Does anyone remember Led Zeppelin?
blog by Cliff Parks • October 16, 2012 @ 8:40am
The hazy light catches the golden lion’s mane of hair just right through the smoke. The potent guitar riffs, thunderous rhythm section and fantastical lyrics are interrupted for a moment as Robert Plant would ask the audience, “Does anybody remember laughter?” The crowd goes wild and the band kicks back into the groove like they never stopped.
Those rock gods of the 1970s—Led Zeppelin—are returning, and the response from the majority has been relatively subdued to say the least. Obviously—with the death of drummer John Bonham—it’s not a true reunion of the band, but when the long-awaited concert movie Celebration Day hits theaters next week, it’s the closest—for now—that we are going to get.
Celebration Day will be screened twice in Western New York. Both viewings will be at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 17 and Thursday Oct. 18 at the Transit Center Stadium 18 plus IMAX (6707 Transit Road, Williamsville). You can purchase tickets online.
Featuring original members Robert Plant (vocals), Jimmy Page (guitar) and John Paul Jones (bass) with Jason Bonham (son of John) on drums, this footage from a one-time reunion show at London’s O2 Arena in 2007, Celebration Day will arrive in record stores next month with a release on DVD, Blu-ray, CD and vinyl.
There is an air of ecstatic anticipation for Zepp heads and die hard music fans, but this is an increasingly narrow, particular niche. Is there a celebration occurring in the larger popular culture? Not at all, which leads to the previously unheard of but now inevitable discussions of Led Zeppelin’s relevance in 2012.
So, millenials, what’s so important about these guys? Consider: Led Zeppelin were legends in their own time—the band so big that they didn’t get around to naming an album until their fifth release (Houses of the Holy). They created an unbelievably popular version of hard rock, selling over 111 million records in the United States alone. The band was lionized for their rock-star excess and wrote songs based on J. R. R. Tolkien stories. Jimmy Page lived in legendary occultist Aleister Crowley’s house and worked with avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger on the notorious art film Scorpio Rising.
Led Zeppelin was alternately loathed and loved by rock intelligentsia but were absolutely worshiped by their fans. Richard Linklater named his most popular film, Dazed and Confused, after one of their epic songs but was unable to get permission to actually use any of their music in his high-school stoner coming-of-age movie. Jack Black literally had to beg to use “Immigrant Song” for School of Rock. Unflinching fan support gave Led Zeppelin six number-one records, five certified Diamond albums (that’s 10 million or more records sold) and—by some estimates—300 million record sales worldwide.
Few other bands inspire such devotion. Indeed, the very discussion of Led Zeppelin being irrelevant would have been entirely absurd 20 years ago, when the popular hard rock bands of the day—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains—acknowledged a heavy debt to the band. After the death of Bonham in 1980, Zeppelin called it quits, but their impact was still immense, their music remaining a rite of passage and the soundtrack of teenage invincibility and youthful misdeeds. A commonly-held opinion in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the genre of 1970s British rock epitomized by Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (and, to a lesser extent, Black Sabbath) was “it”—the best there was, better than anything before or since.
In 2003, when Zeppelin released their live album How The West Was Won (a skull-crushing three-disc set recorded on their 1972 tour) and live career retrospective on DVD, both were met with widespread excitement. So was news in 2007 that the band, with Jason Bonham filling in on drums, would regroup for a tribute to deceased Atlantic Records founder and president, Ahmet Etregun. Under Etregun’s stewardship, the label gave the band complete artistic freedom and became home to Zeppelin’s legendary, influential and successful oeuvre, as well as other 70’s music icons Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Mott the Hoople and Yes.
But even in these pat five years, the world has changed. Led Zeppelin’s current state of relevancy—or, sadly, irrelevancy?— has nothing to do with them and everything to do with us. Last week’s New York Magazine has a cover story reporting that Grizzly Bear, the preeminent indie band of the last five years, is essentially living hand-to-mouth in 2012. Of course, most of us probably didn’t think they were living like Jimmy Page in 1974, but the fact that band member Ed Droste gets his health insurance through his husband rather than earned for their status of success is just seems wrong. The current state of music is all well and good for Bruce Springsteen or U2, who have had a steady crowd of fanatics following them for the past 40 years, but we’ve wrecked something in our culture when being in a hit band is a dim career prospect. Has good music and caring about good music, in terms of the larger culture, become irrelevant? Do we value music like we used to? Do we devalue Led Zeppelin because it becomes increasingly more difficult to understand how there could even be a culturally shared experience like Led Zeppelin?
Even in music circles, there’s increasing indifference to Led Zeppelin. Among indie rockers—while we’d like to chalk it up to the vestigial remnants of the anti-Zeppelin sentiments espoused by the first wave of punk rock—there remains the pretentious and cynical rejection of the rather unpretentious and hopeful Led Zeppelin and their fans. Why? What’s with all of these dividing lines separating our various worlds of music? The never-ending hostility and clichéd views between listeners are becoming a downer, and more importantly they are hindering the forging of a strong-knit community in a music world that is rapidly diminishing. While music is widely relative and tastes can be tolerably varying, there’s just way too much overlap between classic and indie rock for subjective and frankly pretentious barriers.
The mainstream rush is becoming stronger as many music acts are building a repertoire around singles instead of producing albums and labels forgo artists for instant cash from hit singles. This is not to say that there are not bands making proper, old-school albums, but they are increasingly in the minority and almost certainly not on major labels. Purity Ring, for instance, teased audiences in the buildup to the release of their debut album with three singles, similar to the way the industry worked back in the old days—building hype and preparing for Judgment Day upon its release. The xx is another of the many bands that had intense anticipation for their album release. M83’s last album—a double album!—was a commercially successful, sprawling collection of songs, just like labels used to let artists make in the 70s. By putting out an album that has undeniable flow, poetic feel, a unique attraction and cohesive artistic expression, listeners are able to more experience bands and create bonds with these artists with a true sense of love for their music.
Cameron Crowe captured this passion when he wrote and directed the film Almost Famous. Consider this quote that he puts in the mouth of the character of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs, who—in reality, not just the movies—was perhaps the greatest rock writer of all time:
Music…you know, true music, not just rock and roll, it chooses you. It lives in your car or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with vast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain. It’s a place apart from the vast benign laugh of America.“If you have a vicious passion for many bands or just one, like the Led Zeppelin fan in the film who carried around a permanent marker after having his shirt signed by the band, screaming, “He touched this pen!,” hold onto it, be shameless and share your love of it without pretension. A world without true music fans would be a very sad place, and if it weren’t for the fans, well, musicians would have no reason to exist.
This is what Led Zeppelin was all about. It’s this passion for the music that we worry about losing. Once that’s gone, we are truly doomed.
Photo from YouTube.
More work by Cliff Parks and Alicia Greco can be found at BuffaBLOG, Buffalo’s premier music blog.