Led Zeppelin Does Anybody Remember Laughter?
Led Zeppelin. The very name carries with it a gravitas that continues to hover over the modern musical landscape. Lesser bands attempt to keep their albums from being stolen on the Internet by offering downloads at any price and new artists toss up a video on some trivial site to garner instant name recognition. Meanwhile, who is getting paid for their work? A tricky enpowerment question which should serve as another bullet point on the artistic agenda: never give your audience complete access to your work. Alas, cyber looting rules the day and bands no longer have the ability to create their own institutions.
The Mighty Blimp succeeded by doing it the old fashion way. They had a gifted and experienced leader who selected the right musicians for his band, tapped into their chemistry, wrote songs around their strengths, recorded a strong debut album that gave a nod to the blues past but opened the flood gates to the future and went out on the road. And went out on the road again. And again. And went into the studio when not gigging and recorded more new music. And then went out on the road again into cities and towns and left mythical impressions of their presence both on stage and off. In America, initially; then, the rest of the world collapsed under their influence in a series of mud sharks, cocaine, booze, women and three hour violin bow, guerrilla warfare assaults. Jimmy Page wanted light and shade in his music; he got Power, Mystery and the Hammer of the Godsthose were his William Blake-inspired words and they rang true.
Led Zeppelins London appearance at the tribute to the late Ahmet Ertegun on Monday, December 10 is not just a reunion but a reminder that the reason these musicians guitarist and leader, Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones and the late drummer, John Bonhamcan still attract 20,000,000 requests for a 20,000-seat venue is that they created something timeless that was much larger than themselves. And I use the word was as sort of a past tense place holder because we are talking about a band that called it a day on December 4, 1980, two months after their drummer died after a night of heavy drinking. They broke up and then, that was ITgone, baby, gone.
However, to this day, my entire adult life includes rumors of their reappearance. Two one-off reunionsat 1985s Live Aid concert and 1988s 40th Anniversary of Atlantic Records bashnotwithstanding, the band has never returned but the stories persist. The mid-to-late 1990s did offer a wonderful revitalization of the Page & Plant team and the Zeppelin back catalog via West African, Middle Eastern and Old Celtic templates but that wasnt really a reunion so much as a chance to say hello to half of the team again in an interesting and fresh environment. The omission of fellow living band member John Paul Jones appeared to cement the deal that the unique chemistry of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham was best left to the history books and classic rock radio stations. Page has spoken of the careful and specific contributions of all four individuals that came to form the band, eventually leading to an alchemical Fifth Element, which held the real answer. Sounds poetically understandable, mathematically simple and appears oh so sane, eh?
What exactly does that mean, though? What happens when something in an old, dusty book just doesnt want to stay within its yellowed, torn and frayed pages? Are Zeppelin the weirdly-paranormal, phantasmically-inspired, psychic vampires of rock like some immortal Anne Rice character? Why wont they go away and why was their importance in the past not as significant as it seems to be now? Gazing further at the book shelves of the minddo these four spiritual cats leap from a childrens popup book rather than the crusty historical tome temporarily trapped in time and space? Lets look at the evidence.
John Bonham. He was a deceptively simple drummer who was sometimes chided for being too much of the supreme thrashmeister. Two facts: his favorite records were James Brown platters and he played with his wrists, not his arms which is a common mistake of rock drummers. Hence, his style, whereas many decibels louder, was more akin to acid jazz, soul, hip-hop and industrial rock long before those genres had a name. He may not have been the MVP of the banda title that posthumously gets bestowed on Bonzo from time to timebut he was the heart and no drummer can touch his workpast or present.
John Paul Jones. He is probably one of the most underrated musicians to come out of the classic rock era and that perception really needs altering by rock journalists. Jones, like Page, came from a heavy session background in the 1960s and like his band mate was able to play on many different types of records from pop to avant-garde. He also was a top notch keyboardistlisten to You Shook Me and Carouselambra for 1969/1979 Zep bookend examples of that fine attributeand a brilliant brass and woodwinds arrangerKashmir is the ultimate choice here. As far as his bass work, the new Mothership collection should serve as a prime introduction into how good the man could be in the engine room with his blockbuster percussionist. Need any current clarification about his importance? Find a download of the June 2007 Bonnaroo Superjam, which was easily the best collaboration of the festival as Jones pushed guitarist Ben Harper and drummer ?uestlove to find the spine of their thematic dialogue and gave an example of how to age gracefully within a predominately youth-oriented art form.
Robert Plant. He wasnt the most important musician in the band; occasionally, he was the least interesting member and, to his credit, hed be the first to admit that fact. However, Plant was a towering humorous figurehead and a walking musical jukebox for a band that was sometimes insufferably serious. Plant honed the edges of the band, was the voice of the people, the hipster hippie and the cool cat who always knew that it is easier to get along with people when youve got your tongue planted firmly in your cheek and youre willing to take the piss out of yourself. He was the perfect foil for Page and, although, he has had an equally successful solo career in which his wide interests have cultivated a consistent musical muse, he never found a partner like Page whose genius matched his great wit and voicethe recent duet album with Alison Krauss, notwithstanding; that work seems more like a smart partnership rather than an inspired marriage of talents and Raising Sand arguably showcases Krauss, more so than Plant. His modesty can also be his downfall on occasion, as he sometimes belittles his Zeppelin work because of a need to look towards the future instead of embracing the legend.
Jimmy Page. The MVP of the band and classic rock as an art form. Much has been written about his occult studies and experiences but the real key to James Patrick Page was his ability to record records in a studio environment using the ambient atmosphere of the room. These days, one can dial in a particular vibe for a record but no one created the fifth element of the band quite like Page as he mastered the character of the recording better than any of his peers. His role as a producer ensured that Plant, Jones and Bonham were presented with their own individual spatial tones while he was able to overdub layers of guitar armies to enrich the colorful tapestrythe central ingredient in their mix and the reason why their recordings have stood the test of time whereas the Stones, for example, rarely had the proper producer to match their specific talents. Yes, some of Pages abilities had to do with his metaphysical interestshis keen need to find out about hidden knowledge and eccentric creative forces. Pages gifted ear for the arcane also had to do with his need for subliminal timeless mystique to enhance the aura around the band. But a hell of a lot of his legacy as a successful guitarist and producer had to do with his long experience in the studio in the 1960s backing artists in various genres. Want an education? Be a mensch for year after year and learn to listen to those that surround.
Peter Grant. Every great band has a great fifth member. Led Zeppelin had the best of the best. Peter Grant was the modern prototype of the manager who takes care of everything. At a time when hugely important artists like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix were being ripped off and overexposed by shoddy, corrupt management, Grant recognized the need to get his artists their rightful dollars earned and complete creative control over all of their projects from album covers to master tapes. This last traitan artistic hammerlock on ones workcannot be overemphasized and should be used as a working model for any band. Grant guaranteed that the talented quartet would have what they needed to excel in the studio and on the road. He took by any means necessary as a phrase to a whole other nefarious level. One didnt argue with the massive man; one capitulated and made sure that Zeppelin was satisfiedGrants enduring legacy.
Led Zeppelin. Wellhere we are againthe end is the beginning and the circle is completeor is it? What is the Fifth Element which the four members created that Page champions in his cryptic description of the band? Is that element present when they play a reunion gig like the one on Monday, December 10? I think the answer to that is obvious. Of course it is but, the sound may not rotate quite so passionately as it once did under Bonhams bedrock leadershipeven with his son, Jason on drumsbut the song does, indeed, remain the same. Only the players have aged but thats all part of the process, too, isnt it? Can one defeat the hourglass by creating timeless art? A question that needs to be addressed by any band and, without being too obvious about the jamband scene, a particularly thorny issue that comes up when bands excel on the stage with their frequent collaborators and clever setlists while improvising on material that might not have ever found a proper home back in the lonely, dark studio of the mind. Take note!
_Randy Ray stores his mud sharks at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com