Friday, August 09, 2013

In the Days of My Youth...

It is the second Friday of the month, and so time to focus on another band. (Second Friday seems more promising than first, I think... to maintain this habit.) Let me take you back, now, to the summer of 1980. (We've been there before, briefly.) I remember it well - staying up all night - 3, 4, 5 in the morning - reading books and listening to the radio. AOR! In it's heyday! I imagine I was driving the rest of the house crazy, staying up half the night with the radio on, but what can you do? That summer told: it formed my tastes, in music and books - it is a fact that most of what I ended up liking then, I like now.

My youthful musical trek was not always smooth - I was at the mercy of the radio, and lived in the boonies, and mostly stuck with AM until well into high school. I started paying attention to music about 1974 and 75. I mean, that’s about when I started paying attention to songs, started seeking out groups and types of music, and talking about it with my friends at school. I started listening to the top 40 in the summer of 1975. Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds were high on the charts. Jive Talkin’ hit number 1. I listened to the top 40 every week, and I started to have favorites: Elton John; Steve Miller; David Bowie put out Golden Years and Fame that summer; I discovered and liked rock bands - Aerosmith, BTO, Kiss - most of all, Kiss. Not just Kiss - one of my cousins had three records, Frampton Comes Alive, Aerosmith’s Rocks, and BTO’s Not Fragile - I would visit, we would play air guitar to Do You Feel Like We Do? and all was well. But for most of the middle of the 70s, it was all about Kiss.

This post, though, is not about Kiss. The thing is, even when I was young and stupid, I was restless and curious. At the beginning I did not make many distinctions about music - I liked and disliked everything I heard as if it existed in a vacuum. That changed as my tastes developed, and probably not in a good way at first. I tended to fall into the habits of an isolated adolescent white boy - I got to be a rock snob; my tastes became more rigid, I second guessed myself. (Though not before I bought an Abba record, and Saturday Night Fever.) So as much as I might love The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald or Someone Saved My Life Tonight, I would think they were a bit below me. Though I didn’t stop liking them - even at 15, I had a bit of a sense of irony, and that let me listen to what I wanted, when I needed it.

But I didn’t stop looking for music and finding new things. And when I was young, I was inclined to look at every new discovery as a kind of step to a higher level of consciousness. I would move from Elton John and the Bee Gees to Aerosmith and Kiss and think, I have done it - I have finally discovered what real rock and roll sounds like! And a year or so later, I would discover Styx and maybe Queen and say the same thing. And so I moved, from BTO and Frampton to Kiss to the Eagles (poor me) then Styx, then groups like Styx (Journey, REO, Kansas, Queen - that kind of crap), which brought me up to the edges of the province of straight up classic rock. And by the summer of 1980, that’s where I was.

And thus: I found a radio station that played real AOR: The Beatles and the Stones and the Who and the Doors, Sabbath and Springsteen and the Kinks and Pink Floyd and anything else the guardians of Rock And Roll thought met the grade. (Which at times could include the likes Lou Reed and Zappa and even, though I only discovered this a long time later, Captain Beefheart. But those are acts you will have to wait for, in this series, since I am following, roughly, my discovery of music.) One might go on. Some of these bands we will meet again: today, we are going to the band that was the center of the universe when I was 17 (not for me alone I suspect). The main course - the piece de resistance - the stuff of white boys’ dreams:

That, thought I, then, that, is what Rock and Roll Should Sound Like. That was hardly a unique opinion - most of the other guys at school would have agreed. The radio station certainly agreed - they played the hell out of Led Zeppelin. I somehow acquired, along here, Led Zeppelin II and IV on 8 track, and eventually, The Song Remains The Same on vinyl - but thanks to the radio, I didn't need them. I knew the first record and Houses of the Holy and most of Physical Graffiti as well as I knew the ones I had - most of those records got played all the way through every month somewhere on the radio... (III got short shrift; and the later ones were often politely ignored.) I would stay up to 3 in the morning, and hear a Zep song an hour. And usually put down the book (Pride and Prejudice! Lord Jim! I was preparing for an AP English class...) and play air guitar for the duration...

Sad, sad. I should be clear though - the station I listened to did play a lot of bands - they played deep cuts. I got a real musical education, at least in rock of the 60s and 70s, everything from Zep and Sabbath to Jackson Browne and Supertramp, over that summer and the next year. And in fact, things got better in 81 - they started playing new wave type stuff as well (or I found a different, even better radio station, that made no distinctions...) - I heard U2 and the Ramones and Elvis Costello and the B-52s, etc, before I got out of high school - which, in the woods of Maine, was an accomplishment. But all of it, for that year or so, revolved around the Zep.

And then I went to college, and it didn't revolve around them anymore. The radio stations in Boston played contemporary music, contemporary rock - my music-loving friends were mainly Bruce-o-philes (he should be next month's story) - and my freshman year there was a bit of a Satanic Panic, which I mostly ignored, but it made groups like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath somewhat frowned on... (Though I had a Sabbath poster on the wall; I think I pretended it was Led Zeppelin, since they offended the christians a bit less... but still; I wish I could find that poster. I didn't really care much about Sabbath back then; now, I think their version of hard rock has aged a lot better than Led Zeppelin's; I know I'd rather hear Paranoid than Heartbreaker.) And over the years, I found more bands, that repeated the old process - "this is it! I have finally discovered what real rock and roll sounds like!" - though I admit, after the summer of 1980, I never quite abandoned what went before. My new discoveries (and there are a lot of them: we have three or four pretty major revisions in what I listened to coming through the years) after that were added to what I already liked.

And somewhere in the mid-80s, sometime after I started listening to punk in earnest, I started hearing those AOR bands, the cock rock bands, with a different set of ears. (I mentioned this way back in 2004, writing about Johnny Ramone.) I noticed the riffs, I paid attention to Bonzo, I stopped feeling guilty - or "ironic" - about loving guitar solos. I also noticed, maybe, just how ridiculous their lyrics were; how annoying Robert Plant's voice was; how obnoxious their misogyny was; and how cavalierly they treated the people who wrote their actual songs... But - with eyes open - I still thought they kicked ass. And still do.

In fact, right now, I probably like them almost as much as I ever did, at least since that first flush of discovery. Though I like them differently. In 1980, I liked what you would expect - Stairway to Heaven and Dazed and Confused of course, and the first 2 records, and the harder stuff on the 4th, the long solos, the blues, the boogies.... Oh, I liked the ballads and such, but they were complimentary. But now? I suppose there is no denying: when push comes to shove, Led Zeppelin is basically a duo: John Bonham and Jimmy Page. It's the riffs, it's the drums - even on the ballads, it's the beats, its the riffs. It is awe inspiring, how on a song like All of My Love, a ballad - with Bonzo and Jimmy both so strung out they could barely stand - the band just swings like a motherfucker. They could go up their asses - and these days, I have no patience for a lot of their bluesy boogie workouts, the endless and pointless extensions of Whole Lotta Love and the like, the theremin passages... These days, I make no apologies for preferring the ballads, and have come to really like their later stuff - when Jones and Plant were doing most of the work, and they had almost turned into a prog band. With a drummer who knew how to rock... In the end - they are not like the Beatles; making a top 10 Zeppelin songs is not going to make me agonize and wring my hands, I won't be able to come up with another 20 songs that could be on this list - one or two maybe (How Many More Times, Good Times, Bad Times, Achilles Last Stand, the Immigrant Song - that's about it, probably...), no more. But still, these days, I might listen to the songs on this list as much as anything I have.

Here they are: my 10 favorite Led Zeppelin tracks:

1. Thank You (the live one on the BBC sessions particularly sends me; it’s a real song; and Jimmy really lets it rip. Bless them.)
2. Dazed and Confused - what I said about not liking the indulgent noisy songs doesn't apply universally. It’s the guitar; even the half hour versions of this are almost listenable. The early, short versions, though, are pretty hard to beat.
3. Stairway to Heaven - boring, but what can you say?
4. Ramble On - seeing them play it on the recent live DVD brought it back - the truth is that for most of the last 15 years or so, I've mostly been listening to things like that BBC collection, or HOw the West Was Won, the live stuff that came out after the fact... and those records don't have Ramble On, so I forgot. Now I remember.
5. When the Levee Breaks - it’s the drums, man.
6. All of My Love - there's more to the end of the Zep's run than they get credit for. The last couple records, the songs get good - the words aren’t stupid; the melodies are more than just excuses to jam; Plant has learned to sing. And however fucked up they were, Page and Bonham are always stunning. And so detailed - Page’s work is scary perfect.
7. Fool in the Rain - ditto
8. Communication Breakdown - a faster version of God Save the Queen?
9. Kashmir - riffs; drums
10. Over the Hills and Far Away - live, especially

That's enough - this post has started to approach Dazed and Confused length itself... Let's do some video. Let's start with half of Zep and the Foo Fighters... (though Dave should have written the lyrics down somewhere.)

Try Page and Plant doing Thank You, in the mid-90s:

And - Dazed and Confused, done right on Danish TV; violin bow and all, they get it in in under 10 minutes:

and finally - isolated drum track for Fool in the Rain. Because - because.

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