I’m not foolin’, I’m gonna send you back to schoolin’

This is the ninth in a series of posts that feature analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums and artists.

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In 1966, Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck gathered some of his favorite musician friends to help him record a track he was working on for an upcoming solo project.  He invited fellow Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page, and drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle from The Who, and veteran session musicians John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins.

This assemblage produced the recording “Beck’s Bolero,” based on Ravel’s classical 1928 masterpiece, and when someone mentioned it sounded so good they should form a supergroup together, Moon’s response was “Ha!  Right.  That’d go over like a lead balloon!

Two years later, as Page was forming a new group following the demise of The Yardbirds, he recalled Moon’s comment.  “A lead balloon is a metaphor for certain 01failure,” Page recalls.  “I took it a step further and thought of a lead zeppelin, which is even more of a contrast.  It strikes a balance between heavy and light, or between combustibility and grace.”

And with that, Led Zeppelin was born.

(It was manager Peter Grant who suggested the group use “Led” instead of “Lead” to prevent fans from mispronouncing it as “leed.”)

Page, after several years honing his skills in London recording studios as a guitarist and producer, and then as a touring member of The Yardbirds, was ready to realize his vision of a new band that would incorporate heavy blues-based rock with occasional elements of more delicate folk-based melodies and arrangements (the “balance between heavy and light” he had referred to in discussing the group’s name).

Page was certain he wanted Jones to be his bass/keyboards guy, and he had his sights set on promising new vocalist Terry Reid to be the singer, but Reid declined the offer and instead suggested Robert Plant, singer in a Birmingham-based group called Band of Joy, Plant, in turn, recommended Band of Joy’s drummer, John Bonham.

Led-Zep-first-performance-7th-sept--1968_0Even at the foursome’s first rehearsal in August 1968, within minutes after they took a stab at the Yardbirds’ explosive version of the ’50s blues chestnut “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” they knew they had a wicked chemistry.  They soon headed off to fulfill a few remaining Yardbirds gigs in Scandinavia (booked as The New Yardbirds) before settling into the studio to lay down nine tracks that would become their monumental debut LP, entitled simply “Led Zeppelin.”

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Cut to February 1969.  A small record shop in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.  I wasn’t yet 14, but I had begun buying albums (instead of 45s), and I was already scanning the popular music bins looking for new and interesting groups.  This was a pretty conservative store, with clientele that favored classical music, film soundtracks, show tunes and Sinatra-type crooners, so the pickings were slim.

One bin in the back, though, was labeled “underground rock” and included LPs by bands Led-Zeppelin-Iwith strange names like Blue Cheer, The Electric Prunes, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Fugs.  My eyes fell upon an album cover that featured an artistic treatment of the famous 1937 photo of the Hindenburg explosion, with two words:  Led Zeppelin.  The back cover was a faded photo of the four band members, and a listing of the song titles and times.  I don’t know what persuaded me to plunk down four dollars for this record.  I hadn’t heard a note of it, not in the store nor on the radio.  I guess I was intrigued by the album cover and name.

Anyway, I took it home, cranked up the volume, and was instantly stunned by the power of the opening track, “Good Times Bad Times.”  Less than three minutes long, it grabbed me by the throat with its thunderous mix of guitar, vocals, drums and bass.  Wow!  But it was the second song, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” that really hooked me.  Here was truly

Led Zeppelin Live In Copenhagen

“the balance of heavy and light.”  The opening passage featured Page fingerpicking an acoustic guitar as Plant gently, sensuously, sang lyrics about a doomed relationship.    Drums entered briefly, hinting of what was coming, then subsided.  By the 2:20 mark, the band kicked in with a relentless rock beat that took the song to another level entirely, as Plant’s low-key vocal became a delicious howl.

The album includes Jones’ organ-dominated piece, “Your Time is Gonna Come”; Page’s acoustic instrumental standout, “Black Mountain Side”;  inventive covers of serious blues standards like Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Babe,” dominated by Page’s workouts on his Les Paul electric.

The game changers, however, were “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times,” tumblr_na9s8u5fkm1stbyx4o1_1280lengthy tracks which gave the band room to stretch out, borrowing snatches of other songs to enhance the extraordinary arrangements.  “Dazed and Confused” marks the first and best example of Page playing guitar with a violin bow, which became a crowd-pleaser in every concert appearance the group did thereafter.

Surprisingly, in retrospect, most critics weren’t kind to the “Led Zeppelin” debut album.  In a slap at Page’s producing, arranging and songwriting, Rolling Stone writer John Mendelsohn wrote, “If they hope to fill the void left by the demise of Cream, they’ll have to find a producer, editor and material worthy of their collective talents.”  But the band toured relentlessly, earning oustanding word-of-mouth raves for their live shows, which helped the album go gold and reach #10 on the US charts.  Years later, it is rightly singled out as the progenitor of blues-based heavy metal, and metal bands have been living in its shadow ever since.

But Page had plenty more up his sleeve.  He said this in the summer of 1969:  “It’s a good period for guitarists.  I think every guitarist has something unique to say musically.  My only ambition now is to keep a consistent record product coming out.  Too many groups sit led_zeppelin_-_led_zeppelin_II-front-1back after the first album, and the second one is a down trip.  I want every new album to reach out farther.  That’s what I’m trying to do here.

The group toured so much that they had to fit in their recording sessions on the fly, laying down basic tracks in one city, adding vocals in another studio on the opposite coast, writing new material in a hotel room in a third city, with Page overseeing it all as producer.  The result was the phenomenal “Led Zeppelin II,” arguably stronger than the first.  The sonic inventions found on the single, “Whole Lotta Love,” reached a much broader audience as it ascended to the #4 slot in the US charts, and the album reached #1, knocking “Abbey Road” from its perch.  Although it wasn’t public knowledge yet, The Beatles were done, and Led Zeppelin was taking over as the world’s top rock band.

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Promotional poster for 10/24/1969 concert

I was fortunate enough to see them in concert during this initial period, in October 1969, just two days after the release of “II,” and I’ve never quite gotten over it.  They performed just about every song from those two records, and that evening became the jumping-off point for my infatuation with rock concerts and blues-based rock.

In my bedroom at the time, I had a nook with a huge chair, and two speakers mounted on the wall facing each other.  When I cranked up the volume, the effect was like wearing headphones without the headphones.  My friends reminisce about how they “saw God” when they sat in that chair and listened to “Whole Lotta Love” when the sound would travel back and forth between channels, first slowly, then more rapidly, as Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham did their thing.

“Led Zeppelin II” also included “Heartbreaker,” which featured what many still feel is one of the most incredible guitar solos ever recorded.  It’s also the first inkling of Plant’s way with words on tracks like the majestic “Ramble On,” where he showed his affection for the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the lovely “Thank You,” a touching love song of gratitude to his wife.

jb1969And let’s not forget “Moby Dick,” where Bonham demonstrates why, more than three decades after his death, he is regarded as one of the best drummers ever, and why the band chose to call it quits in 1980 after his death.  Drum solos are notorious for being self-indulgent and non-musical, but this track proves the exception to the rule, and it dovetails perfectly into the closing track, “Bring It On Home,” yet another Willie Dixon tune reworked with original material in its midsection.

Led Zeppelin went on to become legends in their own time and, sadly, in their own minds.  They made plenty of earthshaking music like “Kashmir” and “No Quarter,” sprinkled with some of that lightness Page and Plant seemed to favor (“Going to California,” “The Rain Song”), but in my mind, they never quite matched the impact of their first two albums.  They developed a reputation for unbridled ego, refusing to speak to the press, as their manager and road crew routinely threatened and assaulted people who got in their way.  Bad karma started to follow the band, cursed with injury and death, which some blamed on Page’s fascination with the occult, although I think that’s probably hogwash.

Every album they released from “II” on went straight to #1 and sold many millions of copies.  The group broke attendance records and enjoyed the fierce loyalty of fans worldwide.  And of course, “Stairway to Heaven” remains one of the most played songs in the history of rock radio.  But for me, the group’s work in the latter half of the ’70s (1975’s “Physical Graffiti,” 1976’s “Presence” and 1979’s “In Through the Out Door”) wasn’t even remotely in the same league as their initial efforts.

s-l300-3It’s truly rare and remarkable when a visionary (Page) happens upon just the right combination of talent and personalities (Jones, Plant, Bonham) in just the right time period (late 1968) to create a revolutionary sound and get it all down on vinyl.

So when you’re tired of hearing classic rock radio trot out the same half-dozen songs to represent the canon of Led Zeppelin (“Black Dog,” “Immigrant Song,” “Dancing Days,” etc.), I recommend you return to “Led Zeppelin” and “Led Zeppelin II,” when they were young and hungry, and not at all sure yet how the world would react to the magical music they were coming up with.

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The Spotify list includes all 18 tracks from the group’s first two albums, plus a few early tracks that show Led Zeppelin has unquestionably been guilty of lifting riffs, melody lines, and song titles from other artists over the years, and unwilling to give proper songwriting credit until challenged in court.  To wit:  “Whole Lotta Love” is derived from Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love” and Small Faces’ “You Need Loving”; “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is not an LZ original but a 1962 song by Anne Breton, sung here by Joan Baez; and “Dazed and Confused” is a 1967 song written and recorded by Jake Holmes.

 

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Don’t you feel like trying something new

This is the eighth in a series of posts that will feature detailed analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums and artists.

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When punk music reared its brash, ugly head in London and New York in the mid-’70s, it was a direct, angry response to what its practitioners felt was a woefully tired, bloated scene dominated by “dinosaur” rock bands well past their prime.

While there was some truth to that viewpoint, punk was clearly not the answer for many listeners.  Even The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and other purveyors of the raw, visceral sounds that characterized punk rock in its heyday will admit that they were not accomplished musicians or songwriters.  It was all about the attitude (in your face) and energy (over the top).

The same was true, to some extent, when rock and roll was born some 20 years earlier.

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Joe Jackson, circa 1979

The attitude, the energy, and the beat were paramount to differentiate rock music from the conventional tunes you heard on the Top 40 in the 1940s and early ’50s.  But there was a crucial difference:  The songs and the performances by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and others had staying power.  The music was intrinsically strong, the singing and playing inherently iconic.  The proof is that we still value those old records 60-plus years later.

Not so with punk, for the most part.  How many punk rock classics can you name?  How often do you hear them, or want to hear them?

My point here is, although punk was a fleeting genre, it spawned some truly great lasting music and artists that came to be known as “New Wave.”  They adroitly took the attitude and energy of punk and infused it with quality musicianship and inventive songwriting to produce captivating songs and albums that hold up well many decades later.

The Police would be an obvious British example.  Their five albums from 1978-1983 just got better and better, thanks to the increasingly sophisticated songs Sting came up with.  Same goes for The Talking Heads, who were probably the best of the American pioneers of New Wave sensibilities of that period, and David Byrne’s top-notch material is a huge reason for that.  Elvis Costello also comes immediately to mind.  His “My Aim is True” debut LP is a keeper, as are at least a half-dozen more in his voluminous catalog that runs from the late ’70s to the current day.

But my choice for the real gem in this whole group is Joe Jackson, whose extraordinary tljn12ITmrMpedigree and musical capabilities were not necessarily evident to most pop music fans even at his brief commercial peak.  But I firmly believe his substantial repertoire is in a class of its own among artists of his age and proclivities.

David Joe Jackson grew up in Portsmouth, England, as a shy skinny kid who loved books and dreamed of being a writer until he took a violin class at age 11.  To his surprise, he found himself fascinated enough by music to immerse himself in its theory and history.  Soon enough, he switched to piano and aspired to be a composer of classical piano pieces.

He was also intrigued by the excitement and possibilities of pop music in the post-Beatles era and drifted in that direction, even as he won a scholarship to study piano composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music.  During his years there, he was all over the map, also working with a fringe theater group, studying jazz with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and sitting in with rock bands in area pubs.  He even detoured briefly into the world of cabaret as pianist and musical director for the Portsmouth Playboy Club.

Joe Jackson - Look Sharp!By 1978, he had formed the Joe Jackson Band (including Graham Maby on bass, Dave Houghton on drums and Gary Sanford on guitar) and was in search of a record deal, hawking an album-length demo of smart songs melding rock, melodic jazz and New Wave that became the surprisingly notable debut “Look Sharp!” Released on A&M in the US in 1979, it reached #20 on the album charts here, thanks in part to airplay given to the quirky “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “Sunday Papers.”

Two follow-ups with a similar focus (1979’s “I’m the Man” and 1980’s “Beat Crazy”) did only moderately well, although the single “It’s Different for Girls” peaked at #5 in the UK.

41DK39PDGFLJackson showed his willingness to take a risk and stretch his own musical horizons (as well as those of his listeners) by making his next project a loving tribute to the genre of Big Band and the swing music artists of the ’40s like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway.  The result, the irresistible “Jumpin’ Jive,” reached a respectable #42 in the US in 1981 and made it to #14 in the UK.  It also inadvertently served to jumpstart a popular revival of other traditional dance genres like rockabilly (The Stray Cats, The Blasters).

It was in 1982 when Jackson truly came into his own with “Night and Day,” a superb song-cycle that lovingly examines his new home of New York City with sophisticated and diverse musical styles.  Impeccably produced and arranged, the LP reached the Top 5 here and in England, and deservedly so.  “Cancer” is an uptempo piece with an extended night-and-day-536fdc8ce8790jazz workout in the middle break; “Target,” “Another World” and “T.V. Age” adopt pogo-like New Wave rhythms; “Chinatown” utilizes Asian chord changes and melody lines in its soundscape; and the slower dramatic ballads “Real Men” and “A Slow Song” feature exquisite, Broadway-like song structures.

Thanks to Maby’s prominently hypnotic bass line and Jackson’s emphatic piano work, the dazzling hit single “Steppin’ Out” became the artist’s most well-known track, peaking at #6 in both the US and the UK.  Its follow-up was the tender piano tune “Breaking Us in Two,” which charted at #18 here.

I will concede, as I did in my analysis of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits last week, that Jackson’s strength is not in his vocals.  His over-enunciated voice hits a flat or sharp note every now and then, causing me to wince a bit.  But I’ve been willing to forgive this deficiency because of his extraordinary prowess at songwriting, arranging, and piano
playing, and his willingness to successfully push boundaries. 220px-JoeJacksonBodyAndSoul

Two more albums in the “Night and Day” vein — 1984’s jazzy “Body and Soul” and 1986’s “Big World” — cemented Jackson’s reputation among music critics and industry observers, even if they didn’t catch on commercially.  On “Body and Soul,” Jackson made liberal use of horns on the minor hit “You Can’t Get What You Want (‘Til You Know What You Want),” Latin percussion on “Cha Cha Loco,” and guest vocalist Elaine big-world-5016aaa83f785Caswell on effervescent pop tracks like “Happy Ending.”  On “Big World,” he took the boldly creative tack of recording live in an acoustically pristine music hall before an audience instructed to remain silent.  As the album title implies, he dabbled in a smorgasbord of styles from salsa to punk, from tango to jazz, from torch song to pop, from soul to cabaret.

By then, Jackson was showing signs of burnout from all the touring he did in support of these fine records.  He was ready to pull back from the commercial road and devote his efforts exclusively to the classically based music he’d first embraced as a teenager.

But before doing so for most of the 1990s, he had another major milestone up his sleeve: the majestic, stylish “Blaze of Glory,” released as a sort of personal statement in 1989 and played in its entirety in concerts that year.  Jackson has said the songs represent “an examination of my generation as the 1980s 220px-JoeJacksonBlazeOfGlorywere ending,” commenting on the optimism of their 1950s childhood (“Tomorrow’s World”), the politics of terrorism and the Cold War (“Rant and Rave” and “Evil Empire”), yuppies and  materialism (“Discipline”) and rockers who wear out their welcome (“Nineteen Forever”).  He thought it was his best work and was sorely disappointed at what he felt was the indifference of his record label, the critics, and even his audience.

I happen to agree that “Blaze of Glory” (particularly the spectacular title track) is probably Jackson’s most consistently strong LP and am dumbfounded it seemed to fall on deaf ears (it stiffed at #61 in the US).  He toured with an impressive 11-piece band, but many concertgoers hadn’t yet purchased or heard the album, and his insistence on playing it straight through no doubt tried their patience.  Such a shame — these are really JJacksonAndBandOnStagegreat songs, well played and magnificently produced.

Jackson is now 64, and has continued to make excellent, compelling music in the new millennium, including “Night and Day II,” a sequel of sorts that again explores the vagaries of life in Manhattan, and 2015’s “Fast Forward,” a 16-song collection with four songs recorded in each of four cities (London, Berlin, New York and New Orleans) with different backing musicians.  He has a new LP ready to go in early 2019 (entitled “Fool”) and will be back on the road promoting it, and he promises to offer music from throughout his exemplary career.

joejackson_photo_gal_37255_photo_13716758_lrMany of my readers, I’m guessing, barely know Jackson’s work.  I offer this strong encouragement to listen closely to “Night and Day” and “Blaze of Glory,” and, indeed, much of his catalog.  He’s the real deal.

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On the Spotify playlist included here, you’ll hear all of “Night and Day” and “Blaze of Glory,” plus some bonus tracks from “Body and Soul” and “Big World” as segues bridging my two featured album favorites.