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.
Led Zeppelin, being mythical. If they hadn’t been so damn good, they’d have been silly. They were always just on the precipice of Spinal Tap territory, with their constant references to Tolkien and Norse mythology, but by the force of their conviction they managed to avoid being ridiculous. They also managed to validate and glamorize those nerdy things. Their brand of cool has proved to be enduring, too; decades gone and high schools are still full of boys with Robert Plant ringlets and occult amulets, debating the minutiae of Middle Earth and the comparative value of various guitar strings. It’s a way of life.
Exhibit A in everyone’s ‘geeks are hot’ argument. That’s a fallacy, of course. Nerds and geeks, as we know them, are not hot. Robert Plant is hot and radiates hotness all over whatever dweeby things he likes that other guys would get wedgied for liking. Thus they’ve made it permissible to rock out to songs about Middle Earth. Elevating everything you touch is all part of being a rock star; it’s what separates the mere mortals from the golden gods. It’s what has allowed Led Zeppelin to remain part of the cultural vocabulary long after they’ve ceased to be a functioning unit.
Now I know what Jimmy Page’s least favorite Led Zeppelin song is. What I don’t know is why. It’s definitely a cool song that rocks, but that’s probably not the criteria Page judges his own work on. Evidently, they wrote it about an annoying groupie (file under ‘things the members of Led Zeppelin would know a lot about’) so perhaps it brings back bad memories. Jimmy Page was a perv in his time so maybe this groupie’s crime was not being underage enough. I honestly don’t think I need to know the details. Being golden gods of depravity was kind of Led Zeppelin’s thing, and you can be turned on or skeeved out by it as you wish. In related news, Page and Plant have both confirmed to Rolling Stone that they are never, never, ever getting back together, because as Plant said with a strong hint of snark, he’s not bored enough to do so. I’m beginning to suspect those two don’t really like each other very much. I’ve heard lots of variously conflicting stories about why Led Zeppelin is never ever getting back together. Page and Plant not getting along is a popular hypothesis. Another, meaner, one is that Robert Plant won’t go on tour because he is no longer physically able to hit those high notes. Which is most likely true, but still mean to say. Another story I read, in no less a reputable source than Rolling Stone magazine, that after a brief one-off reunion Plant refused a tour so Page planned to get on the road with Steven Tyler as a replacement, but the plans fell through when Tyler declined out of respect for Plant. (Which totally makes me respect Steven Tyler more than I usually do.) What it looks like is Page and Plant have a wary love/hate relationship, and Plant just has too many cool projects he’d rather be doing instead of singing “hey hey mama” every night for a year, while Page has no cool projects and spends his time obsessively curating the Zeppelin back catalog. It’s in Rolling Stone, man.