Number 85 / February 1991:
ROCK AND ROLL.... "Music don't begin like a song. Forget all that bullshit you hear. Music can get to be a song but it starts with a cry. That's all. It might be the cry of a newborn baby, or the sound of a hog being slaughtered, or a man when they put a knife to his balls And that sound is everywhere. People spend their whole lives trying to drown out that sound."-- James Baldwin, Just Above My Head
James Bernard writes: One of my greatest friends died in the Pan Am 103 explosion over Scotland in 1988. In my confusion and disbelief, I turned to Led Zeppelin to seek comfort, to bury my loss, to search for meaning. Measuring the summer's day / Only find it slips away to gray / The hours they bring me pain. I somehow found a home in "Tangerine," Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's missive about the lingering desperation of lost romance. I must have lived with that song for over a month, and Plant's aching vocals and Page's hopeful acoustic twang literally anchored my sanity. Thinking how it used to be / Does she still remember times like these? / To think of us again / And I do.
You might wonder why a young Black kid from Tennessee--who was barely four years old when the world first heard "Communication Breakdown"--would turn to Led Zep, a band dismissed as disrespectable and too often reduced to mere champions of pimply, stringy-haired teenage rebellion. But forget all that bullshit you hear.
Led Zeppelin approached music as a cry, a shout, a moan--not a mere pretty melody and tight song structure. The Stones and the Who wrote great songs, but Zeppelin somehow tapped into the depth, energy, and spirituality of the blues and R&B that inspired them. Beginning with their very first album, they caressed Howling Wolf's raging power and Robert Johnson's mystery. Sonic Youth may grab my imagination, Aerosmith may bang my head, and the Time may shake my butt, but they never make me want to melt in tears. Led Zeppelin does. Songs like "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" or "Communication Breakdown" are so guttural, so majestic--and their energy has endured over time. Next to the raw power of It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or Appetite for Destruction--the most important albums of my generation--Led Zeppelin can hang, unlike the Beatles, who would buckle under the raw- boned physical / emotional assault of Public Enemy and Guns 'n' Roses.
Led Zeppelin didn't fear such emotional intensity. Instead of describing terror or pain or love, they grab us and drag us to face these emotions with steamy nose-to-nose discomfort. "The Battle of Evermore" puts us in the midst of a thousand voices, wailing and lost at war, while the "Immigrant Song" forces us to stand beside the forlorn, but ever hopeful, migrants on the bow of a ship treading the icy seas. Unlike the tight, predictable packages of sound created by pop stars, a journey with Led Zeppelin takes us to unexpected places, like the rolling odyssey through funk, folk, and rock of "The Song Remains the Same" or "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," which begins with Plant's plaintive whisper and ends in resignation, but not before hauling us through his angry and determined roar. While their supposed offspring, today's heavy metalers, often perform as if they're anxious to dispense with their songs, Led Zeppelin made us experience The Moment. Like Al Green, who imbued his songs with almost three- dimensional royalty, Robert Plant could inhabit and savor a phrase or thought or emotion to make them live and breathe--But now I smell the rain / And with it pain / And it's headed my way / Aw, sometimes I grow so tired. And Jimmy Page usually restrained the urge to amaze us with dexterous flurries of notes, taking time to settle into the grooves laid down in John Paul Jones and John Bonham's wake.
More than simply recapturing them, the new Led Zeppelin box set re-explores these chasms. Jimmy Page re-arranges 54 of their songs into a truly different listening experience, no matter how familiar you are with their music. I might quibble over the exclusion of "The Lemon Song" or "Good Times, Bad Times," but that's irrelevant in the face of a jarring relook at some of the most meaningful music ever created. Page reorders songs which were simply moving on the original albums, and makes them simply terrifying. On the box's first CD, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"" segues into "What Is and What Should Never Be," which in turn guides us into "Thank You." Instead of getting relief from their introspection with the harder, more aggressive songs that followed them on the original albums, Page allows them to build on one another's depth. Together, the impact is almost unbearable. At times, Page trots out his flair for the dramatic: It's startling to hear "Immigrant Song" follow "Over the Hills and Far Away," and then turn around to hear "The Battle of Evermore." The harsh transitions highlight the band's diversity. Page's shuffle also reveals some unexpected, if unintended, surprises. Next to the naked, orchestral power of the "Rain Song," "Stairway to Heaven" seems strangely scrawny.
For all practical purposes, Led Zeppelin fathered hard rock. But they also presaged other great developments in popular music. John Paul Jones and John Bonham injected funk into "The Song Remains the Same" and "The Ocean" before any of the Red Hot Chili Peppers thought of getting tattoos. Plant was singing convincing "blue-eyed soul" long before George Michael or Lisa Stansfield. And Zeppelin performed meaningful, earthy folk songs in large arenas before Tracy Chapman picked up a guitar. Unfortunately, I can't say Led Zeppelin actually inspired these developments directly, since they were pigeon-holed so quickly and so absolutely. But they were there first. [James Bernard is associate editor of The Source].
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