It's Okay to be Great
Does anybody here remember laughter?
I do listen to bands other than Rush, honest. Even though I wrote a book about them, Rush weren’t my first classic rock of love affair. The Beatles get that honor, but shortly thereafter I became obsessed with Led Zeppelin. It is said that every young male goes through a Led Zeppelin phase. In my case, this phase lasted from the 1994 until now. One great thing is that my son, through no pushing of mine, has also discovered Led Zeppelin, and we’ve been listening to them pretty much nonstop for the past few months. It’s a good thing they are one of the few bands I never get sick of. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the song “Black Dog,” but I still get chills when Robert Plant comes in screeching “Hey hey mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove . . .”
I’m sure you have seen the articles about adults, mostly Millennials, “kidulting,” and that toy sales are going to adults more than kids. At first blush this is pretty sad, but I think it’s a matter of degree.1 It is true that, like the Bible tells us, we do have to put childish things aside, but that does not mean we cannot still approach the world with a childlike sense of wonder. There is no shame in getting excited by things, in feeling joy and that same sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness you did as a youngster. Nostalgia in and of itself is no vice; it is when nostalgia threatens to trap you into a backwards-looking mentality that prevents any progression that you can get into trouble.
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No matter the benefits of a childlike approach, one must still grow up and not base your entire life around these things. Even music. Perpetual adolescence can inhibit things that are important for any serious society to function, such as family formation and childbirth. A lot of these “kidults” get it backwards: the best thing to do isn’t squander your money on toys,2 but is to have children of your own and then rediscover the things that used to give you so much joy as a child with your own kids. I think this is why grandparents say that grandchildren give them a new lease on life.
Back to Led Zeppelin: the music still holds up. Much of what Zep did seems cliché now, but that’s only because hundreds of would-be stadium-fillers made the conscious decision to ape Messrs Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones almost from day one. Led Zeppelin, their penchant of ripping off old blues songs aside, were sui generis in the world of popular music. Autochthonous, if you prefer. And they were divisive. Nobody sang like Robert Plant. Nobody drummed like John Bonham. Nobody played music of such brutal force and power. And remember: songs like the ubiquitous “Stairway to Heaven,” now a punchline, didn’t exist before 1971. Somebody had to write it.
One thing I appreciate more about Led Zeppelin now is the fact that they were so uncompromising. They did things their way. Critical hostility—a bit overblown in the mythos of the band, as the tastemakers eventually came around—led the band to release their fourth album3 without their name on it, or even a title, to prove it would still sell. They’d later perform a similar trick on their 1979 swan-song In Through the Out Door4 after a member of the band’s team joked that the album would still sell if wrapped in a brown paper bag . . . which it was,5 and it did.
In Through the Out Door, an unfairly maligned album, was the band’s first release since 1976’s Presence, and the first since Robert Plant’s five-year-old son Karac died of a viral infection while Plant was in the USA. The band hadn’t toured since 1977, hadn’t played in Britain since 1975, and given Plant’s understandable ambivalence about music, wasn’t sure it would exist much longer. When Led Zeppelin regrouped and In Through the Out Door hit store shelves after the band’s less-than triumphant return to the stage headlining England’s 1979 Knebworth festival,6 it shot to the top of the charts in several countries, including the UK and the USA, and was so popular that the entirety of the band’s back catalogue reentered the Billboard 200.
Think about how insane that is. Name one artist who could do that now, who could have a ten-year-old album renter the charts on the back of a new one. I sure can’t.7
Led Zeppelin was a phenomenon, the fifth best-selling artist of all time for a reason. Don’t let reflexive haters of all things Boomer tell you “they sucked.” Objectively, they didn’t. You might not like their music, but this does not make it bad.8 They were talented and smart. Yes, the band members and their crew, particularly Page and Bonham and manager Peter Grant, were rather unsavory. Yes, they swiped old blues licks and lyrics without attribution. Yes, the band was silly and overblown with their violin-bow-on-guitar, long drum solos, and mysticism full of faux-profundity. Sure, their live shows were self-indulgent,9 stretching tunes like “Dazed and Confused,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Moby Dick,” and “No Quarter” into long jams full of ambient sounds, old rock pastiche, snippets of other songs, and new ideas worked out on stage. But that was the point.
Epic soundscapes, pretentious lyrics about Vikings and warriors (and sex) and journeys through the desert or Middle Earth (and sex) mixing with more prurient subject matter (like sex) . . . It was fun, it was absurd, it was an escape. Led Zeppelin were larger-than-life because we all need something larger-than-life to glom onto. It helped that the music, and the musicians, were so good.
Let me interrupt myself to give a special shout-out to underrated bassist/musical Swiss Army knife John Paul Jones. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Bonham get the bulk of the accolades and attention due to their bigger personalities, stage presence, and/or off-stage debauchery, but Jones was the glue that held the beast together, the secret ingredient that helped elevate Led Zeppelin beyond mere “blues rock” status. Jones wasn’t as flashy a bassist as Jack Bruce or John Entwistle or Chris Squire or Geddy Lee, but I’m yet to hear a bassist who locked in with a drummer as well as Jones did with Bonham. Further, Jones had the three Ts—time, tone, and taste—in spades. His parts gave the song what they needed, and he played with a confident swagger that made the songs move. You could dance to Led Zeppelin. What’s more, he played piano and keyboards, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and bass pedals while singing the occasional backup live. Jones also composed string arrangements as on “Kashmir,” and wrote or helped write far more songs than most people think, such as “No Quarter,” “Black Dog,”10 “Good Times Bad Times,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Heartbreaker,” “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Trampled Underfoot,” “Fool In the Rain,” and “All My Love.” Just a monster musician, and very underappreciated.
I get “slice of life” stories, the small, the mundane, the cozy. Those things fill a need for something relatable. But there is an equally important place for the aspirational, the monumental, the mythological, the lofty heights we’ll in all likelihood never attain but learn something while trying to get there. That’s what Led Zeppelin represents in musical form.
At this point, you might think I’m over-intellectualizing a mere 70s hard rock band, but hear me out: What people hate about Led Zeppelin is precisely what appeals to so many, and to so many young men in particular, and therein, in my opinion, lies a good chunk of the hate: if something resonates with males—white ones, especially—there must be something wrong with it.11 But that’s a story for another post. In rediscovering Zep I’ve rediscovered my own sense of excitement at the preposterousness of the riffs and the audaciousness of it all. Again, for those in the back: That was the point. It’s easy to be mediocre. Why not shoot for the moon?
Punks hated Zeppelin. Even though I like certain punk bands and certain elements of the genre, I hate that punk attitude. I hate that “back to the roots” turned into “let’s destroy the past.” Punk, and later movements more concerned about being cool in the eyes of a small cadre of trust-fund babies, ruined rock n’ roll as a vital cultural force that could be both forward-thinking and popular. “Anybody can play guitar.” No, they can’t, and (deep breath now) THAT’S THE POINT. Peasant mindset. Led Zeppelin were aristocrats. The punks couldn’t do what Led Zeppelin did. That’s why they hated them.12
Robert Plant agrees with some of this criticism levied at Led Zeppelin, that they were dinosaurs whose time had passed, they thought too highly of themselves, and so on. This is unfair to his legacy.13 Nobody would know Led Zeppelin if they didn’t think so highly of themselves. What bothers me more than any pretentiousness or egoism is the dumbing-down of music, of expectations, of life. The scaling back of ambition, the homogenization, the draining of all color, the acceptance of mediocrity. What child strives to be average? And why do we settle for average as adults?
The besetting vice of Current Year Americans is the lack of self-discipline and the fundamental ability to abide by any sort of restraints whatsoever.
Wasn’t “He who dies with the most toys, wins” a Boomer thing, anyway?
What’s more, you got one of six variant covers underneath the paper. Brilliant.
Maybe Michael Jackson, were he still alive.
It is a peasant mindset to equate “Something I don’t like” with “Objectively poor quality.” Don’t be a peasant.
If you look at setlists, Led Zeppelin frontloaded their shows with the hits, almost as if to soften up the crowd before the experimentation started. When you saw Zeppelin live, you listened to what they wanted to play.
It was Jones’ riff.
This animus explains so much about modern life.
This animus also explains so much about modern life.
Because nobody asked, I would rate their albums as follows:
Led Zeppelin I (1969): 9.5 out of 10
Led Zeppelin II (1969): 10 out of 10
Led Zeppelin III (1970): 9.5 out of 10
(untitled) (1971): 10 out of 10
Houses of the Holy (1973): 9.2 out of 10
Physical Graffiti (1975): 9.7 out of 10
Presence (1976): 9.3 out of 10
In Through the Out Door (1979): 8.5 out of 10
Coda (1982): 7.9 out of 10