Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Dazed And Confused When The Levee Breaks

Man, I was not hip in high school. I was podgy, had a pizza face, was basically a loner, hung out at the edges of the elite cliques, had peculiar ideas about life I did not care to share with anyone, and was regarded as an al round weird chap. And not in a good way. My idea of rock radio was the couple of sponsored programmes on Springbok Radio and maybe one or two late night programmes on the English Service on Saturdays where the presenter (no DJ, he) played Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, Genesis (Peter Gabriel version), Pavlov’s Dog, Commander Cody and his Lost Airmen and all kind of high art progressive music of the late Sixties and early Seventies. I never bought records, neither seven singles or albums, because I had no money – one of the worst cultural mistakes I made was when I let on to my parents one year that I really loved Neil Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rosie and they went our and got me his Gold “greatest hits” album for my birthday, and then decided that it would be good to give me Taproot Manuscript the next year. It was not a bad album, and had its moments, but I was no longer that keen on Mr Diamond and fully realised that it was not a hip and happening present; not something I could take around to my friends (if I had any) to play at a record hop where the fare of the night would be Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep or Led Zeppelin. A few years down the line I sold my Neil Diamond record collection to my cousin Raymond. I guess the Diamond was forever until he discovered Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Bruce Springsteen.

The first time I became conscious of Led Zeppelin was around 1972 and from boys in my class at school who had older brothers with record collections and who obviously were into the heavier bands of the era such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and, of course, Led Zep. At the time Led Zeppelin was no more than a name to me. I knew of Deep Purple because of the massive “Smoke on the Water” hit but otherwise I was more of a David Bowie and Suzi Quatro and Slade fan. These groups and individuals had radio hits in South Africa whereas Led Zep did not. It is amusing to think that I was grooving to “Starman” or “48 Crash” or “Cum On, Feel the Noize” while “Stairway to Heaven” had been released the previous year. By and by I became conscious of ‘Whole Lotta Love” as the ultimate heavy tune, allegedly, and hears snippets of it here and there. Other than that, the might Zeppelin was a closed book. About the best I could do was to read about them in the Story of Pop book I persuaded my parents to buy me as a birthday present when I was 14 or 15.

In my high school years I made a number blunders in regard to popular music in order to appear hip. One was the occasion when some guys were discussing Chuck Berry who just then had a major hit with ‘My Ding-a-ling’ and I chipped in, kind of as a smart aleck, that though I had not heard of Chuck Berry, I had heard of Chu Berry, a jazz trumpet player with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra of the Twenties. The other boys gave me blank stares, obviously thought I was beyond redemption and walked away. The truth was that I had never heard of Chuck Berry (sad but true) and had not heard ‘My Ding-a-ling’ which was not playllsted on Springbok Radio. I had however spent many pleasurable hours listening to the relative primitive music made by Fletcher Henderson and his boys way back in the early days of jazz. In this I was utterly individualistic and a total anomaly to my supposed peer group.

Anyhow, the second occasion was when I printed a neat stencilled LED ZEPPELIN for the cover of something or other that I used at school (perhaps a book) and a couple of guys noticed this and asked me whether I was into the band. Of course I said yes, though I could not say much more as I still had not heard anything by them. Although I admitted to liking a hip band, I guess my avowal was not emphatic enough to convince the guys and they walked away. I was utterly relieved that they had not thought to engage me in discussion of the merits of Led Zep’s music. I would have been exposed as a terrible fraud.

In the late seventies I read a very erudite article in the Afrikaans Sunday paper, Rapport, wherein the academic author analysed the musical structure and lyrics of “Stairway” in an attempt to relate it to art and to serious music in the age old debate between the pop musicians and the classical musicians as to which was the more valid genre. This author was trying to build the case that as a composition “Stairway” was every bit as valid end serious and acceptable as any thing by Mozart and Beethoven. At that time I had not yet heard the tune but I was duly impressed anyway.

Back in those days, my early years of varsity, I embarked on record buying projects to acquire everything I could of a particular band or artist's output. The first two target bands were Dr Feelgood and Cream. Somewhere in 1979 I finally got around to buying the first Led Zeppelin album and was just about blown away. By that time I had already heard “Whole Lotta Love” a couple of times but this debut was a totally different kettle of fish, full of really heavy blues that that was not completely new to me. Cream had been the pioneers in the heavy blues field but was never as loud and as relentless. And Cream did not have Robert Plant.

Jimmy Page claims that the Led Zep blueprint was based n the rather painterly concept of light and shade but for me there was a great deal more of that with Cream and it seems to me that Page's idea of light had to do mostly with the acoustic numbers the band played. Cream had its roots in blues and progressive pop where Led Zep's roots seemed to be in blues and folk.

“Good times, bad times” and “Communication breakdown” were particularly revelatory because they were so fast and powerful, and tuneful, and I had always thought of heavy metal as rather slow and ponderous, at least from the examples I had in Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. Next I was deeply in thrall to the actual heavy blues workouts “I can't quit you, baby” and “How many more times” and “Dazed and confused.” After that I became most enamoured with “Babe, I'm gonna leave you” which seemed to be the epitome of the famed light and shade approach rolled into one epic song. So, to cut a long story short, the entire Led Zeppelin album blew my mind and is probably still on of my favourite heavy albums of all time. I absolutely adore Cream but Cream was never that heavy.

A few months later I put my money on the counter and bought Led Zeppelin II. Now for the first time I could listen to “Whole Lotta Love” in the unedited album version in the privacy of my own home. Not to mention the notorious “Lemon Song” I'd only read about. All in all though this album sounded a lot more progressive, almost pop, and less of a heavy record than the debut, and it was with Led Zeppelin II that Zeppelin came closest to Cream, not least because the intro riff to “Moby Dick” sounded so much like that of “Toad” which was Ginger Baker's drum extravaganza that it sounded like an in-joke to me. It was a fine album and the songs are all good – except maybe for “Moby Dick” (mercifully a whole lot shorter than the live version) but over a period of time the first album held up much better for me because its energy and smarts and sense of freshness was so much more inspiring.

The third instalment in the project was the live double album The Song Remains the Same, the soundtrack of the Led Zeppelin movie of the same name. At the tune I really favoured live albums because they generally featured the greatest songs of the band or artist and sometimes in nice long versions. The Cream's Cream live collection was my introduction to the music of Cream and it was a revelation and as important in my developing musical tastes as was Dr Feelgood's Malpractice album. The live Zep album, then, had songs from the later albums that I had not yet bought and longer versions of some tunes I knew, such as the side long “Dazed and Confused” which was probably my most played track on the album but there was also a storming version of “Whole Lotta Love” and a good version of “Stairway to Heaven”, my first introduction to this song. Of the rest my favourites were the opener “Rock and Roll” -- in fact the whole first side with “Celebration Day” segueing into “Rain Song” -- and “No Quarter”, all of them unfamiliar tunes to me. I was so fond of “No Quarter”; the vinyl on my record has so much static that the track became almost unplayable. The least played track was “Moby Dick” for the reason that drum solos are only interesting to drummers the second time.

It was maybe a year later that I finally got around to buying Led Zeppelin IV, completely skipping over the third album on the basis of reading that it contained mostly acoustic songs and in those days I was not into spending money on a record with mostly folk tunes. I wanted my Led Zep hard and heavy. As it turned out the fourth album had its share of fey, folky moments though the heavier moments more than made up for them. “Rock and Roll” was still fine and the studio version of “Stairway to Heaven” with its exquisite guitar solo was understandably the classic it is, but on first impression the standouts were “Misty Mountain Hop” with its rollicking groove and the supremely heavy, pounding and relentless “When the Levee Breaks”, which, I would argue, is the stone classic on the album and must absolutely be the epitome of unsurpassed “heavy blues.”

There is a very long gap between my purchase of Led Zeppelin IV and the next instalment of the project; in fact the actual project ended with number IV. By 1993 I had long since ceased buying records: CD was now the medium of choice. In that year I bought the CD version of Presence, the penultimate studio album. All I knew of the album was an article in an old Hit Parader magazine and all I really remembered about it was how Jimmy Page had done all the guitar overdubs on “Achilles' Last Stand” in the space of one night. The album also continued the tradition of not having either the band's name or the album title on the cover. Presence was a very different animal to the debut album and was very much the modern, sleek highly tooled hard rock album with some blues and some grooves and a lot of big guitars on it. Not many of the songs have settled into my consciousness the way some of the earlier tunes have but I have a sneaking suspicion that it is one of my favourite Zep albums just for the sake of the strong song writing and rather exciting playing on it.

Led Zeppelin III came next. I already knew a couple of songs from it, such as “Gallows Pole” and “Bron Yr Aur Stomp” from regular playlisting on Chris Prior's late night show on Radio 5 (as it then was), along with the ubiquitous “Stairway to Heaven” (towards the end of his tenure at Radio 5 Prior played ‘Stairway’ ever

night; this was overkill), as well as the live version of “Celebration Day” but the rest of the tunes were unfamiliar.

I'd read that Led Zeppelin III had received a mixed reception in the wake of the very heavy second album and that it was supposed to be full of folk type music and truth be told, that was the reason why I avoided buying the third album for fear that it was full of tracks like “Battle of Evermore.” I was pleasantly surprised, prepared by Prior's insistence on playing certain Led Zep track to death and perhaps also by the more mature musical taste I had developed by my thirties when acoustic, folk-based songs were no longer antithetical to my likes. The production or mixing on the CD was a tad weak though and even the heavy tracks failed to have the same punch as the LP versions of the earlier albums. Within a few months of my purchase of Led Zeppelin III there was a burglary at my flat and the burglars not only stole my CD player hut also half of my CD collection at the time, including Led Zeppelin III which was in the CD tray. I bought a second copy about a year later.

The very first Led Zeppelin album I actually took notice of in my youth was Physical Graffiti from 1974 – this was the one the boys in my class were raving about. Also, by 1974 Angola and Mozambique were no longer under Portuguese control and LM Radio had relocated to South Africa and had been transformed into Radio 5 which had a much stronger signal than LM Radio ever had and this meant that my old valve radio could pick up Radio 5 loudly and clearly and Radio 5 was playing “Trampled Underfoot” and “Custard Pie” admittedly not on heavy rotation but often enough to make an impression on me. By the time I had enough money to buy records on a regular basis though, Physical Graffiti was not really readily available and my tastes had moved on to blues and white R & B and so my project of buying the LP's never reached Physical Graffiti just as I never got around to buying Houses of the Holy, even up to the time of writing this.

My cousin Minnette became an air hostess for South African Airways, her dream job, and when she started flying overseas she asked me for a list of CDs I wanted and could not get in Cape Town and somehow Physical Graffiti made it onto the list, not so much because it was unattainable in South Africa but because I thought she could get it cheaper in England. Two others albums on the list, and which she bought for me as well, were Fresh Cream (a real wish list item) and the contemporary “shoegazing” band Ride's second album. In a way those two albums more definitively represented my tastes in the early Nineties.

With Physical Graffiti, too, the sound seemed to be badly mixed, as if there were no real power to the music. Where was the heaviness, the heavy metal they had so brilliantly created back in 1969? It seemed to me that the best riffs on the album were not even guitar riffs but clavinet riffs infused with a whole lot of the funk Stevie Wonder was bringing into music and in a weird way, analogous to the
way Led Zep had been born in the blues but had subverted the genre; they had now done the same with another black music, this time funk.

I have not heard any remastered versions of the Physical Graffiti tracks but I believe that the music on does not remotely compare with the debut album for sheer punch and brio. This, I guess is where the band started becoming the type of dinosaur that was blown away by punk and new wave within three short years. It is perhaps no accident that the last Led Zep album was released in 1979, with the large scale triumph of Knebworth to follow and then the death of John Bonham a year later to put an abrupt end to the enterprise. Who knows how much longer Led Zeppelin would have struggled on, maybe still the biggest band in the world, but bereft of new ideas and too old-fashioned to be relevant. One can hardly consider an alternative world where Led Zep carried on regardless the way the Rolling Stones have; where ultimately the brand is stronger than the individuals.

More than twenty years later the longevity and commercial power of the brand was illustrated by the huge success of the video package titled DVD and the live collection How the West Was Won. This financial success was preceded in the late Eighties and early Nineties of the way Led Zep had become such an important influence on young musicians and by the way the legend and mystique not only lived on but was revived by kids who were barely born, if at all, during the band's heyday. If nothing else, the long lasting viability of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin has conclusively proved that this rock'n'roll business can be seen as just that, a business that, properly looked after, can reward the investors and stockholders, so to speak, to the end of their days.

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