Friday, September 7, 2012

There’s this English band called Led Zeppelin

Your local classic rock radio station is either playing one of their songs right now, has just finished playing it or will play it once "Hotel California" is over. The hard rock station up the dial is in the middle of a three-fer ("Rock and Roll," "Traveling Riverside Blues" and "The Ocean") and those sweaty old AOR dudes are going a bit deeper with "Down by the Seaside." Led Zeppelin is everywhere, and if you make it through a day without getting the Led out, intentionally or otherwise, then you either listen to too much NPR or you are deaf.

In 1968 (of course!), Jimmy Page brought his vision of a powerful Cream/Yardbirds noise behind a Steve Marriott/Joe Cocker howl to life—more or less with himself as the star. Writing credit! Bowed guitar! Beard phase! As musical director, Page wanted the songs (and, grouped together, the albums) to speak for our four pasty friends—it's funny to think that a bit of collage work on Led Zeppelin II generated the only front-cover appearance of the band members on any of their album sleeves, particularly considering they produced the most self-indulgent concert film in history at the height of their popularity. Still, their albums were albums, indivisible and complete listening experiences, "the true statement[s] of a group's work." (They released few singles because that would have misplaced the material, particularly if a record company were to chop the (now dated) middle section out of "Whole Lotta Love" in order to squeeze it onto a 45.) Love or hate their music/achievement/pervasiveness, you have to admire their principles (massive success eases things).

At least, you used to—they've since lightened up with several context-free compilations comprised of songs you hear all the time anyway. What's the point? (Money!) It's not quite selling out to Freedom Rock but it's not exactly turning your nose up at the fickle Rolling Stone scene either. Ignoring an album's artful, narrative transitions (not really), we now have:

Boxed Set (1990)
A fine collection I loved in high school. Very well organized—just about every song flows nicely into the next. Spread across four cassettes (or "compact discs") (or like a dozen LPs), it includes a few rarities and/or unreleased songs ("Traveling Riverside Blues" being the highlight, "Moby Dick/Bonzo's Montreux" being a waste of everyone's four minutes) and is a nice package, even though "Good Times Bad Times," the first song on their first album, is curiously absent.

Remasters (1990)
Released a month after the boxed set and I have no idea why. It's basically a stripped-down version containing all the popular stuff plus the aforementioned "Good Times Bad Times." I think Page literally forgot about that song when putting the box together.

Boxed Set 2 (1993)
2? Clever! Page's partnership with David Coverdale went nowhere fast, which makes that silly "merge" album cover even funnier. So he had the brilliant idea of putting out everything that didn't make it onto the first boxed set, including essential ball-munchers like "How Many More Times," "Bring It on Home" and "Out on the Tiles." It's actually a nice collection of deep cuts and includes the previously unreleased "Baby Come on Home," which I dig. Still, at this point why not just release–

The Complete Studio Recordings (1993)
Ah, Jimmy's already on it! Append all the rarities to Coda excepting the embarrassing "Moby Dick/Bonzo's Montreux" and call it a day. After that, feel free to re-release each remastered album individually and wait until whatever format follows compact discs to repackage everything.

The Best of Led Zeppelin, Vol. 1: Early Days (1999)
Or, essentially carve up Remasters into two halves. We're entering subjective territory here with the first use of "best."

The Best of Led Zeppelin, Vol. 2: Latter Days (2000)
Let's get nice and literal with those subtitles! "Kashmir" is on this. So did Mark Ratner just not have Led Zeppelin IV?

The Best of Led Zeppelin: Early Days and Latter Days (2002)
Volumes one and two summed as Volume Both. Remasters must have gone out of print—that's the only explanation—so let's see how many times we can make people pay for "Black Dog."

Mothership (2007)
Welcome to the MP3 era! You see, the mothership is a constructivist blimp or "Zeppelin" that once upon a time was responsible for those crop circles.

The Definitive Collection (2008)
For people who (1) forget they already bought the remastered individual albums or The Complete Studio Recordings fifteen years ago; (2) don't realize they can buy a remastered copy of The Song Remains the Same separately; and/or (3) prefer miniature replicas of LP sleeves for some reason. You can't even separate the seeds on those things!

I figure compilation number ten will hit any day now. It's been four years! They'll probably call it Some Large Aircraft, Shit, I Don't Know, Volume Whatever: Eat Another Slice of "All My Love" Because These Unicorns Shan't Feed Themselves. Clearly the world isn't crying for it. Again, what's the point of all this? (Money!) Does Page really care so much to attract new fans to "the best" of his band's output all in one place? And should we trust the man closest to the music to pick and choose for us?

Regardless, I will do the man's work for him. But rather than hit you with another predictable set or, more likely, a homemade playlist of my favorite Zeppelin tracks, I'm presenting the ten best moments from their official, active-band history—no outtakes or overdubbed BBC treatments released decades after they were recorded, just the proper discography: eight studio albums, one live double album, one exclusive B-side ("Hey Hey What Can I Do") and three Coda tracks ("Wearing and Tearing," "Darlene" and "Ozone Baby") that, according to Hammer of the Gods (reliable!), were considered for a post-In Through the Out Door EP release before Bonzo flew too close to the sun on wings of vomit.

Presenting: Rammer of the Broads.

10. "Good Times Bad Times" (2:00 – 2:30)
"Hello, my name is Jimmy Page and we are Led Zeppelin. This is what our better moments will sound like for a few years. You might get a nice little Jonesy bass riff followed by some of my double-tracked guitar, and Bobby Orgasm over here will ad lib a bit as we fade out. The monster in the back… erm, Bonzo… will provide solid drumming and creative fills but don't worry, my ego will tell him to knock that off before too long. Ginger Baker got center stage? I am the star of this show. Anyway, I'll give him a solo on the next album but that's it, heavy drumming by rote thereafter. For all I care he can take a frustrating decade to drink himself to death. Thank you."

9. "Misty Mountain Hop" (2:10 – 2:19)
Plant totally flubs the meter of the "There you sit…" lyric by not spacing out the syllables the way he does in the other verses. As a result, he finishes much too early and chooses to fill the silence with… strained silence, followed by a breathy, panicked I've-got-to-fill-this-silence yelp. For all their overwrought excess, hat's off to them for keeping the mistake—the rest of the take was too good to toss. Awfully punk rock for 1971 megastars.

8. "The Lemon Song" (4:33 – 5:05)
Plant lays out and the band jams a bit on some blues flavor. "Got tha flavah!" Jones is criticized for overplaying here but fuck that, he's got it going on. I'm taking off my shirt.

7. "The Crunge" (0:03 – 0:18)
Critics give them shit for including two "joke" tracks on Houses of the Holy between this and "D'yer Mak'er" but the opening drums-then-bass-then-guitar build-up is one of the absolute coolest things they ever did. Just ask Steinski!

6. "Nobody's Fault but Mine" (3:00 – 4:00)
Plant's redemption (via harmonica) after… oh wait, you haven't read "the worst of" yet. Spoiler! A total Yardbirds kind of rave-up, slightly overproduced but killer nonetheless.

5. "In the Light" (2:45 – 3:28)
I love that it takes three minutes for the real riff to kick in. I'm talking about the menacing one behind the vocal. I don't know what different parts of songs are called.

4. "Stairway to Heaven (live)" (4:13 – 4:20)
"Does anybody remember laughter??" The crowd cheers and whistles in assent: "I do, Robert! I remember laughter! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!" Nothing ruins a good live album like a goddamn audience. Thankfully this bunch mostly stays out of the way on The Song Remains the Same, unlike contemporary fanboys who think it's cool to sing along to "Jolene" and "Karma Police" as loudly as possible.

3. "Black Country Woman" (3:26 – 3:27)
Welcome back, Bonzo! You got fat.

2. "Tangerine" (2:24 – 3:08)
Beginning with Plant's droning "…betwee-ee-ee-een" but focusing on the guitar sound(s)—this is the only "acoustic" song on III I think they fully pull off, displaying a nice Byrds-ian country influence. My wife adores this one.

1. "How Many More Times" (0:00 – 8:28)
The entire song! Eight and one half minutes of career apex. Zeppelin never again fulfilled the brilliance of the end of their first album. To be exact:

1A. (0:34 – 0:37)
The riff around which the entire "How Many More Years"/"The Hunter" opus rallies. The greatest three seconds of your life, over and over.

1B. (1:19 – 1:21)
B-bash-bash! B-bash-bash!

1C. (3:07 – 3:38)
A fine shout-out to "Beck's Bolero" from '66 (featuring Page and Jones). The barely audible moan at the end of this stretch is Plant's finest contribution to the group.

1D. (5:47 – 6:38)
I could listen to the riff that kicks in at 6:08 for twenty-four straight hours. And the drumming? The drumming! I think Bonham misses the cymbals at 6:35 and compensates with a little fill. Remarkable. How did he become so mediocre after this album?

1E. (8:07 – 8:24)
"Let's add some phasing!"

1F. (8:25 – 8:26)
Orgasm. (Inferred.)

And there you have it: the best of Led Zeppelin, reduced to six minutes. You can listen to this whole playlist by the time your girlfriend gets back to the car. What is she doing in there, anyway?

I figure it's pretty obvious what my weak link is with these guys: amazingly, it's the singer. Two of the top moments above involve Plant. Two! His retroactive self-analysis (and admitted "I don't really know what I'm saying… but I'm having a good time!" on the BBC set) is correct in that a lot of the time he just couldn't stay out of the way. Nothing gets older more quickly than the guitar/vocal harmony he and Page worked out for the first album and perpetuated for a decade—the tiresome element there was not Page's distorto magic but rather Plant's plainly I-don't-know-what-else-to-do hollering. This guy is Led Zeppelin to a majority of fans. And sometimes he's just a lousy singer.

A band's best moments can only be measured against its worst. Therefore: Stammer of the Wads.

10. "Tea for One" (0:00 – 0:22)
I'm mad about the introduction here. Mad! Unfortunately it quits twenty-two seconds in and we get "Since I've Been Loving You (Part 2)" for the remaining nine minutes, joining Pink Floyd's "Let There Be More Light," Alice Cooper's "Under My Wheels," De La Soul's "DAISY Age" and the Voidoids' "Blank Generation" on the list of songs with excellent false beginnings. It's a good song but what a tease—air that groove out, baby!

9. "Immigrant Song" (1:50 – 1:53)
"Despite of all your losing." It's "despite" or "in spite of," not both! And we Americans get shit for fucking up the English language.

8. "The Crunge" (0:59 – 1:29)
Remember how much I liked the opening to this? What keeps it from being an all-time great is the godforsaken synthesized horn section. Did Sandy Denny break the bank? Just hire a couple of session hacks, you Led Wallet cheapskates!

7. "For Your Life" (3:55 – 4:16)
A good example of a Presence track that stuck around longer than it was welcome, though unlike "Nobody's Fault but Mine" I don't think "For Your Life" has any real worth. Page must have been desperate to fill out both sides of the LP—that sustained note before the (dull) cascading riff reeks of "OK, how long can I hold this before Jonesy walks out?" The solo's alright so I say move it up in the song and trim about two minutes of nonsense. Still a lame effort, but not lame enough to make my list.

6. "Ozone Baby" (3:01 – 3:07)
One of their supposed reactions to punk/new wave. No. This multi-(over)tracked vocal bit is pure chipmunk terror.

5. "Dancing Days" (0:00 – 0:17)
How did this keep the super-tight title track off of Houses of the Holy? Didn't they learn from 1968's exclusion of "Waiting for the Sun"? What a lazy bore. Nigel Williamson wrote The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin (enjoyable despite a share of factual errors) and spent half the book talking about how "Dancing Days" is the only thing keeping Houses of the Holy afloat. Whatever you say, Nigel.

4. "Thank You" (2:47 – 3:00)
This song got a surprisingly solid Humble Pie-esque rock treatment in a 1971 performance that was later included on BBC Sessions. Unfortunately the studio original is a lightweight affair until Jones fashions a nice coda out of what sounds like a toy organ. Otherwise it's all "Happiness, no more be sad… happiness, I'm glad." Skip James is rolling over in his grave.

3. "Going to California" (1:41 – 2:01)
"I think I might be sinking." You sure are, my man. Even muse Joni Mitchell is avoiding eye contact and she sings high-pitched crap about parking lots.

2. "The Song Remains the Same" (4:46 – 5:18)
Plant took what was supposed to be an instrumental and turned it into another one of his ridiculous don't-forget-about-the-singer trips. His recorded take must have accompanied the backing track too slowly or something because they had to speed up his vocals to sync it. The result is a shit sandwich on AIDS bread.

1. "Carouselambra" (7:05 – 7:23)
Yes. I wanted to break this song down the way I did "How Many More Times" but that joke's been done. It's been done! So I'm focusing on the awful disco synthesizer that stabs the life out of you one sixteenth note at a time. The antithesis of rock music.

Led Zeppelin? Yeah, outstanding. A lot to like on that first album, progressively less value after that until a slight uptick with Houses of the Holy and then a much sharper one with Physical Graffiti, but the wheels sort of fell off after that. Great musicians. Good but overbearing singer. Have you seen the bridge? What's to stop us? They are the soundtrack of your life whether you like it or not. That's gonna be the one, innit? The song you'll treasure from your youth is "Dazed and Confused." The song you'll long to hear upon your death is "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp." How did these not make the list?

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