Counterbalance No. 108: ‘Led Zeppelin’

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin

Klinger: We’ve spent a good amount of time talking about Led Zeppelin, a group that I had only recently warmed up to when we started this project. Part of the reason it took me so long was, in part, because right around the time I made my decision for rock, critics were still getting over their initial ambivalence toward the group. Here’s a curious quote from The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (and yes, I still have my copy, which I bought in 1983): “A kind of music apparently designed to be enjoyable only when the listener was drugged to the point of senselessness.” Believe it or not, the first wave of rock critics found Jimmy Page’s concept of a so-called “New Yardbirds” to be tantamount to treason, and they seemed determined to make the superhype surrounding the group an insurmountable obstacle.

Critics dinged them for their tendency to repurpose old blues numbers and then stretch them out to achieve maximum heaviosity. That same reviewer says that Page had made two important discoveries: “spaced-out heavy rock drove barely pubescent kids crazy” and “the sixties were over”. What these critics were reacting to was just that idea — that a changing of the guard was taking place, and Led Zeppelin’s debut album seems to crystallize that change in one tidy 45-minute chunk.

Mendelsohn: As the years have progressed, I’ve always had a hard time looking at Led Zeppelin as anything other than a bona fide super group worthy of the unending adulation. I have a hard time reframing them in the context of the “New Yardbirds”, as an abomination in the eyes of the criterati. It’s fun to think about. Somewhere out there is some crazy old hipster who can’t stand The Zep because he was totally in love with the Yardbirds. But as the rock critic you quoted earlier eloquently stated, “the sixties were over”—even if it was only 1969—and Led Zeppelin was single-handedly changing music and laying the groundwork for rock ‘n’ roll’s coming generations.

As a case study, Led Zeppelin is a bit of a mixed bag as the band figures out where they are heading while shedding the odd vestiges of ’60s rock that seems to cling in some unfortunate places like static-charged lint. Those missteps come later in the album, with the worst offenders being the jaunty “Your Time Is Gonna Come” and possibly “Black Mountain Side”, followed by the underwhelming blues numbers, “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Babe.”

The songs that really stick out on the record are the ones that seem to define the band’s sound throughout the years, the rock that pulled from all sides, yet pulsed with a darker energy. Tracks like “Good Times Bad Times”, “Communication Breakdown”, and especially “Dazed And Confused” show off a band, full-formed and in control of their masteries.

Klinger: Interesting that you bring up both “You Shook Me” (a track I like a bit better than you do, by the way) and that notion of pulling from all sides. I’d obviously heard Zeppelin’s version of the song before, having grown up under the thumb of Midwestern classic rock radio, but it was only as I’ve dug deep into Led Zeppelin here that it’s fully registered with me. I noticed this time around that Robert Plant switches out Willie Dixon’s original second verse in favor of lyrics about having a bird that whistles and a bird that sings—lyrics that I’m guessing he appropriated from Bob Dylan’s 1963 rendition of “Corrina, Corrina”. That folk influence was kind of an essential component of Zeppelin’s sound even at the outset.

And yes, I know I’m using verbs like “repurposing” and “appropriated” instead of “plagiarizing”, even though Led Zeppelin is rife with examples of riffs and melodies and lyrics and other bits that can be demonstrably traced back to other sources. And I know that was a huge sticking point for critics as they attempted to wrap their heads around a group that they clearly didn’t care much for, but who were growing bigger by the moment. Why do you reckon that so much of that has been swept aside?

Mendelsohn: I think we could point to in several different directions and not be wrong. Generationally speaking, people have a very short memory when it comes to music. If you wait long enough and remake a song, steal from it whole-sale or just plagiarize ever so slightly, chances are, no one will remember—unless you are a copyright lawyer. And I’m talking in today’s terms where we have the Internet and an endless ability to trace these types of things to the root. And with most creative endeavors, a little creative license is taken and given when it comes to the advancement of the art form, because, let’s be honest, how many records have we talked about that have sprung fully formed from the mental fount with absolutely no outside influence?

Above all, listeners tend to remember only those who did it last and did it best. No one has come close to Led Zeppelin in terms of sheer force or ability to pull such musical strains together—blues, rock, folk, world—and combine it in such a way as to capture the public’s imagination while simultaneously beating back the prostrations of rock critics who felt the over-hyped supergroup could not live up to the billing. Led Zeppelin was a juggernaut. They crushed the competition, single-handled ended the freaky-deaky ’60s as psychedelia tried to transition back to roots rock, and went upon their merry way putting out a string of records that shaped the music of the next decade and beyond while cementing themselves as one of the top groups in all of rock ‘n’ roll.

You know they stole it, I know they stole it. What difference does it make?

Klinger: Oh, “stole” is such an ugly word. But it does lead me to consider another of my unprovable theories. As I’m listening, I get the sneaking feeling that most of the songs on Led Zeppelin (and quite likely Led Zeppelin II) came about as a result of what I’m sure were intensive bouts of jamming as they transitioned away from being the New Yardbirds. It sounds like they were moving pretty quickly, jumping from bit to bit, adding and subtracting and mixing and matching, and I don’t think they were necessarily paying too much attention to what came from where. A lot of terms have been used to describe the members of Led Zeppelin, but fastidious note-takers is not one of them. So if Jimmy Page threw in a little reference to Albert King here or Plant quoted Joan Baez there, that was just part of the spontaneous invention at work. And really, they did about as much as anyone to expose later generations to classic blues and whatnot, and referencing stuff is pretty de rigeur in this age of sampling. Doesn’t help Jake Holmes all that much, from whom they allegedly liberated “Dazed and Confused”, but still . . .

Now, Mendelsohn, you mention not being that taken with “Your Time Is Gonna Come”, but that’s one of the songs on here that I’m especially drawn to. (I want to stress that John Paul Jones deserves way more credit than he gets for his organ playing, and it really shines through on that track.)

I think we talk about this every time Zep comes up, but I vastly prefer their shorter, punchier numbers to their more meandering efforts. Give me “Communication Breakdown” any day.

Mendelsohn: It may just be the protracted organ noodling that I am forced to wade through. “Your Time Is Gonna Come” strikes me as more New Yardbirds than true Led Zeppelin, more of a nod to the ’60s than to the forward-thinking rockist ideals that the Zep pushed on their ensuing albums. I do like the bit of twangy, slide guitar work in the middle. I hadn’t noticed that before, and I think had they went that direction a little bit more and left the organ noodling and feel good sing-along vibes behind, the song would have worked much better. But then you get to the end of the song and are met head on with that train-wreck of a transition into the Eastern-influenced “Black Mountain Side”. Thankfully, it’s only a short wait until the palate-cleansing blast of “Communication Breakdown”

And on that point, you and I are in total agreement—give me “Communication Breakdown” any day. That’s the type of rock I’ve come to expect for Led Zeppelin, the incendiary, blues-infused, pop-saturated rockers that could knock down walls.

Klinger: Awkward fades aside, I have to say that I really like “Black Mountain Side”, but then I’m a sucker for tablas. As I said before, it took me quite a while to embrace Led Zeppelin, and that may be because I hadn’t let myself hear the full range of their capacities, both as a group and as individual musicians (John Bonham, you never cease to amaze me). And even though we won’t be talking about Led Zeppelin again for many years (Led Zeppelin III is at No. 392 on the Great List), I’m pretty sure I’ll find myself wanting to dig in a little bit more.