Music – Led Zeppelin (written 2006)

Led Zeppelin

My favorite music group is Led Zeppelin.  (As I previously noted, the Beatles are the best music group ever, and should be everyone’s favorite, so it is moot to list them as my favorite).

Led Zeppelin differs from the Beatles in that their strong suit was not songwriting, as in the case of the Beatles, but instead in arrangement and execution of the material.  No other individual group members ever came together in such a perfect mixture as in Led Zeppelin, where each member was indispensable to the group, and each member was a genius at his own instrument.

[Even the Beatles did not have this characteristic, at least musically, for Ringo, although a great drummer, was not essential musically to the Beatles.  Obviously John and Paul were indispensable, and the Beatles would not have been the Beatles with just one of them; both John and Paul were needed, and George’s melodic gifts provided an important ballast to John and Paul, though he, as one person, did not provide as much weight, and his contributions were not as many (but he was one person, and John and Paul had the benefit of writing with and against each other, and they limited George’s songs on each album, and even John and Paul’s later Beatles songs, which were essentially solo pieces, benefitted from their songwriting competition, as neither of their truly solo work compares with their Beatles work), though George’s songs were excellent, and some of my favorite songs of all-time are songs George wrote for the Beatles.  Plus his stellar guitar work and Indian-influenced music and spirituality were significant in rounding out the Beatles.

Ringo was essential to the Beatles as a personality (had he left the Beatles they would have had to break up, for each person was an indelible component of the Beatles as a pop culture phenomenon), but not musically.  Any good drummer could have stepped in.

You certainly can’t compare Ringo as a drummer to Keith Moon, for the Who were not quite the same without Moon (though I hate to disparage poor Kenny Jones), or especially to John Bonham, whose death (rightly) brought about the dissolution of Led Zeppelin.  The drumming of both Bonham and Moon is instantly identifiable, each with its own signature and style.  But I think any good drummer could have played a Beatles song, and we know that Paul sometimes did step in and drum.]

But each member of Led Zeppelin was irreplaceable, and, as I said, genius at his instrument.  I used to think that Robert Plant’s voice, though certainly unique and easily identifiable, was the least crucial of all the instruments used in Led Zeppelin until I heard covers of Led Zeppelin’s songs.  It was then that I realized how necessary was Plant’s voice and that his voice is an astonishing instrument in itself.  I finally appreciated the travels his voice took in each song and at last understood how only he could sing those songs in a way that made them Led Zeppelin.

I had always valued Bonham’s drumming, especially in the dazzling “Achilles’ Last Stand” (the drumming in Metallica’s “One” echoes the drumming here), and the commanding “When the Levee Breaks,” and of course I always loved Page’s guitar work, especially in the magnificent “The Rover” and yes, “Achilles’ Last Stand.”

John Paul Jones I was always thunderstruck by, as he was not only a superb bass player but excelled on the organ as well, especially in “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” which is my all-time favorite Zeppelin song, and “Thank You,” which is exquisitely beautiful, certainly not because of Plant’s weak (though admittedly heart-felt) lyrics but largely due to the organ played by JPJ, and (and I will get more to JPJ in a moment).

So I never quite appreciated Plant’s voice  in the beginning.  I do now, though, and I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t at first.  Plant’s voice is amazing!  “Communication Breakdown” especially is a tour de force of his voice and I am astounded every time I listen to it.

Again, the genius of Led Zeppelin is the four members’ arrangement and playing of the material, not the songwriting.  No one else could play their songs and make them sound as incredible.

Whereas in the Beatles, because the songwriting is the genius and is what matters, their songs can travel to other singers and musicians and still sound great (as long as there are not too many liberties taken), though certainly not as wonderful as the original Beatles song.  Beatles songs are portable and translatable.  Led Zeppelin’s songs are not.

Led Zeppelin songs on paper, lyrically and melodically, are actually quite ordinary, like a flat dialogue that only comes to life when truly gifted actors lift the material to a new and higher level.  Yes, in Zeppelin songs where the melody is strong, other people can sing and play their songs, as in “Tangerine,” the lovely instrumental “Bron-Y-Aur,” and especially the heart-wrenching (and one of my favorites) “That’s the Way,” but melody is not their constant companion, as it was for the Beatles.

Led Zeppelin’s gift is the four members themselves and their instruments.  In the more melodic songs, certainly the songwriting itself carries more weight, but in most of their songs, it is all four members and their contributions that elevate the songs, reaching a majestic level.

Their arrangements of existing songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “When the Levee Breaks” are completely Led Zeppelinized.  No one else could make them sound the way they do.

Most Led Zeppelin songs, especially their original compositions, are stunningly powerful as performed by Led Zeppelin.  Without Led Zeppelin, the songs are impotent.  No other group of four people could craft and carry out songs that are more than mere songs but true listening experiences — “Achilles’ Last Stand,” “Carouselambra,” “How Many More Times,” “Battle of Evermore,” “Good Times, Bad Times,” “Trampled Underfoot,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “What Is and What Should Never Be,” “Communication Breakdown,” “Over the Hills and Far Away” “The Rover,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Immigrant Song,” “Hot Dog,” “Night Flight,” “Boogie with Stu,” “Sick Again,” and “Down By the Seaside” (such an amazing song, and the middle section reminds me of the middle section in the equally wonderful “Welcome” from the Who’s Tommy) — like Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin is famous for their “light and shade,” their ability to be extremely heavy yet also beautifully tender and even, yes, melodic.  Led Zeppelin’s greatness is not the songwriting; it’s putting each facet together.  All four together created works of genius even with material that in basic bare-bones form would not be considered very close to genius.  A bare-bones Beatles song, just in its lyric sheet, is genius.  It is very hard to ruin a Beatles song, even with a mediocre singer.

In contrast, Zeppelin songs really can’t be performed by anyone unless they have talent.  Though Page and Plant composed most of their original songs (and we know many of their songs were covers or arrangements of existing songs), the actual songs themselves, when you just look at the lyrics and melody, are not nearly as strong as those of Lennon/McCartney.

But what each member of Led Zeppelin did in executing the songs, in performing them, is bring his own particular genius to the song.  Like the Beatles, the sum of the parts was infinitely greater than what each part could accomplish on his own, but even moreso with Led Zeppelin.  In Led Zeppelin the individual parts create a whole that is larger and more splendid than anything the individuals could have done on their own, and yet inconceivable without those four individual parts coming together.

My favorite member of Led Zeppelin is John Paul Jones, for he definitely seems to be the most humble one in the band.  I read an interview with him where he stated that Page and Plant told him he should come out to the front of the stage more often, but he realized that the sound was better when he played in the background.  He did not care about getting the attention and adulation; all he cared about was providing the best performance for their audience.  I love that!

I am dismayed that JPJ does not get more attention, and that Page and Plant didn’t include him in their tour, for he is truly a musical genius, an awe-inspiring multi-instrumentalist.  Also, I love that he is still married to his wife, whom he was married to before he ever joined Led Zeppelin (and this speaks volumes about his wife for putting up with everything).

I know there are all kinds of decadent stories involving Led Zeppelin in their hey-day, and JPJ was most likely involved in those (and the infamous “Royal Orleans” song immortalizes one such event), but it doesn’t make him a bad or un-decent person, nor anyone who participates in such activity.  We don’t know what it’s like to be in those situations.

But at any rate, JPJ just seems like such a decent, nice person, and very humble about his talents and abilities.  I really love him.  Of all the rock stars, he and David Gilmour and Kirk Hammet are the ones I most admire for their decency and humility and unbelievable talent and are the ones that I would most like to meet.

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