From Zep hater to a whole lotta love
When I was in high school, I hated Led Zeppelin. I was a punk (or really, a New Waver -- the few punks around in semi-suburban Seattle circa 1980 scared this nerdy drama-club kid). I was in love with the fashion-damaged, oddball artsiness of the late-1970s underground. To me, those long-haired beasts in Zeppelin, with their 20-minute guitar solos and songs about fairy-goddess devil women, were really very old hat. Stoner music, yuk.
Then in college, I took up women’s studies -- and hated Led Zeppelin even more. The heavy sound that Zep originated had by then mutated into hair metal, which I enjoyed for its shiny, plastic similarities to New Wave but which also turned the grandiosity of Zep’s romanticism into a Twisted Sister cartoon. And of course, Zep was a particular bugaboo for feminists, put off by not only the strutting machismo of songs like “Whole Lotta Love” but also by the infamous offstage “antics” that could be labeled groupie abuse.
In the 1980s, the wheel of pop was, as always, turning. The arena-goers who’d never stopped loving the band soon found new company in the indie musicians of the Pacific Northwest. Those bands -- Soundgarden in particular -- created a new hard rock that somehow reconciled punk’s no-frills virtuousness with metal’s florid virtuosity. In the meantime, metal itself was going underground; with Metallica leading the transformation, it would eventually become art rock again.
Around the same time, I found myself going through a surprising Led Zeppelin phase. At 24, I was already feeling jaded (ah, youth!) and in need of something to rejigger my musical libido. My roommate Anne and I became hooked on a local band called the Ophelias, which played psychedelic rock with a shriek and a wink. Highly unsophisticated record collectors, we followed the Ophelias’ trail not toward groovy obscurities like the Soft Machine or even early Pink Floyd but right to the Zep albums that were so easy to find in the used-record bins.
We’d put aside our raised consciousness long enough to rock out to “Kashmir,” loving the illogic of filling our proto-girlpower household with the sound of Robert Plant’s priapic wails and Jimmy Page’s conquering guitar solos. We were going back -- to a time we’d never actually wanted to be a part of and that actually existed only in fantasy worlds like the one Zep’s music created.
There, the myth of free love hadn’t yet been deflated by women pointing out that, while their menfolk screwed around and sought greatness, they were mostly still stuck raising the kids and doing the cooking. No discourse existed about “appropriation,” so musicians could take songs from lesser known (and often nonwhite) writers and “elevate” them into their own hits. Ten-minute drum solos were considered revelatory, not a form of self-satire. And a band could invoke the myths of Arthur and Aragorn and not even crack a smile.
The world that we heard come to life in albums recorded when were in preschool was the same one we were fighting to eradicate in our indie rock-filled, progressively oriented daily lives. Nostalgia is often strongest when it invokes the things you know better than to love now.
We hardly wanted a return to the sexism embodied by lyrics like “Soul of a woman was created below."But it still felt great to bellow it out, to take it on, to see what it felt like just for a minute to act like these objectionable expressions were OK. Because, frankly, that feeling was a luxury that, as young women fighting for our own voices, we were never allowed.
I still love Led Zeppelin, though I’ve lost interest in glamorizing the groupie-slaying, party-til-death lifestyle they seemed to advocate in their heyday. The music is what sends me, creating a space where giant daydreams can arise, acted out by a huger me than life’s limitations allows.
Many writers share my Zep fetish. Steve Waksman, an academic authority on the cult of electric guitar, illuminated the origins of the band’s “heavy music” in his 1999 book “Instruments of Desire.” Musicologist and feminist Susan Fast has published a passionate book-length exploration of the band. My own favorite Zep tome is Erik Davis’ slim volume on the famous “runes” album, which lays out the band’s mythography in loving, though wry, detail.
Fast forward to the present day. The three surviving members of Zep are reuniting for the first time in many years. At first they said they’d play just one show, as part of a tribute to the late Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun, in London on Dec. 10. But they’ve recorded a new song, and rumors are circulating about a possible U.S. tour. Once again, Zep has come in all its excessive glory to save us from appropriateness.
All the things that are most attractive about Led Zeppelin are, paradoxically, the same things many people hold most suspicious about rock music now. It’s not so much the machismo or colonialist attitudes about claiming sounds from other cultures.
What’s inappropriate about Zep now, and what we long to hear, is the band’s sound. Its greatest outings, from “Stairway to Heaven” to the group’s epic live jams, oppose the professionalism, studio-altered perfectionism and clean digestibility of today’s mainstream rock. Kelly Clarkson may play “Whole Lotta Love” between hits on her tour, but she’d never let one of her own songs stretch past five minutes. Neither would Daughtry, this year’s biggest rock act.
Sure, there are jam bands, but their musical indulgences feel neighborly, like group hugs, not heroic quests. The model for that music is the Grateful Dead, a band whose attitude toward jamming privileged slow evolution, not empire.
Led Zeppelin could fit in with the freak-folk crowd, maybe. Devendra Banhart and his fellow errant knights and ladies are also dramatic, if in a quieter way. But that’s when Zep’s other side -- its pop-wise love of the big hook, stoked by the experiences Page and bassist-arranger John Paul Jones had playing in countless studio bands -- again prevents the band from fitting in.
And nothing could be less like Led Zeppelin than what the Top 40 now calls rock. Even top-notch commercial rock bands such as Foo Fighters favor snappy, tight rhythms and melodies and that compressed production style that makes songs shoot out of a car radio like silver bullets. At the spectrum’s other end, neo-prog acts like Tool certainly ramble on, but while their music fascinates, it doesn’t make a grab for the general listener the way, say, “Stairway to Heaven” did. A Led Zeppelin song could captivate and bore within the space of a few minutes. A big part of their genius was that they thought it was OK to do both.
Jack White is out there, possibly waiting for a phone call from Page when the elder guitarist finally realizes his recently broken finger might make playing the old double-neck a bit of a problem. Yet even the White Stripes, the most musically expansive rock duo ever, tie up their sound in a neat, theatrical concept. In her book, Fast notes that Led Zeppelin’s mythic style was grounded in a sense of realism -- Zep fans believe that the journey the music describes is neither a joke nor a metaphor. Ever since Spinal Tap and “Wayne’s World,” it’s been difficult to experience new bands that way.
So welcome back, Led Zeppelin. Enjoy the thunder, the lushness, the boring parts. They don’t make ‘em like this band anymore. And we, with our 21st century ears, probably wouldn’t want them to.