Wednesday, March 16, 2011

#256: Drop Down Baby

Jimmy Page once stated, with tongue firmly in cheek, “Usually my riffs are pretty damn original.” He was right, usually they are damn original, it’s just that he didn’t come up with the bulk of them. As a songwriter Page is lauded by many, as a producer he was as good as anyone out there for the genre that he worked in. As a thief, well he was as good as Ronnie Biggs really, in that he was better known for being a high profile, low level crook than anything else. Good ole Ronnie, best known for being a hanger on who became famous for being infamous than anything else. And Page is famous for being infamous, infamous in that he helped invent a genre, spawn several thousand other idiots with lesser talents and for stealing from those less fortunate than he’ll ever be.

Page wasn’t bereft of talent by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been listening to the 1972 Bombay Sessions – where Page and Plant recorded Friends with a bunch of local, Indian, musicians in a forerunner to the Unledded project that the duo would embark upon over twenty years later. What strikes me with these sessions is the amount of control that Page has over the musicians. His voice is everywhere, firmly in command, telling all and sundry what he wants played, where the microphones are to be placed – he knows what he wants and how he wants it done. He had a sound in his head and wouldn’t accept anything less. Plant, on the other hand, is silent, other than some singing, the odd fart and his usual rasping cough. Page could certainly produce a session when he wanted to and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot. It really is as easy as that. The fact that the music he produced for Zeppelin is still as vibrant today as ever is testament to his skills and when he wanted to he could play the guitar. Forget the live stuff – for the most part it’s bloody horrid and Page sounded like a monkey with broken fingers. Just listen to any recording of Heartbreaker or Since I’ve Been Loving You. During what was supposed to be his moment of virtuosity he sounds like a front bar drunk falling off a stool and dragging three glasses down with him and landing on a sleeping dog. The longer the band went on in concert the worse they got. John Bonham’s drum solos often went far too long and sounded like someone throwing milk crates down a fire escape, punctuated by Plant’s wailing which sounded like two feral cats rooting. Still, when the band were on song, and that was in the studio, they were bloody good. John Paul Jones and Robert Plant generally led the way – without Jones’s superlative musicianship Led Zeppelin would have been a band on a par with Uriah Heep – not a crap band, but who really cares these days? Just when Page was slipping into mediocrity Jones would come along to save him with a No Quarter or In The Light. Or he’d save Page’s overblown ‘epics’ such as Achilles Last Stand with a bass line from Hell. Jones and Bonham would lift one of Page’s many steals, such as In my Time Of Dying, by utterly reducing him to the role of sideman. And when Page could barely play, Plant would scream out a vocal line such as that on In The Evening, which sounds all the world like he was rubbing sandpaper over his nodes.

You’d be stuffed totally if you could understand what Plant is singing on some songs though. By all accounts Plant tore Page a new arsehole on In The Evening and on Jones’s stunning Carouselambra, but I’ll be buggered if I can make out what he’s singing. You’d have better luck working out what the legendary Stardust Cowboy is saying on Paralyzed or exactly what Gabby Haynes is squealing about on Jesus Built My Hotrod before you’d translate what Plant is squeaking. You’d think a lyric sheet would have helped, but nope. The one time the band included such an animal, for Houses of The Holy, the backlash was incredible. During the 1970s dope reigned supreme, as did people who had too much time on their hands and not enough to do with it, thus an entire sub-culture sprang up dedicated to working out what Plant was singing. The lyric sheet gave it away and spoiled all of the fun. Go figure.

The theft I can take or leave. Virtually everyone in music steals at some point. Even as recently as Lady Ga-Ga, who has mixed elements of Madonna crossed with Carl Bean for her ‘original hit’ Born This Way (Express Yourself + I Was Born This Way) and I’m sure that nobody but me noticed that Britney Spears, her of the plastic tits and dirty box, is being sued, again, for taking liberties with melody lines and lyrics. I doubt that anyone in the band Jet has written a totally original tune yet, however they manage to headline concerts worldwide, playing their own karaoke versions of Lust For Life and My Sharona. You hear Wolfmother, I hear Black Sabbath and Billy Thorpe. You hear early Silverchair, I hear Nirvana in Pyjamas. As Bono sang, “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief”. And he’d know, U2 built their career on the backs of The Skids and have been busily lifting stuff ever since, but they do it so well that people don’t care, and those who do are generally shouted down by idiots who haven’t the first clue anyway.

With Zeppelin the accusations of theft, and there were many, were valid but served a purpose. As a youngun listening to Zep, and their cast-offs like Kiss, I liked the music no end and didn’t care about where it came from, such are the joys of ignorance that comes with youth. And there lies the rub – kids don’t give a shit about where the music comes from, as long as they enjoy it. Nobody who buys a Jet album gives a fat rats for Doug Fielder or Iggy Pop. I expect that the people who buy lady Ga-Ga albums look at Madonna as being an old, dried up skank (they might have a point there). As I got older I began to read more about the bands and the suggestions began to pop into my head. I read Chris Welch’s biography on Zeppelin, a puff piece at best, but it was a good starting point. Then I read a Paul Stanley interview where Stanley, when faced with the accusation that Love Gun was stolen from Zeppelin, admitted it, along with Makin’ Love and the other half of the Kiss catalogue, and then stated that it was fine as Zeppelin stole from everyone. I needed to know, so I began to dig a lot deeper.

What I found was liberating. Via Zeppelin stealing from old bluesmen I discovered the majesty and mystery of Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Josh White, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry, Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Boy Fuller, Bessie Smith, Bukka White, Bert Jansch, John Rebourn, Howlin’ Wolf and many more. Hell, via Zeppelin I found Jeff Beck and via Jeff Beck I found Les Paul, and ain’t I happy about that!! And figure this one out – via Peter Criss I found Gene Krupa. And as anyone who has heard Krupa will tell you, that was a find and a half indeed, and an odd place to find him. Via the plagiarism came an entire new world that opened up and embraced me and be damned if I didn’t enjoy it then and still enjoy it now. Does it diminish my enjoyment when I listen to Zeppelin? Not really, well no more than listening to U2’s Beautiful Day, which steals from A-Ha (of all bands to steal from, Bono needs to steal from Mags, Pal and Morton? Please!) enrages me, which, frankly, it no longer does. What I’m likely to do is to sing the original versions and, at times, I tend to veer off and dig out those old Robert Johnson recordings and listen to the sheer power contained within. I can dig out the Howlin’ Wolf recordings and immerse myself. In fact without Zeppelin stealing from Wolf I’d never have found something as delightful as Wang Dang Doodle or Back Door Man, let alone Little Red Rooster (Mick Jagger wishes he could be Howlin’ Wolf). Frankly Zeppelin wasn’t alone, virtually all of the bands that emerged from England in the ‘60s and ‘70s stole from the same sources – be it Little Richard (Ian Gillian founded his entire career on stealing lyrics from Richard) or Buddy Holly (Crickets = Beatles) – I mean the Rolling Stones lifted stuff from sources as diverse as Bobby Womack and Gene Pitney. Deep Purple stole from obscure jazz music. Go work that out. What I also tend to do is harangue the closest person to tell them how it’s all been done before, and in most cases, better. This usually has an effect, and not always a positive effect, but at least I’ve been able to turn other people onto some cool old blues tracks from the 1920s and ‘30s.

So why do Zeppelin get such a bad rap? Because they were famous and refused to go along with the accepted norms. Pure and simple. They were loud, over the top, bombastic, your mum hated them, your dad said they were shit and they enjoyed the pleasures of sex, drugs and rock and sometimes roll a little too freely. They were the top dinosaurs of the time, along with Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. They did what they did and had too much fun doing it and got too rich at the same time and nobody likes seeing anyone be successful and wealthy when they’re trying to flog off their latest sub-par efforts. My main issue with Zeppelin was that certain band members were pretty much paedophiles during the ‘glory days’ of the band’s success. I find it difficult to comprehend how a grown man, with a child of their own, can justify sleeping with a 14 year old groupie while touring and then forming a relationship with them. Call me odd, but if I were faced with that then I’d pass, but then in Australia we all had William Shakespeare to look at (not the playwright, but the Vanda/Young singer – the idiot got done for having sex with a minor and that was the end of his career) to see what the consequences could be when you decided to play hide the sausage with the teeny boppers. And the violence made me a tad wary. I know that Plant, Jones and Page have all denied knowledge, and culpability, and possibly rightly so, but the many stories of violence surrounding the band are legion, culminating in the now legendary San Francisco beating of a Bill Graham staff member nearly to death, resulting in criminal charges and civil suits being filed, all chilling captured in Bill Graham’s book. Strangely enough the stories of violence almost always appeared to happen in the USA, not the UK or elsewhere. Another mystery of life.

Feel free to call Zeppelin crap, I could care a whit. I liked them then and I like them now. I can more than appreciate the music and I’ll keep it on the iPod, along with a host of other music that I might not have been inclined to check out. The rhythm section was as good as anyone will ever get in heavy metal, or elsewhere for that matter. When Jones and Bonham locked it in then they were a powerhouse. In fact when the band fired on all four cylinders they did it better than most. They just hyped themselves better than most as well, and after a while clearly believed their own press, as they vanished up their own arses and for that hype they’ll always be derided. Oh, and also for the stealing, but then many others have stolen from Zeppelin since, either wholesale cloning of the music from Kingdom Come to the Mission to Pearl Jam or appearance – has anyone noticed that David Coverdale and Lou Gramm’s many face lifts make them both look more like Robert Plant than even Robert Plant does? Steal all you want, but don’t attack those who originally stole what you’re now stealing and adapting. So, shake it on down, put on your nightshirt and your morning gown…and save me a piece of your custard pie…

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