Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The Battle of 1971

People often attack me for hating Led Zeppelin. Well, perhaps 'hating' is the wrong way to put it. Perhaps it's more accurate to say: I believe Led Zeppelin's impact on music is overstated, their abilities as composers and musicians are overrated, and the cult that surrounds them to the extent that they are worshipped as gods is freakish, scary and - frankly - pathetic. In other words, Led Zeppelin get on my tits, and with good reason.

The motivation behind this post was that I was recently leant a copy of Led Zeppelin IV by a friend and fan. The album is also known as 'the fourth album', 'Zoso', 'symbol' or a dozen others because of its blank cover- the band were sick of being seen as a commercial product. Since its release in November 1971 has been heralded as both Led Zep's best work and the album that wrote the book for rock in the 1970s and beyond.

As ever, rather than cosign myself to ignorant opposition, I dived straight in and had a listen. Initially I was impressed - the opening songs, 'Black Dog' and 'Rock And Roll' warrant praise simply for the ferocity and tenacity of John Bonham's drumming. When coupled with Robert Plant's vocals on the breaks, the latter is remarkable.

It is when the album moves from these hard rock numbers to the folky jam 'The Battle For Evermore' that the bottom falls out. Driven by mandolin, Page plays like a spare part while Plant mumbles through meaningless gibberish. Now, a lot of people will say all lyrics in progressive rock are meaningless gibberish - and with the case of Yes they have a point - but I've listen to enough to tease our those who can cut it (like The Who and Pink Floyd) and those who can't.

Now we come to 'Stairway To Heaven'. This song has been frequently voted as the greatest rock song ever. I have heard stories of best friends having all the lyrics tattoed on their backs, I've encountered endless tributes on YouTube and of course, I've heart about the alleged backmasking. For those who aren't in the know, apparently if you play it backwards, there are Satanic messages hidden - the chorus goes 'Here's to my sweet Satan' and then there's something about a shed. Some say coincidence, some say it was deliberate, I'm not sure myself.

With all these expectations, I was utterly underwhelmed. The song starts well, and if it were but an instrumental piece i would be pleasant to while away the hours listening to the great flute work of the underrated John Paul Jones. But Robert Plant comes in, and although the lyrics are a little more captivating, they end up being rambling. And the end of the song is ruined by Plant - at his worst, as here, all he can do is scream inanely (cf. 'Since I've Been Loving You' from Led Zeppelin III (1970)).

'Misty Moutain Hop' starts off trying to be adventurous with the sycopathic beats and oft-synching of guitar and drums. While it is described by AllMusicGuide.com as a 'pounding hippie satire', it ends up sounding like a funeral dirge for stoned has-beens. Plant oscillates widely between a drone and a pointless screech, and the whole band seems badly out of control.

Both 'Four Sticks' and 'Going to California' attempt to set the record straight, the former with Bonham 's impressive high-hat work, the latter with Page's acoustic work. But while both are better, they are hardly heights of perfection since they lack one important factor - John Paul Jones. Whether on bass, keyboards or creating wonderful arrangements, he was the one who kept things ticking over while Messrs. Plant, Page and Bonham lose their focvus with pretentious nothings passed off as songs. It was his keyboard contributions in particular that held the band together, especially as Page's heroin addiction crippled his playing. Without his keyboards, In Through The Out Door (1979) - their last album - would have been unbearable.

The closing song, 'When the Levee Breaks' - on which the band contributed with Deep South blue legend Memphis Minnie - is the only song that matches the openers for quality, although it is a tad too long. It has fantastic moments, especially when Page's two-note riff is matched by Bonham's snare and cymbal combination. But you finish listening wishing that that was how the whole album had been, instead of giving you two good songs and then losing focus to the point of making you bored.

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As you will be aware, I am biased towards The Who. But there is a very good case for saying that Who's Next is better. Released in August of the same year, it represents the apogee of The Who's efforts to fuse different genres (rock, blues and electronica) - if not the apogee of The Who itself.

Who's Next in the first place may not match the ambitions of The Who's two rock operas - the slight Tommy (1969) and worthy rival Quadrophenia (1973). Indeed, much of the album was cobbled together from the Lifehouse Project, a multimedia project of Pete Townshend's whose scope was so great that he suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced to abandon it. But even with that in mind, when you heard the synthesisers at the beginning of 'Baba O'Riley', you sense a progressive mood or air about things. But unlike his glam rock contemporaries, Townshend doesn't let the lyrics get lost in pretension. Their earthiness - echoed in Roger Daltrey's voice - make it instantly listenable and relevant - that's what made 'My Generation' so unique.

Both 'Bargain' and 'Love Ain't For Keeping' are more bluesy numbers (though only just, considering the quickfire drumming of Keith Moon on the former). Though more relaxed, they have a coolness about them, and you get the impression of a band being comfortable - not in the sense that they are not pushing new boundaries, but rather that they are not trying to play above their (immense) abilities.

'My Wife', written by bass player John 'Thunderfingers' Entwistle, is exemplary of both his dark humour and knack for writing hard rock songs. It's a showcase for his horn work, and his vocals are a welcome break from Daltrey gusto, which though highly suited to Townshend's song, don't fit well when it comes to Entwistle's (a textbook example is the infamous 'Fiddle About' off Tommy, which is about child molestation).

'The Song Is Over' switches the emphasis to piano, with Townshend providing vocals and adding a vulnerable edge to the piece. But before this becomes irritating, Moon and Daltrey take control with a powerful double chorus, and from then on they're in control, and rightly so. With Entwistle powering away underneath the madness, the song ends with a razor sharp repeating solo from Moon.

The next three songs are more subdued. 'Getting In Tune' begins on a downer - but not for long. Soon Moon kicks in and the rock swagger reemerges with its head reared, back by a powerful riff and glorious bass guitar. The repetition of the hook in the middle can be slightly irritating after a few spins, but then again most all albums tend to have a dip in the middle. The follow-up, 'Going Mobile', is more modish and for reason is the lesser one on the album - Townshend does sound a little tinny, though his acoustic guitar work makes up for it. 'Behind Blue Eyes', the last of the three, has soleful lyrics which are elegantly delivered by Daltrey, and, as he has personally pointed out, Moon comes in and wittily plays over him in the final third of the song.

Finally, we come to 'Won't Get Fooled Again', which ranks alongside 'My Generation' as The Who's most political song and 'Pinball Wizard' as their most well-known. For me, this anthem cleans the floor with both of them - thoughconsidering the context, it would be foolish to call it their equivalent of 'Stairway To Heaven' (no Satanic messages in here, for one thing). Here all the ingredients that thus far have made the album interesting - synthesisers, power chords, amazing drumming, gripping vocals and a loud, loud bass (something Jones never got the hand of - combine to create a piece of eight-and-a-half-minute magic. Daltrey delivers the lyrics with panache and swagger, and his scream, though now rather clich├ęd, is emphatically brilliant. Moon and Townshend, both stoked up on booze for the live versions, are free to run riot while Entwistle keeps it all together and finds the time to strum some complex improv of his own.

For me, Who's Next wipes the floor with Led Zeppelin IV. It's more focussed (ironically), it is more successful in mixing many different genres without being uneven, the lyrics are more memorable and it achieves an even balance of the four musicians - The Who, like Cream, was a battleground for control between the four musicians expressed in volume, while in Zeppelin Plant and Page dominated to the extent that until Physcial Graffiti (1975) Jones was a shrinking violet. That's not to say Led Zeppelin IV is awful - quite the opposite. But perhaps we should seek to judge great bands more by the actual music and less by their surrounding mystique. Both achieved much, but out of the two it is The Who that have truly lasted.

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