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?
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.