Critic’s Notebook: Led Zeppelin polishes its rock-hard past
The opening bars of Led Zeppelin’s first song outline much of what followed: A mean series of Jimmy Page riffs introduces “Good Times, Bad Times,” from its self-titled 1969 debut, followed by a typically wild John Bonham drum-bang, replete with the clang of a cowbell, to set the pace. Bassist John Paul Jones adds a roaming bottom end, locked like gears of a precision timepiece with the drummer.
Then comes the first line from a spry Robert Plant, a sort of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” for the heavy-metal era: “In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man,” he sings on Track 1 of “Led Zeppelin,” suggesting an elder recounting his life — despite the vocalist being a few years removed from adolescence. As far as opening salvos go, it sets up the highly influential Led Zep narrative to follow, one that began when four men in a post-British Invasion-era England combined to amplify the blues.
Over the following decade Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham would explore what it meant to be men from various positions using myriad distortion pedals, drum fills and wails. Now, the first three chapters, “Led Zeppelin,” “Led Zeppelin II” and “Led Zeppelin III,” have been remastered by the session’s original producer, Page, and released in expanded sets that include previously unissued demos of some of the band’s seminal early jams. This is the first time the vaults have been cracked for such a purpose, and it’s comforting to know that Page led the expedition. The best of this work confirms its stature for yet another generation, transparently updated to offer new shine for aging relics.
That shine at times can still be wondrous to behold. Wearing tight bell bottoms that revealed his lemon and waves of shimmering hair that overwhelmed his melon, Plant was a rock god and went on to inspire virtually every long-haired, next-generation vocalist to follow, including but not limited to: Axl Rose (Guns ‘N Roses), Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Ann Wilson (Heart), Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Geddy Lee (Rush) and Chris Cornell (Soundgarden). A force able to embody rage and sorrow within a single phrase, Plant’s operatic moan is as undeniable as it is identifiable, a truth that’s apparent throughout the band’s first three records and endured until its dissolution in 1980.
By the time Plant sang the last lines of the band’s final studio album, “In Through the Out Door” (excluding “Coda,” a closet-cleaning collection of unreleased tracks), the drama had taken its toll. Plant was on his hands and knees lost, dazed and confused, everything brown and parched. “Yes I love her/ I guess I love her/ I’m gonna crawl.” Is it any wonder he’s playing bluegrass now?
In between the teaching and the crawling, Led Zeppelin helped usher in a new era, one in which bowing a guitar like a cellist was cool, drum solos lasted longer than all of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and no blues trope, however culturally disconnected from a band’s roots it was, was safe from harvest.
Entire musical philosophies were sculpted from these slabs, and many would reverb for decades to come. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” berthed a million riff-and-acoustic followers. What is Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” but Led Zep’s greatest hits speeded and shredded? Thematically, much fantasy-based metal, to say nothing of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” trilogy, owes a strand of its DNA to “Immigrant Song” and its opening couplet: “We come from the land of the ice and the snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.”
“Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is particularly riveting, an acoustic rant with hand claps, a boom-snip rhythm and enough hootenanny for a moonshiner’s convention. Even the rejection of Page and company’s said musical beliefs fueled a movement, in the form of the reactionary British punk explosion of the late 1970s.
As is typical for reissue packages, bonus material is included to justify the inflated price, but here it’s worth it. The first album adds live versions recorded in Paris in 1969, including searing takes on “Heartbreaker” and “Dazed and Confused.” Elsewhere Page has found fantastic outtakes, rough mixes and backing tracks to pique interest. An alternate take on “The Immigrant Song,” which opens the more nuanced “Led Zeppelin III,” features a stellar strum fed through more tremolo and Bonham’s strangely logical way around a drum pattern. The instrumental track of the oft-overlooked ballad “Friends” reveals a kind of arrangement, filled with foreboding strings, the band would harness on “Kashmir” a few years later.
Granted, the band was excessive, to say the least, and introduced ridiculous tropes whose pathways led to indulgence, casual misogyny (“Whole Lotta Love”) and what in another era would have been considered minstrelsy. “Shake for me, I wanna be your backdoor man,” sings Plant, referencing Willie Dixon’s raw classic. “The Lemon Song” is a parody of itself, one that demands a certain amount of ridicule from anyone who ever sat slack-jawed in wonder during Howlin’ Wolf’s incendiary “Killing Floor” — or fell in love with a well-crafted McCartney or Bob Dylan line.
A whole bounty of mediocre blues-rock groups formed in the years that followed Led Zeppelin’s arrival, and, paradoxically given the band’s avowed influences, it’s the more basic bluesy stuff within these early efforts that seem the most shallow 40-odd years later. A sub-genre that at its worst sounded as dated as rap-rock did in the late 1990s, blues-rock of the kind that Led Zep crafted in “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “You Shook Me” sounds nearly rancid all these years later, confirming that for all its talents, one thing that the band failed at was impersonating aged black men born in the American South and channeling into song a legacy of oppression.
The successes as represented on these first three records, though, far outnumber the excesses. Those would arrive on the next three records. These openers are tighter, more explosive and solidly make an argument for the band’s enduring legacy.
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