Tag Archive: Robert Plant


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.

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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.

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.