Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Led Zeppelin

There’s a tremendously po-faced article published yesterday on about the imminent Led Zeppelin reunion and whether or not the band will play Stairway to Heaven at the show on Monday. It seems that the writer, one Andrew Goodwin, is a professor of media studies at San Francisco University, and “teaches a class on Led Zeppelin.”

A professor? Teaches a class on Led Zeppelin? That would explain some of it, as it’s only academics that can write sentences like: “[Stairway to Heaven] is unique among their epic tracks in that it privileges melodic/lyrical development at the expense of rhythmic exploration and timbral/psychoacoustic experimentation.” Timbral/psychoacoustic experimentation, eh? There won’t be much of that at Bayreuth this year, I’m thinking.

Having experimented sufficiently, Professor Goodwin then gets stuck into the lyrics. “If, for instance, the lady at the beginning of the song is a fool (she believes, after all, that she can buy a stairway to heaven), then why at the end of this long and winding lyrical road is she shining white light and showing us how everything still turns to gold? Some critics have turned themselves inside out trying to prove that this must be a different lady.

Not the sharpest stick in the box, Professor Goodwin. A different lady, by dad. Hasn’t he noticed, in the course of his professorship, that over the course of nine studio albums, Robert Plant hasn’t one decent lyric to his name? Robert Plant couldn’t write a shopping list, for God’s sake. A substantial amount of the Led Zeppelin oeuvre is simply shameless rip-offs of old bluesmen, and the other half has the merit of the phone book, lyric wise. In his interview with Plant and Allison Krauss in the Telegraph some weeks ago, Neil McCormick calculated that Robert Plant has sung the word “baby” some 271 times in the Led Zeppelin canon. So it’s not like we’re dealing with Sondheim here.

Professor Goodwin makes much of the fact that the lyric to Stairway to Heaven was printed on the gatefold sleeve of the Four Symbols album as proof that Zeppelin thought that Robert Plant had reached a new plane as a songwriter. Well, perhaps so, but considering the amount of yokes those bucks were ingesting during their pomp it’s equally likely that they wanted the lyric printed because the man in the moon asked them to print it, when they went visiting there on Tuesday, after a gig in the Royal Albert Hall. The lyric to Stairway to Heaven is cat. C-A-T, cat. Awful. Any eejit can see that.

None of this means that An Spailpín doesn’t enjoy “Zep,” of course. I do. But to try and spin some sort of university course out of them is ridiculous in the extreme. It’s sledgehammer cracking walnuts time. Led Zeppelin’s formula was quite simple, and you need not spend much time in the groves of academe to figure it out – let Robert Plant wail what he liked, have the boys give it socks behind him, and then have James Patrick Page tart up the lot back in the studio.

Having a musician who can also produce is never to be underestimated in any band. And this is Jimmy Page’s real gift, to mix in all that stuff that’s going on so that people can’t actually make out what Plant is signing but just let themselves go, like a really good ride at an extraordinarily loud and rockin’ funfair. People over-estimate lyrics; anyone that rates lyrics first is the sort of gnu that would sooner listen to the Divine Comedy than Zeppelin, and you won’t find An Spailpín signing up for that horror anytime soon. It would be nice if the lyrics were better – Phil Lynott could be quite gifted as a lyricist, God love him, and Zeppelin’s Monsters of Rock contemporaries, Deep Purple, possibly worse with quill in hand – but the little lyrical gap in the Zeppelin armoury is more than papered over by the tremendous noise that they generated, with Plant’s wailing contributing as much as anyone.

And it would be nice if, at some stage in the show on Monday, Led Zeppelin remembered the only guest singer that every appeared on any of their studio albums. The English folk revival of the 1960s and early 70s had a huge impact on Led Zeppelin, and they asked Sandy Denny to guest vocal on the Battle of Evermore on the Four Symbols album. Sandy Denny died tragically young, but your correspondent always smiles when he remembers the six words in Q magazine fifteen years ago that summed up Ms Denny’s performance on the track exactly. “Fought the Battle of Evermore. Won.” God rest you Sandy, where-ever you are.

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