Led Zeppelin represents the appeal of rock and roll at its most base, a transporting assault on the senses. It’s an art form that has, obviously, the capacity to be thought-provoking, but if it doesn’t first make you feel, it’s not doing its job. That’s what the essence of a good rock song is all about, and you can see that it doesn’t take a lot of props to present a memorable spectacle. Led Zeppelin on stage in their prime made some of our most iconic cultural images, and they didn’t need pyrotechnics or catwalks to do it. It’s all about the energy and attitude, killer riffs, and a nice ass. That might sound like a pretty simple formula, but a lot of people have tried following it and didn’t come close to capturing the magic. You can have the biggest hair and the tightest pants, but you also need to have good songs. A sexy image is the icing on top of the musicianship and songwriting, that’s what makes an iconic group. So the formula is actually not so simple, even for the basics. Good music is ineffable, I guess. There’s no formula for why putting Led Zeppelin IV on the record player is still the quintessential rock fan experience.
This is the song I proffer to people who say they don’t like the Grateful Dead as an example of their thoughtful songwriting and concise musicianship. Not everyone enjoys folk songs with mandolins, of course, or lyrics with Biblical references, but overall it’s pretty hard to resist. Most people who don’t like the Dead aren’t objecting to the music, and I can count myself among those who don’t enjoy the cultish aspect of their fandom. Weird cultural baggage aside, the music holds up well enough; American Beauty is just about a perfect album. Does it make you want to take off on a stoned road trip in a Volkswagen camper van? Maybe not, but it does have that magical something that just shifts your cosmic vibes back into alignment.
This leaves me no choice but to put on Electric Warrior and then continue listening to T. Rex until it’s time to go to work. T. Rex just makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Marc Bolan has a legacy with a lot of impact, and we can talk about all of the ways his work is important and influential in the world. I can talk about all of the ways it’s important and influential to me personally. But really, it just makes me happy, and it’s supposed to do that, and that’s part of the legacy. I think I’m getting sentimental.
At last! Something you all are already familiar with. I could listen to The Doors all day. I could listen to them every day. Maybe not all day every day, but let’s just say I could listen to them a lot. Being a Doors fan has cycled in and out of fashion, depending on whether portentous songwriting and psychedelic experimentation and demon-god rock star swagger are being done or not (they’re currently not), but it doesn’t matter. Things that are truly classic don’t wax and wane. It doesn’t matter if you think this is deeply profound or if you think it’s just noodly cocktail jazz dressed up in leather trousers. If you think that you and Jim Morrison are like-minded intellectuals for sharing a Heidegger reference across decades, then great. Jim is surely smiling down on you from heaven – or up from the depths, what have you. He’s thrilled to see that there’s still people who appreciate his literary references. If you only enjoy the song because it’s fun to get high to, that’s fine too. It’s an outstanding song for getting high. (That’s a real fresh take, I know.) That was probably very much a part of the original intention. It’s got something for everybody. Shallow or deep.
Well, there’s one kind of blues I’ve never had to have. All the other kinds, yes, this one, no. Ahahahaha haha ha *weeping* “Always play to win, always seem to lose” is very true, though. Terry Reid was on it when he wrote that. Reid is one of those underrated talents who never quite got off the sidelines and into the spotlight, but some of his songs have had lives of their own. This one has been around the block. Marianne Faithfull recorded it in 1971, for an album that wouldn’t be released until the mid-80’s. Faithfull was dead on her feet in 1971, and she sounded it, but her song choice couldn’t be more apropos. She lived the blues. Every shade of the blues. However much I love her interpretation of things, in this case, I think it’s a little wobbly. There’s really only one definitive take of this song, and no, it’s not the original. The Raconteurs took it and blew it up. That’s likely where you’ve heard it, and you probably didn’t know it’s not a Jack White original. White is a great songwriter, of course, but he’s a great interpreter too, and when he does a cover, it’s always both unexpected and totally perfect. This duet with Brendan Benson is that, and one of the Raconteurs’ highlights.
Paul McCartney’s two-minute toss-offs are better than your symphonies. That’s an exaggeration; symphonies are symphonies and Paul McCartney’s are not all that. But two-minute pop songs are a different story. How many hit songs come out that cost millions of dollars to produce and have a credit list to rival a Hollywood blockbuster? And how many of those songs suck so much it makes you wonder if any human beings were involved in their making at all? Then there’s what Paul McCartney comes up with just doodling around alone in his basement. McCartney puts most of the rest of the music industry to shame.
“Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief”
Feel free to Google along if you want to follow all of the references. Being a David Bowie fan comes with a lot of homework. He consumes and repurposes culture of every stripe -a prodigious amount of culture – and he doesn’t bother to provide footnotes. Bowie, like many of his rock star peers, attended a technical arts school and he carried the persona of the earnest art student for many years afterwards. (As I understand it, at that time, English art schools served as a dumping ground for students who did poorly on their exams or had disciplinary issues i.e. John Lennon, Keith Richards, et al.) In fact, if the ever shifting nebula of Bowie personas could be boiled down to an essence, it would be that of the prodigious student. The brilliant student who shows off with his scope of knowledge grows into the confident academic so at ease with his many points of reference. On Hunky Dory – and this track in particular – we catch Bowie as the student who still feels the need to mix in ALL of the references just to show that he knows them, like an amateur cook going crazy with the spice rack. Do you really need to namecheck Greta Garbo and Heinrich Himmler? And Churchill? And Crowley? And Nietzsche? We get it, you’re an intellectual. From anyone else less brilliant it would be insufferable, of course, but it’s Bowie, and he built his stature on his ability to appeal to those people who feel at home with occult references and many level’d depths of meaning, people who feel underserved and understimulated by lowest-denominator entertainment. Just as he validated and inspired sexual outsiders with his androgyny and glamour, he attracted intellectual outsiders and dissidents with his book smarts and ambitious ideas. If David Bowie was an object, he’d be a bookshelf covered with glitter.