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Led Zeppelin Boxed Set Essay 2

The Roots Of Heaven
by Kurt Loder

Here a tangle-haired singer leans back to shriek at the heavens, baring a glistening midriff and a dubious satin-clad bulge down-below. There a guitarist with a cigarette slumping from his lip feigns musical transport. A tricky, if predictable, hard-rock riff erupts. Somewhere, someone strikes a pose.

Led Zeppelin lives on in pieces, in pale imitations, its runty offspring still proliferating a full decade after the great group's demise. The pretenders gnaw at the Zepppelin corpus, and occasionally rip off a meaty shred for commercial mastication, but the heart of the band's accomplishment - its power, magic and mystery - eludes them utterly. They seem to think this was some sort of heavy metal outfit.

Arising at a time when the rock of the Sixties was starting to go soft, when singer-songwriters were already mewling at the gates, Led Zeppelin embodied the rock & roll insolence implicit in Elvis Presley's sneer - to wit: buzz off. Critics didn't get it? To hell with critics. To hell with interviews and singles, too. Here's the music.

Everybody knows they were all colossally wasted (well, maybe note Jonesy), and they couldn't have been getting much sleep, what with all those legendary midnight pagan blood rituals - but somehow these guys churned out a dazzling body of work that was by turns delicate and relentless and grandly dramatic, and musically adventurous beyond the call of commerce.

The group was astutely composed - seasoned London studio guns and cocky young bloods from Birmingham. As a producer, Jimmy Page displayed a gift for sonic sculpture that lent the records and unexpected majesty. And of course in Robert Plant he had one of the great sonic phenomena of the period to work with. Onstage, the two of them defined classic facets of the Fabulous English Rock Star: Page, dark, remote, mysterious; Plant the flamboyant stud, he interstellar vocalist, singing of love and lemons and misty Celtic kingdoms of nevermore. The flash aspects of the act appealed to a new crop of teenage boys weaned on whammy bars and volume knobs, and the sensuality of it all sent a definite message to girls: "Enquire within." (Despite Plant's baubles and curls, and Page's Pre-Raphaelite winsomeness, nobody ever mistook these guys for fey.)

So they had the front line covered. Fortunately, they also had John Paul Jones, who provided additional virtuoso touches - the strings, the keyboards, the recorder tootlings. And they had John Bonham, of course, who drove the whole endeavor with what might be called a nuclear rhythmic intensity.

Zeppelin's big sound found its most avid audiencs in the big country across the ocean. The band's raw power and bold invention might have been tailor-made for the new breed of louder, faster, post-hippie rock kids rising up in the States; and the connection that Zeppelin made with that audience - and has made, to some extent, with each succeeding season of American youth ever since - has been enduring. Eighteen years after its release, "Stairway To Heaven" - an album track that was never released as a single (to hell with 'em) - is still a major radio staple. And the roll call of other Zep classics - "Whole Lotta Love," "Kashmir," "Comminication Breakdown," "Immigrant Song" - still echoes over the airwaves as well.

These records do not sound dated. They define a style of music that has left unmistakable imprints everywhere - on slick-rock power ballads, Spandex riffery, punk and speed metal and sample-happy rap tracks, too - but which even today, at a decade's remove, remains a genre of one, its lone occupant Led Zeppelin.

Which is not to suggest that the band was without antecedants. Led Zeppelin was, in effect, the Yardbirds with creative control, a bigger beat, and a whole new line in hair-raising vocals. Assembled in the ashes of the Yardbirds' collapse, Zeppelin was heir to that group's rampant experimentalism, its Oriental inclination, its rude, guitar-charged aggression. Zeppelin was the Yardbirds freed from pop tunes, and re-tooled for maximum crunch.

Zeppelin was also a logical culmination of the frenzied pop decade that had preceded its formation, a period rich in musical ferment, especially in the British Isles. This great blossoming of British music in the 60's, of course, was rooted in the eruption of American rock & roll in the mid-'50s - intercontinental echoes of which had sent a whole generation of aspiring young English guitar hotshots scurrying off to their rooms to flail away for hours, days at a time, trying to work out how Buddy Holly made those chord leads ring, how Cliff Gallup kept that cool bop going behind Gene Vincent, how James Burton endeavored to make Ricky Nelson records interesting. These obsessions inevitably led budding British adepts back to the blues - especially the blues of the Mississipi Delta, especially as electrified in Chicago. By the late Fifties, a few adventurous trad-jazzmen were already promoting black American R&B, and before long there was a league of spindly white kids coming at it from the other direction, sitting around in places like Sidcup and Surbiton, sipping tea and nibbling biscuits, no doubt, while nailing down South Side barroom riffs by such faraway black guitarists as Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Matt Murphy, Eddie Taylor - musicians largely unknown to the white public in their own country.

By 1962, an R&B boom was well underway in London. This may sound quaint to non-Brits - a blues frenzy fomented by people with names like Cyril and Alexis. But within the subdued context of English culture, these musicians were stirred by the music's untethered emotion and its vast expressive possibilities. Their devotion was a pure, burning thing, and it drew into their orbit such earnest blues scholars as Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Peter Green, Jimmy Page.

In 1963, the year the Beatles exploded out of Liverpool with Merseybeat pop, the London R&B scene was only just coalescing. The Rolling Stones became a going concern, and a bit later the Yardbirds formed, initially as an acoustic-blues group. The core line-up was Keith Relf, harmonica and vocals, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, Jim McCarty on drums. The original lead guitarist, Anthony "Top" Topham, was replace, in October 1963, by Eric Clapton - late of an R&B outfit called the Roosters - who quickly became the star of the show. By early 1965, however, Clapton had grown disgusted by the Yardbirds' unseemly hunger for a pop hit. When he quit, the group's manager, Giorgio Gomelsky, offered the slot to Jimmy Page.

Page had by this point already burned out on band work with an early unit called Neil Christian and The Crusaders. Laid low by glandular fever, he'd retired from the road and now prospered as one of London's most heavily employed sessions guitarists. Having no great desire to go slogging back out on tour with a band, Page recommended his friend Jeff Beck for the Yardbirds vacancy. Beck accepted, and in March 1965 the band's golden hour began: "Heart Full Of Soul," "I'm A Man," "Evil Hearted You," "Still I'm Sad," "Over Under Sideways Down," the ferocious "Train Kept A-Rollin'." A starburst of brilliant records. But the group became an increasingly tottering proposition. Page happened to be present at a 1966 drunken gig when bassist Samwell-Smith resigned from the line-up. Although he knew next to nothing about playing bass, Page volunteered to fill the breaches. Once aboard, he quickly switched duties with rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, and for a brief period (chronicled on such tracks as "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" and "Psycho Daisies"), he teamed up with Beck on guitar. But Beck, too, quit the group in the summer of 1966, Page was left to front the by-now weary band on his own.

The Page-led incarnation of the group recorded the last Yardbirds album, Little Games, a record that went nowhere but which featured a walloping title track and also introduced Page's bowed guitar technique (on a track called "Tinker Tailor") and his folk-raga solo opus, "White Summer." But the Yardbirds were spent. The group released its last single, "Goodnight Josephine," in March 1968 and broke up in July, leaving Page with legal title to the band's name and a handful of Scandinavian tour dates to be honored in the fall. He immediately set off in search of new Yardbirds.

Page wanted something the Yardbirds had lacked. He wanted a power belter along the lines of Steve Marriott, of the Small Faces, or Terry Reid, formerly with the Jaywalkers. Neither of them was available, but Reid recommended a pal of his - Robert Plant, the leader of a Birmingham group called the Band of Joy. Plant had cut some solo sides with CBS records, but nothing came of them. With Band of Joy he was elaborating an English response to the West Coast American rock of the period, particularly the work of such groups as the Jefferson Airplane and Arthur Lee's Love. In Birmingham, this was an undertaking of a decidedly uphill nature.

Page and Plant got together. Plant had a voice of almost eccentric dimensions - big enough in every way to hold its own against Page's guitar onslaughts. They talked music. Page was interested in hard, but he was interested in soft, too. He played Plant the Joan Baez version of "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You." He said, "I want to do this," and Plant, he later recalled,"looked at me a bit strange."

The singer signed on. So did John Paul Jones, a busy London session player. He and Page had done Donovan sessions together, among other things, and Jones had also added a fat cello riff to the Yardbirds' "Little Games." He was an ace arranger, a multi-instrumentalist, and a perfect fit into the New Yardbirds, as the nascent unit was being billed. John Bonham - Plant's drummer in the Band Of Joy - rounded out the lineup with a gratifying thud.

"When we started rehearsing," Plant later said, "the thing had gone beyond where the Yardbirds had left off. And when I introduced Bonzo to everybody, it was even more evident that what we'd got was turning the corner again, and there was no point in calling it the Yardbirds."

The New Yardbirds they were, though, when the previously contracted Scandinavian tour kicked off in October of 1968. But by the time they returned to England and recorded their debut album (reputedly in a head-spinning thirty hours), they were something really new: a rock band entirely in control of its own destiny. Page teamed with Peter Grant, a latter-day Yardbirds manager, to formulate Led Zeppelin as an autonomous fiscal-artistic entity, beyond the reach of record-company manipulation and other music biz annoyances. Zeppelin would follow its own instincts, and thrive or fizzle accordingly.

The band flourished famously, of course. And eleven years later, when Bonham died, Page, Plant, and Jones had the rare grace to bring Led Zeppelin to an end. They could have lumbered on and probably even played well. The hits and the glitz and the long white limos had all been great fun, but Led Zeppelin felt their musical achievement was at that time ineluctably complete. And despite some incomprehension on the part of the press and the shifting trends of pop fashion, they figured that achievement would stand. As you can hear on the survey at hand, they were right about that.

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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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