Big Log

robert-plant-big-log-single

1983: I remember when this first dropped, during summer break before 8th grade (and then getting massive radio play that winter) and I was mostly underwhelmed. It was…aight. But it wasn’t the Mighty Zeppelin I knew and loved. It was mellow and articulated a weary world wisdom I had neither the experience nor perspective to understand, much less appreciate. I was, in short, too young and dumb to get it. Now, decades later — and older than the singer was when he recorded it– it somehow sounds ahead of its time and also…timeless in the best way the rarest music can. The subtle synth touches I tolerated as obligatory early-80s embellishment now seem to represent something organic; a no-longer novel instrument of its era employed with precision and purpose. And unheralded guitar hero Robbie Blunt with a tour de force of compressed restlessness (his second solo, especially the sublime 8 seconds that occur between 3:43-3:51, devastates me *every* time), seems less a solid replacement for Jimmy Page and more the perfect foil for a Golden God starting to go gray, and resigning himself to whatever is coming down the road. I listen, in late 2016, and it sounds to me like the melancholy of nostalgia not quite able to overwhelm a defiance to endure. 

Sensing too well when the journey is done
There is no turning back — on the run…

Share

None More Black: Reassessing Black Sabbath’s First Three Albums (or, The Unholy Trinity)

Sabs

In the classic movie Chinatown, the villainous Noah Cross offers a sardonic take on his longevity. “I’m old,” he laughs, adding the immortal line, “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

Black Sabbath is old.

Never Say Die! they said, so they didn’t.

Alive, still, touring, again, allegedly for the last time.

Ozzy Osbourne, rock music’s all time clown prince, has been shrewd to never take himself—or his fame—too seriously. Indeed, his self-deprecating tendencies appear equal parts perceptive and a preemptive strike against the scorn he’s habitually expected from others.

Except his band, Black Sabbath, is now respectable, and has been for some time. To be certain, the band was always serious. Dead serious, at least while Ozzy was still the front man. But the band was seldom taken seriously, at least by the same so-called Establishment that now venerates them as a matter of course.

Of course, as always, the people who knew, knew, but few of them wrote for Rolling Stone. It’s not that Black Sabbath was ever considered an outright joke, at least while Ozzy was still the front man, but some of us can certainly recall a time when they were alternately dismissed or lambasted as Satan worshippers and an unsavory influence for impressionable young minds.

Nevermind the fact that today it could be argued that they are even more influential than Led Zeppelin. To be fair, and accurate, Zeppelin, like the Beatles before them, simply weren’t human, so while many bands imitated them, no one could emulate them. Sabbath, on the other hand, were always undeniably human, particularly while Ozzy was still the front man.

It’s at once lazy and erroneous to suggest Led Zeppelin had anything to do with heavy metal; they certainly brought a bombast previously unimaginable—for better or worse—to the blues, and then sprinkled everything from folk to Tolkien to Elvis and Rockabilly into the mix, and while Jimmy Page became the ultimate golden god of the electric guitar, the best thing one should say about Zeppelin’s musical legacy is that they’re, in the final analysis, unclassifiable.

No such issues exist with Black Sabbath. Like Led Zeppelin, they took the blues as a foundational text, but even from the get-go, they were onto something deeper, darker and louder. The sound Sabbath cultivated remains, at once, neither derivative nor capable of duplication. That is one definition of genius. It’s not relevant or especially important whether or not Sabbath “invented” heavy metal; they did something even more momentous. Among their many attributes, Sabbath can be credited with engineering an elemental music that the various sub-metals of subsequent decades melted into.

If it’s incredible, looking back, to imagine how huge Black Sabbath would become, it’s easy to imagine how dumbfounded the band was by their success. The debut album, recorded pretty much live in the studio in a single setting, with no hit singles and the surreal image of a witch (a nod to their attempted single “Evil Woman” that went nowhere?) on what endures as one of the most stark and unsettling album covers of all time, did not portend big things. But the one thing the band had going for it, in spades, happens to be the most important thing in art: honesty.

It resonated, and the album (released on Friday the 13th, naturally, in February, 1970) broke into the Top 10 on the UK charts. Yes, Lucifer is name-checked, Iommi employs the infamous tritone (on the opening track, which could hardly be a less cohesive statement of purpose: “Black Sabbath”, by Black Sabbath, on the album Black Sabbath. Any questions?), and the mood generally matches the browns and grays from the cover. But each second of every song crackles with an earnest if not entirely innocent vibe, and the energy pulsates from the introductory thunder rumbles to the exclamation point of its concluding note.

The music certainly reflects the raw reality of its recording conditions, and like so many first albums, the band wants to cram every salvageable idea and worthwhile fragment into a whole that’s at once unified and wonderfully messy. Not yet the proto-metal that launched so many simulations, there is a discernibly British blues being used as a jumping off point: it’s definitely white, but it’s not the white boy blues that dominated the previous generation’s plundering. Consider the extended jamming on “Warning” or the mercurial tempo shifting on “Wicked World”: this is not appropriation (think British Invasion covers) so much as the development of a bruising, almost aggressive assault; a blackened, or black and blue blues.

As brilliant as the debut manages to be, the band went all-world on the follow-up, and Paranoid must be on the shortest of lists as most influential album of all time. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, from Kiss to Van Halen to Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, to Slayer and even Bad Brains—and about a billion lesser bands as well—without the outline provided, at once a short cut (for cheaters) and sacred text (for the wise to worship). How did it happen? It happened the same way the rare and inexplicable masterpieces in any genre happen: because it could; because it had to.

Two things, aside from its sheer listenability, are crucial to keep in mind when assessing Paranoid’s staying power. For one, the band is as resolute, musically, as they’d ever be: there is still a looseness and making-it-up-as-we-go quality (for instance, the title track, which became a breakthrough single, was written and recorded on the spot, allegedly from start to finish in less than an hour), but there’s a confidence and sense of direction that seems all but unimaginable with such a relatively inexperienced outfit. Secondly, there is a relevance to the lyrics that, while dated for all the good (and bad) reasons, is neither cynical nor opportunistic. Special props for “Fairies Wear Boots”, which is a droll dig at Doc Marten clad skinheads. If the gloom and despair are still palpable throughout, the environmental concerns delineated in “Electric Funeral” and anti-heroin messaging of “Hand of Doom” elevate the proceedings, avoid pretension, and keep things (very) real.

Special mention, of course, for the anthem initiating the proceedings, “War Pigs”. Inspired by the then all but obligatory disdain for events in Vietnam, Sabbath achieves the near impossible by attacking a topical (even clichéd) social issue but, as only blue collar lads from Birmingham could do with such conviction, create an abiding indictment of the powerful men who plan and prosper from ensuring “the war machine keeps turning.” It’s on this song that intent and execution are combined to perfection by the only band of its time that could channel such indignity and belligerence, while infusing it with defiance that never wallows in pity or nihilism.

Indeed, that’s probably the one thing people have seemingly never grasped when it comes to Black Sabbath and why they matter: the preponderance of their material dealt neither with heaven nor hell, but the here and now. The joys and sorrows of drug use, the ways the wealthiest players pull the proverbial strings, the alternating drudgery and tumult of daily existence, as well as the escape and solace offered by music itself. This band spoke plainly to misfits in part because they were outcasts themselves, and while Sabbath made no bones about how much life could suck sometimes, there is always a purposeful insolence informing their songs; their overarching message involves waking up, staying aware and kicking the wicked world in the ass as often as possible.

Of course, at the end of the day, the exquisitely black magic of Black Sabbath has everything to do with the riffs. With the possible exception of Jimmy Page, no electric guitar player in the history of rock and roll uncorked more memorable and indelible riffs than Tony Iommi. Seemingly each song on their first three albums is anchored by at least one addictive riff, and throughout the ‘70s, all of Iommi’s solos are disparate but instantly identifiable. The first album became a showcase for a shadowy new talent; the second a wrecking machine of riffs and the third, the innovation of a whole new sound.

Master of Reality, released less than a year after Paranoid, is certainly a continuation and development of familiar fixations (sex, drugs, rock and roll and…religion), but it’s, if possible, a (much) deeper and darker dive into the abyss. The legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry used to exhale ganja smoke on his tape reels during production, and it’s hard to fathom a case study of comparable dedication and obsession. And yet, on Master of Reality Black Sabbath somehow conjures up the smells and sights of a darkened room sticky with residue. It’s not that the album sounds like drugs so much as drugs informing music filtered through a prehistoric tar pit, then shot out of a cannon into the void.

Speaking of which, how do you remaster mud? Do we want, or need the typical post-production sheen applied to these eldritch discs? Yes, and it’s long overdue. Let’s face it, at least a portion of that murkiness (especially on Master of Reality) was due to hasty of half-assed assembly. A little of that still goes a long way, but with the fresh polish we’re still scraping the bottom of the ocean, yet allowed to further appreciate how this beautiful muck got made. The welcome clarity on a familiar favorite like “Children of the Grave” showcases the million-per-minute whacks of Bill Ward and that cavernous bottom, built bass line by bass line, courtesy of the unflagging Geezer Butler.

The real draw here, and something that might appeal equally to loyalists and newcomers, is the inclusion of outtakes and instrumental tracks. As is typically the case with reissues like this, most of the alternate versions are not fully formed or quite there yet although, considering the studio time involved hours instead of days, further underscores how locked in the lads were. Some of the earlier versions of works-in-progress with different (and inferior) lyrics are interesting as curiosities, and other versions offer fresh insights. One example, the early take of “Planet Caravan” features an extended outro wherein Iommi’s jazzy licks illustrate how dexterous and multi-faceted he was, even in the earliest days. Another, “Lord of This World” may actually be a technically or at least aesthetically superior track, employing very judicious use of piano and slide guitar not present on the final take; these embellishments provide coloration and smooth out the edges, giving the song room to breathe, even expand. Of course, the band needed to strip away these touches, however effective, because Master of Reality is not about expansion or color; it’s about being immersed into a deep, distant darkness that is somehow at once suffocating and liberating.

The all-instrumental versions should be a revelation for folks who’ve heard the hits, but never experienced the pleasures of Sabbath’s sheer musicianship. For fans who have savored the original classics all this time, these trio-only versions might be revelatory, and a whole new way to understand and appreciate the riches. As preposterous as it is to imagine any of these tunes without Ozzy, there’s something special about “Hand of Doom” and “Fairies Wear Boots” sans vocals; the extra space will only augment our awe of Iommi’s bottomless pit of riffs, and certainly makes a case that Butler and Ward remain the most underrated rhythm section in rock. Make no mistake, on these three albums—and the remainder of the decade—these supernauts were as tight as a screwed-down coffin.

What else? Oh, the band had few problems translating their albums in a live setting. The big-time bonus of this package is the expanded Past Lives, which gets the sonic upgrade/beefed-up liner notes treatment. Some of their earliest live footage is included, and other versions of songs from the early ‘70s. Nothing could possibly replace being there, but these remastered tracks do for the ears what the various YouTube clips do for the eyes. It’s all very necessary stuff.

The only remaining question is whether this “final” tour signifies the final end of Black Sabbath. And the answer, obviously, is that it doesn’t matter. Sabbath, as much as any band, can never be referred to in the past tense: the music they made is ineradicable, the musicians they continue to inform and influence are inestimable. Now, they are a brand as much as a band, and that’s okay; they’ve earned that adulation the good old fashioned way: by putting in the time, and surviving. Their legacy is making a body of work that, once the shallow and silly reactions ceased to resonate, remains seductive and irresistible, and very much alive.

 Originally published on 3/11/16 at PopMatters.
Share

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.

Share

Alligator Lizards in the Air: In Search of the Sublimely Awful Lyric (Revisited)

Intravenus de Milo Spinal Tap album

Intravenus de Milo Spinal Tap album

I can think of a lot of rock bands who have written some laughably awful lyrics.

So can you.

Part of rock and roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From it’s earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course The Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to…you get the picture). Eventually, the pop sensibility evolved to the point where if you substituted “rock” for “fuck” this constituted a secret decoder ring to figure out what 90% of the songs were about. Particularly ambitious bands were able to multi-task, as the eternally sophomoric Kiss epitomized when they crafted their anthem dedicated to the proposition that one could not only rock and roll all night, but party every day.

tap1

(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The aforementioned Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am The Walrus” is a million miles from…anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired –or both– wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million karaoke performances. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome . Eventually the four horsemen of the pop culture apocalypse came calling: Punk, Disco, Drug Overdoses and Rehab blew into town and burned down this overgrown forest…only to see it grow back harder and longer in the shape of a mullet less than a decade later. Regardless of how it did or should have played out, it’s impossible to imagine prog rock existing in the ’80s, just like shag rugs and Battle of the Network Stars only really exist –in our minds if not actuality– in the ’70s. And the ’70s is when rock lyric ridiculousness reached its full flowering, pulling up from strong roots in the ’60s and stretching toward the sun, leaving a shadow we exist under even today.)

So, when it comes to identifying truly awful lyrics that are the result of neither idiocy nor ambition, it’s best to consider the soft and gooey center between those two poles. It’s not terribly fun, or rewarding, to pick on the pointy headed prog rockers or the boneheaded pop posers, unless stepping on ants is enlightening. Put another way, I defend the bands who tried a little too hard and could care less about the entertainers who are genetically incapable of insight. Put yet another way, as it pertains to the sublimely awful rock lyric, sometimes having a tiny brain is worse than having no brain at all.

sharksandw

When it comes to worst ever, I can think of a lot of lyrics that might compete for the crown.

So can you.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

For starters, I can’t bring myself to beat up on the bands who crawled out of the primordial ooze in the early ’70s, hash pipe in one hand and “Lord of the Rings” in the other. I won’t even name names; I’ll simply wave my magic wand and exonerate King Crimson, Rush, ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Santana (for starters) from any alleged sins, real or imagined.

jon-anderson-yes

But one group should be singled out (with love and squalor) for elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of…real art. Of course I’m talking about Yes, whose work between 1971 and 1975 is the Rosetta Stone of our prog rock apotheosis. The jester in this court (of the crimson king) is, of course, Jon Anderson who –depending on one’s perspective– would be responsible, or guilty, for writing the lyrics. Here’s the thing: he sings them so effectively (so indelibly — yeah I said it), it doesn’t much matter what he is babbling about. And babble he does. Here is but a brief sampling of his ouevre:

Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are,
Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, show me where you are,

Lost in summer, morning, winter, travel very far,
Lost in musing circumstances, that’s just where you are.

Move forward was my friends only cry,
In deeper to somewhere we could lie.
And rest for the the day with cold in the way,
Were we ever colder on that day, a million miles away?

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.

Wish the sun to stand still.
Reaching out to touch our own being
Past a mortal as we
Here we can be
We can be here,
be here now.
Here we can be!

(From “Yours Is No Disgrace”, “South Side of the Sky”, “Close to the Edge” and “Awaken“.)

Yes has earned an unrivaled place in the pantheon, but there is no hating, here. Listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera: the words are –or may as well be– in a different language; it’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. This is ecstatic stuff and I’ll hoist my air guitar with clear-eyed pride and wonder.

Enough. Let’s get down to business.

What song contains the worst lyric of all time?

I’ll give it a shot. But again, it’s as important to eliminate the pretenders as it is to celebrate the contenders. Therefore, it’s ridiculous to consider anything filed under Hair Metal because picking on that genre is like making fun of kids at the Special Olympics. Ditto the Top 40 status seekers: that claptrap is like bad electronics, it’s designed to fall apart and be discarded after it’s been sold. And we should not confuse atrocious lyrics with unlistenable songs. There are tons and tons of terrible songs that don’t necessarily have bad enough lyrics to merit consideration (and again, bad enough meaning lyrics that weren’t written by an imbecile or someone trying to shoot higher…and that incidentally eliminates would-be prime candidates Oasis and Creed because, again, the songs have to be by bands actually worth listening to).

180px-Hermit_led_zep_4

10. Let’s come out of the gate swinging and take aim at one of the most beloved radio anthems of all time: “Stairway To Heaven”. Remember that time (hopefully before 6th grade) when this song contained all the deep and murky depths of the universe? This song was about nothing less than existence, and who was that dude with the light on the inside cover? God? The Devil? Did it make more sense if you played the nonsensical lyrics backward? In hindsight, maybe.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Dont be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the may queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder…

It makes me wonder, too. Is that a bustle in your hedgerow or are you just happy to see me? To be a rock and not to roll? I have no idea, to this day, what that means, but it uses the words rock and roll, so it’s got that going for it. Led Zeppelin, despite Robert Plant’s early Tolkien obsessions, did grow in brisk, dramatic leaps like The Beatles post-Rubber Soul. Nevertheless, the ascension of “Stairway To Heaven” is, come to think of it, not unlike the ’70s: you had to be there to appreciate it but you can’t really explain why it’s so great.

9. Sticking to the ’70s (literally), a rather obscure known tune by a beloved band demands attention. It’s bad (if true) enough to point out that Kiss kept to a strict regimen of pussy songs throughout the ’70s (and I would say after, but who listened to Kiss after the ’70s?). It’s worse (and true) to point out that this was all for the better. When they attempted to think outside the box (so to speak), things got ugly in a hurry. Exhibit A is “Goin’ Blind” by noted poet and philosopher Gene Simmons. If taken at face value, the lyrics convey a self-pitying farewell from a 93 year old man who has been inexplicably banging a 16 year old girl. Creepy? Check. Weird? Check. Improbable? Check! Senior citizen statutory rape, or Simmons envisioning his post-rock, Viagra-rolling golden years?

Little lady, can’t you see
You’re so young and so much different than I
I’m 93, you’re sixteen
Can’t you see I’m goin’ blind…

In fairness, and consistent with the criteria for this list, the song is still quite worthwhile, and features one of Ace Frehley’s better early solos. (The tune was also covered in all its muddy glory by the great King Buzzo on Melvins’ incredible album from 1993, Houdini.)

8. Respect of irony prevents me from quoting any of Alanis Morissette’s signature song. Suffice it to say, yes, it is ironic (if unintentionally so) that a song about irony uses examples that illuminate the songwriter’s inability to understand what irony is. Don’t ya think?

7. Domo. Arigato. Mr. Roboto. (Enough said.)

6. Artist: Lenny Kravitz. Song: Whichever.

uf_bonostinglive

5. Bono and Sting could have a battle royale (with cheese) to see who committed the more greivous sins in the ’80s but since Bono has been more prolific, and more self-righteously insufferable, in the decades since, we may have to give him the Edge (take him, please).

Bono!

I cant believe the news today
Oh, I cant close my eyes and make it go away…

Sting!

Hey, mighty brontosaurus,
Don’t you have a lesson for us
Thought your rule would always last,
There were no lessons in your past
You were built three stories high
They say you would not hurt a fly
If we explode the atom bomb
Would they say that we were dumb?

Bono!

I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside…

Sting!

Don’t think me unkind
Words are hard to find
The only cheques I’ve left unsigned
From the banks of chaos in my mind
And when their eloquence escapes me
Their logic ties me up and rapes me…

kiedis

4. Poet laureate of semi-retarded rap rock, Anthony Keidis! Everyone knows this clown was known for wearing a sock over his dick. Many people would agree that his dick could probably write better lyrics. Possibilities are endless but the perusal is too painful, so let’s go with what we know:

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your mama

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your papa

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your daughter

You do a little dance and then you drink a little water…

3. Duran Duran. Boy did these guys make some terribly great songs (and VIDEOS) in the early ’80s. And like those commercials from the early ’80s say, “It doesn’t get any better than this” :

Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand
Just like that river twisting through a dusty land
And when she shines she really shows you all she can
Oh Rio, Rio dance across the Rio Grande…

Respect!

SteveMillerBand-01-big

2. The list, to this point, has not necessarily been in any particular order, although the final two candidates are, for my money, unassailable representatives of lyrical suck. First up is Steve “Guitar” Miller who is also known as Steve “Lyrics” Miller by exactly no one. And there is ample reason for this. He is a one man tour de force of farcical phraseology. Let’s start with the pompatus of love. Actually, let’s leave that alone: if you are cool enough to make up a word and feature it in a hit song that everyone who listens talks about, you’ve more than maximized your fifteen minutes of fame. And that was only the beginning. His 1976 classic Fly Like An Eagle is a clinic of lazy lyrics and shoehorned rhyme schemes. It could be the basis of a successful workshop (once again, there is no hatred here: it’s a very good album and the title track captures that ethereal ’70s vibe as well as any other rock tune). On that track the lyrics are facile but his heart is in the right place: I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea/Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me. “Rock ‘n Me” is another innocuous FM radio staple, and it is one of the “replace rock with you-know-what” testosterone anthems. No harm, no foul. Where the proceedings really take flight (so to speak) is on the other radio favorite, “Take the Money and Run”. This is one for the ages, where we get “watch the tube” rhymed with “cut loose” and “great big hassle” with “his castle”. Nothing to see here. But then it happens: the sine qua non of rock non sequiturs. Take a deep breath and enjoy the magic:

Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is,
He aint gonna let those two escape justice
He makes his livin off of the peoples taxes…

Texas, facts is, justice, taxes. What more is there to say? (Other than this: “Take the Money and Run” is probably the single song from the ’70s that no fans were tempted to play backwards because there was absolutely no conceivable way it could get any better than it already was; fans were afraid it would make more sense if it was played back in backward gibberish).

Miller was not done with us yet. Honorable mention could go to “Jungle Love” or “Swingtown” (Come on and dance/Let’s make some romance/You know the night is falling/And the music is calling), but special attention must be paid to “Abracadabra”:

Every time you call my name/I heat up like a burnin’ flame/Burnin’ flame full of desire/Kiss me baby let the fire get higher.

That’s nice, but this is where Miller stakes his claim for immortality. Ready or not, here it comes:

Abra-abra-cadabra
I want to reach out and grab ya.

Okay, that is bliss. That is miraculous. But it gets better. How could you possibly top rhyming cadabra with grab ya? Easy. Rhyme cadabra with…Abracadabra!

Abra-abra-cadabra
Abracadabra

amiera

1. So, it can’t possibly get better than that, can it? Oh it gets better. For their invaluable contributions to the unintentionally atrocious lyric, I nominate America for a lifetime achievement award. It’s hard (some might say impossible) to knock Steve Miller off this throne but bear with me. America did a lot with just a little and they are the gift that giveth much. (One sentence description: blending folk influences with “socially-conscious” songs, America had a string of indelible –and ubiquitous– hit songs in the first half of the 1970s.)

Exhibit A: “Ventura Highway“:

The whole song (irrepressible as it is) is dead-on-arrival, lyrically, with such gems as Joe/Snow, sunshine/moonshine, name/same. But in move that should make rhyming dictionaries illegal, America anticipated “Take the Money and Run” with the rarely-attempted four-line grand slam:

‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair
and the days surround your daylight there,
Seasons cryin’ no despair
Alligator lizards in the air…

Alligator lizards. In the air.

Or should I say: ALLIGATOR LIZARDS. In The Air!

Exhibit B: “Sister Golden Hair

In addition to a riff ripped off from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (which itself was considered a sufficiently brazen reworking of The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” that it generated a lawsuit), the lyrics achieve the ideal balance between half-assed inspiration and typical rock-star laziness:

Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed
That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed,
Now I ain’t ready for the altar but I do agree there’s times
When a woman sure can be a friend of mine…

Exhibit C: “Tin Man“:

But Oz never did give nothing to the tin man
That he didn’t, didn’t already have,
And cause never was the reason for the evening
Or the tropic of Sir Galahad.

I’m loathe to infringe upon the perfection above, so I’ll simply add my name to the list of folks who have wondered: what the fuck is the tropic of Sir Galahad? And can I find the pompatus of love there?

Exhibit D: “Horse With No Name”.

Oh God. Hold me.

What can anyone possibly say about this song that the band does not already say in the song itself?

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

(Editorial note one: “Plants and birds and rocks and things”. Editorial note two: “The heat was hot”.)

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

(Editorial note one: “In the desert you can remember your name”. Editorial note two: “CAUSE. THERE. AIN’T. NO. ONE. FOR. TO. GIVE. YOU. NO. PAIN”.)

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

(Editorial note: “After three days in the desert fun”.)

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

(Editorial note: “In the desert you can remember your name” –in case you had forgotten, the lyrics or your name. Oh, and by the way: There. Ain’t. No. One. For. To. Give. You. No. Pain.)

After nine days I let the horse run free
cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love…

(Editorial note: Still plants and birds and rocks and things.)

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain…

To recap: in the desert, you can remember your name. ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.

My work here is done.

So, what did I miss?

Let’s get this party started.

Share

The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

RP

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim 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 the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably 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 first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the 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.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, 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 another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

Share

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.

Share

From The Annals of Inscrutability…Robert Plant! (Revisited)

RP

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?

Share

Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

hendrix_axis_bold_as_love

Let us give thanks for the guitar solo.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

Wherever necessary I have plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.) And bonus love, HERE.

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.) And a lot more on Jethro Tull, HERE.

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. A lot more on King Crimson, HERE. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too, irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul. A lot more on Yes, HERE.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, HERE)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Share

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

led-zeppelin-650x400

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.

Share

The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

RP

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim 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 the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably 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 first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the 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.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, 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 another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

Share