Led Zep­pelin was more than the sum of its parts

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MARTIN

Ev­ery­thing is greater than the sum of its parts.

Or­der and ar­range­ment cre­ate con­text, shadow and light. Words and mu­si­cal phrases gain power through their re­la­tion­ship with other words and mu­si­cal phrases. The parts res­onate, ac­quire mean­ings they wouldn’t oth­er­wise hold. They play off each other, they shade or il­lu­mi­nate one an­other. Same goes for per­son­al­i­ties. Be­fore the Bea­tles, bands were side­men back­ing singers. Buddy Holly and the Crick­ets. Bill Ha­ley and the Comets. Elvis Pres­ley with Bill Black, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fon­tana.

But it wasn’t John Len­non and the Bea­tles, or Paul Mc­Cart­ney and the Bea­tles, but an in­te­grated, al­chem­i­cal unit. Ge­orge Har­ri­son and Ringo Starr might be per­ceived by some as ju­nior mem­bers, but they were both essen­tial to the group’s sound. While Ringo wasn’t in the same league as the oth­ers in terms of song­writ­ing, his de­cep­tively prim­i­tive, tom tom heavy, wrong-way-round ap­proach to the drum kit (he was a lefty play­ing on a right-handed kit) is as de­ter­mi­na­tive of the group’s sound as any other el­e­ment. You could put Char­lie Watts or Keith Moon in Ringo’s chair and have a very dif­fer­ent rock ’n’ roll band from the one with which we are fa­mil­iar.

It’s im­por­tant to think about this dy­namic when you con­sider Led Zep­pelin and Led Zep­pelin, the band’s first al­bum, re­leased Jan. 12, 1969, in the United States.

It wasn’t all that well-re­ceived by crit­ics when it was re­leased — Rolling Stone thought them de­riv­a­tive of Cream and that the Jeff Beck Group did it bet­ter. Widely per­ceived as the lat­est in a se­ries of con­trived “su­per­groups” — as con­trived as The Mon­kees, al­beit with the ex­pec­ta­tion they’d play their in­stru­ments — the re­views were bru­tal and con­trib­uted to a ca­reer-long an­tipa­thy to­ward crit­ics and the press.

But peo­ple bought it, and the band’s rep­u­ta­tion was built on its fu­ri­ous live act.

In ret­ro­spect, it seems im­pos­si­ble that Led Zep­pelin was not im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized as a clas­sic. The band burst forth fully formed, psy­che­delic blues with hints of an ex­oti­cism to come. Each of the al­bum’s nine songs made an in­deli­ble mark on the cul­ture, to the point that a ca­sual lis­tener might take it as a great­est-hits com­pi­la­tion. Af­ter 50 years, there’s not an ob­scure deep track on the en­tire al­bum.

“Good Times Bad Times” kicks things off with an edgy shuf­fle;

“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” mar­ries a moun­tain bal­lad to thump­ing hard rock; “You Shook Me” pro­vided a boo­gie tem­plate for thou­sands of bar bands; “Dazed and Con­fused” is unas­sail­able, vol­canic, pen­ta­tonic rock; “Your Time Is Gonna Come” can be read as a early ex­am­ple of the power bal­lad, one graced with acous­tic coun­try fil­i­gree. The in­stru­men­tal “Black Moun­tain Side” is pure Celtic folk in­fused with In­dian scales; punk rock starts with “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Break­down.” Wil­lie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a text­book blues com­pul­sory made all the more en­dear­ing by a rare Page fluff com­ing out of his solo (and the fact they left it on the record); and “How Many More Times” can be seen as the band’s Rosetta Stone, both a pas­tiche of its in­flu­ences and a har­bin­ger of its di­rec­tion.

It was meant to be Jimmy Page’s band.

Page presided over the end of the Yard­birds, and, in the sum­mer of 1968, af­ter singer Keith Relf, drum­mer Jim McCarty and bassist Chris Dreja left, he found him­self own­ing the rights to the group’s name and a hand­ful of Scan­di­na­vian dates. He needed to find some mu­si­cians if he didn’t want to leave the money on the ta­ble.

But Page had as­pi­ra­tions be­yond find­ing sub­sti­tutes for var­i­ous Yard­birds. He had thought for years about form­ing a band that would re­al­ize the “col­lage of sound” that was hap­pen­ing in his head. At 24, he was a vet­eran stu­dio hand who had played on hit records by the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Dono­van, Pe­tula Clark and dozens of oth­ers. He’d got­ten a taste for the kind of thing he wanted in May 1966, when he wrote and played sec­ond gui­tar on what would be­come Jeff Beck’s first sin­gle, the in­stru­men­tal “Beck’s Bolero.” The track fea­tured Moon on drums, key­boardist Nicky Hop­kins and ses­sion bassist John Paul Jones.

Page thought about keep­ing this out­fit in­tact ex­cept

for Jones, who’d be re­placed by the Who’s John En­twhis­tle — and adding a singer to form a “su­per­group.” En­twhis­tle joked that the band would likely go over like a lead bal­loon. A “Lead Zep­pelin,” Moon chirped.

In the end, ev­ery­one had con­trac­tual obli­ga­tions. And who would the singer be? So Page joined the Yard­birds, where he played bass be­fore mov­ing over to form a po­tent two-gui­tar at­tack with his friend Beck. Then Beck left, and Page be­came one of the band’s fo­cal points. But he bris­tled at the pop in­stincts of Micky Most, the band’s man­ager, pro­ducer and a firm be­liever in the three-minute song. Page wanted more.

In the stu­dio, they churned out the ra­dio-ready fare that Most pre­ferred. On­stage, they were more ex­pan­sive.

“The Yard­birds al­lowed me to im­pro­vise a lot in live per­for­mance,” Page told Gui­tar World mag­a­zine in 1993. “And I started build­ing a text­book of ideas that I even­tu­ally used in Zep­pelin. In ad­di­tion to those ideas, I wanted to add acous­tic tex­tures. Ul­ti­mately, I wanted Zep­pelin to be a mar­riage of blues, hard rock and acous­tic mu­sic topped with heavy cho­ruses — a com­bi­na­tion that had never been done be­fore.”

Page wanted a Mel­lotron in the new band. He wanted an art­ful drum­mer like Pro­col Harum’s B.J. Wil­son. He wanted Small Faces vo­cal­ist Steve Mar­riott to be the singer — and if not him, maybe song­writer and vo­cal­ist Terry Reid, an­other Most client who looked to have hit-mak­ing po­ten­tial.

But Mar­riott wasn’t in­ter­ested in leav­ing his band and Reid was booked for months as the open­ing act for the Rolling Stones and Cream; though if Page and man­ager Peter Grant (a 300-pound for­mer pro­fes­sional wrestler who had been Most’s right-hand man and who had joined forces with Page as the Yard­birds

Robert Plant

splin­tered) would make him whole for the missed dates he’d go to Keith Richard and ex­plain why he had to drop out of the dates.

Page (and Grant) de­murred, and Reid rec­om­mended Robert Plant, a 19-year-old singer from a mid­dle-class back­ground, who had re­cently left a mid­dling act called Band of Joy and was singing for a band called Obs-Twee­dle.

Page went to see an Ob­sTwee­dle show at West Mid­lands Col­lege of Ed­u­ca­tion in Birm­ing­ham. Plant sang the Jef­fer­son Air­plane’s “Some­body to Love,” prob­a­bly some Moby Grape, prob­a­bly Buf­falo Spring­field’s “Mr. Soul.” Page and Grant liked him but won­dered why some­one so gifted was stuck play­ing gigs at a provin­cial teach­ers col­lege. Per­haps he was dif­fi­cult to work with?

Page in­vited Plant to his house­boat on the Thames to kick around mu­si­cal ideas. At one point they bonded over Joan Baez’s ver­sion of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” Page and Plant got along fine. The New Yard­birds had their singer.

And Plant had a child­hood pal named John Bon­ham, who’d played drums in Band of Joy and had al­legedly been banned from cer­tain venues

un­til 1969, af­ter Led Zep­pelin, in­cludes an eight-minute al­bum-clos­ing blues med­ley which will suf­fice if you’re look­ing for the proto-Zep­pelin track.)

On Sept. 7, they played their first show to­gether in a con­verted gym­na­sium called Teen-Clubs in Glad­saxe, a sub­urb of Copen­hagen, Den­mark. (Tick­ets to the show cost about $7 in to­day’s cur­rency.) The set list mostly ig­nored the Yard­birds’ back cat­a­log and in­cluded sev­eral songs Led Zep­pelin would later record in­clud­ing “Train Kept a Rollin’,” “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Break­down,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “You Shook Me, ” and “Dazed & Con­fused.”

In the clubs news­let­ter, a re­viewer en­thused:

“Their per­for­mance and their mu­sic were ab­so­lutely flaw­less, and the mu­sic con­tin­ued to ring nicely in the ears for some time af­ter the cur­tains were drawn af­ter their show. Let me in par­tic­u­lar give my praise to Jimmy Page who has made a great job with the three new men. They re­ally suc­ceeded and in par­tic­u­lar the gui­tar solo by Jimmy Page cre­ated huge ap­plause. We can there­fore con­clude that the new Yard­birds are at least as good as the old ones were ….”

The sec­ond New Yard­birds/Led Zep­pelin show took place later that evening at the Brondy Pop-Club in nearby Brondy. This show was also re­viewed (by a writer who has been widely quoted over the years but never iden­ti­fied):

“Robert Plant should face some small crit­i­cism and a lot of praise for an ex­cel­lent per­for­mance. There is no doubt that he is a good singer, but he doesn’t have to twist his body like he’s hav­ing a rup­tured ap­pen­dix, does he? Mu­si­cally, the band is su­per-great. Their hard dis­ci­plined beat is amaz­ing. Of course, it was fore­most Jimmy Page that was re­spon­si­ble for this but the drum­mer should also be men­tioned; a drum solo so wild and good is hard to Demo­crat-Gazette file photo for play­ing too loud. Page had never heard of him, but on Plant’s rec­om­men­da­tion he went to see him back up singer Tim Rose in a club in Hamp­stead and was im­me­di­ately taken with his bom­bas­tic play­ing. The New Yard­birds had their drum­mer.

John Paul Jones, who be­came the fi­nal mem­ber of the group, was a ses­sion mu­si­cian who had of­ten crossed paths with Page over the years, not only in the record­ing of “Beck’s Bolero” but dur­ing ses­sions for Dono­van’s Hurdy Gurdy Man al­bum in April 1968. While Jones has from time to time prop­a­gated the myth that he au­di­tioned for Page at the urg­ing of his wife, Page says he had sev­eral talks with Jones about be­ing part of any new ven­ture.

It prob­a­bly helped that the bassist also played key­boards. And he had a Mel­lotron.

The New Yard­birds played to­gether for the first time in a small re­hearsal room in Lon­don in mid-Au­gust 1968; Jones, Plant (on har­mon­ica), Page and Bon­ham first recorded to­gether on the ses­sions for P.J. Proby’s al­bum Three Week Hero in early Septem­ber. (That al­bum, which wasn’t re­leased

find. It was so good that one al­most wished that John Bon­ham wouldn’t stop.”

Fifty years on, it’s easy to see Led Zep­pelin as the height of rock ex­cess.

Bon­ham’s drum so­los and tragic death by vodka, the leo­nine Plant’s leg­endary hau­teur (I once heard doc­u­men­tary film­maker Chris Hege­dus’ re­count how Plant once con­ducted an in­ter­view with her via an in­ter­ces­sory pub­li­cist; he would not al­low her to ad­dress him di­rectly); Page’s dab­bling in oc­cultism; the in­fa­mous shark in­ci­dent (which you can Google; I’m not go­ing to de­scribe it), and maybe more than any­thing else their in­fa­mous prob­lems abid­ing by copy­right laws, in­form the way we see them. Of­ten cred­ited with cre­at­ing heavy metal (an ar­guable claim), their chief legacy seems to have been epit­o­miz­ing the stereo­type of the rock star as a va­pid and en­ti­tled boor.

Yet Page is un­de­ni­ably one of the most im­por­tant mu­si­cians rock mu­sic ever pro­duced, and Jones is a ter­rif­i­cally un­der-rated bassist and ar­ranger, pos­sessed of a deep mu­si­cal in­tel­li­gence. Bon­ham was a sui generis drum­mer, and so vi­tal was his up­front vi­cious at­tack to the band that the other three agreed there could be no Zep­pelin with­out him. And Plant is pos­sessed of the sort of freak-of-na­ture voice that in­duces ar­gu­ments about the great­est of all time.

More than the sum of their parts.

Led Zep­pelin’s de­but al­bum was re­leased Jan. 12, 1969; it first ap­peared on the Bill­board al­bum chart on Feb. 15, 1969.

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