Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Led Zeppelin (1969)

Led Zeppelin makes a splash with their first album, one of the greatest debut albums in rock history. If it's true that original material is sparse here (lots of rehashing of blues and folk tunes), the band makes up for it with their musicality, making these songs sound like you've never heard them before (if you've even heard them before). One thing is clear, Zep is a band with four extremely talented musicians - Jimmy Page on guitar, Robert Plant on vocals, John Bonham on drums, and John Paul Jones on bass and keyboard (among other instruments) - and not only that, they also have great chemistry together, which I think is the secret to why Led Zeppelin were one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

The album opens with Good Times Bad Times. In Zep's catalog, I've always felt that this song was somewhat underwhelming. Though compared to any other band's material, the infectious energy that marks all of Zep's more upbeat rockers is well on display here. It's got a great pulse to kick off the album, but the real gems are a little deeper into the tracklist.

Now, Babe I'm Gonna Leave You is an exceptional song. It's a brooding, beautiful-in-its-sorrowfullness acoustic tune, and yet it boasts a kicking electric part. This is practically a blueprint for Led Zeppelin's musical philosophy, showcasing their mastery of both 'light and shade' - their understanding of the dramatic importance of dynamics in music. That it's an old folk tune is remarkable, because here the band breathes entirely new life into it.

You Shook Me, itself, is not only a perfect example of the way that Led Zeppelin could take a blues song (parts of several, actually) and make it sound new and exciting, but is also a fantastic example of their 'tight but loose' mentality. Well-rehearsed bands are known for playing music that is 'tight', with everything in its right place, while jam bands are known for playing 'loose', with things kind of just falling into place wherever they fit. Zeppelin was unique in that they could play loosely and still make it sound tight, thanks to both their musicianship and their chemistry. Just observe the playful back-and-forth between Plant's voice and Page's guitar in this song, a trademark that the band would utilize in many other songs. Hearing this one for the thousandth time, it may come off a tad bit grating or whiny, but that doesn't diminish the fantastic virtuosity that is on display here.

What can one say about Dazed and Confused? It was a tune nicked by The Yardbirds from acid folk singer/songwriter Jake Holmes, brought to Led Zep (which began life as "The New Yardbirds") by Jimmy Page. It became one of the band's signature songs, for good reason. It's an epic, brooding number, all heavy, with a solo (partly repeated from Page's solo on The Yardbirds' Think About It) that just barrels along. It introduces Jimmy's eerie violin-bow-on-guitar-strings effect (also pioneered with The Yardbirds). And if all that wasn't enough, it takes on even greater life on stage, when the band performed it live. In truth, I've always loved the purity of the studio version, but these days, I think that it can't quite stand up to the power and the majesty of the best of its live versions, some clocking in at the vicinity of thirty minutes, sometimes giving birth to medleys of unrelated songs planted within its bowels. It may not be entirely original (though Plant did rewrite the lyrics for Zep's version), but it is one of Zep's most outstanding contributions to the history of rock music.

For all that I say I don't like Your Time Is Gonna Come, it has an excellent organ part, good lyrics, and is very catchy. It's just, the chorus is obnoxiously repetitive, and it's not rock 'n roll enough for me. But it's not a bad piece of music by any stretch of the imagination.

Black Mountain Side makes for an excellent intermission piece. It's a very accomplished acoustic number, that showcases Jimmy's talent - even if it's a cover and not an original. As acoustic numbers go, it's a pretty interesting one (which should probably be credited to Bert Jansch, hailed by folkies as the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar). It's somewhat more of a showcase married to the other acoustic intermission piece Jimmy did in The Yardbirds, White Summer, the way he played it live with Zep (as seen on the Royal Albert Hall section of the Led Zeppelin DVD). But here, it acts as a nice breather before getting on to some more of Zep's heavier pieces.

And speaking of which, Communication Breakdown is the perfection of what Good Times Bad Times strived to be - the short, high energy rocker. It's got a blood-pumping riff, a catchy chorus, and an excellent, concise performance by the band. It's not complicated, but it's good, raucous fun, the simplest distillation of the rock 'n roll formula, especially looking backwards toward the two-and-a-half minute singles of the fifties, rather than forward toward the seven-and-a-half minute epics of the seventies, of which Led Zeppelin would be among the front-runners.

I Can't Quit You Baby is actually a cover of an Otis Rush song (actually written by Willie Dixon), which was also previously recorded by rival band John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (while future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor was in the band). Zep's arrangement closely follows the Bluesbreakers' formula, but has the advantage of Plant's wailing vocals and Page's guitar tantrums to aid the pathos of the piece. Nevertheless, it still remains in relative obscurity, all but ignored even by most Zep fans. I, on the other hand, have for a long time considered it one of their better songs, being - as I am - a huge blues fan. This is one of the band's most straight-up bluesy pieces, and it has a coolness to it that evokes something of a loungey atmosphere - but not in the bored, dispassionate sense that Steely Dan's overproduced music conjures. I still like it a lot.

Despite being pretty much a mash-up of various songs, as well as a rehashing of The Yardbirds' arrangement of a different Howlin' Wolf tune - Smokestack Lightning - How Many More Times is surprisingly cohesive, and charismatic besides. I've always loved it. It's epic, but in more of a havin'-a-good-time sort of way than Dazed & Confused's the-world-is-ending sense. And the transitions between the different parts of the song, including tempo changes, really gives it a liveliness that is infectious. It's as much an ode to The Yardbirds' rave-ups as it is to the blues songs it commandeers. And that's a pretty fantastic combination, if you ask me.

No comments:

Post a Comment