Led Zeppelin have been known for a long time as the fathers of heavy metal. They make modern metal warlords tremble like scared-crapless foot soldiers with height, width and hardness of their rock and roll. Yet, much of what they recorded wasn’t hard at all; quite the opposite actually.

Put down the pitchforks and torches for a second and listen. Hardness does not necessarily equal goodness. Sometimes it does; don’t get me wrong. But a measure of how hard, fast, or METAAAAL!!! something is doesn’t always reflect how good it is. In fact, sometimes hardness and intensity are used to cover up unfathomable ineptitude.

Anal Cunt – yeah, it’s gross; that’s the point

Case in point: the band Anal Cunt. This is probably the loudest, screamiest, growliest, most intense band in existence. Their ferocity and 1,000-magnum force is probably only seconded by that of Dethklok, who don’t even really exist. BUT, Anal Cunt is a terrible, terrible band. Just terrible. Their lyrics are overwhelmingly negative, are overflowing with profanity, insult and offend every people group on earth (including themselves), and lampoon every lifestyle choice in the most vicious and hate-filled way imaginable. Their music, while hard beyond belief, is quite literally an assault on the sense of hearing. Dissonant, unmelodic and lacking in any of the beauty and grace of music (and often lacking rhythm and chord changes), an A.C. record is not pleasant to listen to at all. They were allowed to continue go on making music for one reason. Everything they did, from the bad music to the offensive lyrics, was satirical. They did it all on purpose to be funny and hold up a mirror to society, like a good comedian. In a way that 99% of everyone who heard their music completely missed, they pointed a finger at the music industry and said, “see what you’ve become?”

So, Anal Cunt = hard, and Anal Cunt = bad. In contrast, there is the song “Stairway to Heaven.” This song is practically rock and roll holy writ. If you speak ill of it, you not only run the risk of drawing the ire of millions of rock believers, but you also need to watch the skies: you might find yourself dodging lightning bolts. Some folks take this song more seriously that Muslims take the Koran. “Stairway to Heaven” is the quintessential rock song, and for good reason. But here’s the juice: it’s not a rock song.

Sorry for the delay; I was watching for lightning bolts.

The song is 8 minutes long, and in the first 6 or so, there’s almost no hardness at all. It’s more like an old English folk ballad, if you ask me. Now, in those last 2 minutes, it reaches heights of rock stardom not previously dreamed of. The whole thing coalesces to crescendo the first 6 minutes was preparing you for. And the shift in the volume knob is not strange or startling. All 8 minutes of it are a million times better than the best A.C. song ever. Hardness and the lack thereof don’t matter anymore.

The Sandbox, by Edward Albee

In college, I took a drama course called “Directing” that taught us the elements of what goes into directing a play. The final project was a performance of a 10 to 15 minute scene of our choosing for which we would have complete creative control. We would determine the cutting of the script, recruit the actors, and set the rehearsal schedule. I did the entirety of The Sandbox, a short play by Edward Albee. It’s supposed to be a comment on the way we treat our elders, especially as they transition through the end-of-life stage. I took it in a slightly different direction, and emphasized what it said about death and dying. I had a live solo guitar performer in it (my friend and rock blood brother Mike) playing a kind of soundtrack to the scene. He ended with “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most recognizable guitar riffs ever. After the performance, the instructor came up to me with a knowing smirk on her face. “Really, Neal? ‘Stairway to Heaven?’ Couldn’t resist, huh?” I just shrugged and smiled. She laughed.

Led Zeppelin hit resoundingly something music in general couldn’t fully be called before it: EPIC. The Beatles touched on it a few years back with “A Day In the Life,” as did Bowie with “The Width of a Circle” and Pink Floyd with “Atom Heart Mother.” But here with “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin reveals the master formula, adding a spice all those other songs were missing. Here, they perfect the art.

It gets even better. “Stairway to Heaven” is right in the middle of a veritable avalanche of epicness. Starting with “Black Dog” right up until “When the Levee Breaks” (with a slight pause near the end on “Going to California,” an inward breath amidst a loud shout), we are taught the definition of rock and roll. Elvis and Buddy Holly made us know it in our heads, and the Rolling Stones taught it to our crotches, but not until Led Zeppelin and IV did we truly know it in our hearts.