Trampled Underfoot

Take away Led Zeppelin's mystique - the groupies, the narcotics, the scary manager, the rigorous fiscal policy - and what are you left with? Nick Coleman on the lasting impact of the biggest, loudest rock band in the world (in the Seventies)
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Twice a week I drop my two and a half-year-old daughter off at the childminder's. We have a routine. I strap her in to her car seat, we set off and before we get to the end of our road, she starts yelling "Music! Music!" So we listen to music together for the five minutes it takes to do the journey. She particularly likes music that moves. She is a party girl in the making, I suspect.

Last Monday week I had Led Zeppelin in the stereo - a bootleg of one of several shows the group played to a sold-out Madison Square Garden, NYC, in 1975. It was in the machine because I'd been revising for this piece. I always like an excuse to think about Led Zeppelin and get battered about the head while I'm doing it. And the night before, I'd parked outside the house and switched off the music at that point in "Dazed and Confused" at which Jimmy Page gets out a violin bow and whips the strings of his guitar. Boiling, chromatic, adolescent sexual angst dissolves into cosmic entropy. The passage goes on for about 10 minutes, a cadenza of high-decibel whipping and scraping. "Sorry, Beezer," I said. "I realise this isn't exactly dancing-round-your-handbag music. I promise I'll have something more fun on tomorrow."

"But Daddy," she said, smiling happily, "I like clown music."

Context isn't everything, but it does count for a lot, especially in popular and semi-popular music. This occurred to me a few days later, sitting in the Empire Leicester Square, London's premiere film premiere venue. There must have been a thousand of us, reclining in tidy rows on its squishy seats, the hefty majority of us men in our thirties, forties and fifties, all of us zizzing with mature anticipation and wondering how it would feel to see "Black Dog" in action after all these years. There were no celebrities there as such, apart from the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, the members of one or two other less luminous groups, and Alan Curbishley of Charlton Athletic.

We were about to sit through an abridged two-hour theatrical preview of unseen live Zeppelin footage shot at a variety of different venues in the seventies (released into the wild in full tomorrow on DVD). Clambering to my seat, I'd become entangled with the guy in the berth next door and, out of sheer surprise at him being there at all, failed to recognise him, even though we'd been acquainted for some years.

"Jez," I said. "Good heavens! What are you doing here?" I know Jez primarily as the presenter of a jazz programme on Radio 3. "Oh," said Jez, somewhat tight-lipped. "I've always liked Zeppelin. And for some reason, I've started playing them again recently. Not sure why." And so we sat there like prawns, frozen into our seats, a couple of shaven-headed, incipiently middle-aged chaps-who-like-jazz, and had our inner cavities re-arranged for us. I have never experienced an atmosphere quite like it. Despite the torrent of noise coming out of the walls, you got the feeling that if you were to sidle up to any one of the other fellows present and quietly said boo in his ear, he'd jump out of his skin. There was a deal of anxiety abroad. What, exactly, are we all doing here?

In his essay on Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" in 31 Songs, Nick Hornby suggests that the possibility exists that we don't, as adolescent boys, cleave to heavy guitar music simply as an assertion of our masculine interest in being erect, but because we have a natural anxiety about how to ascribe value to things. "I was unable to trust my judgement of a song," he writes of music in general. "Like a pretentious but dim adult who won't watch a film unless it has subtitles, I wouldn't listen to anything that wasn't smothered in loud, distorted electric guitars. How was I to know whether the music was any good otherwise?" This rings true - especially when you add to the contextual mix the unsponsored erections that are every 14 year-old's diurnal joy and burden. Yet, after many years of adulthood and Joni Mitchell, Hornby suddenly became aware that his "musical diet was light on carbohydrates, and that the rock riff is nutritionally essential." And he found that "when you need something quick and cheap to get you through a long day ... only Led Zeppelin could satisfy [my appetite]." How true that rings too. Black Sabbath, Nirvana, Bends-period Radiohead, even the Chemical Brothers: they might do riffage but they don't do roughage. The point is this. In the absolutist world of bone-crushing bludgeon-riffola (an abstruse technical term coined by spangle-metallists Def Leppard), there's no point at all in being bludgeoned by lightweights, arrivistes and fairy folk. You might as well go for the big guys wielding the big clubs and get the job done properly.

And yet, and yet... It's a longstanding truism that, although Zeppelin bear a share of responsibility for the invention of heavy metal, they weren't actually a heavy metal band themselves. There was too much other stuff going on for that, like folk music and Arab drones and funk and abstract passages involving Thermins; and a lot of the time the rhythm section swung like an industrial-gauge Count Basie Orchestra. But they did absolutely nail both the idea and the technique of "heaviness" - which is manifest, please note, not in the volume of amplification deployed but in the interaction of such purely musical values as key, tempo, harmony, texture, density and abruptness of attack. Moreover, they did it with such formal integrity that their sound stood, almost architecturally, as their great theme: light, dark, weight, texture, space, movement, parallel fourths grinding hard over a cross-rhythm in a minor key, with a 5/4 bar thrown in for added weirdness and lurch.

"Stalingrad meets Laura Ashley," wrote our own Charles Shaar Murray. "Elephantine blues," said the American critic Robert Christgau. And he liked Led Zeppelin. The rest of the American critical elite actively despised them, an attitude summed up some years later in the words of the most morally magisterial of them all, Dave Marsh, who described "Whole Lotta Love" as "the most vulgar record in [rock history]". It is "a ragged, nasty projection of male hormonal anguish, that's as dangerous if it's feigned as it is if it's real," he spluttered. Meanwhile, America's morally friable youth took the group to their loins and made them far and away the biggest rock band of the seventies.

The posh critics disliked Zeppelin on several counts. Firstly, at a time when revolution was in the air (1969), and rock music was an agent of social and psychological change in a fragmenting society torn by civil conflict and war in the east, Led Zeppelin arrived in the land of the free and got their cocks out. This was both a literal and a metaphorical gesture. They were rock 'n' roll fundamentalists. They stood, legs akimbo, as tight-trousered, ham-handed, post-colonialist, white appropriators of the rocking flame, as ignited by Little Richard and Howlin' Wolf, who were black. They were incredibly loud. (Loudness - violent, oppressive, meteorological loudness - is a key element of the Zeppelin aesthetic. You've seen the BMW advertised on television, which makes great play of the fact that the car looks as if it's going fast even when it's standing still? Led Zeppelin sound loud even when they're turned right down.) Worse, they were English. Worst of all, they weren't about anything - in much the same way, it should be said, that "Tutti Frutti" wasn't about anything.

The morning after the preview I had a cup of tea with Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin's tousled singer. Our paths have crossed a number of times over the past 15 years and I know him to be a garrulous, smart, articulate, vain, enthusiastic man with a roving eye and ready access to his emotions. I bounced into his management office and congratulated him on the film and said breezily that it must have been nice to see all those people the night before digging his past work in such a serious, if slightly nervous, way.

Not a bit of it. Nice wasn't the word. He'd been upset then and he still felt upset today, though the hangover from the restaurant after the show wasn't helping any. Seeing Bonzo [John Bonham, Zeppelin's drummer, who died in 1980], 40 ft high and across, doing his magnificent thing, in front of all those people, while sitting next to John's son Jason, it was too much, well, no, ... uh ... I don't know. A flap of the hand. I looked at him hard. The inarticulacy was the clue. He really was upset.

There are of course predictable rumblings going on about the surviving Zeps indulging in creative reunion, following 23 years of solo projects and exotic travel. John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page are thought not to be unaverse to the idea of a joint project. Plant is dead against. "It's not about letting anyone down, not wanting to do it," he says. "It's about getting everybody off the hook. I'd love to work with Jimmy and Jonesy, but what would we do? And where would we meet? Runnymede?"

Led Zeppelin may not have existed in the same compartment of the space/time continuum as you or I, but Plant lives among us now. He is keen to impress on whoever's listening that he is aware, 30 years on, that "all that coquettish preening" he used to do was a thing of its time, 1973 (these were the gigs famously filmed for The Song Remains The Same, the home movie to end them all). Plant is aware of his legacy to Spinal Tap. "Oooo-er. I can't get into 'Black Dog'. I'm sorry. I was cringing last night. Christ, I'm 54. I don't care about that Robert. I care about the other one. I like the one at the beginning [1970] and I like the one a bit later ['75]. Then again, I was 25 in 1973 and really tired. I'm not surprised I looked blank and coquettish." And he has a point. If the 1970 version of Led Zeppelin was an upstart, elephantine blues band with big chops and a punky, in-your-face attitude, the 1975 version was a band that had risen to the high-point of its aesthetic tide and was therefore in a position to be serious about what it was doing without having to be theatrical about it too. There is in the film an "In My Time of Dying" from Earl's Court which is more serious than, I think, anything I've ever seen sung and played on electric guitars and drums.

It's the Led Zeppelin mystique that gets in the works and makes a mess. Of course, that mystique helped the group become the most fiscally successful of their era and ensured that the historical imbalance of rewards in pop music - which traditionally favoured promoters and record companies ahead of musicians and their management - was significantly altered forever. But the mystique doesn't always help. The wordless album covers, the no-singles policy, the mudsharks, groupies, narcotics, the scary manager, the committed months spent without electricity in Morocco and the Welsh mountains, the lax attitude towards the crediting of source material, the Legend of Bonzo, Satan - they all functioned as splendid narrative components of what Plant, on his dafter days, might once have fancied as a bit of a Nordic saga for the 20th century. But actually, viewed from the driving seat of my car, they're a bit of an irrelevance. I don't hear the mystique at all anymore. I just hear loud, passionate, heavy, architecturally imposing, formally stringent, emotionally exciting music that can tire you out. And my daughter hears clown music.

I told Plant about The Beezer's appreciation of his oeuvre. He laughed and allowed me to suggest that clowns are not to be sniffed at. Clowns exaggerate, they knock about, they distort, they thrill, they fall over, they have mad hair and outsize appendages, they trample underfoot and terrify and sometimes, just sometimes, they make you laugh. Clowns are big stuff, I said, and they're not about anything at all. Clowns are a force of nature.

"And Coco's gone," said Plant, smiling.

'Led Zeppelin', a double-DVD/VHS set (Warner Music, £20) is out tomorrow, as is the triple-CD live 1972 album 'How The West Was Won' (WEA). Win a copy of the DVD/VHS in Lucky Bag, page 20

Led Zeppelin: an alternative hit list

'When the Levee Breaks' (from IV, 1971)

Never mind "Stairway to Heaven". This is the epic lament of flood and sore feet which brought operatic reach to Zeppelin's best-selling überwerk; the moment when Memphis Minnie found herself reborn on the Welsh Marches (and John Bonham would find himself remade on a thousand hip-hop samples).

'That's the Way' (from III, 1970)

Acoustic melancholy bedecked with pop flowers, conceived in some lovely ravine in Wales. And it shows.

'For Your Life' (from Presence, 1976)

The most ruthless on-the-one funk blast ever devised, wired up with layer upon layer of guitars dragging every which way. Cocaine and faking it feature prominently: it's certainly about something. "It's about feeling absolutely and totally disenchanted," says Robert Plant.

'In My Time of Dying' (from Physical Graffiti, 1975)

This ties with "Kashmir" as the high-water mark of Zeppelin's mature style: the blues stress-tested to breaking point over 11 minutes of heavily structured post-Lightnin' Hopkins slide guitar violence.

'The Ocean' (from Houses of the Holy, 1973)

The most perfect asymmetrical rock riff framing a song about a rock audience ever to finish with a doo-wop square dance. Camp? How dare you!