Counterbalance No. 31: ‘Led Zeppelin IV’

Mendelsohn: In the last installment of Counterbalance we talked at length about how some of the Rolling Stones’ music had been turned into classic rock radio staples while much of their lesser known–and perhaps better–material lay fallow in the wind’s times. Now we are on to Led Zeppelin IV, which is all killer and no filler where AOR playlists are concerned. I’m willing to bet that if you turn on your classic rock radio station you will hear the entirety of this album played over the course of the day. You will also hear a lot of music that will make you want to shove sharp objects into your ears (i.e. anything by Ted Nugent), but that is neither here nor there.

From “Black Dog” all the way to “When the Levee Breaks”, Led Zeppelin IV was the mold from which AOR playlist were made–and right there, smack dab in the middle, is the granddaddy of all classic rock radio songs, “Stairway to Heaven”. Tread lightly, Klinger.

Klinger: I am the soul of diplomacy, Mendelsohn—you know that. But you’re right; you and I grew up in the Midwest, and Zeppelin was so pervasive here that when I first clicked on the Acclaimed Music site, I half expected it to just yell “ZEP RULES!” and shove me into a locker. Frankly, I’m amazed that it’s taken us 31 albums to get to anything by this group.

Mendelsohn: And for the longest time, that was exactly the reason I resisted Led Zeppelin. Music nerds often argued about whether they were a Beatles or a Rolling Stones type of person. The people who shoved those music nerds into lockers as they stood around arguing—they were the Led Zeppelin fans. Up until recently though, I didn’t understood how unfair of a comparison that was. To borrow some Tolkienian terminology, the Beatles and the Stones the vanguard of the orc army. They came first to test and weaken the defenses. Led Zeppelin were cave trolls. They came charging up from behind the phalanx, crushing friend and foe, leaving in their wake tales or torrid excess, monstrous profits and an enduring legacy that can still be found in all corners of the music industry. In effect, we are talking about two different types of monsters.

I think the major difference was that Led Zeppelin’s music was able to reach the people who weren’t necessarily into music. It was able to speak to them in a way that neither the Beatles nor the Stones could do (and what it said was, “Shove that nerd into a locker!”). I think there is a certain amount of droning sonic rage, an amplitude that no one had yet seen, in Led Zeppelin’s music. It was a precursor to the harder forms of rock music—from metal to stoner rock—but still tempered with ample doses of melody and harmony. What you get is huge cross section of musical tastes, layered onto one another, drawing in those who identify with the heavy guitar riffs but can chill out to the Celtic folk and on the other side, drawing in those that appreciate the acoustic fantasy but enjoy the overall sonic thrust.

Klinger: Interesting that for all this talk about music nerdery, it’s easy to overlook that these Led Zeppelin characters were just about the biggest music nerds in the business. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were session guys who between them had backed up everyone from the Who to Shirley Bassey, so it’s easy to argue that their playing was the sum of a wide array of influences. And you only have to look at Robert Plant’s post-Zeppelin work to see that he’s game for just about anything. ’50s rock ’n’ roll? Sure! Country duets? Why not?

Whatever golden god personae they etched out in the ’70s has been brought down to earth quite nicely by their newfound willingness to ramble on to Mojo magazine about rare rockabilly singles and old-timey bluegrass guys. Their diverse influences (and their attendant sophistication) might not have registered in Midwestern high school parking lots, but the further we get from the myth of Zeppelin, with its mud sharks, heroin, and dragon trousers, the more clear that is. In fact, I hereby posit the theory that Jimmy Page is the Thelonious Monk of rock.

Mendelsohn: I can’t argue with that. I’m not going to argue with that. Let’s just call it a fact. Jimmy Page is the Thelonious Monk of rock. But again we are faced with a rather interesting dichotomy roiling within a rock band. On the one hand, we have another rock band that has been co-opted by the mainstream, the picture child for 1970s rock and roll and possibly the reason bands like Creed and Nickleback find so much success. On the other hand, we have a group of skilled musicians pouring an extremely diverse and varied set of influences into the mainstream consciousness but mixing it in so well that most people hardly notice.

My favorite example is “Rock and Roll”. It’s your standard classic rock radio cut, high tempo blues screamer, but behind the thunder of John Bonham’s drums and Plant’s soaring vocals, it’s nothing but a little rockabilly boogie-woogie, which is what the song is paying homage to in the first place. Jerry Lee Lewis could have been banging it out on his piano in the ’50s—it does help to have Ian Stewart doing his best Killer impression.

Klinger: But for every “Rock and Roll” there’s a “Black Dog”, which comes at it from the other direction. What should be a straight-ahead boogie number ends up being an exercise in rhythmic misdirection and harmonic mind-messin’. Bonham’s drumming fakes you out every time it kicks in (those six quick snare shots lead into a beat that turns out to be downright sludgy), and that’s coupled with riffs from Page that always sound like there are extra notes worked in. There’s no reason this should work at all, and yet it always sounds instantly accessible—that’s why Page is the Thelonious Monk of Rock (and no, I was not going to let that statement go unchallenged, even if I had to do it myself).

So do we have to talk about “Stairway” yet, or can we go 1,500 words without ever discussing it?

Mendelsohn: As a fellow music fan, I’m sure you’ve had the “if you could go back in time and see one band play live, who would it be?” conversation at least once, right? I’d go back and see Led Zeppelin simply for the chance to be one of the first people to hear them play that song live. Since the release of Led Zeppelin IV that song has mutated into a hulking monster, but I wonder what it would be like to hear it for the first time, with fresh ears and no sense of expectations, to see that song in a clean light, birthed upon the stage before it entered the collective consciousness and dug itself in like a thirsty tick . . .

Klinger: I think I could be sitting in that cottage in Bron Yr Aur or wherever and actually be listening as Page and Plant wrote “Stairway to Heaven” and I’d still pretty much say, “Well, that was nice, boys”. Because that’s about the best I can muster up for that song. So no, I’m not sure that it’s that “Stairway to Heaven” has gotten too wrapped up in its own mystique. I’m more inclined to say that it’s really only OK as Led Zeppelin songs go. It’s not the band’s fault that wispy-’stached teenage boys mistook its hippie ponderings for poetry, but I’d like to think somebody could have worked harder to steer the hormonal masses toward a more reasonable object of adulation. But that’s me; I’m more of “Misty Mountain Hop” man myself. Groove trumps pretension every time—that’s my motto.

Mendelsohn: I’m not claiming “Stairway” as my favorite Zep song but in the pantheon of rock songs, you don’t get any bigger. In the context of our popular culture, however, I’m fascinated by the power that song wields, especially since, as you pointed out, there isn’t much to it.

Klinger: No, you don’t get much bigger than “Stairway”, and you don’t get much bigger than Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. And I think that level of grandiosity turned out to be something of a liability for their legacy. I think that critics tend to be mistrustful of gargantuan phenomena like Zeppelin, so a lot the focus during their heyday was on private planes and groupies and the band’s tendency to, uh, reference old blues songs in their work (something say, the Stones or Eric Clapton would never dream of doing). That—and Zep’s tendency to believe its own Superhype (I’m looking at you, The Song Remains the Same)—may have kept us from gaining a clear-eyed assessment of the group until after the dust had settled. Now that it has, we can turn our collective attention away from the dark magic and toward what is at its core a solid collection of songs.