Led Zeppelin [box set]
One must approach to altar of the holy and mysterious Led Zeppelin with caution and dread, for the wrathful flames of their devout communicants are hazardous indeed. Nonetheless, I proceed because my esteemed colleague and fellow crank Cole Bozman asked me to weigh in on John Bonham’s drumming. As Cole puts it on his web page, “John Paul Jones was the only talented one,” which naturally provoked a fair amount of reaction from fans of the other group members. If you look at my Silly Lists page, you might think I’m in Cole’s camp, but I’ve taken this opportunity to re-listen to Led Zeppelin, and I enjoyed them quite a bit.
I used to have all of their albums, but once I got the box set as a gift from my loving and tasteful wife, I figured I could live with just four-and-a-half hours of their music. Naturally, there are a few tunes I miss (“How Many More Times”, “The Rover”, “The Lemon Song" dig that bass line!) and a few I could live without (“Thank You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “The Battle of Evermore”, “D’yer Mak’er”, “Kashmir”, “Trampled Underfoot”, “For Your Life” [there go the first twenty minutes of tape 3!], all the Coda stuff). Interesting how many more songs fall into the latter category.
Anyway, John Bonham was a fine drummer. Not particularly original or innovative, but perfectly solid. Better than Helen Wiggin or Doug Clifford, not as good as Dino Danelli or Jim Fox. I’m still a little baffled why his defender on Cole’s page would cite “Tangerine” it’s as unremarkable a drum line as I can think of.
He certainly didn’t invent his trademark style (best characterized as pushing the kick drum a little early and laying off the snare until a hair late, it creates a lot of sonic “space” in the beat which makes it feel heavier than the standard “four-on-the-floor” beat. Bonham hardly created it, though I can trace it as far back as Hal Blaine’s work with Phil Spector’s acts, and I’m not much of a rock historian.
Bonham’s real breakthrough was the application of this beat to heavy music. Most previous loud acts had drummers who tried to be as busy and crazy as the lead guitarists, with predictably unfocused results. The Led Zeppelin sound, though, has a super-steady bottom that makes the riffs stand out even more; it’s the blueprint for all heavy music to this day.
And there are times when our hero really shines. A few cuts have really cool, interesting drum fills that are practically hooks themselves (“Achilles Last Stand”, “Rock and Roll”). And somehow on Presence, an album where the rest of the band kind of checked out creatively, he’s all over the place with polyrhythmic funky lines that are still very heavy (“Candy Store Rock”, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”). He also handles odd meters with aplomb (when the Beastie Boys sampled “The Ocean” they probably created the only rap song ever written in 15/8 time.)
His real advantage over other drummers, though, was that he was excellently recorded. I don’t know just what Jimmy Page did in the studio, but everything on Led Zeppelin’s records sounds fantastic. The drums have a huge presence, the bass is full and smooth, and oh, those guitar tones!
Led Zeppelin’s music lives and dies on the guitar sound, and usually Page pulls out a winner. From the creamy “Over the Hills and Far Away” to the recorded-inside-a-Sherman-tank “Whole Lotta Love”, he really finds neat guitar sounds. Half the time, the sounds accompany pretty interesting lines, too. Because the riffs are where it’s at. Looking over the lengthy track listing, I see dozens of songs that instantly bring up two bars of pure guitar catchiness (my favorites: “The Ocean”, “Immigrant Song”, “Houses of the Holy”, “Ten Years Gone”). On the other hand, I can remember about four solos, and that’s mostly because they come at climactic moments in the arrangement (“Whole Lotta Love”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Celebration Day”). The rest just sort of slide by as unremarkable guitar noodling. His acoustic work is questionable (check out the erratic finger-picking all over the catalog), and makes whole stretches of this set eminently skippable.
So the real question remains: was John Paul Jones the only talented one? No, not really. Bonham and Page both did a few things really well (played a heavy beat, created riffs) and vastly overestimated their own talents in other spheres (solos, mostly). All in all, not a bad way to spend half a day, but I wouldn’t want to do it regularly.
READER COMMENTSSTEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Potty." Steve says: "Nothing to be sorry for; this website is all about opinions. I can't comment on Bruford, Gurto, or Colaiuta, since you may have noticed that prog-rock isn't exactly my forte (if that's in fact what they play; Bruford is the only one I've ever heard of.) As for Ringo, please see my Beatles page. Thanks for writing!"
From Brian Dickson: Hi, this is a comment about Led Zepplin as a whole , or it could apppy more specifically to their debut I suppose....
From Yevgeny Simkin: "Not particularly original or innovative, but perfectly solid"
These are the words you use in reference to John Bonham. That's like saying that J.S. Bach wasn't particularly original or innovative because he didn't invent "well tempering" or that Stalin wasn't particularly evil because he wasn't the first to kill by the millions.
Bonham is credited by most drummers (who are mature enough as such to know that Neil Peart is not "all that") and music critics as being one the most innovative drummers EVER. He's definitely in the top 3 of rock drumming and in the top 10 of drumming across all spectrums. His sound is ENTIRELY unique. No one sounded like him prior and no one sounded like him after (though everyone tried desperately). The closest anyone has come to replicating his sound was (maybe) Matt Johnson on Jeff Buckley's Grace, but 25 years went by between Bonham's arrival on the scene and that album.
His feel and groove are immediately identifiable with the first measure of his playing in any song. If this is not originality or innovation, then what is? Who else isn't original in your fantasy drum world? Bill Bruford? Trilok Gurtu? Maybe you care to take issue with the music world's assessment of Vinnie Colaiuta too? How about Ringo; another derivative hack in your mind?
Bonham's huge sound wasn't a product of Jimmy's recording, that's how he hit them babies; like no one else. If you don't like his playing (and your review suggests that you do like it, you just seem not to really understand what you're hearing) you should find fault with things that actually matter, like the fact that he drank himself to death. There are two people in LZ whose musicianship was sub-par (I'll let you figure out who they were, but I'll give you a hint, their names were Jimmy and Robert) but they made up for their lack of technique by being incredible songwriters and unbelievable performers.
In any case, arguing about music, and for that matter criticizing it, is moronic because everyone's taste is unique. However, there are things that are not subjective, such as how original or innovative someone was, and in that regard your depiction of Bonham is just plain wrong.
The average rock fan will say something like:
"Led Zeppelin are far and away the best hard rock band of all time. They singlehandley invented all forms of heavy metal and hard rock, and rock died when they split. Bands like Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Nirvana are just pale imitations of the mighty Zeppelin. No band has ever come close to the sheer talent they had. The four greatest musicians ever assembled. I don't know who they were, but they must have been either aliens or Gods to give us music that great. Everyone must bow down in supplication when they hear a Zeppelin song."
That's the accepted wisdom it seems from my nearly 20 years experience of hearing rock fans speak their opinions. Except that I disagree with the accepted wisdom. I think Led Zeppelin today are overrated. Okay you all want to burn me for heresy for saying that. I'll explain....
If I pictured myself back in 1969 hearing Led Zeppelin for the first time I would no doubt be impressed. They didn't sound like The Beatles, or The Stones, The Kinks or Hermans Hermits. That's refreshing right there! There's some hint of the Who there and Hendrix. But mainly I suppose they sound like The Jeff Beck Group, only louder and with crisper production. I would no doubt be pretty impressed with them for being quite fresh sounding. Except.....it's not 1969 anymore. For all Led Zeppelins influence I think other bands have made better hard rock since them. Even their two contempories Black Sabbath and Deep Purple I thought were better in some respects. The problem is that Black Sabbath and Deep Purple went on too long went through endless line up changes and frankly, released some pretty bad albums, tarnishing their reputation. Led Zep however split, more or less preserving their reputations intact. Ozzy Osbourne today is a clown, further diminishing Sabbath's reputation. So, IN MY OPINION, Led Zep are to hard rock what Space Invaders is to video games. The most infleuential, probably (although not the first , nor was Space Invaders strictly the first video game), but not superior to what followed in it's footsteps. That analogy is exaggerated of course, since today Space Invaders has been FAR exceeded whereas I don't think it's as extreme in the case of Led Zeppelin. Or you could use The Wright Brothers airplane anaology. It was the first, but by todays standards it's not the fastest or most maneuverable, or.. you get the idea. Being first doesn't always mean best. But people will still be talking about The Wright Brothers airplane in tones of reverance 50 years from now while later, better planes are long forgotten.
And to take as an example two of their most lauded songs. Black Dog and Stairway. When I first heard the riff to Black Dog in 1986 I thought it sounded like a randon collection of notes. And today I still do. Sure it's complex and must take skill to play, but it doesn't overlook the fact that it's "hook" factor is close to zero to me. Contrast that to the much simpler yet much catchier Smoke On The Water riff! Or Sweet Leaf, a riff that is almost maddeningly catchy. Stairway might be a slick song but I'm afraid the main guitar line is a slight reworking of Taurus By Spirit, so Led zep can't take as much credit as some might hope. And really, most of their best moments are actually when they're covering others songs! It makes you wonder alright. Were Led Zep geniuses at.... songwriting? or arranging?
I don't think that any single one band started heavy metal. Whats the definiton of heavy metal? Probably most would say amped up guitars, high pitched impassioned vocals and a headbanging riff. But can't you bang your head to Purple Haze, Spanish Castle Magic or even My Generation? Amped up guitars? Hendrix, Cream, Jeff Beck. High pitched vocals? Well I'd say that Paul Mccartney on Helter Skelter did a good job there. And Rod Stewart singing for The Jeff Beck Group could get a mention. Tbe thing with Zeppelin is that they didn't start anything at all, they were more of a melting pot of influences. You could say that their first two albums defined their sound, which is mainly fiery blues rock I suppose. But what's so revolutionary about blues rock? They just made it more intense. For their era. People often say that no band has ever touched Zeppelin, which is adorably ethusiastic and naive, but how -and I stress this point- can you make that judgement if you haven't heard all of what's been happening in the 35 years since Led Zeppelins debut?. Nobody's going to make the effort of listening to the thousands of other hard rock albums that have been released since 1969 however, so it looks like it's going to be more of the "LED ZEP ARE UNTOUCHABLE" mantra repeated ad infinitum. it's a nice crutch for the lazy and subservient. Led Zep could play their instruments well and churn out a decent song but so what? How many other bands could that apply to? Led Zep are a middle of the pack band to me. I've heard maybe 500 or so rock/ metal albums from 1970 onwards and to me Led Zep stand out in no department as the best of its kind. In terms of riffs, melody, singing, speed, atmosphere and guitar virtuosity Led Zep have been surpassed by others. And furthermore it seems that Led Zep base their sound mainly on the electric guitar. But the problem is that even if you enjoy the electric guitar sound, it doesn't sound all that great on the Led zep albums. Technology has moved on and today's recording techniques allow a much better guitar sound. So even there Led zep have been trumped.
Part of Zeppelins enduring popularity is due to peer pressure, especially among high schoolers. Among the rock culture not liking Zeppelin is practically heresy. The Emperors servants in The Emperors New Clothes fable spring to mind. They couldn't see the Emperors clothes either but didn't want to say so for fear of seeming stupid. So they tag along gamely. In earlier centuries heretics were burnt at the stake. These days thankfully measures are not so severe but not liking the Mighty Zeppelin is still a serious matter to rock fans. Insults are hurled at the offenders and the culprits street cred plummets. If you don't like Zeppelin you must be a filthy Avril/ Korn/ Metallica/ Stones/ Sabbath /N Sync loving b*****d! Soon nobody invites them to parties anymore. Misery. Oh well they'll just have to buy "Early Days" "III" and "How The West Was Won" and show them to their friends. Replies of "Dude, you've finally got taste!" are uttered and the storm blows over. Phew! You've joined the ranks of People With Taste!
I can in some ways respect their contribution to rock music, but I've never really been a fan. I've bought most of their albums and listened to them, but really it was out of a sense of duty I suppose. It's virtually REQUIRED for a rock fan to listen to Led Zeppelin. They have their place in rock history but the pedastal they're on is so high they need oxygen breathing masks.
Overall today I still think that Led Zeppelin improved on The Jeff Beck Group, but that isn't enought to justify their "Rock Gods" status for me. Still, they've got a cool name. It sounds so right doesn't it? Just say it out loud....Led......Zeppelin. It sounds formidable... and I think it's also a reason why Led Zep get the "mighty" reputation. The Zeppelins of old are huge, awe inspiring things. Watching the Hindenburg go down in flames is a sight that no-one whos ever seen can ever forget. And the name Zeppelin sink into the average 13 year old rock fan's impressionable mind like... a lead zeppelin.
Maybe for some the power of suggestion is at work too. Years ago I saw a documentary where a group of children in a studio were shown a video showing the making of supposedly the most powerful perfume in the world. It showed a small vial being studied by serious faced scientists in white lab coats, and it being carefuily shipped by air to London amid tight security. The small vial was then brought in with great seriousness into the studio. The presenter then announced that she would be opening the vial, and that the children would be able to smell the perfume within a matter of seconds, so fast were the scent molecules able to travel. The presenter then took the cap of the vial and asked the children if they could smell the pefume. Within a few seconds most raised their arms to indicate that they could smell it. Then the presenter said that the vial contained nothing more than distllled water, which has no scent at all. The powerful scent didn't exist. It was the power of suggestion. The overall effect of seeing such a convincing scenario of the preparation and transport of the perfume was such that it implanted the thought in the childrens minds that this was completely real. Now considering the mighty, mighty reputation of Led Zeppelin I think that some might also be subject to to the power of suggestion here. They hear wonderful things that aren't neccessarily there. The scent of the perfume was an illusion. Led Zeppelins greatness is also sometimes an illusion. Whole Lotta Love is the song considered by many to be the epitome of metal. Plodding and monotonous with a dull guitar sound you'd have to pay me to listen to it today. It caused a stir in '69. Big deal. Let's all move on now and stop being stuck in the past. My brother actually said to me one day when he decided that maybe he had outgrown Led zep, "if you think about it, not terribly good are they?" The key phrase there being "if you think about it" Which suggests that many don't actually think about it! I prefer to do my own thinking , not let others do my thinking for me.
Oh and by the way I think that Misty Mountain Hop is the worst song I've heard in my life. And I mean laugh out loud bad. The fact that it's even taken seriously by some is a good indication of how overrated Zeppelin really is! Stairway To heaven isn't bad per se, just boring, even the first few times. I like Plant's Bee Gees impersonation in the finale though.
STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "But I want food in my hair." Steve says: "LED... ZEPPELIN... LED... ZEPPELIN... LED... ZEPPELIN... LED... ZEPPELIN... You're right, it sounds a lot better than LOTHAR... AND... THE... HAND... PEOPLE... Thanks for writing!"
From Blake Freele: Quite simply you seem to be placing all of the weight of a musical entity within the relatively small pocket of playing technique. This is a large mistake as Led Zeppelin, in particular, are a group that has made their way in music history by doing what they do extremely well. That is, play from the heart. I don't doubt that you are a person who loves their jazz. Do you not realize that judging any music, especially jazz, by its technical fundamentals is extremely misleading and lacks confidence (we are not living in the renaissance). Not very wise, the same goes for a band called Led Zeppelin!.......
I'm not one to think Zep are entirely original, but neither were most of the great blues artists who they re-stylise.
Short and simple.
'Good artists borrow, great artists steal'. And steal is something Led Zeppelin did exceptionally well.
STEVE AND DENNIS AND ABE RESPOND: Dennis says, "Buh buh." Abe says, "Does my hair look like Murray?" Steve says: "If you're going to review a drummer, what can you go on other than technique? His hairstyle? Thanks for writing!"
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