Posts Tagged ‘Presence’

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.

The Freedom of Music, The Mighty Zep ,

The Freedom of Music: What Happened to Music?

March 15th, 2009
freedom-of-music-headerOne likes to believe in the freedom of music.

Rush – Spirit of Radio.

What happened? When did music become so bad? I don’t know what it is lately, but I feel like the whole music industry has fallen over a cliff. Good God, who are these people who have taken that which was so vital in our lives, and fucking ruined it?

I recently read a book by a guy called Dave Thompson called I Hate New Music: The Classic Rock Manifesto. He frankly makes far too many good points to write off as a crank. sidebar-2Good point 1: even if you think a new song is good, will you be listening to it in a year, five years, ten years from now? I know that answer, because I’ve fallen for it too many times. Good point 2: You want to know how hard the mighty can fall? From “In My Time of Dying” to “Radioactive.” That’s how hard.

Thompson cites the end of good music as coming from between 1976 and 1978. Boston’s debut album was the beginning of the end, not because it was a bad album, but because it was so carefully crafted, and sold so many copies. By 1978 these carefully crafted albums were also selling millions:

Infinity by Journey.
You Can Tune a Piano but you Can’t Tuna Fish by REO Speedwagon.
Don’t Look Back by Boston.
The Cars by The Cars
Double Vision by Foreigner
Toto by Toto
Pieces of Eight by Styx
Hemispheres by Rush

Never again would a band go into the studio for 18 days, and come out with a masterworks like Led Zeppelin did with 1976’s Presence. Now, the music was a commodity, to be manufactured to maximize sales.

Think I exaggerate? Think the state of the music world is just fine? Riddle me this, who was the hottest selling act this week? If you answered the not guilty of paedophilia in the strictly OJ Simpson sense of the word, Michael Jackson, the freakiest freak in freakville, give yourself ten points.  The spastic, hasn’t demonstrated an ounce of talent in twenty years, and no more than that ever, Jackson was selling out 50 shows at London’s 02 arena. 50 shows sold out in 5 hours. Never mind music, what has gone wrong in our world when that many people will pay approximately $100 each to see this thing, this diddler? But hey, it’s the hottest show in music, which really should be the end of this rant. What could possibly follow to demonstrate that the world of music is no longer worth your attention?

Britney Spears, that’s what. She’s doing wonderful business in her comeback tour. This weeks New York show had the ever awful Madonna in attendance.  Despite favourable reviews (well one) Madonna caused a stir when she left mid-show. Now clear your head and ponder that one item. In the middle of a concert, Madonna leaves and that’s the news.  Would they have shut down the tour if she yawned mid-performance? Why would any body care that Madonna left? Surely they were paying attention to the singer on stage? Alas, there was no singer. The lady dancing, sans musicians, with the top hat and microphone, she was lip syncing. The whole show, except the one time when she said, “Peace, New York.” People paid up to $750 to see Britney Spears not sing? Which is, I suspect, about $745 more than they would pay to hear her sing. But fear not, merchandise, including $150 velvet ensembles and $30 knockoff top hats, flew off the shelves.  Because, you see, post 1978, it’s about the merchandise.

It’s too easy, however, to blame all that’s wrong with the music business on Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, even Madonna. Largely accurate in many ways, but easy.  When Kiss recorded their first live album, Paul Stanley can be heard at one point asking the audience, “do you believe in rock and roll?” After an affirmative cheer, he commands the audience, “stand up for what you believe in.” This was before the invention of the Kiss Army, of which I was an inaugural member, but I have no doubt listening to Kiss Alive now that the audience followed this command like an army following an order.  Yes! we believed in Rock and roll, and Yes! we would stand up for what we believed in. That’s what we thought then, music wasn’t a commodity, it was a movement. We hated disco because it threatened our way of life, our core belief.  Disco was the Taliban, circa 1975 and liking disco was a subversive act. Disco died away for many reasons, not the least of which because there was a Kiss Army to kick it’s ass.

So why was Kiss’ resident demon/fire breather/blood spitter, Gene Simmons, in Toronto this week peddling baby clothes? Because Kiss is a commodity, that’s why. Because while the Kiss Army may have believed in rock and roll, the members themselves have long believed in the commodification thereof. Because in 1978, when Kiss was releasing comic books, it stopped being about the music.  And now, thirty years later, it really is that bad.

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