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Led Zeppelin Boxed Set Essay 3

Led Zeppelin: The Music
by Robert Palmer

Seperately, in recent conversations, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones practically echoed each other's comments when pressed to define what it was about Led Zeppelin that made playing in the band such a special experience for them. "Musically," said Page, "we weren't afraid to go in any direction whatsoever. I guess that was the way we kept ourselves really alive as musicians. The band wouldn't have existed if it hadn't been like that." Jones put it this way: "The very thing that Zeppelin was about was that there were absolutely no limits. There was freedom to try anything, to expirement. We all had ideas, and we'd use everything we came across, whether it was folk, country music, blues, Indian, Arabic. All these bands that are now borrowing from Zeppelin haven't figured that out, and because of that, none of them have got it right. None of them have gotten close.

The preponderance of "Led Clones" on American FM radio, and continuing, frequent airplay for the original recordings, have kept the band's legacy alive. They have also done our memories of the band's music a great disservice by carrying on as if "Stairway To Heaven" and a few crunching, blues-based riff tunes - "Whole Lotta Love," "Black Dog" - represented the entire scope of the Led Zeppelin heritage. They don't. Zeppelin's stylistic and emotional range were as broad and encompassing as those of any other band in rock's history. The present set, programmed and digitally remastered by Page from the original master tapes, allows a new picture to emerge, the picture of a band whose only limits were the imaginations and resources of the musicians.

And the musicians had unusually rich and varied backgrounds to draw on. At a time when many British rock bands were still being started by purist record collectors and other semi-professional players, Zeppelin had a guitarist whose insatiable curiosity about different musics and prior career as a top session man had encouraged him to tackle everything from hard blues to acoustic folk stylings to Indian music. John Paul Jones had also served a long session apprenticeship, doing everything from Motown-style bass to keyboards to full orchestral arrangements. Robert Plant and John Bonham had been professional pub-wrecking provincial rockers who had tackled blues, soul, west coast psychedelia, and more. Any band willing to mix and match such a crazy quilt of experience and influences was bound to be different.

Despite the leadership Page exercised as the group's founder, producer in the studio, and de facto musical director, Led Zeppelin was definiitely a band. It is instructive to compare Led Zeppelin and the much anticipated debut album by the Jeff Beck group, Truth, both released in 1969. Beck puts his own name first and seems to have conceived the group primarily as a vehicle for his own playing despite the stellar talent of sidemen Ron Wood and Rod Stewart. Since both guitarists had become "names" with the Yardbirds, Page was sensitive to comparisons between the two groups; he was distressed to find out, too late, that both albums included cover versions of Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me." But from the first, Zeppelin had something going for it that the Beck group, with its battling egos and moody, introverted leader, lacked - a real group spirit. In Zeppelin's music, the song was most important, followed by the ensemble arrangement, overall sound and mood, then the solo turns. This group spirit had a lot to do with Zeppelin developing so rapidly, playing so tightly, and lasting so long without a single personnel change. Each member was considered irreplaceable, which is the reason the band had to call it quits following John Bonham's death.

"When recording," Page recalled recently of the Zeppelin sessions, "I was extremely conscious of building and maintaining the atmospheric quality of the song from square one. No matter how many guitar parts I might layer on in the studio, I followed the tune's overall theme and ambiance in my mind. Sometimes I did get carried away a bit, but fortunately I always managed to catch myself. That's what it's all about, catching yourself."

John also emphasizes his role as a team player, a song player. "I suppose in case it's an arranger's ear," he said while talking about the music in this set. "That was one of the very good things about the band, it wasn't just a bunch of musicians playing, we treated the songs as top priority. You would try to bring out the best in the song, rather than look at it as an excuse for a bliding solo."

Page describes his work in the studio as "a kind of construction in light and shade. Usually, we'd start with the framework, we'd lay down the tracks and Robert would do a guide vocal. I would then overlay lots of different guitars, and then Robert would come in and do a final vocal." Page experimented not only with combining the sounds of his Les Paul, Danelectro, and other guitars, but played them through various amps and miked them from different spots and from different distances, resulting in what can only be called in retrospect the beginnings of modern guitar orchestration in the studio.

Jones, also an inveterate experimenter, was always the heartbeat on bass, but gradually his keyboards became an increasingly important part of the sound. He tried everything from the reliable Hammond organ to an early EMS VCS3 synthesizer, hand-patched, which can be heard on "In The Light" and "No Quarter." He was adept at reproducing string sounds on his mellotron, but beware of generalizations. The strings on "Friends" are actually strings, played by Indian musicians in an Indian studio, arranged and conducted by Jones. On "The Ocean" he's playing and old Farfisa organ with a glide pedal that enabled him to slide notes up or down as much as an octave.

In the studio, as in their music, Zeppelin tried just about everything. "We had amps in toilets," recalls Jones, "mikes hanging down chimneys. Sometimes when we were renting these big old houses to write in, we'd experiment with the sound there. Very often the sound would suggest a tune, and we'd write or arrange with that in mind - 'When The Levee Breaks' is a good example of that."

Led Zeppelin made its impact primarily with its hard rock, some of the hardest around. It was a new, savage sound in riff-based electric music, one Page had been conceiving and refining during his years with the Yardbirds. "I was always experimenting with riffs and things then," Page said, "and began to see during that period that playing such music with a highly inventive rhythm section could move the music into new dimensions." At the same time, on Led Zeppelin the band's range and ambition were already in evidence. "I always thought our mixing of the electric with the acoustic music was one thing that really made us stand out as a band," Page said, "and it was there from the beginning. On the first album, between things like 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You' and 'Communication Breakdown,'' you've got something that's driving all the way and then something that's far more subtle, with changes and such. And everything just keeps on moving from there." In fact, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" is a kind of initial blue-print for later songs that used multi-part structures, complex arrangements, and constantly altering instrumental textures, culminating in opuses such as "Stairway To Heaven" and "Achilles Last Stand."

Zeppelin's relationship to the blues was complex. Jones was much more influenced by soul music and, especially, jazz; his keyboard idol in his early days was Ray Charles. He reports that on the Zeppelin tour plane, he and Bonham "were James Brown freaks and used to play his records all the time. It wasn't terribly cool to listen to James Brown then, especially around the FM underground stations, where they really didn't like black music at all, which was a real shame. But on stage, we'd get into funk grooves a lot. Bonzo, incidentally, had very broad listening tastes. When we weren't listening to James Brown or Otis Redding, he might be listening to Joni Mitchell or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Bonzo was a great lover of songs."

Plant had started in folk and skiffle bands, put in his blues apprenticeship (with Bonham) in The Crawling Kingsnakes, and then turned toward west coast psychedelia before meeting Page. But it was the blues that taught him some of his most valuable lessons. He explains: "With the blues, you could actually express yourself rather than just copy, you could get your piece in there. Only when I began singing blues was I able to use the medium to express what was inside me, my hopes and fears. I could use several blues lines, well-known blues lines, but they were all related to me that day. And that's because the blues is more elastic. It also encouraged me to be more flexible vocally, even at the risk of losing the melody. I could just sing out. Yet the blues is just one of the many sources I drew from. I mean, Ray Charles was as much of a contributor as anyone else, and he was testifying. It came from all angles: Ray Charles, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Howlin' Wolf."

Although the young Page was playing Chicago blues the night he was "discovered" at the Marquee Club (a gig that led him to the first of his many studio sessions), his first inspirations were 50's rock and roll singles. By the time he'd begun to delve heavily into blues, he was already a session musician, playing straight pop one day and ersatz Motown the next.

In other words, none of these musicians was a blues purist, or collector, like, say, members of The Rolling Stones. Zeppelin played the blues, but blues filtered through a very individual group sensibility. Perhaps the most familiar example is "Whole Lotta Love," which begins as a bluesy riff-cruncher but moves organically into psychedelic sound-collage territory on the break ("that was Page and Eddie Kramer just going crazy twisting knobs in the studio," an observer reported) without ever losing sight of the mood and intent of the original tune.

When Page took a blues guitar solo on record, his tendency was to simply play two or three takes, see what came out, and use the best take - often the most exciting rather than the most technically perfect, for as Page admits, there are plenty of "mistakes" in his Zeppelin solos. Yet they still thrill, and convince.

It isn't entirely surprising to learn that Page's blues influences weren't exactly conventional, compared to the preferences of his contemporaries. In 1966, after a Yardbirds concert, I approached him and asked him about his favorite blues listening, and he mentioned in particular the piano playing of country bluesman Skip James, some of the more eccentric works in the entire blues canon. When I recently reminded Page of this, he said, "Yeah, those records seemed so off-the-wall in their timing, yet so right. If you count them through, though, they're regular 4/4. Anything like that, that was sort of bizarre or sounded avant-garde, that was for me. But I'd have to say my main blues influences was Howlin' Wolf, and his stuff wasn't just straight groove, playing on the beat, either. I loved his voice and the sheer intensity of the music as well as the timing of it. I've often thought that in the way the Stones tried to be the sons of Chuck Berry, we tried to be the sons of Howlin' Wolf."

Country blues and early Howlin' Wolf sides with staggered, off-kilter rhythms had a lot to do with shaping Page's riff construction, and he passed on this approach to Jones and Bonham, who with their fondness for James Brown's rhythmic whiplash were more than ready to meet the challenge. All that, combined with Plant's highly personal vocal approach, resulted in a new kind of blues feel, miles away from the more imitative work of Zeppelin's British precursors and contemporaries; it was heavy, even ponderous-sounding, but it was always swinging. "That was very important to us," Jones noted. "We all always liked bands that really grooved."

Individually, the players also expressed their own personalities within blues forms. Page never played a solo that sounded like any other single blues guitarist, something that can't even be said of Eric Clapton, who went through his imitative Albert King and Freddie King phases on records before finding his own blues voice. And Plant simply cut loose. Former Zeppelin engineer Eddie Kramer described the Plant of Zeppelin days as "a wild man of the vocal cords, with tremendous range and highly charged emmotional impact."

Zeppelin has frequently been charged with plagiarism for uncredited use of blues riffs and tunes. It's one thing to run afoul of Willie Dixon, a professional Chicago songwriter and session bassist who wrote and copyrighted the original "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby" and successfully sued after Zeppelin released their considerably altered versions of those songs. Yet several of Dixon's copyrights are of material from the folk-blues public domain - tunes like "My Babe" were current in the South long before he claimed them. It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own.

The same sort of brouhaha might possibly emerge over Zeppelin's "Travelling Riverside Blues," heard here for the first time as preserved on a 1969 BBC broadcast. Is this the famous Robert Johnson "Travelling Riverside Blues"? The title and opening verse are the only evident borrowings from the Johnson recording, which was itself partly reassembled from traditional sources. Page's complex slide-guitar rhythms and the rhythm-section figures are miles away from Johnson's conception, and Plant strings together verses from a variety of sources, the way bluesman of Johnson's generation so freely did. Our copyright laws were written to the specifications of Tin Pan Alley and are of little relevance here, it seems to me. You can copyright a melody or lyrics, but not styles or riffs or rhythm patterns. Thus Clapton can insert a solo whose vocabulary is pure Albert King into "Strange Brew" with impunity, but Zeppelin's more deeply assimilated and originally conceived reworkings of material like "Travelling Riverside Blues" are sources for debate. I'm not arguing that Dixon didn't deserve royalties for songs he clearly wrote, but I am arguing that the whole issue is more complex than it seems on the surface. Meanwhile, Zeppelin progressed, moving further and further away from specific blues sources as they incorporated the blues language more organically into their own creative processes.

There was always a lot more to Zeppelin's music than "heavy blues." Page says he had a sitar before the Beatles got one, but couldn't find out how to tune it! One of the first British musicians to develop serious interest in Indian music, he explains: "I saw a parallel between the bending strings of blues music and the emotional quality of that, with what was being done in Indian music - especially in the alap [the early, meditative, improvisational, and rhythmically part of the raga] as well as in the timings or time sequencing of Indian music. Once I started to kind of digest the whole system of Indian music and learned what was involved, I realized it was far too complicated for someone who was really a rock and roll guitarist. But ideas from Indian music were well worth incorporating, tunings and such."

This Indian influence can be heard everywhere from the keyboard introduction to "In The Light," which was a Jones inspiration, to Page's "White Summer" / "Black Mountain Side" medley, recorded live by the BBC and heard here for the first time. But by no means is the medley "Indian" in form or execution. Its relationship to Indian music is roughly comparable to Zeppelin's relationship to the blues. In fact, Page calls it his "CIA connection - part Celtic, part Indian, part Arabic. That's played in a guitar tuning very close to the standard Indian sitar tuning," he noted, "but then again it's like a mishmash, really, because it's sort of pseudo-Indian and pseudo-Arabic as well, so that what comes out still has a sort of Western feel, in the combination, the fusion."

Page's and Jones's interest in Indian and Arabic music ran deep and was long-lasting. The latter recalls: "When I was a kid, my father had a big, old short-wave radio, and we could pick up North Africa, so I spent many hours listening to Arab music. I loved it - still do." Perhaps the best example of the ways in which these strains worked together in a band context is "Kashmir." Plant, an inveterate traveller who frequently visited Morocco in Zeppelin days and returns there periodically, remembers writing the lyric when he was driving, alone, across a desolate stretch of the Moroccan Sahara between Tantan and Goulimine. Page came up with the cascading, descending phrase for massed guitars that periodically punctuates or paces the tune. Then, he explains, "I had this idea to combine orchestra and mellotron and have them duplicate the guitar parts. Jones improvised whole sections with the mellotron and added the final ascending riff, whereby the song fades." The resulting mix of sounds, in which both guitars and brass lose their indentities in a wholly unique sonority, is Zeppelin at its best.

Plant recalls that he, too, had benefited from early exposure to non-western musical forms: "When I was 17, I began dating the consequent mother of my children. She lived in an East Indian area, so I was constantly surrounded by Indian film music. To a conservative ear, the swirling strings and the way the vocals came out of the instrumental sections wouldn't have been attractive at all. But to me, it was all very sensual and alluring. And five blocks from that was the Jamaican neighbourhood, where I used to hang out when I wasn't working, eating goat stew and listening to ska records. Then I later went to Morocco, which moved me into a totally different culture. The place, the smells, the colors were all very intoxicating, as was the music. On the radio you could hear a lot of Egyptian pop like Oum Kalsoum, and depending on where you were, Berber music. I never tried to write anything down or to play it, I was just developing a love affair. But I know it did something to me, to my vocal style. You can hear it in the longer sustained notes, the drops, the quarter tones. You hear that in 'Friends' or in 'In The Light' for instance, lots of other places too."

There are also strong British Isles folk and Celtic influences in Zeppelin. One good example is "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp," a kind of tribal highland fling. Another is "The Battle Of Evermore," lyrically Plant's evocation of the long history of conflict between Celts and Saxons along the Welsh border, near his home town. "You don't have to have too much of an imagination or a library full of books if you live there," he says. "It's still there. On a murky October evening, with the watery sun looking down on those hills over some old castle and unto the river, you have to be a real bimbo not to flash occasionally. Remember, I wasn't living in London. There you can be a fashion victim, but you can't feel like your average working man's Celt." At another extreme, Plant and Page shared an affinity for the rockabilly of the 50's - Gene Vincent with guitarist Cliff Gallup was a big favorite. This influence has emerged even more clearly in Plant's solo work but is certainly present here, especially in "Candy Store Rock" and the psychobilly of "Ozone Baby."

One thing this set throws into sharp relief is how much new ground Zeppelin broke, and how little credit they've received for it. The "world beat" phenomenon that has captured the attention of Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and other 80's pop stars has accustomed us to hearing music heavily influenced from other cultures. When Zeppelin started, there was no "world beat," and rock groups borrowings from other cultures were largely window dressing. (Did "Norwegian Wood" really need that sitar? Did it have anything to do with the song?)

Zeppelin's interest in world music, sparked by Page's and Jones's early curiosity, really began to pay off artistically when Plant blossomed as a lyricist. His travels through some of the more remote regions of the planet gave him plenty to think and write about, and many of his songs display a healthy (and, at the time, very rare) cultural relativism. Perhaps the apex of this aspect of Zeppelin was "Kashmir," about as perfect a blend of lyric, of music, tradition, and innovation, as one could imagine.

Zeppelin also showed us many a new way of swinging. To ears accustomed to lighter drummers than Bonham and to riffs less chiseled-in-stone than Page's, early Zeppelin didn't sound very swinging. Now that rap and pop producers have been sampling beats and drum licks from Zeppelin records for several years, often using them as the rhythmic basis for a new dance single, the lurching beats and staggered rhythms sound a lot different: they swing like mad.

Perhaps Zeppelin's greatest legacy is a quality that is now short in supply: they showed that four individuals, from varied backgrounds and with diverse personalities and imaginations, could chart their own adventurous musical course, make their own records just the way they wanted without intrusion from corporate execs hoping for a hit single, innovate with every album, and keep on doing it, long after many another band would have grown creatively slack from the excesses that with fame and fortune. Luckily for us, they persevered.

This collection is among other things a showcase for Page's radically recombinant approach to programming. His intricately plotted sequences of often startling juxtapositions reveal unexpected angles in even the most familiar Zeppelin works. This gives us a chance we rarely get with a rock band of this stature - the chance to share their own mature reconsideration of how much of what they did was built to last.


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This Month in
Led Zeppelin History

February 7, 1962 - Deborah Bonham, sister to John, was born in Redditch, Worcestershire, England
February 23, 1966 - Warren Grant, son of Peter, was born.
February xx, 1969 - Led Zeppelin enters the Billboard Top 40
February 16, 1969 - Led Zeppelin wrap up their first American tour in Baltimore, MD.
February 07, 1970 - Edinburgh gig cancelled after Plant receives facial injuries in a car accident
February 28, 1970 - The band performs as "The Nobs" in Copenhagen after threat of legal action from Countess Von Zeppelin
February xx, 1971 - John Paul Jones involved in legal issues regarding a musician who shares the same name
February xx, 1971 - Overdubs for the fourth album are recorded at Island Studios
February 14, 1972 - The band is refused admission into Singapore due to their long hair
February 16, 1972 - The Australian tour begins in Perth
February 21, 1972 - Led Zeppelin: Rock and Roll b/w Four Sticks (Atlantic 45-2865) 45 single is released in the US.
February xx, 1973 - The band makes final preparations for the European tour
February 16, 1973 - The release date for Houses Of The Holy is pushed back due to some sleeve problems
February xx, 1974 - Sessions for Physical Graffiti continue
February 14, 1974 - Page, Plant and Bonham attend a Roy Harper concert
February 04, 1975 - Zeppelin perform a last minute show at Nassau Coliseum to accomodate fans after being banned in Boston
February 24, 1975 - Physical Graffiti finally issued worldwide to phenomenal sales
February xx, 1976 - Media reports that Zeppelin are due to release an album entitled Obelisk
February xx, 1977 - Robert contracts a bout of tonsillitis postponing the American tour
February xx, 1978 - Robert Plant helps produce a record for punk band Dansette Damage
February 16, 1978 - The cases against Bonham, Cole & Grant stemming from the Oakland incident are heard and all receive suspended prison sentences and fines
February xx, 1979 - Although absent from the US stage or market, Led Zeppelin rank best in many music magazine categories
February xx, 1979 - Mixing sessions for In Through The Out Door take place at Polar Studios. Rumors fly of a European tour
February 03, 1980 - Robert joins Dave Edmund’s Rockpile at the Birmingham Top Rank
February 13, 2005 - Led Zeppelin receives a Grammy for Lifetime Achievment.
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