December 7th, 2007
At London's 02 Arena Monday night, rock gods Led Zeppelin will attempt to recreate the special alchemy that made them one of the most legendary live bands of their era.
Zeppelin were notoriously inconsistent on tour, with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham often exploring extended jams on band classics to varying effect. I've talked to people who were lucky enough to have seen them live, and the reactions range from "They didn't sound like the records" to "best 20-minute drum solo ever."
There was no doubt, however, that when the band was on they were like nothing else on earth. Zeppelin was doing three-hour-plus shows complete with acoustic sets when Bruce Springsteen was still playing bars in Asbury Park. And unlike contemporaries The Who and Pink Floyd, Zeppelin never used backing tapes or additional musicians, relying instead on sheer audacity, volume and Jones' underrated multi-instrumentalism (the man played everything from the Mellotron to the mandolin to a triple-necked acoustic monstrosity, often while performing the bass lines with his feet on custom bass pedals!).
And while the jury's still out on whether age and the lack of a huge element of their sound (Bonham) will render them incapable of getting a modicum of that magic back, in some ways it doesn't matter. For once again, the mighty Zeppelin have proved their incredible ability to stay relevant.
For those of you who aren't old enough to remember Lester Bangs dissing them in Creem magazine or the magic of bringing home the brown paper bag that held In Through the Out Door (or in an extreme example, being RU Sirius and having your first acid trip while listening to "Dazed and Confused"!), here are ten reasons I believe the mythos of Led Zeppelin remains etched in stone at a time when anything of lasting quality in pop culture seems almost impossible.
10. "Here's to My Sweet Satan … " Although you'd never know it by their slanderous remarks, America's more extreme branches of Christianity (Pentacosts, Baptists) never met a better friend/punching bag than Led Zeppelin. When crackpot preachers started playing rock records backwards in a desperate attempt to scare parents into burning their kids' records (the scene where Kathleen Turner does this to Kirsten Dunst's records in the film The Virgin Suicides shows the unintended hilarious results of this ridiculous act), Led Zeppelin was one of their first targets.
And what better tune to focus their bogeyman search on than "Stairway to Heaven?" The most famous "backwards masking" message meant to turn little Bobby from Buffalo to the side of Beelzebub was the alleged "Here's to my sweet Satan," warbled by Robert Plant.
Of course, the band denied this, and you don't have to be a Grammy-nominated sound engineer to hear what is clearly a big pile o' Christian crap.
9. The Bill Graham Beatdown Before thuggish hip hop was even an art form, let alone an industry, Led Zeppelin had a posse in full effect. Led (no pun intended) by Richard Cole, a coke-fueled maniac whose powers of physical intimidation were only outmatched by Zep's manager Peter Grant, their security was half drug-and-teen-procuring entourage, half security force.
Despite a mutually advantageous relationship in which both parties suckled at the new teat of stadium rock, the muscle behind both Zeppelin and Bill Graham Presents had run afoul of each other, by the very nature of their need for control. In 1977, during a multi-night stint at the Oakland Coliseum, the shit hit the fan.
When a BGP goon vied for a Darwin Award by roughing up the 400-lb Grant's young son backstage, the manager, Cole and Bonzo gave the poor sap and another employee a beatdown that ended in long hospital stays. Graham, ever the entrepreneur, kept charges from being filed long enough for Zep to finish the Oakland Stadium gigs.
8. This Album Has No Title Though commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV, Zep's fourth record not only had no actual title, but failed to display even the band's name on its cover. Instead, the band developed runes that stood for each member – Plant's consisted of a feather within a circle and is supposedly the Feather of Ma'at (the Egyptian goddess of justice and fairness); Jones' was three interlocking ovals; Bonzo's was also three interlocking ovals, and could either be a symbol for "man-wife-child" or the logo for Ballantine beer, depending on whom you ask; Page's (called "Zoso," which has also been used as the album's title by some fans) is the only one created by its bearer, and so its mystical significance remains a mystery.
Obviously, brass at Atlantic Records weren't exactly aroused by the unprecedented lack of identifying reference anywhere on the record. But the band's insistence on this concept formed the basis not only for their reputation as a fiercely anti-commercial artistic force, but also provided much of the mystique that was vital during the band's existence, and crucial to their continued legacy.
7. Led Wallet When Zep fans first heard the unmistakable bashing of John Bonham's drum intro to "Rock and Roll" in a Cadillac ad a couple of years ago, many were heard to utter a groan. But closer analyses of the handling of the catalog of the world's biggest rock band reveals a relatively tasteful restraint.
Especially when you consider that Jimmy Page was once referred to as "Led Wallet" for his unwillingness to part with a pence.
Still, the band has never performed again apart from a handful of mediocre events, all for charity (Live Aid, the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary). Jack Black was seen in the film "School of Rock" begging Page and Plant to allow Richard Linklater (who was also thwarted from using their songs in his film bearing an actual Zeppelin track name, "Dazed and Confused) to use their music for the soundtrack. They declined.
In fact, use of Zeppelin's music in film has been confined to the films of their pal, Cameron Crowe. Some argue this restraint is excessive – one could imagine the impact of a Zeppelin track in, say, a Scorsese film. It certainly would be nice for the guy not to have to mine the Stones all the time!
6. Peter Grant Led Zeppelin might have been the first rock band to make the business of being in a rock band a … business. Previously, bands like The Beatles would make money only when the number of records sold reached a staggering amount, and even then often under duress. Their contracts favored the record company to an obscene extent.
Zep's ability to establish a revenue producing powerhouse employing record sales, touring and merchandising was largely due to the wiles and weight of its manager, Peter Grant. A former pro wrestler, Grant was the basis for fictitious band manager Ian Faith's cricket bit in This is Spinal Tap. Further evidence of his style of communication can be seen in the new re-release of The Song Remains the Same, where Grant is seen practically ripping the head off a "cunt" who, at a show in Cleveland, failed to stop bootleggers from selling posters.
5. John Bonham Could Zeppelin have continued after its influential drummer died from choking to death on his own vomit after 40 measures of vodka?
Two words prove the perils of such an endeavor, had the band even had the heart and spirit to carry on – Keith Moon.
It's an easy argument to make that The Who's two post-Moon albums (Face Dances and It's Hard) diminish the band's catalog by causing it to sputter to an inglorious end. And while this might owe as much to a fading of Pete Townshend's genius (Zeppelin were more like Queen than The Who in this respect, with Jones making significant contributions throughout the band's career), Moon took more than just the drummer's throne with him to the grave.
He also took a huge part of the band's spirit, and while Moon was slightly more of an extroverted character, the fact that Bonham's simple "fantasy sequence" in The Song Remains the Same (showing such high-concept footage as him urging his cow along the pasture as well as intimate peeks into his home life) is the only one that isn't totally laughable either in concept or execution speaks volumes.
And even though there is something clearly fitting in having his son on the kit, in all respect, there is only one J. Bonham anyone will be thinking about when the band pulls out his showcase, "Moby Dick," as they're expected to.
4. Don Kirschner's Rock Concert with Led Zeppelin It never happened, and when I saw an old TV clip of Deep Purple recently, the wisdom of Zeppelin's avoidance of the medium of television (due both to the limitations of sound quality at the time as well as their desire to control their image and increase their mystique, not easy to do when you're playing for housewives on "The Mike Douglas Show") becomes very clear.
3. The Mud Shark An underground legend that went public with Frank Zappa's toss-off reference to it in "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" ("destined to take the place of the mud shark in your mythology!"), the story of a young band fucking a groupie with a small shark that had been caught while fishing out the window of Seattle's Edgewater Inn provided a blueprint for debauchery hardly equaled even today.
2. The Devil and Led Zeppelin In the commentary for his film The Man We Want to Hang, dedicated to the art of occult icon Aleister Crowley, filmmaker Kenneth Anger rather sheepishly admits that many of the pieces were seen courtesy of Jimmy Page, who had managed to consistently outbid Anger at auctions of the magician's work.
Then there's Page's acquisition of Crowley's Loch Ness mansion, in which many sinister acts of magick were perpetrated.
The guitarist's obsession with Crowley wasn't shared by the rest of the band, whose interest in the past didn't go much further than Elvis and "The Lord of the Rings." Still, a salacious media didn't hesitate to lump all in together, especially as Zep's fortunes seemed to turn dark toward the end (Plant's car accident in 1975, followed by troubled tours and the death of Plant's son in 1977).
1. What's in a Name? While the story goes that Keith Moon named the then-New Yardbirds "Lead Zeppelin" because he thought they'd go over like a lead balloon (badly), Page and Plant were immediately drawn to the inherent dynamics of light and heavy, which fit into their conversations about where they wanted to band's music to go.
Zeppelin weren't the first heavy rock band (and please don't call them heavy metal!), but they were the first to really understand and exploit the fact that heavy sounds even heavier when paired with lighter influences. Since then, rock bands from Iron Maiden to the Pixies to Nirvana have added new twists to the basic loud-quiet-loud dynamic.
Robert Plant once said the reason he thought people reacted to "Stairway to Heaven" favorably even after hearing it thousands of times is that it starts quietly and steadily builds in complexity and intensity throughout the duration of the song. At the same time, songs like "When the Levee Breaks" and "Kashmir" establish an intensity that never flags, but is still splashed with shades of shadow and light.
And that's the magic of Led Zeppelin, Charlie Brown.
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