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Led Zeppelin - What They Mean To Me
I haven’t had the talk yet with my son. What? Did you mean the sex talk? No no no… I mean the Led Zeppelin talk. Not just about how cool they were or whatever. But about what they represented. About how they destroyed the rules and took art to places where it had never traveled; even if we didn’t want to go there. It was way of living that refused to compromise and built upon the past to establish a new order for the future.
Led Zeppelin was a blues-based band as evidenced by many of their lyrical references and their musical style has been traced back to specific black blues musicians such as Willie Dixon, Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (from 1929!). They were accused of plagiarism and in the end they were forced to admit this to a certain extent. But in spite of the fact that they took ideas from the past they enhanced and embellished them to such a degree as to make the original idea virtually undetectable due to pure bombast and technique.
When Led Zeppelin was formed it was the melding of two highly-respected and seasoned musicians (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) with two ambitious but unknown players (Robert Plant and John Bonham). Page was the visionary for the band. It was his idea as far as the style (heavy-blues) and he spent time looking for the right talent to build on. At one point there was talk of Page, Keith Moon, John Entwistle and Jeff Beck joining forces but all these discussions led to was the legendary story that Keith Moon (or Entwistle) stated that it would all go down like a “lead balloon” hence the name Led Zeppelin.
I’ve read up on the history of the band and it is interesting to hear Page’s recollection of the first time he heard Robert Plant sing. I believe the term he used was “unnerving.” Supposedly Page was shocked that Plant was heretofore undiscovered and he saw in him the raw force needed to front the band. To me, bringing together artists such as this who were so uninhibited, fearless and willing to go for it in front of live audiences is one of the secrets to their success. This type of fearlessness requires much courage because we all know how it feels to stand up in front of a group of people and speak (even if we are reading from prepared remarks) yet Led Zeppelin reveled in their ability to improvise and shock the audience. They were supremely confident in what they were doing and were able to overcome those moments when they went off the rails.
What you have to understand when listening to their music is how the era at the time was coming off the domination of The Beatles and Bob Dylan who were not the prototypes for heavy music. Dylan was very thoughtful and while The Beatles were ground-breaking in their use of studio techniques they were still heavy into tight melodies, beautiful harmonies and sweet love songs. Groups such as The Kinks, Cream (Eric Clapton's band), The Who and others were turning up the volume but to me Led Zeppelin came in and crushed the remaining tradition of Penny Lane and Blowing in the Wind. The Beatles had quit touring and Dylan is not very charismatic as a live act but to me Led Zeppelin clearly represented the force of "performance art." Robert Plant stood out as the epitome of the cock-sure stud screaming what he would do to young girls in bed while Jimmy Page tore his guitar to shreds exploring every inch of it during long improvisational moments. John Bonham has been hailed as rock’s greatest drummer but in his style was two fists of fury that bludgeoned the drum kit in front of him. John Paul Jones is always an after-thought but in some ways he was the most talented of them all as he was a multi-instrumentalist (bass, hurdy-gurdy, recorder, mandelin, guitar, keyboards) and helped keep the band together during wild forays into the outer reaches of heavy metal exploration. So given all of this you can imagine the shock when the world was introduced to their first album. This contained such incredible moments of seminal music such as the guitar break in Dazed and Confused which to this day can almost make me feel the emotions because I know that history was being made and a million young boys would pick up guitars because of this dominating and uncompromising sound.
There is so much to say including my absolute love affair with Stairway to Heaven which was released when I was 13 years old. I probably played it five or six times in a row (on my turn table!) night after night until my mother would come in and ask me if there wasn’t anything else I could listen to. I would cry over it… it just got to me that much. But for me what I would say to my son is that the true meaning of the band is that you do not have to do things the way everyone tells you to do them. You can be different. You can be shocking. You can develop your ideas and yes it’s scary especially when nobody gets it. Led Zeppelin had the platform for success but they were savaged by the critics at times and they were human beings so it was not always easy for their own egos to shrug this off. But in the end the people got it and they loved them for it. For me and hopefully my son there is a lesson about being yourself and letting your art flow out of you the way it is for you. This helps me tremendously in my writing because I do not operate with rules or structure. I learned how to read and write just like Jimmy Page learned to play the blues. But the blues are highly restrictive and there were many purists back in the 60’s (Eric Clapton for instance) who wanted it to be faithful to the old blues masters. Well to me Shakespeare is Shakespeare. Even if I could write like that I would still want to be original. Even though there were other seminal performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard who reveled in shock, Led Zeppelin is all that to me because that is who I grew up with and "In the days of my youth" they were the one's who had the greatest impact.