Posts Tagged ‘Led Zeppelin’

Glyn Johns Sound Man

December 10th, 2014
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You have a music fan on your Christmas list, 60’s and 70’s rock mostly, and you’re looking for a book. Perhaps another crappy Brian Jones biography is what he needs. Or not. In reality, the only book you want to get your music lover this Christmas is Glyn Johns’ great autobiography, Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, The Faces . . .. I myself have purchased copies for two music fans on my list.

Johns’ started out as an Engineer in the very early days of rock and roll, engineering the earliest Stones and Who singles in London’s IBC studio, “which was without a doubt the finest independent recording studio in Europe at that time.” He got his first job at IBC out of school, strictly because his sister knew someone who worked there and he loved music. He started as a man Friday, setting up microphones, running cable and brewing tea. His first engineering job came as a result of a weekend session in 1964 by Georgie Fame, “Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo,” and nobody else wanting to do it. It’s success, and his age, meant that he was well placed for the rock and roll revolution that was just about to sweep London.

Sound Man isn’t a great book, though, just because Johns’ is the Forrest Gump of the British Invasion: he first heard Jimmy Page at a boys club talent show when they were both about 12, saw Jeff Beck in the Tridents, his pre-Yardbirds band, and lived with original Rolling Stone Ian Stewart (in fact, he and Stewart’s rented house was a gathering point for the very early Stones). Sound Man is also a book that sticks to the music. There is no chapter, no story in Sound Man that is not directly related to Johns’ career in music. There’s no grandpa Gus took me across the river for fish and chips stories here. Childhood stories are either of the church choir, a budding singing career or summers on a uncles farm, the uncle of whom was a guitar player and American folk music fan.

Similarly, Johns, who claims to have never done any drugs, never smoked a joint, keeps the stories of the musicians he worked with to musical ones. If he has various tales of debauchery, he keeps them to himself. But what a list of musicians he did work with:

The Kinks (All Day and All of the Night/I Gotta Move, and You Really Got Me/It’s All Right)
The Rolling Stones ( from 1965’s December’s Children (And Everybody’s) to 1975’s Black and Blue)
The Pretty Things
Davy Jones
The Small Faces and The Faces
Led Zeppelin (the first album)
Manfred Mann
Marianne Faithfull
Spooky Tooth
Procol Harum
The Steve Miller Band
The Beatles
Joe Cocker
Humble Pie
The Eagles
The Who

That’s the partial list.

When I had to choose a Christmas present for music fans on my list, I chose Sound Man by Glyn Johns. It’s the best music book I’ve read in a long time.

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Review: Robert Plant The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin by Dave Thompson

November 9th, 2014

It came up last Christmas, one of my guests asked the question that comes up too often: “What the hell is wrong with Robert Plant? Why won’t he do a Led Zeppelin reunion?” It seems so easy, just sing the old songs, make a big pile of money and everybody gets to go away happy. So why won’t he do it? It doesn’t help that Plant tends to answer the question with a series of non-sequiturs: I don’t want to be singing cabaret; I want to move forward with new material – even as he spreads the old liberally through his set lists &tc.

In his new book, Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelinby Dave Thompson looks at Plant and examines the man through the lens of his history, and the effect it has on Plant today. There are two major events in the Plant narrative, the death of his son Karac in 1977 and the death of his best friend from youth, whom he brought into Led Zeppelin, John Bonham.

On Karac Thompson writes:

His (Plant’s) lifestyle, he knew, had already placed his marriage under incredible strain—the months he spent away touring, leaving Maureen to raise two children on her own. Now there was just one, and Plant could not help but wonder whether things might have been different if he had been at home.

and on John Bonham:

It was John Bonham who sat next to him on the hastily arranged flight back to London, and then for the drive up to the farm. There the boy was buried, at a funeral where Bonham was the only one of the singer’s bandmates or management to even bother attending… Now, the very person who had stood alongside him throughout that terrible night, providing much of the glue with which he repaired his shattered psyche, had himself been taken away.

Those two quotes represent, as much as anything does, the thesis of The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin. Those two events, presented as they are above, explain so much about Plant’s decisions, including the one not to re-unite Led Zeppelin in any long-term way. Thompson delves into what makes Plant tick far more deeply than into what Plant does or says, using the former to explain the latter. It’s a good thing that he does such a good job of examining Plant the person, because he gets far too many of his facts wrong.

Details like what year Page and Plant played Glastonbury, what they played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction or the heretofore unheard claim that Yardbirds bassist Chris Dreja actually rehearsed with Plant, Page and John Bonham before turning down the job of bassist in Led Zeppelin and John Paul Jones was brought on board. Furthermore some of his opinion statements, such as the tone of Zeppelin’s songs come from Plant’s lyrics or that the last five albums in Plant’s career – Dreamland to lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar – are the best set of five he has done, including say Led Zeppelin II through Physical Graffiti, are laughable.

But Thompson isn’t after the facts of the case, so much as explaining Plant through the lens of those facts. The fact he got a date wrong here, a song wrong there doesn’t do unrepairable damage to the book. Neither does the obvious fact that Thompson’s trying, for reasons unknown, to tear down the mythology of Led Zeppelin and raise the myth of Robert Plant in it’s place.

In fact, Thompson’s conversational writing style, of which I have been a fan for a long time, makes The Voice that Sailed the Zeppelin a thoroughly enjoyable read. I did not always agree with Thompson, and he gets some of the basics wrong, but Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin by Dave Thompson is one of my favourite of the Led Zeppelin books out there. It’s well worth the read.

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Led Zeppelin: Remasters Round Two

October 28th, 2014
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Today see’s the release of the Led Zeppelin IVand Houses Of The Holyremasters, complete with bonus material, here in North America. The remastered albums have been available as Mastered for iTunes for some time now, so I will reserve comment on their quality besides saying, the iTunes versions are excellent. Otherwise, if you have a chance to hear the CD or LP versions, there’s no reason to believe they won’t also be top notch (and certainly I felt Led Zeppelin, II and III all were).

The bonus material, available on the Deluxe Editions, however, gives us fodder for real discussion. Unlike the third album, which had Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind, there is nothing new in the bonus material, nor is there any live material like we saw on the first album. Both IV and Houses of the Holy’s bonus discs are presented as the complete album, with alternate versions, alternate mixes and instrumental versions of the songs.

In February 1971, Jimmy Page and engineer Andy Johns travelled to Los Angeles, master tapes for the fourth album handcuffed to Page (note: kidding), to master the album that would become what many consider Led Zeppelin’s most astonishing moment. He took the tapes to Sunset Sound Studios, where the state of the art studio was booked for mastering of the tapes. Job done, he returned to London and settled into Island Studios with his bandmates to play the new album: the sound was a disappointing mess. No one seems sure what happened, but it appears the equipment at Island couldn’t handle the more sophisticated mastering done at Sunset Sound, and Page returned to the Island Studio to re-master the songs yet again. Of the eight songs on the final album, seven of them were from the London mixes. Only When The Levee Breaks survived from the California mixes.

Of the bonus material on Led Zeppelin IV,the alternate mix of Stairway to Heaven from the Sunset Sound Studios session, and When the Levee Breaks from the London remixing appear. Other alternate mixes from unknown sources are Four Sticks, Rock and Roll and Misty Mountain Hop. Misty Mountain Hop shines the most, with a John Bonham count-in and a much more live sound, the song comes alive in a way it never really did before. When the Levee Breaks is also noticeably different, although not for the better. While Four Sticks sounds more live, wetter in audio geek parlance, Levee is much drier, that famed drum sound somewhat diminished in the mixing. They made the right choice going with the Sunset Sound Studio mix on this song. If we were hearing that mix, that drum sound for the first time here, now, it would be all that anyone would be talking about.

Rock and Roll and Stairway to Heaven on the other hand, have barely noticeable differences. The guitar is a little down in the mix here, the voice up there. Yes, the recorders are definitely louder, but not so much that most people would notice if they didn’t know. On the other hand, Black Dog (Basic Track with Guitar Overdubs) is an alternate take, and while the differences are subtle, at least until the ah-ha’s when a Plant adds a harmony vocal. It doesn’t work actually, sounds too much like that guy beside you at the concert singing along with the band, but you can hear them trying something. Besides, Plant’s ad-lib on the outro is outstanding.

Instrumental mixes of Going to California and Battle of Evermore are interesting, but the repetitive nature of those songs means it’s not something you would listen to more than a few times. While not something you might throw on in the car on your way home from work, throwing the LP on the turntable with a good whiskeywould make for an enjoyable hour on a Friday night.

On Houses Of The HolyLed Zeppelin’s songwriting really grew. Instead of writing pop songs, they were composing music in a rock vein. This becomes evident on the instrumental versions on the Deluxe Edition on this release. The Song Remains the Same is an interesting song unto itself without vocals. And while Over The Hills and Far Away still has it’s repetition, the “guitar mix backing track” is enjoyable. The guitar solo being a little higher in the mix is an added bonus. No Quarter is, again, a complete composition sans vocals, working perfectly as an instrumental composition. What you quickly hear is that Robert Plant was not necessary to either No Quarter or The Song Remains the Same, but manages to put together a performance that adds to the whole of the piece (although a reasonable argument could be made that The Song Remains the Same is a better song as an instrumental than with his speeded up chipmunk vocal added as on the album).

The Rain Song (mix minus piano) baffles me slightly, but only because I can’t detect the difference between the original and this one. The Crunge (rough mix – keys up), Dancing Days (Rough Mix with Vocal) and The Ocean (Working Mix) are the same. Detecting what may be different (no count in on The Ocean for example) could be a game unto itself. So while there’s nothing exciting in the remaining bonus tracks (and no D’Yer Mak’er at all), added in with the three instrumentals you get an idea of what this album could have been like. And in fact, Jimmy Page’s original idea was to start it off with The Song Remains the Same as an instrumental (in fact, it was originally called Overture) that connected to The Rain Song.

What you get from the Houses Of The Holy bonus disk is that it could have been a better album. So far, of all the bonus disks, this may be the only one I play on a regular basis instead of the original album.

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John Bonham at the Speed of Sound

October 21st, 2014

Much like Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney has been re-releaasing the wings catalogue, with upgraded remastering and bonus material. One such bonus item comes from Wings at the Speed of Sound: Beware My Love with John Bonham on the drums.

Bonham played on the session for Beware My Love, but the track that made it to album was one that was done without John Bonham. The Bonham track was not known to exist before this past June, when McCartney announced it would be on the deluxe edition of Speed of Sound.

Yesterday, McCartney pre-released Beware My Love (John Bonham Version) on iTunes. It is, as of yet, not available for download from Amazon, but surely that is coming.

The full Wings At The Speed Of Sound will be available November 4th.

via Ramble On Radio

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The Freedom of Music: Re-discovering Zep

October 28th, 2012

The Freedom of Music: I Don’t Do Lists

October 7th, 2012


One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

“Do you think you could make him a list of bands and songs from the 70’s to listen to?”

My daughter is asking on behalf of her boyfriend, who is a Stones fan, “but he’s not into Zeppelin,” and wants to expand his musical horizons. Well, besides the fact I don’t really do lists and I consider anybody who’s “not into Zeppelin” beyond hope, sure.sidebar-4

For starters, any fan of 70’s era Stones should check out The Faces. The two groups sound, at times, remarkably alike, yet you would never mistake one for the other. Get their greatest hits album, “a nods as good as a wink….” and check out Stay With Me, Three Button Hand Me Down and Ooh La La.

As well, never ignore the albums when talking about 60’s and 70’s music. If you are a Stones fan based on any number of their hits, know that buried on the albums are songs you have never heard but are great. Pick your favourite Stones songs, and listen to the albums they came off. Chances are you’ll find songs you’ll like, and possibly whole album sides that just seem perfect (yes sides: the artists thought in terms of sides – not songs, not albums – and they are the way to approach the music of the era)

Working backwards from the 70’s, The Stones and Yardbirds both came from the same place, The Crawdaddy Club of the early 60’s. Each went in different directions, but they started at the same place. So too shall we.

The early Yardbirds is the thing, that Clapton stuff, and moving into the Jeff Beck years. Five Live Yardbirds to start, and then a greatest hits package of some sort. Branching out, check out the individual guitarists post-Yardbirds careers: Clapton with Cream, Derek and the Dominoes and his early solo work; The Jeff Beck Group (featuring pre-Faces Rod Stewart); and of course – you knew I had to get here – Led Zeppelin.

Now I know, not a Led Zeppelin fan, he’s heard them before and found them wanting &tc. But discussing the era without discussing Led Zeppelin is like not discussing The Stones or The Who. It’s an incomplete conversation. Everybody knows some Led Zeppelin songs, and judgement can be clouded by an incomplete picture of a band that played such a variety of music. Here’s what you do. Listen to, in order, Led Zeppelin I side 2 – the blues album; Led Zeppelin II, side 1, the heavy metal album; Led Zeppelin III side 2, the acoustic album; Led Zeppelin IV, side 1, the masterpiece.

Here’s the logic. After The Yardbirds, Cream and The Jeff Beck Group, the first album is in context. It’s their blues album, but side 2 will surprise you with the almost pop sounding You Time is Gonna Come, the acoustic solo Black Mountain Side, the pre-punk Communication Breakdown, Old Willie Dixon blues on I Can’t Quit You Baby and the jam How Many More Times. It has a little of everything, and turning the album over just to hear Good Times, Bad Times and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You will be a revelation.

The second album is their road album, and if Led Zeppelin invented heavy metal (they didn’t, and it’s an awful description of them as a band), II is when they did so. That in, everything you ever wanted to know about Led Zeppelin is in the first two songs of Led Zeppelin II. Whole Lotta Love, the supposed birthplace of heavy metal and What is and What Should Never Be, sweet ballad turned hard rocker in the chorus. They may not have invented heavy metal, but they did invent the heavy metal ballad with What is… The slide solo alone is worth listening to this album for.

The third album, written at a rustic cabin in the Welsh countryside, is everything Led Zeppelin is not supposed to be. Side two will literally shock the person who thinks they know Led Zeppelin but have never heard this. Four acoustic songs, each one completely different, yet not an electric guitar to be found. They return to the blues on the last song but it’s probably worth skipping until you’ve listened to the first four songs enough times to a) love them and b) wonder what the hell they are about. My favourite album side as a teenager, and still one that mesmerizes me.

Finally four, the masterwork. You know the songs on side one, but hearing them in context improves them. The sound of needle on vinyl (yes, listen to the records if you can – just ask first and put the damn things away when your done) a quiet E string being played in the open position, and then, all on his own Robert Plant, bel canto, singing on of the great opening lines:

Hey hey mama said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.

How can you not like that? It’s immediately followed up with Rock and Roll, Zeppelin’s answer to critics who said they had gone soft after the second side of the third album. If you can take it up a notch from Black Dog, they do. And then, the greatest 14 minutes in rock and roll: The Battle of Evermore/Stairway to Heaven: Prelude and Masterpiece. Everybody has heard Stairway to Heaven in isolation, or at dance’s end after Play the Funky Music and Night Fever, or on the radio in a set with Hell’s Bells and Let it Be, and it loses something. But the pastural intro to Stairway in the shadow of the war ballad of Battle of Evermore gives it an entirely new feel. Oh and by the way, here’s why Led Zeppelin are the greatest band ever. That slide solo in What is…, Page gets the sweetest sound using an electric guitar and a distortion pedal yet in Battle of Evermore they convincingly create a massive sounding war song with 2 mandolins and an acoustic guitar. Nobody else can do that, and they do it while creating emotional intensity. Stairway ends side 1 ends the way Black Dog began it, Robert Plant singing a cappella – because when I tell you the artists thought in sides, I wasn’t kidding.

So that’s Led Zeppelin, and hour and a half spent investigating some of the greatest music ever. If you’ve followed the directions and still don’t really like Led Zeppelin, well then find someone else’s daughter to date, ’cause there’s not much hope for you. But at least everything else you listen to from the decade will have the appropriate context.

Moving on, but staying ever so briefly with the Stones offshoots, Aerosmith took influence from all of The Yardbirds, The Stones, Led Zeppelin and, as I’ve argued before, The Faces. Forget everything since they’ve reformed in the 1980’s, forget that Stephen Tyler loses credibility with every TMZ day, Aerosmith’s 70’s stuff is good to great. Start with the greatest hits if you must, but hit the albums too. The hits, Walk This Way, Sweet Emotion, Dream On are all excellent. But in the albums are some stellar tracks: Mama Kin, The Yardbird’s Train Kept a Rollin, Same Old Song and Dance.

In 1981 the Rolling Stones where playing locally at Buffalo. Opening that day at Ralph Wilson Stadium was a guy the rumoured to have been readied to step in and take over for Ron Wood if he was unable to continue, which seemed possible. Reportedly the only artist Bill Wyman would ask for an autograph over the Stones long career, the guys in the Stones where George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers fans, so shouldn’t a Rolling Stones fan be too? Start at the beginning, with One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer. If you can’t recite the line “I know, everybody funny, now you funny too,” with confidence, you really don’t get rock’n’roll.

Also on the act that day, Foghat. Try them out, and their British counterparts (I know, Foghat are British, but their success was in the US), Status Quo.

Leaving the Stones influence behind, there’s almost too much music, too many bands of the era. In some cases whole repertoires should be explored, in others, a song or two. In most cases, I’ll discuss and album or album side.

The Beatles: Since we are discussing the era of the late 60’s early 70’s, explore at your leisure the later Beatles. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR. There’s a lot of good rock music in there between John Lennon’s experiments in avant-garde and Paul McCartney’s soppy ballads. You’ll find stuff you like, including possibly some ballads and avand-garde.

Also, the solo Beatles is good. To me, Paul McCartney’s best work, ever, was his early Wings stuff – Band on the Run and Venus and Mars. Also his first few solo albums, including the song Maybe I’m Amazed. Lennon’s solo work is also good, sometimes great. Everyone knows Imagine, but Jealous Guy, Whatever Gets You Through The Night, Watching the Wheels and Woman are all excellent. George was the underrated Beatle, and he proves it in his solo work. His first post-Beatles work is All Things Must Pass and it has My Sweet Lord and What is Life. But pick up his greatest hits and find out how good he is. Then get Somewhere in England, or at least the song All Those Years Ago and hear his tribute to John Lennon, who was killed the year before. Most people don’t know that Ringo had a fairly good solo career, and his greatest hits album is full of fun little pop songs that are a perfect way to waste an afternoon.

The Who also fall into the must listen category. Considered one of, if not the most exciting live act of the time, the Who’s work spans the decades. From the 60’s, grab their greatest hits album, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, as well as their live album Live at Leeds. For sport, imagine seeing The Who, playing as good as they do at Leeds, playing your university.

In the 70’s, check out Who’s Next. You know all the songs anyway, from the CSI intros, but listen to them in their entirety, in context. In the 80’s the post-Kieth Moon Who had former Faces drummer Kenny Jones keeping beat, and they released a couple of good albums, 1981’s Face Dances and 1982’s It’s Hard. Check them both out, including You Better You Bet, Athena, Eminence Front and John Entwistle’s ironic rocker, The Quiet One.

How’s that fro a start? There’s your homework, and there’s enough there to keep you too busy to be bothering my daughter. And when your done that, we’ll move on to individual songs you should be listening too.

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Fluffernutter Friday

September 14th, 2012
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It’s been a big week for us Led Zeppelin fans, with an announcement of the 2007 reunion concert at the O2 arena being released on “multiple platforms,” meaning DVD, Bluray, CD and, hopefully, vinyl. Here’s the trailer for the movie, which will be at a theatre near you:

They are also showing the concert in theatres across the fruited plain. Here’s a widget to help you find a theatre near you.

In other news, the rumour mill is churning on George Clooney who, according to reports, has split from his ex-wrestler girlfriend Stacy Keibler. Clooney denies the reports.

Here’s the gorgeous Ms. Keibler at The Palladium Jewelry By Jacob & Co. Launch Celebration yesterday.


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Fluffernutter Friday

May 18th, 2012
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RIP to Donna Summer, Queen of Disco, who passed yesterday after a battle with cancer.

Meanwhile Kristen Stewart stepped out London this week to promote her new movie, Snow White and the Huntsman, wearing Led Zeppelin.


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The Freedom of Music: No Regrets

November 27th, 2011
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

In 1979 I was visiting Belfast. During the trip I was at an old neighbor’s house. Their son, a few years my senior, was in University in England. He had to quit his band, he explained to me, when he left for school. sidebar-1

Stiff Little Fingers are more influential than they are popular – Green Day, among others, cite them as an influence – at least here in America. But the band would release four albums before dis-banding in 1983, and have released a number more since they reformed in 1988.

My old neighbor? He’s another middle aged guy with a job. I haven’t seen him in over 30 years, and I don’t know if he has any regrets, but I’d be willing to bet that on pub nights, he tells the boys over pints of bitter that he used to be in Stiff Little Fingers.

Terry Reid is an English singer. Recently interviewed at his Florida home, the still active performer said he had no regrets. Having had a career that had saw him eventually landing in Florida with enough assets to buy a home, that seems logical enough. What would Terry Reid have to regret?

In 1968 Jimmy Page was forming a new band in the aftermath of the Yardbirds breaking up. He had an idea for a singer, a guy who could powerfully belt out the blues, Terry Reid. Reid had some recent commitments and a reasonable prospect of success on his own, so he respectfully declined. He did, however, know of a bloke, Robert Plant.

If Reid really has no regrets about declining the gig as lead singer of Led Zeppelin, then he’s a fool. Here’s the lesson to take from the Terry Reid story: always demand a finders fee of 1 point on every album sold.

At least my Irish friend and Terry Reid made their choices. Not so Pete Best.

Best had the bad fortune of being the dues paying drummer in a nothing band called The Quarrymen, who got the boot just before they became The Beatles. On the verge of a record deal, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison were told your drummer isn’t good enough. Out went Best, in came Ringo Starr.

If you think, well you can’t spend your life worrying about what might have been, consider this. Ringo Starr backstopped The Beatles for seven years, had one of his songs turned into a movie, another into a TV show. By the time The Beatles broke up he was very wealthy. He then had a reasonably successful solo career and developed and starred in a little TV show called Thomas the Tank Engine. For the last 22 years he has spent the summers touring with the Ringo Starr All Star Band, featuring an ever changing cast of the worlds best musicians. Oh yea, he married a Bond Girl.

It’s easy to say no point worrying over what might have been, but your life was never going to the one Ringo Starr got.

Pete Best, who turned 70 last Thursday (and many happy returns to him), has said in past interviews he too has no regrets, that he’s lived a good life and wouldn’t trade any of it. Fair enough, but as his 70th birthday passed, do you suppose somewhere deep in his being a little voice said, “just let me outlive that bastard Ringo Starr!”? He who gets the last laugh, and all that.

Still, some last laughs are louder than others, wouldn’t you think.

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November 8th, 2011
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If you came of age in the mid-1970’s, as I did, Led Zeppelin IV (aka ZOSO) was always there. You go to the carnival, and the Tilt-a-Whirl guy is blasting Rock and Roll, Black Dog and When the Levee Breaks. Guys driving down the street would be blasting it out of their 8-track player. You didn’t hear it for the first time, you absorbed it over time.

IV wasn’t even the first Zeppelin album I found and loved. That honour would fall to their third album, which I “borrowed” from my older brother on such a regular basis he bought me my own copy for Christmas the next year.

The follow up fourth album soon joined III as a staple of my record player. Mostly side one, it has to be confessed, for the obvious reasons. Frankly, song  for song, I’ll still take side one even now, with the exception of When the Levee Breaks which may be my favourite song on the album.

Everybody has favourites, and most Zeppelin fans will probably chose an album other than IV as their’s. But make no mistake, none will deny the greatness of Led Zeppelin IV. From song 1 to song 8, it contains no flaws, no misses. And in fact, in age when artists worried about the flow of the entire album, IV has two very different, but flawless sides, and still works as a complete unit. In other words, whether you throw on side 1, side 2 or the good old standby, 8-track and hear the whole thing through, it works.

But it’s still the songs that make the album, and IV features Led Zeppelin at their best. Rock and Roll, the bands answer to critics who said they had gone soft. Black Dog, a unique call and response style song unlike anything recorded before or since.

Battle of Evermore, the prelude to Stairway: Angry Hobbits with mandolins. Page and Jones, with just mandolins, acoustic guitar and, reportedly, a Dulcimer make the earth shake. Stairway to Heaven, in the aftermath of Battle of Evermore is like the dawn after battle. It’s message of hope in direct conflict with Evermore’s war call. Stairway to Heaven, the song that ended a thousand dances, more of a ritual than a rock song.

Side 2, if your using old school formats like me (or actually track 3 and 4, which is how I have listened to IV the last few times I’ve had it on), starts with the albums two weakest songs. Misty Mountain Hop, the hippy anthem. This falls in the category of second tier Zeppelin songs that prove just how good Zeppelin was. Four Sticks is a drum driven song with rather complex time structure. Again, most bands would kill to have this song in their repertoire, for Led Zeppelin in 1971, it was weak.

Going to California is the ultimate Zeppelin folk song. They had done folk before, had built the third album around folk songs, but Going to California trumps them all. Give Led Zeppelin acoustic guitars and mandolins and they were still the best rock band in the world, and Going to California is exhibit A.

Finally, the tour de force. Of all the songs on Led Zeppelin IV, When the Levee Breaks may have aged the most gracefully, which is odd considering it has all the grace of a charging Rhino. Built around John Bonham’s great drum pattern, the most sampled drum pattern in all of rap, Zeppelin rolls for 7 minutes of chicago blues like no other. It is pure driving rock yet, thanks to Bonham, swings like an old soul song.

Left off the album destined to  appear on 1975’s Physical Graffiti, the songs Night Flight, Down By the Seaside and Boogie With Stu. Those three songs, the afterthoughts, those are a career for some bands.

Forty years ago today, November 8, 1971 Led Zeppelin IV was released. It  may have been the best album of the rock era, yet not Led Zeppelin best album. It is good enough to be called that, and Zeppelin good enough to transcend it.


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The Freedom of Music: My Name is Brian, and I am a Music Fan

July 17th, 2011


One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

My name is Brian, and I am a music fan.

sidebar-2I was sitting in the back of Dad’s Grand Torino, my turn on the bump. It was family vacation time and we travelled three days to Myrtle Beach or Virginia Beach or Florida – I don’t recall which it was this given time. Dad ran out of lousy radio stations to listen to, and elected a top 40 one. BTO’s Takin’ Care of Business came on, and I was transfixed. I had two immediate responses to that first hit: Where do I get more of this and I how do I do that. For the next few years I bought BTO albums and singles with abandon, saw them in concert and read about them, including doing something unheard of in my young life, I read books about them. Once I had the albums and singles I moved backward to The Guess Who and Brave Belt, the band that history forgets gate-wayed into BTO.

By the time I learnt Takin’ Care of Business on guitar a few years later, I had progressed, The Beatles, Elton John, Kiss. There was always something else to try, always something harder. One time at a party someone put on Pink Floyd. It was otherworldly. Listen to it on the headphones, he said. What was this? How was this possible?

Then came the Zep. Heavier than anyone else dared to be on the Immigrant Song. But they had a light touch, and That’s the Way was both beautiful and sad. It spoke to me, yet I had no clue what it was saying (still don’t actually). The sublime blues of Since I’ve Been Loving You, a master guitar player at work; the careless fun of Rock and Roll and Robert Plant at full throttle on Black Dog; Battle of Evermore was middle earth meets middle 70’s (well, 1971); Kashmir, majestic and proud.

Once the studio material had been ingested, the live material, the hard stuff, came. Celebration Day, The Song Remains the Same, Whole Lotta Love complete with theramin and the tribute to 50’s rock and roll . A BBC Radio Broadcast gave Page playing a supple slide solo on What is and What Should Never Be. Led Zeppelin was a wonderful, dark mistress.

Soon I would be wearing the dress of a Led Zeppelin fan, Blue Jeans, Blue Jean Jacket, Blue or Black t-shirt, white running shoes with blue stripes. Then I would cut my hair in the approved fashion, which is to say, not at all. Being a music fan, a Led Zeppelin fan first, but any rock music would do in a pinch, that became my raison d’être.

My name is Brian, and I am a music fan.

So when I heard this week about Roger Tullgren, the Swedish Heavy Metal fan who is on income supplement benefits and listed as disabled because of his music addiction, I understood. Roger’s vice is heavy metal, starting in 1971 when his brother brought home a Black Sabbath album.

Roger, it seems, is stuck in his formitive years. He keeps his hair heavy metal long, has heavy metal appropriate tattoo’s and misses work for concerts. So the Swedish authorities granted him disabled status, meaning he now gets income supplement from the state – No word as yet on the disabled parking permit.

While music has remained a vital part of my life, Roger seems much farther gone than I. Roger keeps his hair heavy metal, I never managed to keep any hair. I try not to dress the same way, although I default to jeans and dark t-shirt far too often. But still, I listen to music in the car, at home and at work. I play in a band, which means I have a guitar or mandolin or some other in my hand some part of pretty much every day. When I surf the internet, I am often looking at some music website or another, and a good portion of my reading list is music books or books on music.

My name is Brian, and I am a music fan.

“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Rob Gordon asks in High Fidelity. High Fidelity is a movie/book in which the central question is, are you what you like? As Rob ridiculously says at one point, “Liking both Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel is like supporting both the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Perhaps music is too important to the Rob Gordon’s of the world. But one of the lessons Rob learns is it is possible to like someone who has Phil Collins CDs in their collection – a message that surprised me, I must say. It seems obvious, however. You may be defined by what you like, but are not what you like. That’s what Roger Tullgren missed. He is not a screw up who can’t commit to being an adult because he’s a heavy metal fan, that’s just who he is. It could be ballet, or modern dance or cricket, but Roger was always going to be a screw up. Heavy metal is the excuse, not the reason.

Lot’s of 42 year olds still have long hair and some skull and crossbones tattoo. Lots of them go to concerts regularly, make the devil sign when they like something, wear leather jackets and play in a band. Lots of people do all that and have good jobs, wives and kids hockey games which they go to. You can be both guys.

My name is Brian, and I am a music fan… among other things.

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Cool for Cats Friday: What is and What Should Never Be

May 20th, 2011
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Haley Reinhart got voted off American Idol this week after performing Led Zeppelin’s What is and What Should Never Be. Conventional wisdom is she lost out because she slipped and fell on the stairs while performing. I say, it’s because she cut the slide solo out of the song – although in fairness, Jimmy Page is a much better guitar player than Haley Reinhart’s dad.

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The Freedom of Music: Presence 35 Years On

April 10th, 2011


One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

“Their first two albums are OK,” said Rick, a casual friend who was older and patiently explaining Led Zeppelin to me. “3 is great, 4 is the best, the next two good as well.”

It was 1980, and I had just mentioned that Led Zeppelin where the greatest band in the world. “Presence is crap, In Through The Out Door I never even bothered listening too.”imgp1295

I cringed. “I’m not so sure about Presence being crap,” I said.

“Don’t tell me I don’t understand it,” he interrupted me sharply. “I was there, I bought it on the first day. I understand it, and it’s crap.”

The fact is, it’s not that I disagreed with him, but I didn’t agree either. “I wasn’t going to say that,” I answered him defensively. “I don’t really like it either, but off hand, I don’t know why I don’t like it.”

It was as true as far as it goes. Why didn’t I like it? I couldn’t think of a song I didn’t like. Sure Achilles Last Stand was 10 minutes long, and who did 10 minute songs anymore? So too was Tea For One, which was a pale imitation of Since I’ve Been Loving You anyway. For Your Life was a hard song to grasp: it was heavy handed with lots of stops and time changes throughout.

On the other hand Royal Orleans is a great rocker, Hots on for Nowhere and Candy Store Rock are both good fun rock and roll. And Nobody’s Fault But Mine was destined to be a classic, that was obvious even then.

So why the ambivalence? What’s not to like?

I suspect the answer is that Presence was a dark album. It was heavy not musically, but in character. It weighed on you, almost oppressively. That means, I’m sorry to say Rick, that if you don’t understand it, you will never get it.

Presence, however, has aged well. Knowing what we know now, the darkness that was beginning to surround that band, it’s easier to understand Presence. No longer being affected by current styles, the length of a song is not so important. Thus, we return to the point, what’s not to like?

Achilles Last Stand is an epic masterwork: Jimmy Page at his very best, both creatively and as a guitar player. His layered lines, chromatic runs and one of the best guitar solos of all time all contribute. The unbelievable rhythm section, Jones and Bonham simply pounding behind Page’s layers, is a tour de force. Lyrically, Achilles Last Stand is brilliant. Robert Plant’s sense of humour, which baffles and frustrates fans to this day, is all over this elegant and poetic opus.

The year before Presence had been a tough one for Led Zeppelin. Their 1975 American tour didn’t go as well as hoped, drugs had crept into the Zeppelin family and were taking their toll. From the balcony of the Hyatt House hotel in Los Angeles, Plant yelled out during a photo shoot, “I am a golden God.” The remark was well reported and much maligned. After returning in triumph to England with five nights at the Royal Albert Hall, Plant had a car accident on vacation in Greece. He suffered a severely broken ankle while his wife suffered life threatening injuries. That’s the backstory behind Achilles Last Stand, Plant’s ode to himself, the golden God with the broken ankle.

For Your Life is, as noted earlier, a musically complex song. Stops and starts with time changes throughout, set to a dirge tempo that makes it ponderously heavy. It is a hard song to like: not a bad song, possibly even a great song, but inaccessible on casual listening. A song about drug addiction, couched in Plant’s more usual sexual innuendo, it is a song that reveals itself upon repetitive listening.

For it’s heaviness, Presence has a group of songs that are almost pop. Heavy handed and demanding, yes, but with definite pop sensibilities. Royal Orleans, about bassist John Paul Jones encounter with a transvestite at the Royal Orleans Hotel in New Orleans is the first of these. The other two, Candy Store Rock and Hots on for Nowhere center the second side. Candy Store Rock is a 50’s style straight up rock and roll number. Hots on for Nowhere features one of my favorite lines in a Led Zeppelin song:

(On the) corner of Bleeker and nowhere,
In the land of not quite day…

Every time I go to New York, I can’t help wandering down to Bleeker Street and singing this line to myself.

Those two songs are sandwiched between some standard blues, Nobody’s Fault But Mine and Tea for One. Tea for One is an original Led Zeppelin slow blues in the style of Since I’ve Been Loving You. Written by Plant in a New York hotel while on tour, Tea for One has a literal meaning: the lonely Plant, away from his family.

Nobody’s Fault But Mine is an old blues that has been covered by many artists since the 1960s. Other than the title and lyrics, Led Zeppelin’s version is unrecognizable as the original.

Presence, the first Led Zeppelin album without an acoustic guitar son, was a backwards album for Led Zeppelin. When it was released 35 years ago this week, the critics liked it, the fans less so. Every previous Led Zeppelin album had been received opposite to that: loved by the fans, hated by critics.

It has also aged very well, improving on listening through the years. A powerful, dynamic album, it was Led Zeppelin at their best. It has aged well and has become over the years, my personal favourite Led Zeppelin album.

No Rick, it is not crap and yes, if you just understood it you would know that.

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The Freedom of Music: Bon Jovi Speaks

March 20th, 2011
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

Dee Snider, the make-up clad, iron haired singer of Twisted Sister, once remarked during an interview that yes, a lot of his music was downloaded free and illegally off the internet but, ‘twenty years ago I wasn’t making two-and-a-half million dollars a year on ring-tones.’ It was the first, and only time, I heard a classic artist take a good with the bad approach to the internet and music.sidebar-6

iTunes currently shows 80 results when you search ring-tones for Bon Jovi. Pity Jon Bon Jovi never got the ‘take the good with the bad’ memo. During an interview with the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine this week, Bon Jovi rather pessimistically suggested, “Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business.”

Oh, I know: context man, provide context. Here’s the whole of the quote:

Kids today have missed the whole experience of putting the headphones on, turning it up to 10, holding the jacket, closing their eyes and getting lost in an album, and the beauty of taking your allowance money and making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the album sounded like and looking at a couple of still pictures and imagining it… God it was a magical time.

I hate to sound like an old man now, but I am, and you mark my words, in a generation from now, people are going to say: ‘What happened?’ … Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business.

In 1986, I was teaching guitar to kids in their homes. Driving from lesson to lesson, I had installed a tape deck in my Chevette, and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet got a lot of listening time. I bought the itty bitty cassette tape not for the cover, which was puny and unreadable, but for the songs I knew: You Give Love a Bad Name; Livin’ On a Prayer; Wanted, Dead or Alive. At a guess, Bon Jovi got very rich selling cassettes and CDs of this album, considerably less so LP’s, with their magical covers.

When his next album, New Jersey, came out two years later I bought it on LP unheard. Not because the cover was so cool, by then covers where boringly being made for CD size readability, which meant they looked more like a corporate logo than art. No, I bought it because Slippery When Wet was so good. And when I got it home I put my headphones on, turned it up to 10, held the jacket, closed my eyes and got lost in an album.

Then I found myself again. After about three songs it was clear, whatever this was, it was no Slippery When Wet. And those three songs were the hits. Imagine how many songs I would have lasted if I had dropped the needle on Wild is the Wind.

It’s easy to be wistful for the days when Led Zeppelin IV was followed by Houses of the Holy, followed by Physical Graffiti. Or Styx’s Equinox was followed by The Grand Illusion. If you liked the first, you would like the second, yet the second wasn’t just a rehash of the same songs with new words. Those where, as old goats like Bon Jovi like to say, the days my friend.

Of course Jon Bon Jovi didn’t base his buying decisions on last album, he bought based on whether the cover was cool. Buying Born to Run because of that great shot of Bruce and Clarence on the front would have led you to one of the all time great albums (which led to Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River). The cool spaceship guitar which donned the first Boston album led to 40 minutes of great and original music inside. You could, in fact, rely on the idea that a cool cover meant the band put effort into the album. It wasn’t a perfect way to buy an album, but it was probably reliable about 50% of the time. Try that today and see how many really bad albums you have to wade through to get a gem.

Nobody was ‘holding the jacket, closing there eyes, getting lost in the music by the end of the 1980’s because the hard plastic cases of CDs and cassettes were not conductive to cuddling up to. Bon Jovi, however, never once complained about the romance being taken out of the thing. He made his millions selling CDs and cassettes of formulaic, derivative music to kids who still thought of music as important, and hadn’t caught on that the people making the music thought of it as a commodity.

Apple, and by extension Steve Jobs, didn’t invent the MP3 player, they just designed one that customers preferred. They didn’t invent the MP3, or downloading music, they found a viable way to commodify downloading MP3’s, putting money back in the pocket of the artists. If Bon Jovi isn’t doing as well selling MP3s as he did CDs and cassettes, maybe it’s because in that time his band went from one of the better, but still one of, the hair metal bands that all sounded much the same to a Kid Rock imitator with a sensible hair cut.

Runaway was a crappy song long before people started paying $1.29 for a 30 second ring-tone. That’s what killed music.

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The Freedom of Music: Opera ‘n’ Roll

February 27th, 2011
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

Opera gets a bad name in modern western culture. It’s where guys have to go to appease their wives, the penitence demanded before they can go “to the big game.” It is Carmen’s Habanera that is playing when a sitcom camera enters a gay characters living room. Last year there was a Juicy Fruit gum commercial in which a bathing suit clad doofus was at an opera. On stage was a great cow of a woman with a Viking hat on her head caterwauling painfully.sidebar-7It’s a bad, and unfair, rap. Opera is, at it’s finest, some of the most sublime music ever crafted, pieced together into a story and presented in dramatic form.

Last week the Royal Opera in London premiered a new opera: Anna Nicole: The Party Always Ends is a presentation of the life, and death, of Anna Nicole Smith in song. Starring soprano Eva-Marie Westbrook as Anna Nicole, the opera features Westbrook in oversized prosthetic breasts – back to the great cow theme – and simulating oral sex in a strip club. It all seems really quite sordid, and out of tune with the seriousness that opera is supposed to have.

Except opera never was meant to be deadly serious. It is music, entertainment, and was always treated as such before the 20th century. In the Italian tradition, rich patrons would take a picnic and entertain their friends at a box at the opera rather than feed them at home because it was cheaper. They would yell at the stage, boo missed notes and sing along. None of the hushed solemnity that people demand at performances now.

Opera’s themes have always been a bit sordid. The first operas recreated the Greek tragedies that were considered important cultural touchstones, but were being lost. Themes of lust and love, sex and money, life and death run through the opera repertoire. Considered from a greater distance than we are able to master, a Anna Nicole Smith is a classic operatic heroine

The reviews of Anna Nicole seem to miss this point. They have been generally positive about the music, in some cases raving. They have universally been very positive about Eva-Marie Westbrook, calling her a tour de force (Reuters), excellent (Sky News), first rate (theguardian) and splendid (ABC).

Then there’s that jazz trio during the strip club scene. The bass player looks familiar somehow… it’s… um… wait a minute that’s John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin.

But what’s a jazz trio doing in an opera? some critics seriously sniff. It’s opera, stuffy, fussy and boisterous, not some laid back, breathless singer purring Summertime at the Iradium Jazz Club.

What people don’t realize is, Gershwin himself once wrote an opera. Wanting to be taken more seriously, and wanting to try his hand at a musical format he admired, he tried his hand at opera. He wrote a pretty good one too, Porgy and Bess, which is recognized by opera buffs as one of the 20th centuries, and Americas best operas.

Based in the south, and calling for a cast of African Americans, Porgy and Bess has been performed at the Metropolitan Opera, broadcast on their famous Saturday Afternoon at the Opera broadcasts and is “regularly performed internationally.” The most well-known piece from Porgy and Bess? Summertime.

That’s right, the breathless singer at The Iradium is singing an opera standard, as she also is when she breaks into Mack the Knife, by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht from The Threepenny Opera – for that matter, when the Doors broke into The Alabama Song (“show me the way to the next whisky bar…”), they were singing a Weill and Brecht song, from the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany.

And opera is not, never has been, one type of music. The aforementioned Habanera from Carmen is a Cuban style piece (Habanera is a Cuban dance), in a French opera, sung in Italian with a setting in Spain. Really I think there’s enough flexibility in the genre to handle one scene in which a Jazz trio – featuring one of rocks best bassists – performs a piece.

No what galls the reviewers is that the creators of this opera dare take on a modern tragedy, instead of a classic one. Something like Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, a story of a hunchbacked court jester (Rigoletto), who hires a killer to kill his master, the promiscuous Duke. Rigoletto’s daughter, unknown to him, is in love with The Duke. The killer unwittingly kills Rigoletto’s daughter, instead of the Duke. The first song in Rigoletto, Questa o quella per me pari sono (this one or that one, it’s all the same to me), is a tribute to women and promiscuity.

So no, Anna Nicole is not unsuitable material, even if it is a bit tame by operas standards.

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