Monday, October 13, 2014

Led Zeppelin and Houses of the Holy


When I was a kid Led Zeppelin was probably the most popular heavy band in my peer group. Some boys were into Black Sabbath but on the whole Led Zep was the popular choice of the hip kids. These boys either had older siblings with good record collections all indulgent parents who were willing to buy him the must have heavy rock albums of the day, which very much included those of Led Zeppelin. Given that I was in high school from 1972 to 1976 the contemporary Led Zep albums were Houses of the Holy (1973), Physical Graffiti (1975.), and Presence (1976.)  And one should not forget the longevity of the impact of Led Zeppelin II and IV

At the time I was quite ignorant of most rock other than that played on Springbok radio and the English Service of the SABC.  The format ended towards pop music and the commercial Rock bands and the latter favoured progressive rock. Neither radio station played much Led Zeppelin, who in any event famously refused to release singles.  As a result I knew the name of the band yet had a little idea of what they sounded like, apart, perhaps for the infrequent exposure to “Whole Lotta Love.”

I went to university in 1977 and had a menial student job debt pay me enough to enable me to start a record collection is the only record store in Stellenbosch at the time was Sygma Reports and I used to hang out there a lot just flipping through the stacked, empty record needs. Led Zeppelin featured prominently.  I cannot remember exactly why I made the decision to start buying Led Zeppelin records. Perhaps curiosity finally simply got the better of me and, because I had the money, I could afford to splash out on Led Zep albums and I made a semi-serious project of it, deciding to buy Led Zeppelin  (1969) first, then Led Zeppelin II, then the movie soundtrack double album The Song Remains The Same and then Led Zeppelin iV some time later.  For some reason I bypassed Led Zeppelin III. I guess I was not interested in the third album because I’d read that it had a number of acoustic, folk type tracks and when I was in my late teens and early twenties I was not into acoustic folky type music at all.  

By the time I acquired Led Zeppelin I well into my appreciation of Cream and their style of heavy blues and psychedelia.  The debut Led Zep album had a number of blues derived tunes and was not too dissimilar to what Cream had been doing except that Led Zep was a lot heavier and les subtle and seemed to have no psychedelia in their make-up. It was folk or hard rock blues and that was it.  The Jeff Beck Group was also in eh same ballpark, which was not so strange given that Jeff Beck, like Jimmy Page, was an alumnus of the Yardbirds, once even in the band at the same time, who were one of the first blues bands to explore the heavier trend following in the wake of cream and Hendrix.

Having known only “Whole Lotta Love” and “Trampled Underfoot” the overt blues influences and softer side of the debut album came as a surprise because early Led Zep did not sound like heavy metal to me, which is what they became known and emulated for. Of course Jimmy Page always claimed that he wanted a band with light and shade and not a simple slogging heavyweight with no finesse.  Led Zeppelin were certainly not Black Sabbath who did seem like a staggering mastodon by comparison. Nor were they as pompous as Deep Purple or Uriah Heep were prone to get.

The Yardbirds was a quite purist blues band and Eric Clapton left because he became uncomfortable with the pop music direction the bed was pursuing in order to sustain commercial success.   With Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page the Yardbirds went far beyond simple blues and became a psychedelic hard rock band with a blues foundation. Jimmy Page paid his dues as a session guitarist and as not particularly a blues guitarist, not like Clapton or Beck, at least, and combined with Beck’s progressive, experimental tendencies the Yardbirds produced a sound and, in the final stages of the band, also   a repertoire that required only a small amount of shaping to become the blues based heavy rock template of the first 4 Led Zeppelin albums.

Over the period of 1969 to 1971 the Led Zeppelin formula was to rock up the blues and throw in some fey folky stuff to lighten the mood. In the process Led Zep became the biggest rock band in the world. By the time I bought Led Zeppelin the band was becoming obsolete and worn, obscured, like so many of their contemporaries, by the rising sun of punk rock and although the musical vision continued to develop to the end, and the final proper studio album In Through The Out Door (1979), the glory days were gone. Led Zeppelin became very popular again as influence on new bands in the late Eighties and early Nineties and I would imagine that this nostalgic popularity persists to this day. Say what you will about Led Zep, their music was never one-dimensional or boring even is often over the top in the ambition.

Led Zeppelin kind of blew me away when I first heard it, with the mixture of heavily amplified yet almost traditional sounding blues and the acoustic based tracks with heavy rhythm section, Page’s razor-sharp guitar leads and Robert Plant’s truly astonishing voice. Although Led Zeppelin II had “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Lemon Song,” amongst others, that debut album was the one I listened most often. 

For some reason I never bought Houses of the Holy.  When I started buying CDs I bought Led Zeppelin III for the first time and then Presence and received Physical Graffiti as a present.  The third album was in fact a lot more listenable than I had anticipated (but I was in my mid-thirties too), Presence was a really good record and I was relatively disappointed by Physical Graffiti, despite “Trampled Underfoot” and “Custard Pie” because it felt overlong and had too much filler.

Now I’ve re-acquired Led Zeppelin and also acquired Houses of the Holy from iTunes.

The introductory chords of “Good Times, Bad Times,” the first track of Led Zeppelin sent a real anticipatory thrill down the spine when I spinned the record for the first time.  It can be compared to the visceral effect of the opening riff to “I Can Tell” on Dr Feelgood’s Malpractice album.  You don’t quite know what’s coming but those chords promise a magic carpet ride.  Apart from the punch of “Good Times, Bad Times” I was surprised by how melodic the song was; it was pretty much a loud rock and roll pop tune.

Even more surprising was hat the mostly acoustic “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” followed. This song sounded like an ancient folk tune enhanced by a powerful rhythm section and Plant’s primordial wail.  So far the album did not sound like the ultra-heavy band I’d known, an d expected, from exposure to “Whole Lotta Love” or “Trampled Underfoot.”  Led Zeppelin clearly were not Cream, my main reference point for heavy blues at the time, and yet also seemed to be an extension of what Cream had been doing, albeit even louder and with a much more assertive rhythm section, especially Bonham’s drumming which was agile enough but did not have the jazz swing of Ginger Baker. Robert Plant’s vocals also set Led Zep apart. The guys in Cream had serviceable voices; none of them had anything remotely like the kind of instrument Plant’s voice was, and is.

The heavy blues of “You Shook Me,” “I can’t Quit You, Baby” and  “How Many More Times” were more familiar but, once again, where at their best Cream sounded like, and were, an amplified blues band. Led Zeppelin never sounded like a blues band even when it used the 12 bar framework. Page realised that bearing down on a blues shuffle with all possible effort could make the band sound as heavy as if it had written a more intricate riff.

“Your Time Is Gonna Come” is a kind of companion piece, thematically and sound wise, to “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” and also sounds like a grand mid-Sixties pop song with blues roots.

It now seems to me that “Communication Breakdown,” except of course for the barnstorming Plant vocal, could equally well have been something the MC5 could have written and performed. It is a fast paced garage rocker that was written during Plant’s tenure with the Yardbirds.  This, along with “Good Times, Bad Times” and “Dazed and Confused” were my three top favourite tracks on the album.

With hindsight it is probably easy to see how Led Zeppelin could have become as massively popular as they did become, filling in the gap left by the demise of Cream and with the type of songs and quality of performance on the debut album, but nothing is a given in pop music.  Led Zeppelin is a good album and one of the more consistently enjoyable of their records but not an astonishing debut. Having said that, the mix of power and melody on this record was taken forward and perfected. It is puzzling why Led Zeppelin could not be played on radio. I can understand, if no singles were released, that Top 40 hit radio would not be interested but all the albums have so many radio friendly tunes other than the heavy bombast one usually associates Led Zep with. Page, Plant and Jones clearly  had a gift for writing songs that were not merely the sum of an intricate arrangement and with Plant’s impassioned delivery the tuneful songs should have pleased any aural palate.

Only 4 years elapsed between Led Zeppelin and Houses of the Holy  yet it was several musical lifetimes longer. By 1973 Led Zeppelin sounded pretty much like a completely different band with loftier ambitions and more technical proficiency than at the time of the debut album.

My first impression of Houses of the Holy is that it is of a piece with Presence in the sense that it has intriguingly intricate arrangements that sounds less like heavy metal and more like loud prog rock.   This is particularly true of the three tracks I know well in their live incarnations from The Song Remains The Same, namely “The Song Remains The Same,” “The Rain Song” and “No Quarter.” In this trio the emphasis is on the arrangements and layering of instruments rather than bludgeoning hard rock and I can see a comparison here with the type of hard rock played by Blue Oyster Cult over this same period where melody and power combine in the arrangements to give an ever rewarding listening experience.

Amongst the prog experimentalism Led Zep recorded a James Brown parody funk rock thing called “The Crunge” and a reggae parody called “D’yer Mak’er” and one heavy riffing tune called “The Ocean.”

From here on Led Zeppelin became an imperious hard rock band, obviously soaring above the rest in terms of conceptualisation and execution of more and more complex music, a million miles away from the quick and dirty bashing out of the stage repertoire that Led Zeppelin represents. That album had keyboard parts that could perhaps not have been replicated on stage either but it was nothing like the symphonic compositions that Page and Jones put together for the later albums where there was a clear differentiation between the art of writing and recording and performing those intricate songs live.  I can appreciate the intelligence, ambition and achievement of the albums between Houses of the Holy and In Through The Out Door but for the life of me I cannot extract the visceral thrill I feel when I listen to the best of those first four albums when the music was a tad more direct and for that reason more effective, to my mind, than the later progression. I can listen to Houses of the Holy with a satisfactory sense of enjoyment, when I crank up the volume, but Led Zeppelin is just awesomely pure heavy rock and roll played with confidence and conviction.

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