Led Zeppelin: A Decade That Changed Rock Music
Led Zeppelin: A Decade That Changed Rock Music
Led Zeppelin was formed in 1968 and disbanded in 1980. During that interval there were dramatic changes in rock music, its mythologies, the industry, and its audience. Through circumstance, design, and luck the band occupied a central position in some of the most significant of these developments. The band’s impact on rock was music was noteworthy: Led Zeppelin rewrote all the record books. All subsequent bands were measured by the standards it set. As with few other popular bands, the truth depends upon the perspective one takes.
Since Led Zeppelin’s demise popular music and its institutions have changed significantly, in this paper, I will attempt to give both sides their due by sketching a measured image of the band and the role it played in the development of seventies rock music. It will be seen that the band emerged at a transitional period in popular music, and that partisans and critics alike hold it responsible for changes that characterized rock music in the seventies. Led Zeppelin was formed by Jimmy Page in late-1968.
It rose from the ashes of the Yardbirds, a blues-rock band that, along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was one of the first-generation British groups. Despite the fact that it had been extremely successful in the United States, the group had little success in its native country. One of the band’s central claims to fame was that it employed in succession Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Today, these musicians are revered as the holy trinity of white, English, rock-blues guitarists (Cole and Trubo 13-14).
Page, a highly regarded session guitarist who played on numerous British hits, selected the musicians that would form his band. He first recruited another accomplished session musician, John Paul Jones, to play bass and keyboards. Discovering that his first choice for vocalist, Terry Reid, was unavailable he selected the relatively unknown Robert Plant. Plant, in turn, suggested a friend and former band-mate, John Bonham — “Bonzo” affectionately — to play drums. In their first rehearsal together, the four played the Yardbirds’ “The Train Kept a ‘Rollin.
” The session has been described as “magic” by all present. The rest, as they say, is history (Yorke 21-3). Led Zeppelin, along with Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, and Grand Funk, was a progenitor of the musical style known as “heavy metal” rock. As the name suggests, the genre features loudly amplified music that emphasizes the bottom register. Live or on a good stereo, its heaviness has a distinct somatic component — the throb of the guitar, bass, and drums can all be felt the in listener’s gut.
Commentators interpret the genre as one of a number that emerged from the decomposition of psychedelic music in the late sixties (Straw 97-110), According to Straw, early heavy metal had three dominant stylistic traits; first, was the “cult” of the lead guitarist. Heavy metal bands were formed around guitar playing “geniuses” who were revered by fans for their instrumental prowess. As Weinstein reminds us, this extended to their use of, “A wide range of electronic gadgetry, such as wah-wah pedals and fuzz boxes” (Weinstein 23). Second, was the notion of the “power trio,” and other references to musical virtuosity.
Unlike “pop” or commercial bands, whose relationship to musicianship was accidental at best, metal bands were made up of highly proficient musicians. Third, was the “supergroup” phenomenon, and the importance of extended solo playing that discarded the temporal limits of the pop song (Straw 97). As Weinstein observes, many of these attributes could also be discerned within pre-metal acts such as Hendrix or Cream (16-17). Later, the genre’s characteristics would sediment into distinctive stage shows, album cover designs, and audience dress and life styles.
The success of this style has been interpreted as reflecting the emergence of a new rock audience, composed in Davis’ view, of, “Boys and young men between fifteen and twenty-four, an audience who like their rock to be loud, Anglo-Saxon, violent, 4/4, martial. The girls weren’t really at this party. It wasn’t a dance” (Davis 63). Audition tapes in hand, Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, negotiated a five-album, ? 200,000 package with Atlantic Records in late 1969 (Lewis 45). In addition, the band was given complete artistic control over its music and album cover design.
This was an unprecedented deal for a band that had yet to release a single album, and said as much for the negotiating skills of the principals as it did for the label’s expectations of the group’s potential for commercial success. In a move bound to raise more than a few eyebrows, the band removed the “a” from Lead Zeppelin, reportedly so that American fans would not mispronounce it. The magnitude of the deal would lead to charges that the band was based on “hype” rather than solid musicianship (Weinstein). Led Zeppelin’s early musical output fits squarely within the above stylistic categories.
As Rockwell argues, its music was, “Essentially a prolongation of the nineteen-sixties British blues-rock tradition” (Rockwell n. p. ). Rather than offering a reinterpretation of the path laid down by its predecessors, the band’s music mutated the genre, creating a new offshoot. Two direct examples may be found on the band’s first album, Led Zeppelin: Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You” and “You Shook Me. ” No mere covers, each song served as a point of departure for amplified, distorted, and shrieking musical efforts.
Equally characteristic was the way Led Zeppelin offered up portentously expanded variants on American and British folk music. Songs such as “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” from the first album, or “Gallows Pole,” from the third, start with a vocal accompanied by an amplified acoustic guitar, building to complex tapestries of electrified sound and crashing drums (Yorke 72-4). These effects were realized by the way that Page used his guitar and electronic wizardry to explore the coloristic possibilities of distortion. Plant, on the other hand, used his voice like an instrument.
This upset the vocal technique traditionally used by blues singers, which had required them to project emotion. Writing of this practice, Christgau argues, “Its influence on popular singing has been so widespread that, at least among males, singing and emoting have become almost identical — it is a matter of projection rather than hitting the notes” (n. p. ). Thus, singers like Bob Dylan or Neil Young who, by their own admission possessed little vocal talent, could be excused, or even revered, because of their ability to communicate not only lyrical content, but feelings.
Plant’s vocals, in contrast, were devoid of feeling in the traditional sense. The expressive possibilities were found in the sound of his voice rather than in the lyric’s meaning (Lewis 67). No longer chained to lyrics, Plant used his voice as a sound rather than to express emotion, which often meant that a song’s lyrical content was often obscure or indecipherable. Led Zeppelin’s music did not emote in the traditional sense. Even the band’s acoustic work — sounds traditionally coded as “sincere” and “warm” — was sometimes interpreted as lacking feeling.
The often meant that critics would interpret the band’s music as cold, or charge that it was just undifferentiated noise. With his characteristic penchant for hyperbole, Lester Bangs referred to Led Zeppelin’s music as, “The tonal equivalent of a 1933 Nuremburg rally (“Mighty” 62). An analysis of the band’s lyrical themes reveals a variety of topics and sources of inspiration. In Led Zeppelin’s early music, lyrical content, vocal style, and instrumental attack, often exemplify an aggressive, swaggering, male sexuality. All are found within the band’s “Whole Lotta Love,” one of its early hits.
Recorded in 1969, the song has a “dirty” sounding, three-note riff, that has become one of rock’s most recognizable. Plant sung the lyrics, “borrowed” from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” with his best histrionic ardor (Davis). Accompanied by the vocalist howling in orgasmic frenzy, the song’s middle section has churning, swirling, electronic sound effects that move from left to right speakers. On the same album, however, one finds “Ramble On,” a song that embodies and presages Robert Plant’s fascination with Tolkien-inspired imagery and Celtic themes.
Undoubtedly, its lyrics owe a debt to traditional, blues-based tales of ‘ramblin men, who “have no time for spreading roots. ” Ultimately, however, the song breaks from that mold by restating the narrative within the vernacular of an unrelenting, mythical quest for “the queen of all my dreams” (Lewis). Such songs are characteristic of Led Zeppelin’s output, and provide insight into what differentiated the band from its precursors. For Straw, one of the characteristics of their music was a, “Consistent non-invocation of rock history or mythology in any self-conscious or genealogical sense” (103).
While he views this as a generic quality, it is particularly relevant to the analysis of Led Zeppelin’s music. Put differently, when Plant copped blues lyrics for a song it was rarely to evoke a specific musical mood or period. Instead, they became part of a larger musical dynamic. True, a song such as “Bring it on Home,” may have begun with the harmonica and voice mannerisms of an old, black, blues singer, but its inclusion was based primarily on architectural considerations rather than of a desire to pay homage to American urban music of the twenties and thirties.
This misunderstanding is part of the reason that someone like Lester Bangs would write that Led Zeppelin’s, “Albums refine the crude public tools of all dull white blues bands into something awesome in its very insensitive grossness, like a Cecil B. DeMille epic” (“Review of Led Zeppelin” n. p. ). Rather than understanding the mechanics of the effect, or perhaps understanding but still not won over, critics found it easier to interpret the means Page used to achieve it.
As it employed “inflated” or “excessive” means to achieve dynamic contrasts, Led Zeppelin’s music was often accused of being cartoon-like, the perfect intellectual nourishment for its young and uninformed audience (Cole and Trubo 49-50). According to Rockwell, “As it evolved from 1968 onward, Led Zeppelin became the first and greatest mass audience band built up through FM radio-play and live concerts rather than AM singles” (“Led Zeppelin and the Alchemy” 24).
Christgau compliments this view, by observing that the band never “woodshedded” like Cream, that it had a mass audience from the start (n. p. ). Both facts reflected the changing structure of the music industry in the late-sixties and early-seventies. Traditionally, rock bands started at the ground floor. They toured in small venues and received local radio airplay, which they would then parlay into a local or regional base of support. Despite its commercial success, Led Zeppelin positioned itself as a band that lay outside the mainstream.
Though it had a mass audience, the band’s fans felt as if they were members of a secret society. When their early albums were criticized by reviews in the Rolling Stone and other national music publications, they recoiled from contact with the music press. Unlike other bands, its members were rarely in the pages of music magazines (Lewis). Consistent with contractual stipulations, Led Zeppelin exercised absolute control over their artistic direction. They became known as a band that wouldn’t take shit from anyone. Tales of their contrariness have taken on mythic proportions.
At a time when other popular bands were required to cut singles or engage in more subtle or obvious forms of merchandising, they were one of the few that had the power to abstain from these sordid affairs (Yorke 114-5). Despite many lucrative offers, the band refused to perform on television. These stories lent the band a distinctive mystique. Rockwell comments, “Led Zeppelin is a band that is almost a ritual among teen-agers and blissfully alien to the over-21-year-olds” (24). This combination of mass appeal and cult-like allegiance is an unusual and interesting phenomenon.
In structure if not in meaning, the group was the musical equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle. Even today, its status as a “people’s band” remains largely uncontested (Cole and Trubo 102). The hullabaloo surrounding the release of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album provides insight into how the band’s unique status was constructed. In 1971 it released its fourth album. Its jacket contained no words that would identify it as a Led Zeppelin album to “outsiders. ” Inside, one found four “runes” at the top of the liner sleeve (Yorke 133).
When asked to explain the rationale for this unorthodox packaging, Page replied, “We decided that on the fourth album we would deliberately downplay the group name and there wouldn’t be any information on the outer jacket. Names, titles, and things like that do not mean a thing. … What matters is our music. We said we just wanted to rely purely on music”( quoted in Davis 141-142). Within the industry, confusion ensued over what to call the album. Critics labeled it “the fourth album,” or referred to it by catalog number, “Atlantic SD 7208,” while fans often referred to it as “Zoso,” a rough transliteration of the first rune.
One does not have to challenge the sincerity of Mr. Page’s remarks to see how a belief that only music mattered, and that “Names, titles and things” had no relevance, might also function as an effective marketing tool. It played the game both ways: on the one hand, it affirmed the band’s distance from merchandising itself, while, on the other, it created an aura that drew suburban teens to record stores in droves (Cole and Trubo 73). Led Zeppelin toured North America every year from 1968 through 1973, returning in 1975 and 1977. The band had scheduled concert dates for 1980, although John Bonham’s untimely death halted their plans.
The tours since 1973 were conducted with military-like precision. The band even went as far as leasing their own private jets to ferry them to and from shows (Yorke 142). The size of Led Zeppelin’s attendance and gate receipts were to become almost as legendary as its performances. In July 1973 the band broke the Beatles’ record for single concert paid attendance. The Beatles had drawn 55,000, with a $301,000 gross, to Shea Stadium in 1965. Yet that night 56,800 people paid $309,000 to see Led Zeppelin in Tampa, Florida (Robins 116).
In 1977 the band played before 76,229 fans in Pontiac, Michigan, billed as the largest paid crowd for a single attraction in the history of rock. The band’s gross for the evening was $792,361, a record at that time (Swan Song Press Release). While its fans would proudly identify with the band’s “outsider” status, they also took a great deal of satisfaction in the band’s commercial success. This contradiction suggests that the rock ideology had mutated since the late-60, and that its oppositional stance had softened some, reflecting institutional changes that the genre and its audience had undergone during that time (Lewis).
Plant and Page, around whom most of the show revolved, presented starkly different characters. On stage Plant was the front-man. He introduced the songs and chatted with the audience between them. The singer’s appeal was primarily to girls and young women. On stage he was, by turns, coquettish and phallic (Cole and Trubo 66-7). At one moment, he was a golden-curled, teeny-bop dream, provoking fantasies of castles and knights, at another, he was a groaning, pushing, back-door man, ready to break down the door to get what he wanted. Robins characterized his stage presence as, “Spirituality mixed with sexuality” (Robins 117).
Unlike the singer, Page’s appeal was primarily to boys and young men. While the driving force behind the band, he almost never spoke to the audience. His is the silence of young boys, vulnerable and aloof. A waifish, Edwardian figure, Page’s guitar playing was accompanied by dramatic and grandiloquent gestures. On stage he often resembled a wizard marshaling the dark electronic forces at his disposal, an impression heightened by his reported dalliance with Satanism. He appeals to those who feel they have something important to say, but doubt their ability to say them (Davis).
Led Zeppelin’s music always exceeded generic heavy metal boundaries. In the mid-seventies, however, these boundaries were eroding from developments within and without rock music. The stylistic diversity that marked its third and fourth albums was pushed even farther in later albums such as Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. In each, the blues played a less prominent role, and the band’s lyrical concerns began to shift, in a generic sense, overlapping the terrain occupied by progressive groups such as Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
In the mid- to late-seventies the distinctions between the audiences for heavy metal and progressive rock began to fragment (Weinstein 29). By the mid 70s, Led Zeppelin’s audience had become more varied. While still holding much of its traditional audience base, new groups such as Boston, Aerosmith, or Kansas, competed with the band for the allegiance of young listeners. By contrast, its music became part of the mainstream. In 1976, for example, the daughter of the president, Susan Ford, said on the Dick Cavett Show that Led Zeppelin was her favorite group.
Not able to let its historical commitment to youth be outshone, the Democrats responded in kind. Speaking at the National Association of Record Manufacturers convention, Jimmy Carter “reminisced about listening to Led Zeppelin records during all-night sessions when he was governor of Georgia” (Davis 296-7). While anecdotal, both accounts suggest that Led Zeppelin had become something of an institution. As a signifier of youth, one needed only to refer to it to become cool. As is common in politics, however, the symbolism rang hollow.
Although the undisputed ruler of America’s high school parking lots in the early seventies, by the dawn of the eighties Led Zeppelin was no longer able to unite different youth factions under its sonic umbrella. Instead, these same parking lots were the sites of tribal warfare, with one area given over to New Wave, another to Disco or dance music, and still another to Metal (Straw 101-3). Led Zeppelin was, arguably, the most commercially successful rock band of the seventies, all the while maintaining an aura that made its young audience feel as if it were part of a secret society.
From their standpoint, fandom was an entry into a “community” the size of which has not been seen since. It was also, arguably, the most significant and influential rock band of the seventies. Emerging from the decomposition of 60s psychedelia, the band played a leading role in the development of the decade’s musical, performance, and business practices. Works Cited Bangs, Lester. Review of Led Zeppelin III, Atlantic SD 7201. Rolling Stone. (November 26,1970): NP. Bangs, Lester. “Mighty War Machine, Familiar as a heartbeat,” Creem.
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