Category: IV


Get In Line

On the other side of the Jesus People rift lived the hippies. While I find a lot of value in their no-judgments attitude and connection to the earth, I’m equally frustrated by their spacey-ness and hypocritical judgment of Christians. But even more than that is their preoccupation with illegal drugs. They could have done so much more good in the world if they weren’t enslaved to substances. It’s tragic and ironic that what they hated the most was people keeping other people down, but they themselves were kept down by their own addictions.

If you went to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, you would probably get stopped at least 4 times by a greasy-haired, dreadlocked, tie-dye tank top-wearing, unkempt beard-sporting lay-about saying, “hey, do you wanna score?” Y’know, smoke a bowl, surf the ganj, get crazy with Mary Jane… marijuana. And if you ask him if you can stay awhile, you will undoubtedly be met with a hearty laugh and an easy “sure, man, come on down!” You’ll lose track of time and your mind from the haze of pot, hashish and opium all around you, right before a policeman comes up to you with a smile as bright as Chernobyl and says “get in line.” He sarcastically mentions tea and crumpets, and says his friends and fellow policemen will drop by and bring their billyclubs. You’re basically screwed.

Tolkien’s Misty Mountains from The Hobbit

Sounds like a song, doesn’t it? The first two verses of “Misty Mountain Hop” relate this story – alright, I added a few embellishments. The third verse gives a rather scathing retort to the drug-addled hippie culture, with an implied “you reap what you sow” vibe. The fourth contains a repudiation of the whole thing, and the narrator says he’s “packing [his] bags for the Misty Mountains, where the spirits go.” There’s even a subtle Tolkien reference in there – beautiful.

We’ve gone from intense rock and roll to Olde English folk balladry to mid-tempo stomp, and now “Four Sticks” brings it to as close to a fever pitch as IV comes. It’s mad and frantic, so frantic that it leaves out a beat for some measures, making it 5/4 instead of 6/4. The drumming nervous and jumpy, a characteristic not typically displayed by John Bonham. He’s normally like a roaring lion, or more accurately a plodding elephant; not in any hurry, but crushing in his inevitability and force.

After that, a quick breath inwards, and a respite from the agitation of “Four Sticks.” “Going to California” is pretty and gentle. This is the first moment where you as the listener are allowed to let down your guard and slow your breathing a little. In the lyrics, the girl with “love in her eyes and flowers in her hair” is in fact Joni Mitchell, a good friend of Robert Plant’s. This song stands in light contrast to “Misty Mountain Hop,” because while that song reprimands the darker side of hippie culture, “Going to California” has sentimental fondness of that lifestyle, the kind of thing that’s born out of distance or separation from it. Maybe the only reason Plant has that for the hippies is because he knows Mitchell. Maybe she represents for him all that is good, beautiful and positive about the Haight-Ashbury thing.

Joni Mitchell

The calm and serenity that “Going to California” lulls you into is completely ruined by John Bonham and his plodding-elephant drumming. As track 7 finishes, track 8 brings the doom of death at the cap. “When the Levee Breaks” takes the pessimism and storminess of blues music and multiplies it by 100, creating something downright dangerous.

The lyrics talk of a city being devastated by a flood, not in the detached storyteller kind of way, but from the point of view of a man on the street. It always makes me think of Hurricane Katrina. The doomy quality of the lyrics bears out in the music, too. The harmonica sounds like it’s underwater, and the slide guitar sounds liquidy and wet. It’s raining, flooding, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Led Zeppelin never made an album as good as IV; how could they? That’s not a judgment on their declining power, but a pronouncement of how mighty and colossal an album IV actually is. Led Zeppelin went on to release 4 studio albums in the next 8 years, and they were all good (In Through the Out Door skirts the border between “good” and “mediocre,” but everyone is allowed an off-day). Those other seven albums cement Led Zeppelin as a significant and permanent presence in the history of rock and roll; IV makes them gods.

Next up: the (constant) evolution of David Bowie.

Formulas

Led Zeppelin III

With I and II, Led Zeppelin were taking a well-established formula (the blues) and transforming it into something new. Songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “The Lemon Song” have roots in American blues, but they’re nigh unrecognizable after Led Zep got a hold of them. With III, they started taking a different formula and morphing it, though it’s not as well-established; that formula is Led Zeppelin itself.

It might be the reason III wasn’t well-received when it first came out. They had carved out a niche for themselves with the first 2 albums, but they shifted directions a little too swiftly; there’s less than two years between I and III. Maybe that blues-update thing had gotten boring for them. It must have still held some appeal since there are awesome songs like “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Hey Hey What Can I Do.” But change was happening, marked by the presence of “Tangerine” and “Gallows Pole” which had a folk and country vibe to them. Led Zeppelin was playing around with the very definition of itself.

Even so, it’s weird to me. I’ve seen other bands do similar things, and much more radical than that. No one was expecting Smashing Pumpkins to follow the gigantic smash hit of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness with the morose and techno-ish Adore. Bruce Springsteen suddenly changed gears for an album and turned into a mellow singer-songwriter with Nebraska. And I hear Muse is going from Queen impersonators to dubstep. So what’s the big deal?

Detractors of Led Zeppelin’s evolution might have been many for III, but they all changed their tunes when IV hit the streets. Every critic you turned to had nothing but praises for Led Zep after that. All they had to do was not put their name on an album.

I’m just being cynical, a rare thing for me. I think what truly made IV receive critical acclaim is that it was good, really good. In my opinion, there are only 2 albums better than this one. I’ll cover them when I get to them in history.

IV starts out on an intense note with “Black Dog,” a full-on metal stomper. Some of Led Zep’s stuff has deep meanings or esoteric references, but some of it is just “let’s-do-it-in-the-bath” material. The lyrics to “Black Dog” don’t have much behind them other that desperate sexual desire and king-sized libido. The music, however, is incredibly interesting/frustrating. John Paul Jones, who wrote the main riff, wanted something you couldn’t dance to. That’s pretty easy to do, but what’s not easy is not having it be craptastically awful. “Black Dog” has ringing success on both counts. It has an unresolved quality, which always keeps you a little off-balance. I still don’t know what the rhythm is supposed to be. Every time I listen to it I’m aware that I’ve almost got it figured out. I know, I know, something about horseshoes and hand grenades…

“Rock and Roll” continues the force and intensity that “Black Dog” hinted at, but ups it by a factor of 10. And as much as John Paul Jones didn’t want you to be able to groove to “Black Dog,” the groove on “Rock and Roll” is undeniable. Your great-grandmother will be banging her head in her grave, if you play it loud enough. The musical pattern is nothing more complicated or less effective than a simple blues: I-I-IV-I and then V-IV-I-I. Lather, rinse, repeat.

While I think “Rock and Roll” is one of the best songs ever recorded, it really points to the fact that the blues is one of the best musical forms ever created. But more than that, it’s a token of that incredible talent Led Zeppelin had, to take something already existing and reformulate it into a completely new thing. That new thing Led Zeppelin created is something rock bands have consistently been trying to copy since then, and they’ve had little success. Success is not the point, though; it’s pretty fun just trying.

After that, it slows down and takes a turn for the strange and uncharted. I’m not even sure of where to begin with “The Battle of Evermore.” The first adjective that pops to mind is “Beowulfish,” which isn’t even a real word. It calls to mind a land so wild and ancient it doesn’t even seem like Earth.

Besides the Saxon/Celtic vibe, there are several notable firsts documented on “Battle.” It marks the first time Led Zep have had a guest vocalist. This honor belongs to Sandy Denny, singer for the folk outfit Fairport Convention. She got her own symbol on the album, much like the symbols for the other four. It also features Jimmy Page’s first time ever picking up a mandolin. He simply got curious about the mandolin John Paul Jones owned, started messing around with it, and recorded the instrumental track for “Battle” that day. Robert Plant then added his own contributions with the lyrics, which he recorded in two takes.

The lyrics are said to contain at least 4 references to Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, including “Dark Lord” and “Ringwraiths.” It also speaks of Avalon, the Queen of Light (possibly Galadriel) and the Prince of Peace (possibly Aragorn, but more likely Jesus Christ).

Next up: the second side of IV and the descent of Led Zeppelin.

Not Rock

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.

Instant Classic

It was only just shy of 4 years into Led Zeppelin’s career, but they had already become larger than life figures. A lot of that has to do with the mystique that had grown up around them, but it was also because they’re a band of personalities. Jimmy Page alone is interesting enough to carry the band, but Robert Plant provides his own brand of sex and swagger, equaling Page at the very least.

The music and celebrity press of the day (a completely different animal than we have today) swarmed around them with copious words. Surprisingly little of it was positive, too. I think music reviewers were so upset over information about the band being so scarce, and it came out in their reviews of Led Zep’s albums. Some of the press about I, II, and III was not kind at all. It’s understandable that with IV, they decided to disappear.

IV was released without a title. Understand that; it wasn’t an eponymous album (though I was), but rather a completely untitled album. IV is just a convenient thing to call it since it’s their 4th album, and the previous two used Roman numerals. It’s also sometimes called Four Symbols, Runes, The Hermit (from the inner gatefold artwork’s similarity to a tarot card), and ZoSo.

The name “Led Zeppelin” doesn’t appear anywhere on the album. There isn’t even that picture of the Hindenburg from their first album to help you along. The band members also aren’t listed anywhere, nor are the song titles. There are no lyrics except the last 9 lines of “Stairway to Heaven,” and they’re not even titled as such. In fact, the only text that appears anywhere in the entire artwork is that of the aforementioned lyrics, and four inscrutable symbols.

It turns out the “ZoSo” thing is one of those symbols, and it wasn’t even meant to be text of any kind. These four symbols are representative of the four band members, the ZoSo symbol corresponding to Jimmy Page. In case you care, the feather is Robert Plant, the trinity is John Paul Jones, and the three circles is John Bonham.

Looking at it with a critical eye, this is suicide. Music artist simply can’t release and album with no information printed on the jacket. The fact that the album has no name seems minor to me when compared with the lack of text. No band name, no member listing, no song titles, no nothin’. What’s the reaction going to be of someone like me who encounters the album 19 years after it had come out? I was going, “hey, what’s this?” I didn’t get an answer. Most people lose interest without name recognition. Without a title and without text on the album jacket, the only hope IV has is to become very, very famous… which, of course, it did, and almost instantaneously.

It’s a little ironic, but Led Zep’s intention was to disappear with this album and allow the music to stand on its own, and IV brought them more fame and adulation than ever before. Critics were wetting themselves like excited puppies, the near-opposite of their harsh words for the confusing dichotomy of III.  And the 40+ years since IV came out have seen the four of them rise to mythical and god-like status, leaving mere celebrity behind.

If ever there was a case of an album being an “instant classic,” IV was it. I hate that term, myself. Part of something being classic is that it has stood the test of time, and that’s why it’s incredibly hard to tell new fad bands from musical acts that will still be talked about in 20 years. “Instant classic” is, therefore, a contradiction in terms.

But whether or not IV was an instant classic in 1971 doesn’t matter anymore. It’s classic because every song is fantastic, it sounds unique amidst its time, it can fascinate us regardless of when we encounter it, and it creates a zeitgeist, a sense that it exists outside of time; was, is, and is to come. IV is just one of those albums that will last forever.

ZoSo

IV – Led Zeppelin – 11/8/1971

My interest in popular music started early, with my obsession with Beat the System and my Neil Diamond phase, as well as my early preoccupation with a Beach Boys greatest hits compilation. It grew and grew, reaching critical mass and passing it by, laughing at its lack of imagination.

I remember one of the numerous times I was rifling through my parents’ record collection. I must have been about 10. They were (air quotes) “LPs.” LPs are these black things with a little hole in the middle, and when you put them in a special machine called a (more air quotes) “record player,” music comes out. Ask your parents  grandparents.

I came across several records that ranged from famous (Tapestry by Carole King, Band of Gypsys by Jimi Hendrix­) to esoteric (Chicago’s Hot Streets, Huey Lewis’ Sports) to hopelessly obscure (It’ll Shine When It Shines by Ozark Mountain Daredevils, A Long Time Comin’ by Electric Flag). There was one album by some 70’s gospel group; I can’t remember the artist or title. The cover was a dichromatic picture with an orange sky and a black foreground. It was of five people (presumably the band), just black silhouettes, crouching in the grass, looking like ninjas. All that was visible other than their outlines were their eyes and smiles. It scared the crap out of me.

I remember one specific instance where I pulled an album out of the sideways stack; on the cover was just an old man with a walking stick, bent over, with a bundle of tree branches tied to his back. He was in a picture frame hung on an ancient stucco wall. There was no artist and title on the cover, as I had come to expect. I looked on the spine; nothing there, either, just what looked like the word “ZoSo” written in archaic text, followed by three symbols. On the back, there was just an unexciting building.

I was intrigued, but felt a certain hesitancy. What was this? It didn’t follow the pattern I had established for albums, which put me on guard. Was it even music on this album? Maybe it was some mysterious demonic chant, and if I played it, I would fall into the clutches of the devil! Perhaps even by opening the cover, I would be put under its spell. I felt a kind of electricity running through my system. Just do it! I took a deep breath and opened it.

I didn’t go on a killing spree or rape 1,000 virgins, in case you’re wondering. All that was inside was a painting of an old hooded, bearded wizard standing on a bluff of rock, holding out a lantern to illuminate the darkness. Next to it was a poem (or what I took to be a poem), talking about winding roads and shadows and a lady we all know, ending with the line “to be a rock and not to roll.”

The phrase hadn’t been invented yet, but I had a moment of WTF?

There are very few decisions in my life that I desperately wish I could go back and redo. I can count them on one hand with fingers to spare. One of them is that I didn’t – repeat, DIDN’T – actually play the record. I would have been opened up the Zep a lot sooner, and lived a more awesome life.

I know what you’re thinking – how could I get any more awesome? That thought seems weird to me, too, but it’s true. The earlier a human, any human, is introduced to Led Zeppelin, the better. If I ever have children, I think I’ll put headphones on my wife’s belly hooked up to an iPod playing “When the Levee Breaks” – if she doesn’t take them off and then slap me for being stupid, that is.