Saturday, July 26, 2008

Led Zeppelin Returns

Ledzep Pop Music

Last Monday, in London, Led Zeppelin played its first full live set since 1980, at the O2 Arena—formerly the Millennium Dome—which seats twenty-two thousand and was built in 1999, during the early, optimistic days of Tony Blair’s tenure. (The giant spiked dome looks like a satellite that has crashed to earth, been filled with air, and turned into a mall done up with holographic snowflakes and futuristic blue lights.) Twenty million people applied in an online lottery for tickets to the concert and crashed the computer system. Before the show, tickets were going for more than a thousand dollars apiece on eBay. After all, this was a reunion that was not supposed to happen. Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980, following the death of its drummer, John Bonham, and since then the remaining members—the singer, Robert Plant, the guitarist, Jimmy Page, and the bassist, John Paul Jones—have made only three public appearances together, none well received. In a recent interview, Plant cited the low quality of these performances, including one at a Live Aid concert in 1985, as an impetus for reuniting to play “one last great show,” with Bonham’s son, Jason, on drums.

The show was billed as a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, who signed the band in 1968 and died in 2006, and who came as close to being universally beloved as any music executive could be. Ertegun’s careful nurturing of acts like Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin is often cited as evidence of the kind of patient temperament now lacking at major labels. As eager to score hits as any other record man, he seemed just as determined to let artists muck about. To the chagrin of other Atlantic executives and record-store employees everywhere, Ertegun allowed Led Zeppelin to release its fourth album, “Led Zeppelin IV” (1971), without any words on the jacket. (The album is the band’s biggest seller and the fourth-biggest-selling album of all time.)

My affection for Led Zeppelin is limitless and somewhat irrational. I often say that my respect for the band’s music is mathematical: there are fewer bad songs on its eight studio albums than on anyone else’s. But such shaky calculations mask what is an involuntary response to the music. John Bonham played the drums as if the fate of the universe depended on how hard he could hit them; he could both dissolve a song and send it rocketing forward. Bonham played rope-a-dope with the clock: sometimes his accents arrive a tiny bit behind the beat; at others, they land a split second ahead. (If you can isolate Bonham’s placement of the hi-hat, kick drum, and cowbell on “Good Times, Bad Times”—never mind the tomtom rolls, themselves a prizeworthy achievement—you’ll have heard proof that 4/4 time is limiting only if you believe it is.) Page’s guitar playing was born during an era of British reverence for the American blues, but it went somewhere else entirely, drawing on acoustic English folk guitarists like Bert Jansch and on a battery of studio effects that made his work irreproducible and strange. Listen to Page’s sound on “Custard Pie,” a song from the 1975 album “Physical Graffiti” which was stitched together from a handful of famous blues numbers. Page, like many other rock guitarists, uses a Marshall amplifier, but the result is simultaneously nasty, small, and big, as though a tornado were happening inside a tin can. Jones, officially the band’s bassist, was equally skilled on the keyboards. The sepulchral electric piano chords that open “No Quarter,” from “Houses of the Holy” (1973), could be ambient music, and Jones’s electric-piano part on the heavy and freewheeling “Misty Mountain Hop,” from “Led Zeppelin IV,” makes the song sound like one extended bass line, though it contains no bass.

Plant is the member of the band who is most likely to be mocked. Those tight jeans! That long, unmanly hair! Those open shirts! Those operatic high notes! What a peacock! But his work is unique and unpredictable. His lyrics for Led Zeppelin were oddly eco-friendly—odes to ice, snow, trees, and England’s sylvan beauty (several songs were inspired by “The Lord of the Rings”)—and, in retrospect, his singing, which often sounded distinctly un-Western, seemed to anticipate the globalization of pop. This may be one reason that so many rock critics at first misunderstood Plant; his keening high notes make him sound more like a muezzin than like a blues singer, and his cackles and screeches don’t belong to any particular pop tradition. Since Led Zeppelin disbanded, Plant has remained active. He has released ten albums, including, in October, “Raising Sand,” a calm and gorgeous collection of country and R. & B. covers that he recorded with the singer Alison Krauss.

For Led Zeppelin, whose music is so rhythmic, hard, and loud, the perils of undertaking a reunion in late middle age are greater than they might be for, say, Bob Dylan or Neil Young, who began their careers sounding like old men. Led Zeppelin’s catalogue is in large part a testament to young men and their libidinal drive: lemons squeezed, inches of love delivered. (Plant, as he put it in the song “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do,” attended to women who wanted to “ball all day,” while Dylan sang about going his way while you went yours.) Still, it’s unlikely that you will see another band with a collective age of two hundred and twenty-four that is as ferocious as this one. (Page, the oldest member, is sixty-three; Jason Bonham, the youngest, is forty-one.)

The O2 Arena is not hospitable to amplified sound, and the audio quality depended largely on where you were sitting. From where I sat, fairly far from the stage, Plant seemed to be singing over a big muddle. Heard from the floor, the group sounded hard and coherent, and close to the stage the sound was fierce. Plant is no longer the priapic castrato (mull that one) that he once was—many of the songs were transposed down a few notes—but his charisma is undiminished. Before playing “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” from 1976, he joked that the band first heard the song performed at a Mississippi church in 1932. During another break, he noted that people from fifty countries had come to the show. “This is the fifty-first,” Plant said, as the band launched into “Kashmir,” from “Physical Graffiti,” the evening’s highlight.

“Kashmir” is as good an example as any of Zeppelin’s weird genius. The lumbering riff pits three guitar beats against two drumbeats, executing a Sisyphean march that cycles over and over without becoming tiresome; on the record, it is the shortest eight-and-a-half-minute song I know. Its minute-long breakdown is like one long drum sample, held together by the motion of John Bonham’s dancing right foot. (P. Diddy and Schoolly D have rapped over “Kashmir.”) The lyrics are allegedly inspired by the Sahara Desert—“the storm that leaves no trace”—and the combination of strings, guitar, and Mellotron keyboard has often been described as Middle Eastern. In concert, though, it became clear that “Middle Eastern” is just one way of capturing an implausibly big and eerie song that wanders through a spooky fog in enormous boots and could just as easily be about settling on the moon or diving to the bottom of the ocean.

Led Zeppelin version 2.0 did a magnificent job with it. Plant’s voice was rich and strong, and the mingling of Page’s guitar with Jones’s keyboards was thrilling. The distorted whine could have been a cue in a summer-blockbuster score, perhaps for the moment when the dragon decides to eat Baltimore. Jason Bonham is a fussier player than his father was, and a bit anxious for my taste, but he provided the necessary weight, in a song that could easily make an average drummer seem desperate.

There were several moments when Page’s complex compositions defeated him as a performer. “Stairway to Heaven” was one of the few numbers that never quite hung together, mostly because of the fast, tricky figures, which Page struggled to nail. (His inaccuracies have long been part of his charm.) On the recorded version, the transitions between the seven sections are metrically subtle and dramatically balanced—the song is famous for more than hedgerows—but at the O2 Arena the narrative line eluded the band. By contrast, the encore rendition of “Whole Lotta Love” (1969), a song not about making love but about fucking, was gloriously brutal and noisy. During the middle section, which expands into noise before the reprise of the main riff, Page played his guitar with a violin bow, unleashing a blizzard of sound that made the recorded version seem timid.

In November, the English rock band the Cult announced that it planned to tour in 2008 with a band whose name starts with an “l” and has a “z” in it, and rumors have floated that next summer Led Zeppelin is going to play at the Bonnaroo Music Festival, in Tennessee. This might seem like a good idea, but Led Zeppelin is a cover band now, covering its own material. Without John Bonham, the band can only sound like Led Zeppelin; it can’t be Led Zeppelin. The band should turn down the money and let its record stand. The failed gigs of the nineteen-eighties and nineties have been supplanted by a triumph, and the band should be pleased to have done Ertegun proud with such a spirited performance. I look forward to any chance I get to see Plant, Page, or Jones play live. But let the songs remain.

Stairway to Here
Led Zeppelin returns.
by Sasha Frere-Jones
December 24, 2007

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