Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Led Zeppelin Problem, and Yours, Maybe

There are some artists you love, some you think are okay and some that you hate. If you like them, they’re great, if you don’t, they suck. Taste as aesthetic judgment, right?

But then there are those artists who you don’t like as much as you think you should. Or you may respect their talent and acknowledge that their music is well made. But it just doesn’t move you.

Is it just a matter of taste, or something more? What if you, for some reason, actually dislike the artist? Would this get in the way of your enjoying their music? You’d think the two things were separate. I mean, can’t I just listen to the music without it getting personal? (Actually, I can’t even eat breakfast without it getting personal, but that’s another post entirely.) Apparently not. For some of us, music, like sex (now, anyway) requires that we like the person.

This is my Led Zeppelin problem, and it has strained more than one friendship. When my wife and I compare our teen years, it appears that the Led Zeppelin issue could separate neighborhoods, and even nationalities. After all, how many Irish Led Zeppelin fans do you know? (Actually I know two, but stay with me on this.) How many Italian Grateful Dead fans? (See?) There even seemed to be a correlation to your choice of recreational drug.

But to bring it back to me, just how did Zeppelin and I get to this point?

I trace it back to when I was twelve, and hanging out at my best friend’s house. (We almost always hung there instead of my house. Otherwise, he’d be writing about the Grateful Dead right now.) His big brother put on “Led Zeppelin II”, which had just come out. I’d never heard of them. When it got to all the sound effects in the middle of “Whole Lotta Love”, he made the statement that they were “better than the Beatles”, who couldn’t do this. Wouldn’t was more like it, but what did I know then? He was the one with every Beatles album. And, since older kids were the supreme authorities on everything, this was a major challenge to one of my most deeply held beliefs.

To make matters worse, their fans thought that Jimmy Page was “the best guitar player in the world”. In other words, better than Eric Clapton, who, I happened to know, was the best. The idea that some loud, obnoxious axe-man could be better than modest, unassuming Eric was appalling. (A major theme in my Irish/Catholic youth was that conceited people shouldn’t be better at something than modest people, which was why I hated anyone with a high opinion of themselves. Even Elvis Presley’s sneer signaled egotism instead of libido, which was not yet on my radar.) In retrospect, it might have been that Eric just had better press. Still, after all these years, I don’t quite get it. And when you’re twelve – which is where I am now, emotionally – these things matter.

Now let’s add the swaggering, screeching Robert Plant, who was everything I hated in a singer. I much preferred poor, moaning Greg Allman, or kind but demented Jack Bruce. And moreover, Mr. Plant must be made to answer for all of the shrieking, big-haired male singers that followed in his wake.

So for me, Led Zeppelin was the epitome of rock and roll excess. Their music was unseemly. I would never be able to defend them against my parent’s objections like I could the Beatles.

So I hoped that they would just go away, and that the world, as I defined it, would right itself. But just when the memory of their last LP was fading, another one would come out and sell millions, and it would all start over again.

It was only much later that I learned that Led Zeppelin had a reputation for redoing old blues standards and taking songwriting credit. Although these facts do serve to justify my more ethical objections to them, to be fair, I only became aware of this after I decided that I wouldn’t like them. (But jeez, guys, I think you owe some people some money!)

And on top of all of this, add their reputation for debauchery while on tour. So you can see how a tight-ass like me could really work up a case against them. The libertarian in me, however, feels that the young woman who got slapped with the fish, probably chose to get slapped with the fish. (Don’t ask.)

So they were loud, dishonest, obnoxious, leering, sexist, and remarkably successful with women. And there I was listening to the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

And their fans seemed…well, kinda dumb. This sounds awful, and obviously wrong, in retrospect, but it just didn’t seem like the Zeppelin fans were hanging with the honor students. But they didn’t seem too worried about it. They were too busy having a good time. And if that isn’t a good reason to resent them, I don’t know what is.

So, why should any of this matter?

Well, this issue reared its ugly head again when my wife asked me to add some Zeppelin CDs to our next BMG order. (It had slipped my mind that she ran with a Zeppelin crowd back in the day. And here I was thinking I had her brainwashed.) Had this request come earlier in our relationship, it would have been tantamount to her saying she wanted to see other people.

But now, the notion (buying the CDs, that is) wasn’t as appalling as it might once have been. Still, it was galling to have to guide her to the album that had “Whole Lotta Love” on it, which she thought was their first record. So I – the non fan – rattled off the songs from that record for her. (Doesn’t everybody know this stuff?)

So we got down to the business of deciding which albums to get. We already had several on vinyl, and briefly considered getting the 10-CD-complete-album-box-set-yadayadayada, but declined to pay the $80. Instead, we got four for about $25. She wanted II and IV. I wanted III. Neither of us wanted I, but we got it anyway because, well, what’s the sense in having II, III and IV if you’re not going to get I, too? It wouldn’t be right. It also helped that BMG was having one of those buy-one-get-40 sales. (Because you were going to get those 40 CDs anyway, right?)

So we’re talking the Zeppelin pantheon, more or less. And just how do these records stack up, against, say, the first four Allman Brothers or Cream albums?

Sorry fans, but “Led Zeppelin I” is rip-off central (just type “Zeppelin songwriting credit” into Google) but it has the most music, and man, they sure had their own sound. The Allman Brother’s first record is perfectly good, and it captures their emerging personality. “Fresh Cream” is the most modest of the three. It’s got excellent blues covers, but the originals could be better. I give a very slight edge to Zeppelin, for gall.

“Led Zeppelin II” is, again, a more generous album (albeit, not towards the artists they are still stealing from), and less bloated than their first. But I still prefer the high points of “Idlewild South”. “Disreali Gears” – a supposed classic – is not bad, just a little dated. A slight edge to the Allmans.

The third albums don’t compare easily since two of them are double albums - one all live, and the other half-live. But since such albums usually suck, it all comes out in the wash anyway. “Live at the Fillmore” is the classic. “Wheel’s of Fire” is a mish mosh, with weird studio stuff and loooong live stuff. It can be very silly, but it’s still fun. “Led Zeppelin III” is a departure, and not bad at all. And with all the acoustic stuff, it’s actually pretty brave. But the clear edge goes to the Allmans.

Now, call me crazy but I happen to love the “Eat a Peach”’s 35 minute “Mountain Jam”. Add to that “Blue Sky”, “Little Martha” and “Melissa” and you’ve got a very strong LP. It’s probably my personal favorite here. Cream’s “Good-bye” shows them limping off stage - the sound on the live cuts sucks. But side two is excellent – highlighted by an intense “Sitting on Top of the World” (crappy sound and all) and “Badge” (greatest guitar solo on a pop song, ever?). But you have to give “Led Zeppelin IV” its due. The songwriting is blossoming, the drumming powerful, and production, courtesy of Jimmy Page, absolutely sterling. There’s not a bad song here. It’s one of those records that I don’t love, exactly, but that I know is great. On the whole, a tie between Zeppelin and the Allmans.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you for totally disagreeing with me on all four albums. I mean, talk about your apples and oranges! But that’s exactly my point. Some of us have a preference, and I’m struggling with music I prefer versus music I know is great on its own terms. So how do I explain the fact that Zeppelin has gone toe to toe with the Allmans, who I supposedly prefer, a clearly best Cream, record-wise?

Well, I’ve come to respect Jimmy Page as a sound maker. As a producer, he used to overdo it, of course. Early on, he was always throwing sound affects into the middle of songs. Later on, he learned how to give a record a unified sound, to better effect. And he always strove to add a unique guitar sound to each song.

Paradoxically, this was my problem with him as a guitar player. He was always more sonic than musical for my taste. His actual solos could be a little sloppy, sometimes. Maybe someday I’ll hear the great Jimmy Page solo, but I haven’t yet. And that includes the little display in “Whole Lotta Love”, and the one at the end of “Stairway to Heaven”, which I think is his most Clapton-esque. I’ve heard that Jimmy Page appears on about 60% of all the English rock records between 1963 and 1966. Someday, I hope to find a really good collection of the best ones so that I can fully appreciate his talent.

But I now see that Jimmy Page was consciously trying to make rock and roll records. So he didn’t just hang out until his solo came, like Clapton would. Jimmy Page is all over his records, playing lead, rhythm, acoustic, twelve-string, banjo, mandolin, all in the service of making the end result distinct from start to finish. And that counts for a lot.

And just how did this abrasive band could come up with such beautiful songs as “Thank You”, “That’s the Way”, “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going to California”? Man, the snob appeal of looking down on a supposedly loud, stupid band wore off pretty quickly.

But, not to worry. It’s not like I’m standing around with a Zeppelin CD in one hand, and an Allmans CD in the other, unable to decide what to play. That's what your 5-CD-carousel changer is there for - to get you through such crises. Besides, I’m probably listening to something else altogether now. (Except for the next month or so, since the BMG order just came in.)

When I was a kid, I wanted to believe that you couldn’t be good at something unless you were nice, too. So it’s been hard for me to admit that you can admire or respect someone you don’t particularly like, but it’s time for me to admit that Led Zeppelin has earned a place in my CD player.

So I think I’ve finally made my peace with the blimp from hell.

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