Rock and the Divine

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm

First Things editor Joe Carter suggests Creed is superior to Led Zeppelin after Creed supposedly saved a Norwegian boy from a pack of hungry wolves last week.  I posted the following in response:

Since Led Zeppelin is far and away my favorite musical act of all time, I often find myself defending the group from casual listeners who are more or less sick of classic rock radio stations overplaying Stairway to Heaven, one of the band’s more mediocre songs (although Led Zeppelin definitely has no duds.)

From the start, Led Zeppelin cared more about its own artistic mission than impressing critics. Originally called The New Yardbirds, the band, like Democritus and Siddhartha Guatama, was born into royalty, which it soon forsook. The group could have ridden its name to commercial success, but chose not to. The group changed its name following a famous dig by famous pervert Pete Townshend, who’s band The Who was famous for being loud. Townshend famously said of The New Yardbirds, “this band is going to sink like a lead zeppelin.” The group’s members agreed to change its name as a star-spangled middle finger to the decadent rock establishment.

Led Zeppelin I and II generally concern the band’s attempts to popularize blues songs it liked rendered in its own distinct, hard style, which is like that of no other band before or since.

While Led Zeppelin was so way far ahead of its time that it was ridiculed by the mainstream rock press and the 1960s Woodstock establishment, the band developed a cult following, which it then completely forsook with Led Zeppelin III, an almost entirely acoustic album. The band found its voice with Led Zeppelin IV, widely considered one of the most important albums in rock history, and the next album, Houses of the Holy was even better. Just to show that there was plenty more where that was coming from, Physical Graffiti was a stellar double album. This was followed by Presence, featuring the group’s best song, Achilles Last Stand. Finally, In Through the Out Door was chock full of tracks which we are all still trying to process as a civilization.

From the start, Led Zeppelin was considered a supergroup based solely on the raw talent of its members. Plant is a vocalist like none other, with a distinctive voice and complete lack of fear. Jimmy Page is on almost every list of the best guitarists of all time, although he has been derided by some for being sloppy. His style is better characterized by nonchalance. John Paul Jones’s distinctive base lines have served as models for aspiring bassists since, and John Bonham’s sheer endurance as a drummer remains unmatched more than thirty years after his death. In a sense, it was an accident of fate that these four musicians came together to produce one of the definitive musical catalogues of the twentieth century.

Led Zeppelin avoided the respective fates of Jimmy Hendrix and The Rolling Stones in that it neither burned out nor faded away to campy Boomerdom: the group had a sufficient degree of collective metacognitive awareness to call it quits after John Bonham drank himself to death in 1980.

Whether is came to writing songs about Lord of the Rings, Greek, Celtic, and Norse mythology, love for a pet dog, execution, black magic and the occult, or any number of bizarre, yet truly Romantic and profound topics, the poetry of the band’s lyrics is only equaled by its instrumental skill.

If I could go back in time, I would choose to be alive in the seventies, so I could go to Led Zeppelin concerts and witness twelve-minute Bonham drum solos, four or five minutes of nothing but rhythm and moaning, thirty-minute versions of Dazed and Confused, the fusion of obscure musical styles such as mandolin folk or carousel music or even cowtowing to synth with Zeppelin’s unique rock stylings, playing a double-fretted electric guitar, playing an electric guitar with a bow, playing a double-fretted electric guitar with a bow (which inspired one of the greatest scenes from one of the greatest films ever made, This Is Spinal Tap), the complete departure from and prodigal return to the hard blues-rock style that made the band famous in the first place, the third way of repopularizing and returning to blues within the rock program in the face of Pink Floyd‘s drab electronica and the stultifying punk of the Sex Pistols, and the boldest stance since Nat King Cole taken against the new disco fad unfortunately sweeping the Anglo-American music world. Like the Coen Brothers, Led Zeppelin was totally unsafe in the topics and themes it chose to pursue; the band always pushed the limits of what rock music was capable of while successfully straddling the fine line between mainstream and avant garde.

By the end of Led Zeppelin‘s run, the possibilities for rock were so completely exhausted that the genre was an effective wasteland comprised of acts trying unsuccessfully to channel Led Zeppelin for the following fifteen years up until the Grunge movement in the 90s. Stereolab‘s Laetitia Sadier famously said at Lollapalooza that rock was dead. If it was, it’s because Led Zeppelin drove it to Nirvana.


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