Category: Led Zeppelin


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.

Crystal Moments

When my parents gave me my first electric guitar (a used Hohner Les Paul) for Christmas, it was a turning point in my life. I started hearing music for not just a song or a melody, but for the individual instruments; the way the guitar plays off the bass, the way the drums vary in tonal quality, how a singer’s voice modulates to fit the emotional color of a particular song. But most of all, I noticed the vast number of sounds the electric guitar could make, the subtle differences between them, and how every single guitarist had the ability to create a sound all his own through combinations of different effects. It seemed limitless to me.

Before I started playing guitar, I didn’t really take Jimmy Page or Led Zeppelin seriously. Even then, I was only aware of Jimmy as a distant icon until I met Mike in college. But there was a moment of glorious realization when I was about 15, and I heard “Heartbreaker” on the radio in a friend’s car. I call instances like that “crystal moments”: times when you are truly listening to music, and something just clicks and you “get it.” When I first heard the guitar solo in “Heartbreaker,” that was a crystal moment. It was when I realized that I had only taken one bite of the first appetizer in an infinitely huge buffet of guitar delights.

For whatever reason God has divined, I no longer have access to those delights. The stroke I had when I was 21 left me with limited use of my right arm, making guitar-playing impossible. I could have gotten the arm back, but it just wasn’t in me; at the time, I had bigger things on my mind (like plowing through 2 bone marrow transplants to deal with the leukemia that my stroke tipped the doctors off to). But it remains that I used to play guitar, but now I don’t. And I still hear music in terms of the separate sounds coming together to make the soup of a song. Disparate parts making a unified whole; sound familiar?

John “Bonzo” Bonham

Back to II. “Moby Dick,” besides being a simple 12 bar blues, is a showcase for drummer John Bonham to let it fly. Maybe it’s just me, but the drum solos from the 60s and 70s seem rather unimpressive. When I look at drummers from the modern age, like Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater or Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, they seem so much more proficient than some drummers from earlier years. The godlike bands from the rock renaissance of the 70s had mostly mediocre drummers. At the very least, the recorded drum solos from that era were very unimpressive even if the drummers themselves aren’t. The exception to the rule is Ginger Baker from Cream; he was awesome.

John Bonham is a whole lot better than “Moby Dick” makes it seem. With juggernauts like Plant and Page in the same band, it’s easy to overlook the massive contributions Bonham made. I think Led Zep’s overall sound is as much a result of Bonham’s inspired drumming and Page’s guitar work or Plant’s vocal histrionics. It’s a shame that the only drum solo in Led Zep’s catalogue is sub-par.

At the cap, there is “Bring It On Home.” It starts as a soft, bluesy stomp powered by nothing but a simple guitar and a harmonica. The vocals sound like they’re underwater. Then a roaring to life, and the band pulls out the stops for the most aggressive and charging song on the album. The guitar takes a 180 from soothing and smooth to distorted and crackling. And the main riff encapsulates the entire quest of Led Zeppelin: blues music shifted into a heavy and aggressive form, turning it on its head.

With the arrival of Led Zeppelin, the landscape of the music world changed. That type of thing tends to happen around the turning of a decade. It happened in 1980 when punk music ceased being a revolution and became a corporate brand. It happened in 1991 when Nirvana made us all rediscover that rock and roll comes from our guts, not our wallets. It happened just before the new millennium when the boy bands took over the airwaves. And it’s happening even now with the meteoric rise of alternative folk bands like the Decemberists, Bon Iver and The Civil Wars. But the difference is this: all those other shifts at the decades existed on a pendulum – Led Zeppelin broke the pendulum. When they changed things, they stayed changed.

Tomorrow: the descent and demise of Brian Jones, a rolling stone.

Mystique

Led Zeppelin had mystique. They rarely gave interviews, released no radio singles, and had almost no direct media presence. The way it goes today, famous people need to get out in front of an issue to spin it the way they want it spun, before someone spins it for them. Led Zeppelin didn’t do any of that. People were (and are) fascinated with them because they weren’t told how to think about them. While that allowed people to think about them in whatever way they wanted (as they will anyhow), it also forced them to say that they didn’t really know.

There were stories, though. When concrete information on a band is so scant, the public is bound to fill in the holes themselves. Most often, this will constitute just making stuff up. The stories about Led Zep, true or not, have been around long enough that they’re now legend, like Santa Claus. Some said they were Satanists. Some claim there are hidden back-masked messages in their songs. There is even a hotel tale about an incident in Florida involving a groupie, chocolate syrup, and a giant marlin (hint: they didn’t cook and eat it).

The one I want to focus on is their preoccupation with J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. While this is mostly in their later albums (“Battle of Evermore” is said to have at least 6 references to the book in its lyrics), the only time it’s completely confirmed is in the song “Ramble On” from II.

For the most part, “Ramble On” walks a well-travelled path of a guy who loves his woman but loves the road more. He inevitably leaves one lover for another, reveling in the glory of going from place to place.

Then the third verse. What’s this talk of “the darkest depths of Mordor,” and “Gollum?” It appears that a blues band is combining a very common, people-oriented form of music with scholarly and erudite literature.

You might think it’s not so scholarly; who doesn’t know about Return of the King and the boatload of Oscars it won? But the fact is II was released in 1969, which is 32 years before the Peter Jackson-directed epic movies first started coming out. Led Zeppelin thought it was cool waaaay before everyone and their brother in this generation liked it. We in our American temporality often forget this, but Lord of the Rings was popular long before digital filming even existed. Indeed, they were a hit on first being published. J.R.R. Tolkien, despite that he was a stuffy Oxford professor, was kind of a rock star.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Led Zep’s combining of those two apparent opposites (high literature and fantasy with down-and-out blues music) creates something new. They brought an English sensibility to an American form of music, also creating something new. The presence of Middle-earth language signals that delta blues and Oxford higher learning are opposites only in our own minds, and the rift between them is smaller than imagined.

Machismo

I went to Dictionary.com and looked up machismo and this is what I found:

ma∙chis∙mo (noun) – a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness; an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and entitlement to dominate are attributes or concomitants of masculinity.

I was wondering how that differed from chauvinism, and discovered that chauvinism doesn’t actually involve maleness as part of its definition; it’s merely devotion to any group, particularly one’s country or military. I think what nearly everyone calls chauvinism (or male chauvinism) could much more accurately be called machismo.

I’m not a very macho guy. I think a lot of bluster and posturing very often hides insecurity or fear, and guys who are preoccupied with their power and dominance fall harder when they can’t have it. It reveals their true nature, that they’re not men but boys, crying over a toy being taken away from them. True manhood comes from the releasing of power, from recognizing that certain things have priority over even the self; things like your spouse, your kids, your family, and the things all those people love. True manhood comes from love.

At first glance, Led Zeppelin seems to be all about the machismo. The opening song on II is a charged-up burst of sexual inevitability, a dominating force that insists upon a submissive party. But after that, it takes a subtle turn. “The Lemon Song,” which probably still wouldn’t be approved by the PMRC, actually involves a guy having his manhood trampled on by his woman. Not only is she cheating on him, but he is entirely sexually beholden to her. In that scenario, she has all the power. Not so much machismo here.

But if “The Lemon Song” is machismo on the run, “Thank You” is the complete absence of it. Instead of posturing and puffed-out chests, “Thank You” has gratitude and selfless love as its centerpieces. Not only is this the opposite of machismo, but I think it’s one of the manliest songs of the entire 70s. The singer of “Thank You” is man enough to admit and be proud of the fact that he loves, and that he relies on the person he loves.

You’ll notice in the definition of machismo that it not only doesn’t mention love, but that it doesn’t have anything to do with love in any form. In fact, were the transcendent and divine power of love to take hold of us, we would find that machismo (and the female equivalent) becomes meaningless and inconsequential. Jesus talked about it; Martin Luther King Jr. talked about it. Love, in its most grand and perfect form, is not about power; it’s about oneness. When we are one, there is no power to be had.

Tomorrow: J.R.R. Tolkien the rock star, and Jimmy Page the literary scholar.

Every Inch

Led Zeppelin I

Led Zeppelin’s first album carved out a name for them and let the world know that things would be different from here on out. Led Zeppelin was about taking blues music and giving it a hard, modern edge. Nearly every song takes a standard blues formula and spins it to a different angle so it’s almost unrecognizable. “Dazed and Confused” is a good example. It was technically released long before the Altamont Free Concert, largely agreed upon to be “the death of the 60s.” But it heralded changes in the sound, stability, and mindset of rock and roll. It was getting nastier, darker, and more sexual. Led Zeppelin and Beggars Banquet prepared people for it; II made it a reality.

I’ve heard II described as the template for heavy metal. Most metal artists at the birth of the genre looked at II and thought, “we’ll just do that.” In that way, all metal artists from Stryper to Mayhem, Twisted Sister to Slipknot, owe Led Zeppelin big time. Without them, there would be no heavy metal, and that’s just the truth.

Led Zeppelin - II - 10/22/1969

The opening guitar strain of “Whole Lotta Love” is, without a doubt, the heaviest thing the world had heard thus far. Every time I hear this track, it only takes a few seconds before it captures my attention and I think, “wow; this is some serious business.” As plodding and unmerciful as the guitar part is, the vocals are serpentine and smooth, a feat Robert Plant was the first to pull off in this setting. But beware, Plant isn’t a wilting flower or a lovesick puppy – he’s dangerous. Mothers, lock up your daughters.

I once heard Robert Plant say in an interview something to the effect of this song letting the world know that Led Zeppelin “possessed sex.” Each time I listen to this song, I get it. The music is very sexual, but not like a horny teenager. No, it’s more like an experienced womanizer, a lion who hunts prey. The lyrics appear innocent enough, but have an undercurrent of male libido that is almost overwhelming. “I’m gonna give you my love” could be taken at face value, but I think the listener is intended to take it one step further.

Let’s be blunt: every instance of the word “love” in this song could be replaced with “penis.” Near the end, Plant even modifies the lyric to “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love!” It would take football fields full of naivety to miss that meaning. I could do without Plant having an orgasm into the microphone half way into the song, though; it’s not very manly to finish early.

After that burst of aggressive male sexuality, things slow down for a moment with “What Is and What Should Never Be.” The song has soft-on-the-verse, hard-on-the-chorus cycle; this is just one piece of II’s influence on not just heavy metal, but rock and roll in general. I think the concept is supposed to be the contrast between the extremes of hard and soft, like sleeping and waking. The verses are almost dreamlike, while the chorus is hard-driving and intense. Despite that, the melody in the chorus isn’t very compelling, and the verses aren’t formed enough. I understand that that’s the point of the song, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

“The Lemon Song,” on the other hand, really does. This song is full of sexual innuendo; Robert Plant saying “the way you squeeze my lemon, I’m gonna fall right outta bed” is more deliciously bawdy than all the modern sitcoms, rap songs and stand-up comedians combined. Sexual humor is always funnier when it’s presented with a wink. “If you know what I mean…”

“The Lemon Song” is arguably Led Zep’s most blues-influenced song; that’s saying a lot for a band that makes its name on updating the blues for the changing times. It borrows from Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, and John Paul Jones’ bass track has funkiness that simply defies his age. Best of all is Robert Plant’s splendid and perfectly timed delivery. I feel I would have a lot of people on my side if I said that Plant is the greatest lead singer of all time.

On Monday: Being a man is more than what’s between your legs.

Get the Led Out

The first time I met my friend Mike, I was standing in line at the Dugout, the fast food joint run by my college that was in the Student Center. In line in front of me was my friend Colin, and he was engaged in conversation with a short, thick-bodied guy with a Fonzie hairstyle and a bomber jacket. I don’t remember any of the details of their conversation, save one: at some point, Mike said, “Tom Waits is a fucking genius!” Colin then noticed my presence and said, “Hey Neal. This is Mike.” We exchanged nods and heys.

Friendship is a strange thing. Some friendships are like popcorn chicken; you gobble them up quick as a flash and don’t expect to get much out of them. Others are like cigarettes; they give you a high, but are ultimately really bad for you. Still others are like breathing; you take them for granted about 95% of the time, but you have a few moments when you realize if you didn’t have them, even for a short time, you would die. When they’re not there, something is definitely wrong.

You could probably tell already, but my friendship with Mike is like breathing.

I imagine every music enthusiast (or film buff, or television expert, or literary scholar) has a friend like Mike: someone who, no matter your amazing depth of knowledge about a particular subject, makes you look like a blathering idiot. Seriously, when Mike starts talking about the socio-economic context of Black Sabbath or the sexuality inherent in Judas Priest, I feel like my entire musical scholarship amounts to “duuuuuh, I like Jimmy Eat World.” And I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t trade him for 600 kajillion dollars.

L to R: John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones

It was under Mike’s tutelage that I first got the Led out. Sure, I’d heard of Led Zeppelin since I was little, but they, like so many other bands, were nothing more than a historical fact. When I first heard “Stairway to Heaven” when I was 7, I thought it was pretty boring. But Mike opened my eyes soon after we met. This is just one of the things he did for me, showed me, and brought to the forefront of my mind. I owe him the biggest debt of anyone for my musical education.

A lot has been said about Led Zeppelin over the years. They’re almost mythical figures, untouchable and ineffable to mere mortals. Even so, they have rather humble beginnings. Their roots are in another group called the Yardbirds, which saw a literal host of great British guitarists go through it. Strangely and perfectly enough, the Yardbirds saw those guitarists when they were young and green, just beginning to do great things, and they would do even greater things once they left that band. Jeff Beck would go on to create the Jeff Beck Group, which in turn launched the careers of Rod Stewart as well as Ronnie Wood, later of the Rolling Stones. Eric Clapton went on to fame and godhood with Cream, then Blind Faith, then Derek and the Dominos, then solo. But perhaps even greater was a bass player turned lead guitarist, a young hotshot named Jimmy Page.

Jimmy was known from the beginning of his stint in the Yardbirds for his showy and lacy dress, but more for his guitar antics. They included playing his Telecaster with the bow of a violin. Alas, Jimmy was a member of the Yardbirds in their last configuration. Their disintegration left Jimmy without a job, so he started thinking about a supergroup; the likes of Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, Ansley Dunbar and The Who’s rhythm section were considered for it, but in the end he recruited session bass player John Paul Jones and near-unknown drummer John Bonham. The suggestion of Bonham had come from Page’s chosen singer, a 20 year-old swaggering peacock named Robert Plant. Jimmy Page said this about Plant:

“When I auditioned him and heard him sing, I immediately thought there must be something wrong with him personality-wise or that he had to be impossible to work with because I just could not understand why, after he told me he’d been singing for a few years already, he hadn’t become a big name yet.”

Jimmy’s amazement was warranted, and Plant was just as pleasant and polite as a guy can be. All that remained was the name.

The most popular story about the name is also unconfirmed. Keith Moon and John Entwistle of the Who once said that a supergroup including them and Jimmy Page would go down like a lead balloon. Jimmy was amused, and dubbed his new group Led Zeppelin. “Lead” was purposely misspelled, at the suggestion of Led Zep manager Peter Grant, to prevent stupid Americans from saying “Leed Zeppelin.”

And thusly, one of the most important and influential bands in the history of rock and roll was born.

Tomorrow: Mothers, lock up your daughters.