Saturday 1 July 2017

Led Zeppelin

When you're first getting into all things "Rock" and "Music", and particularly the variety including the words "Heavy" and "Metal", a little history is always sought.

My kicking off point was Iron Maiden, so (in simple terms) a little backward movement brought UFO and NWOBHM era into my sights.  Slightly further back was Motorhead and Judas Priest.
Further back marks the "Beginning", the genesis (not the band) of Heavy Metal.
The names Black Sabbath and Deep Purple are synonymous with this event.  As are the band often spoken of in rarified tones, a Heavy Rock equivalent to The Beatles ... Led Zeppelin.
And in my Metal phase, I never really liked them.  I liked "bits" but never went balmy on the full album experience.  It was only in later years that I properly listened, more so due to the recent (2014) Remasters.

The Headlines:
  • They were the biggest band in the world
  • They wrote the rule book of Stadium Rock shows, and Rock n Roll Excess
  • They set the template (either directly or in-directly) for pretty much all forms of Hard Rock that followed
  • They may (or may not?) have entered into a pact with the devil in return for unparalleled success
    (The fact that their subsequent solo careers have not exactly been stellar by comparison does possibly add some weight to this almost preposterous theory)
  • Their life span was a little over 12 years, and they released 8 albums and 1 live album - this total number is expanded to a nice round 10 if you include the posthumous "sweep up / vault emptying" collection (some people don't)
  • They have sold in the region of 300 million albums
  • In a sign of solidarity and singularity as a band, they split a couple of months after their drummer died
But were they really "all that" ?

Formed following the demise of The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page was left with contracts and live dates, but no band to fulfill them.
Page's vision was to form a supergroup, and trawled around for the best players he could find.  First choice vocalist was Terry Reid - but he was committed to 2 US Tours with the Rolling Stones and Cream.  Reid suggested Robert Plant from Birmingham band Band Of Joy, and drummer John Bonham came along as well.
Session musician John Paul Jones had crossed path many times with fellow session-er Jimmy Page in the past, and had expressed interest in playing with Page on any future projects.
Upon hearing of the vacant bass player position in the new band, Jones whacked in his application, which Jimmy Page readily accepted.

Together the as yet un-named band (they started life as the New Yardbirds) started brief rehersal together in August 1968, and the following month flew to Scandanavia to complete the pre-planned tour.
By the end of September, the four piece were in the studio recording their debut album, and had acquired a new name - Led Zeppelin - based (apparently) on a Keith Moon quip that a previously mooted supergroup featuring Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, John Entwistle and Keith Moon would go down like a Lead Balloon.

A contract with Atlantic was duly signed, giving the band virtually complete artistic control in all aspects of recording, performance and promotion (there was apparently a clause which stated "No singles", but Atlantic either mis-read,forgot or ignored this section as around 10 singles were released in the US).
The debut album followed in early 1969.  It is 9 tracks of full on heavy blues riffage mixing effortlessly with acoustic passages, with wailed (almost anguished) vocals - without wishing to get all upmeownarsejourno about it, a veritable tour de force.
Opening with "Good Times, Bad Times" the pace never flags even on the slower tracks like "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Black Mountain Side".  And "Communication Breakdown" was/is the probably the heaviest thing to ever be committed to record at the the time.
Critical reception was initially luke-warm, but subsequent sales and the interest in the live shows tells perhaps a better story than the reviews.

By the end of 1969, their second album (imaginatively titled 'Led Zeppelin II') was released. Recorded at various studios wherever the mood took them and wherever they were in the US or Europe, as a result 'II' doesn't have the cohesive feel of the debut.
It does however repeats the same trick of being massively heavy (probably more consistently heavy than the first release) interspersed with moments of lightness.  It also includes a Drum Solo - "Moby Dick" - which would become a highlight of future live shows.
Opening track "Whole Lotta Love" was used as the theme music for Top Of The Pops throughout the 70s, so although many people may claim to never have heard Led Zeppelin, they were probably exposed to it every week without knowing.

A debut album recorded in two weeks, the second recorded in a studio wherever they found themselves, for the third album the main composers (Page and Plant) took themselves off to a deserted cottage in Snowdownia to recover from the US Tour and prepare material for the new album.  After a couple of months recuperation and composing, the rest of the band convened at Headley Grange Manor House to rehearse and record the songs.  The pressure of constant touring was lifted (although they visited the US again before the albums release in October 1970), and the songs reflect both the pastoral, peaceful nature of the Bron-Yr-Aur sessions, the greater influence of folk and acoustic songs and a more relaxed atmosphere as a whole.
"Immigrant Song" picks up where 'II' left off, and "Celebration Day" rocks like anything they'd done before.
Previous albums had been mostly heavy riffing with acoustic interludicals, this album turned the template in favour of the acoustic.  Despite the change, it still has the sheer "oomph", the same presence (albeit acoustically rather than blasted through a wall of Marshall stacks) and shows the sheer versatility of the band.

You've invented Hard Rock, you've perfected the formula further, and then you've brought acoustic, folk, and even a tinge of psychedelia into the mix.  Where next?
You bring it all together in one perfect 40 minute statement.

Officially, 'Led Zeppelin IV' has no title - it was released in a cover containing no reference to the band, no photographs and no track listing.  There is no title printed on the record label, only the bands name, although there are 4 printed symbols, or runes, apparently representing each member of the band.
This has led to this album going by various titles including: IV, Untitled, Four Symbols and Zoso (or Zofo) - a literal interpretation/reading of the symbol representing Jimmy Page.
Pick a favourite track?  "Black Dog" and "Rock And Roll" are the rockingest, riffiest songs going.  "Battle of Evermore" (featuring Sandy Denny) continues the light, folk-y touches with added lightness and folkiness, as does "Going To California" (but this time without Sandy Denny).  Oh, and this is the album that features "Stairway To Heaven" - a little known Zep track, but one that is pretty good.
Pick a track, any track and it is a bona fide classic of their cannon - I can confidently say this album is "all killer, no filler"

The first 4 releases are undoubtedly their absolute masterworks, and depending on which day of the week it is, thy will interchangeably sit as the critics (and probably most fans) Number 1 choice.
4 - 1 -3 - 2: that would by my choice (recommendation?).
Interestingly that is also my Credit Card PIN (no it isn't)

But ...
After those, what came next was a series of ever diminishing returns - a lot to like, but never as consistent or wholly enjoyable as the first releases, often getting lost in 'sonic experimentation' (ie they were trying to add to the already winning template), stretching and lengthening songs, self-indulgence, and general jamming.

'Houses of the Holy' sees the band stretching themselves further into reggae ("D'Yer Maker") and funk tinged ("The Crunge") songs, and bounds along nicely if never feeling as essential as the first four.
After four albums identified by numbers (or in the case of the fourth, not identified at all), this was the first album that could've conceivably had a tile track - it didn't.  The opening track "The Song Remains The Same" was later used to name their Live Album and film.
The track "Houses Of The Holy" was recorded in the sessions for this album, but not used and eventually appeared on subsequent album 'Physical Graffiti'.
It is a great album, probably their last consistently great album, but just feels less "live" and more a product of studio technology

1974 marked the end of their record contract with Atlantic.  No doubt eager to hang on to the cash cow, a deal between the record label and band saw the creation of Swan Song Records - the label was wholly owned by the band, but distributed through Atlantic.

The first Led Zep album on Swan Song (and the third in the catalogue after Bad Company and The Pretty Things) was 'Physical Graffiti'.
A sprawling double album, and maybe, just maybe, having their own label meant that the Quality Control button went missing.  Originally planned a single album, the band found themselves extending songs, pulling old stuff out the closet, and when they realised they had more than a single album, adding some padding (good padding, but padding nonetheless).
Similar to The Beatles White Album, this would've been a phenomenal single LP but by pushing it to a double it all becomes a bit strained.
There are some very good songs here ("Kashmir" being a prime example, and the most common option for "Best Zep Toon which isn't Stairway To Heaven").  But there are also some dragged out moments which makes listening to this album in one sitting sometimes difficult.
If Led Zep did indeed set the template for Hard Rock/Heavy Metal, then 'Physical Graffiti' is the specific template for all US Hair Metal of the 1980s.

Following the tour in support of the album,culminating a 5 nights at a sold out Earls Court, the band took a break after almost 6 years of continuous writing, recording, touring and excess.  Another US tour was planned for late 1975, but following Robert Plant's car accident in Greece (which broke his ankle and necessitated a blood transfusion for his wife).  The tour was cancelled, and focus switched to preparing the next album.
After Plants recovery, and brief rehersals, the band moved to studios in Munich to record.

The recording, overdubbing and mixing was complete in just 18 days.  The album was very much a return to the straight simple rock sound of the past - very direct and inyerface, if not quite rocking like a b*stard as previously
As such, it sits slightly awkwardly in their cannon.  Listened to in sequence, it feels a bit of a step backwards after the relative progression of the first 4 albums the stretching/experimentation on 'Houses Of The Holy' and sprawling self-indulgence of 'Physical Graffiti'.
It is an absolute triumph when one considers the background it's creation, and the speed it was recorded.
OK, it sounds laboured in places (and I'm going to use the phrase again: the self-indulgence is firmly in check here), but in the shape of "Achilles Last Stand" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine" there are at least 2 tracks that stand admirably in the catalogue ("For Your Life" almost, not quite, makes 3).  In fact, like most of their outings, there is not really a duffer on show here.
In retrospect, and despite my initial misgivings of this album, now I listen to it again, I'm sticking it at Number 5 in My Zeppelin List.

Next up was the double live album 'The Song Remains the Same' (recorded at Madison Square Garden 1973).
Including a selection from the first 4 albums, plus "No Quarter" from 'Houses Of The Holy', one can either be mesmerised or frustrated by the amount of extension that goes on with the tracks.  "Dazed And Confused" gains 23 minutes and fills a whole side of the album, and other than the first 4 tracks, all the others gain at least 3 to 5 minutes of soloing, noodling and jamming.
Like 'Physical Graffiti', if you're in the right mood you are almost marvelling at the jamming capabilities of the band.  If you want to rock out Zep style, you may press skip a few times after side 1.
Released in conjunction with the film of the same name, the concert film was interspersed with backstage footage (Peter Grant arguing mainly) and a series "Fantasy Sequences" showing the band at home and occupying their imagined worlds.
Like it's parent album, the film can be a bit difficult to get through in one sitting too.

That pact with the devil was obviously starting to crack, as after the problems leading up to 'Presence', preparation for their next album were dealt another massive blow.
John Bonham was becoming a fully blown alcoholic - never enjoying time away from his family when touring, the booze helped and eventually reached almost dependency status.  Jimmy Page was also dabbling in the world of heroin - this had the effect of creating divisions within the band with the (relatively) clean John Paul Jones and Robert Plant on one side, and the drunk Bonham and spaced out Page on the other.
Add to this, the death of Robert Plant's son in 1977 (made worse by the fact that he was away on tour at the time) and 2 years enforced tax exile meaning the band couldn't perform live in the UK, then this was necver going to be an easy album.
As a result of the relative incapability of Plant and Bonham, 'In Through the Out Door' is led by Jones and Plant.
In retrospect, because we know this was the last Zep album, its a tough one because it does sound like a band dying on its arse.  At the time, no-one knew this so this was the sound of a band trying to find somewhere to go to re-invigorate themselves.  It's a brave attempt, but does sound lumpen and dis-interested (in fairness, other than Jones, none of the others really had their focus at the time).  "In The Evening" is not a bad start, but the album never really gets going or finds a groove.
It just sort of happens - I don't think there are any real stand-out tracks here, at least none that I want to tack onto a Led Zep compilation.

After 2 years away from the stage, and 4 years since their last appearance in Britain, they played two concerts at Knebworth in front of nearly 200,000 people.
A Brief tour of Europe followed in 1980, with a planned jaunt back to the US for October - their first Stateside visit for 3 years.

However ... the death of John Bonham following an all day drinking session (obviously) led to the cancellation of the upcoming US Tour, and ultimately (before 1980 was out) the official dissolution of the band.

The final Led Zeppelin album 'Coda' was released in 1982 - this was a collection of unused tracks and out-takes from earlier sessions.
This collection pretty much cleared the vaults as their ethic was to use everything they recorded.
Interestingly, the three tracks not used for 'In Through The Out Door' ("Ozone Baby" "Darlene" and "Wearing and Tearing" may have saved that last album from being a bit lumpy (certainly to these ears anyway).

So where they really all that?
In the main Yes.
They were a band that were greater than the sum of it's parts.  Certainly their relative success in solo careers shows that they needed each other to push things further.
The solo life an Page and Plant is all very competent in the main, but never quite pushes into being essential.  But with all that weight of history and expectation, being a solo artist was never going to be an easy task.

Where would they have gone next, and would there be a place in the world for them if they were still together now?
Listening again to 'In Through The Out Door' it really does sound like they were at the end of their time together, and whether there would've been any new Zep product is debatable.  But by the same token, there are glints in some of the tracks where the might've tried to go (ultimately though, you feel that they would've resorted to type and continued the big heavy riffing which is their recognised stock-in-trade)
It is of course possible that they may have rode out the 80s Rolling Stones style (ie lacklustre albums, ageing rock royalty) and followed the same path of massive arena shows with maybe the odd album (containing one or two half decent songs).

The Heavy Rock equivalent of The Beatles?  Why not, it seems a fair comparison

The band had only been playing together for a month or so and they came up with this:
Communication Breakdown

From 'Presence', probably the last (or one of the last) "Classic Zeppelin" track:
Achilles Last Stand

Every band has it's imitators, and Led Zeppelin were no different.
How about an Elvis Presley fronted, reggae infused version?
"No such thing" I hear you shout.

Au contraire

Dread Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love