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.
Raise a pint to the stupidly nerdly. Led Zeppelin are demigods of cock rock and all that, but their nerdiness is just so endearing, it’s adorable and squee. Their Tolkien references are so self-conscious and off-base; they’re not even good nerds. I understand that if you happen to be Robert Plant, then yes, you could reasonably expect to be picking up chicks in the darkest depths of Mordor, but it’s not canon, Robert, not canon. You just have to trowel those references in where they don’t fit at all, because why, to show that you know how to read? Honestly, though, I’ll take “Middle Earth the Led Zeppelin edition” quite happily; it’s a sexier place than the original.
The “born in the wrong generation” brand of false nostalgia that some young people subscribe to is stupid; it glosses over all of the ways the world used to be so much worse to live in for so many people. People are surely entitled to feel nostalgic for the times they’ve lived through themselves, but to long for times you only know through other people’s artifacts is disingenuous. With all that being said, however, goddamn would I not have liked to have been alive to see Led Zeppelin in all of their glory! Whatever shit went down in the 1970’s, it would have been worth it. I have seen Robert Plant in concert, and he still has L’Oreal-girl hair, but he’s a lion in winter now. If I had seen the lion at the height of his powers, I would never, ever, miss an opportunity to be an insufferable bore about it at parties.
Watching Led Zeppelin in action, I ponder on how much of their image (and, of course, their sound) was built on their understanding of mysticism and mythology. No question, Jimmy Page fancied himself some sort of fire shaman, with his dragon suit and his backlit posturing. Led Zeppelin started out as a blues-based band, but by the time of their full fledged success, the blues was only nominally an influence. What they really set out to do was create a suitably epic soundtrack to the historical mythology slash fantasy that had become quite in vogue during the 60’s. The sense that perhaps a particularly English mythology was somewhat lacking in comparison to the cool mythology of other cultures was what had inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create his richly populated world, and it was a feeling that struck a deep chord. The rock demimonde of the 60’s was fascinated with all things fantasy, from the English-pastoral to the quasi-historical to the darkly occult. Page and Plant really made it cool like nobody else did, thanks to being head and shoulders above most of their peers in both the musicianship and charisma departments. Being thundering sex gods really helped sell the fantasy. Led Zeppelin’s music, besides the obvious requirement of being good music, filled the same need that fantasy novels and before them religion-based myths have done; the need to imagine a world of something more.
Led Zeppelin spawned a lot of bad things, from stoners with uncombed hair to self-indulgent drum solos, but for that we forgive them, because every one of those things was born of awe. Who doesn’t on some level wish to emulate that loud grandiosity? I’m not immune. It’s not music for easy listening; if you don’t crank it and ‘bang, Odin may smite you. There’s really something childish – though not in a bad way – in the simple pleasure of a very loud and pounding song. This one gave birth to a lot of emulations. Few came close.
This just makes me want to break down in a torrent of “they don’t make ’em like that anymore!” like a goddamn old person. And when I say they don’t make ’em like that, I’m talking about Robert Plant’s trousers. When did it stop being fashionable for young men to publicly display every nuance of their package? I guess around the same time that lifestyle magazines stopped publishing full color ads for ivory coke spoons. Nowadays it’s all about the butt cleavage, which I’m less of a fan of. Nobody would call Plant, Page and their peers unsung heroes, but let’s sing their praises yet again; it can’t have been comfortable walking around like that all day long. I mean, denim seams grinding on your dainty bits, ouch. Not to mention the potential adverse health effects. And they did it all for your viewing pleasure. Just look at that selfless display of male pulchritude. What a hero!
This is a top exhibit in the argument that Led Zeppelin willfully stole from blues artists. As opposed to ‘paying homage’ to them. That’s a very fine line, of course, plagiarism vs. homage. On the first hand, it’s kind of unfair it single out Led Zeppelin for this accusation in the first place; nearly everyone of any note in the British Invasion music scene mined the blues to some degree. It was a music scene that wouldn’t have existed without the influence of American blues music, and everyone owed that debt regardless of how much they were willing to credit it. But credit is where the line lies, though. Page and Plant felt comfortable enough to give themselves songwriting credit on an adaptation of a traditional tune, but Page and Plant also based this song, admittedly, on a recording by Blind Willie Johnson, though Blind Willie Johnson didn’t write the tune but was merely the first known person to record it. You may also notice that Zeppelin effectively annihilated any passing resemblance to roots blues except for the basic lyrics. You’d be hard pressed to draw a line between Johnson’s bare bones blues and Robert Plant’s unearthly wail, as hard pressed as finding a parallel between Plant’s glamorous existence and Johnson’s short and barely documented life. Yet, somehow, the raw soul recorded by a blind Texan preacher who lived out his final days sleeping in the ashes of his own burned down house evolved into the cocksure posturing of a group of flagrantly degenerate English occultists.