from hell, is a sound Jimmy Page was more than happy to rip off for “How Many More Times from Zep’s debut):

“Heart Full of Soul” (you need the studio version to appreciate the perfection: that riff, those vocals, that groove, but there is much to be said to see them pull it off, quite convincingly, live):

Nothing else from the time sounded like this. Except maybe some of what The Rolling Stones were getting into. And there is little doubt that Brian Jones was picking up what these dudes were putting down; from the exotic, Eastern vibe (acoustic guitar approximating the sitar) to the almost menacing tempo and vocal delivery. It’s hard to imagine “Paint It Black” (and so many other songs from 1966) without the blueprints The Yardbirds laid down.

“Still I’m Sad” (Gregorian chant? You know it. This trudges along equal parts martial drone and funeral march; once again, the vocals from Relf and the deeper than a ditch backing vocals wash over like a sad wave):

“Over Under Sideways Down” (not many good versions of this on YouTube; the only studio version is the band lip-synching it; below is a live clip with Page doing his best –but not quite good enough– Beck impression):

Then, perhaps their finest –and certainly most remarkably unique– moment, also from Roger The Engineer, “Turn Into Earth”. Infuriatingly, no good videos are available at YouTube, so you can hear it here. If it speaks to you, consider the lack of YouTube clips a blessing in disguise and use it as incentive to pick up their last great album, and one of the very seminal (if criminally overlooked and underappreciated) albums of that decade.

It all worked out the way it was supposed to: Clapton got his “authentic” bad-teeth British blues on with John Mayall which fortunately segued into Cream (another band that died way too soon due to the colossal egos involved). Beck had the capable hothouse for his teeming creativity…and then The Train Stopped-A Rollin’: by late ’66 Beck was fired (and/or quit, as always depending upon which version you prefer) and even with a ready-for-prime-time Page leading the charge, the band slowly fell apart.

Two years and change to make music that changed the world (ask anyone). Not long enough, but more than enough considering the shape of things that came. And as with Syd Barrett, better to have a brief, bright run that is impossible to forget than a long, predictable stroll. Right? It all worked out well enough, all things considered. The problem is that The Yardbirds are typically depicted as the delivery device that gave us Clapton, Beck and Page, all of whom went on to do bigger and better…and with all due respect to Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty, that seems fair enough. But when the group ground to a halt we were deprived of more from Keith Relf, and that seems hard to reconcile. Certainly the man did not stop making music (indeed he was literally making it at the moment of his accidental, absurd death), but without the forum of a supergroup to support him, the world’s ears turned elsewhere. Did he, like Syd, have much more in him? It seems silly to argue otherwise. And yet, considering what we got, and how unsullied it all seems in hindsight, it’s difficult to quibble that however fleeting the glory, the music we got is everything we could ever have asked –or hoped– to receive.

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Let’s Get Ready To Rumble

With a major h/t to my friend, and prolific author, Robert Rodriguez (if you are a music fan and especially if you are a Beatles fan, you need to get to know his work, STAT), I learned that today is Link Wray’s birthday.

For more on him, and his seminal instrumental “Rumble” (a song that launched a thousand surf songs), check it out.

And enjoy the video, below.

One of my favorite moments in recent cinema history is in It Might Get Loud when Jimmy Page pulls out some vintage wax and then proceeds to wax rhapsodic about “Rumble” and the effect it had on him as an impressionable young rock-god in training. To see PAGE air-guitaring to one of his heroes is a slice of heaven.

I don’t need to add anything more, right?

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