Friday, August 20, 2010

Getting the Led out

So you're going through a difficult change in life. Living in a big, bad city. Working a new job. What music do you reach for to weather this new chapter? Why, Led Zeppelin of course.

It makes perfect sense that Robert Christgau labeled Zep r&r - "not rock and roll, dummy, rest and recuperation, a fantasyland grand enough to blot out a world that remains too big and uncontrollable."* A world where you, oh I don't know, take the bus south instead of north and wind up 45 minutes late for a lunch where you're meeting your new colleagues for the first time. Yeah, "Whole Lotta Love," blot that out please!

And if you want to understand this form of r&r more deeply, I suggest taking in Erik Davis' terrific 33 1/3 on Led Zeppelin IV. Davis rightly casts IV as the soundtrack to a teenage imagination, his most definitely included. "I have tried to give the ensorcelled boy I was the temporary reins of a man's mind," (10) he says of this book and on my second reading, I skipped most of the second half where he imagines IV as the Tolkien-esque odyssey of a doomed stud he calls Percy. But before then, he does a marvelous job of discussing the album as an Album, a thing, matter: artwork, cover gimmicks, outgroove inscriptions, lyric sheets, etc. Late 1960s/early 1970s rock was a commodity form above all else and IV was its ultimate fetish. Officially titled with four unpronounceable sigils, "the album no longer referred to anything but itself: a concrete talisman that drew you into its world, its frame" (25). Indeed, countless Zepheads have scanned those sigils for meanings. And when those offered only riddles, they turned to each side's narrative sway or the overall album design or the band's thing-like music (which Davis astutely links to military invasion and a cinematic taking up of space). But "these sigils, and the musical sounds they announce, don't mean stuff as much as make stuff happen" (26). In short, exactly the album you'd want as you start your new life in a big, bad city.

Fwiw, here's how I rank 'em:

IV - Although I'm fine with a copy excluding "Going to California."
Houses of the Holy - Danciest.
II - Most chutzpah.
III - After "Immigrant Song," too consistent.
Physical Graffiti - Too long.
In Through The Out Door - Too unfocused. But underrated. They would have made fine MOR balladeers. And the dazzling "Carouselambra" pointed towards a tragically curtailed career of, what, art-rock circus-boogie.
I - Too slow.
Presence - Their Tusk, I suppose. But with waaay fewer anti-socialites overrating it. "Achilles Last Stand" is all-time, though.

* Robert Christgau, "Genius Dumb: Led Zeppelin," in Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 90.

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