Wednesday 20 June 2012

LED ZEPPELIN: The Soundtrack From The Film The Song Remains The Same

(#175: 13 November 1976, 1 week)

Track listing: Rock And Roll/Celebration Day/The Song Remains The Same/The Rain Song/Dazed And Confused/No Quarter/Stairway To Heaven/Moby Dick/Whole Lotta Love

“I think this is a song of hope.”
(Robert Plant, introduction to live version of “Stairway To Heaven”)

First things first, so a caveat; the version I have of The Song Remains The Same is not quite the same record that went to number one in 1976. It is the 2007 Atlantic…well, “reissue” seems a paltry term here; this is more of a “total reconstruction,” re-sequenced, re-edited and remixed under the supervision of the surviving band members themselves, none of whom had any great enthusiasm for the original. Beautifully packaged, with two CDs and a two-hour-plus running time – featuring six previously unreleased performances – as well as an effusive new sleevenote from Cameron Crowe which is short on specifics but does feature useful comments from Page and Plant, the only thing that’s missing is a DVD of the film itself. But then again, I remember watching the film in my student days with its somnolent “fantasy sequences” so perhaps its absence is a bonus. Nonetheless, if you want to get The Song Remains The Same then the 2007 edition is beyond question the one to have; the sound quality is markedly improved and the songs now appear in a rough sequence which approximates what a full Zeppelin concert would have been like, and I think to the songs’ benefit. Some tracks have been discreetly trimmed down (“No Quarter,” “Stairway To Heaven,” “Moby Dick,” “Whole Lotta Love”) while a whole new three minutes have been found to extend “Dazed And Confused” to just short of half an hour.

But what relevance did the album have in an autumn which had already seen a live album by Dr. Feelgood at number one? No doubt there were many who took one listen to “Moby Dick,” cocked an eye to the film’s fan fiction segments and decided something had to give. Both album and film were put together, or sorted out to a successful issue, by a Zeppelin still unable to tour; so these were acts borne out of boredom. Taken from three nights of concerts at Madison Square Garden in mid-March 1973 – in other words, just after Houses Of The Holy had been released – there might also have been a reinvigorating or restorative element at work; if Presence suddenly saw the band thrust into a galactic trash disposal unit which they were compelled to escape, then it must have been refreshing for them to look back to the days, just three years previously, when they cocked the walk and didn’t need to think of such matters as impermanence.

As it is, side one (although I am not referencing the original issue, I have opted to retain its running order) is pretty much unassailable. In Crowe’s sleevenote, Plant speaks of “Rock And Roll” as the group’s “call to arms” and although he noticeably sings the song an octave lower than on the original record – as will become apparent, this is to preserve his voice for later forays – it is an endearingly sloppy beginning, Page digging in like Johnny Ramone’s encouraging uncle, and an underlying dynamic that really isn’t that far away from the Feelgoods. The song segues straight into “Celebration Day”; Plant’s voice warms up some more and Page pays explicit tribute to Hendrix in his solo.

The title track goes beyond what the band do with it on Houses Of The Holy; for its greater part we might be listening to Back Door, or Tony Williams’ Lifetime, or any such number of early seventies British-informed fusion power trios. An initial hecticity clears to make the way for Plant’s “crazy dream” and the singer inhabits a landscape somewhere between Jeff Buckley and Roger Daltrey, although, as previously noted, the overall mood is far closer to the former. Indeed, the meditative section is so thoughtfully wonderful that one almost regrets Page’s move back into power; yet he pushes the trio into choppier waters than he did in the studio, at one point reaching the harmolodic ambiguity of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. Even Plant is encouraged to join in, whipping himself up into dervish mood (“Do it! DO it!”)

The song segues suddenly, as if slamming up against a glass wall, into the pastoralism of “The Rain Song, with vocals and guitar only. John Paul Jones then adds in some mellotron textures which look forward to his work with R.E.M.; the whole is like a patient tug of war between Son House and Debussy. Finally Bonham makes his pronounced entry, and Page does a little essay on rock guitar history which takes in a good deal of Hank Marvin and again anticipates what is to come in the nineties (the song’s key, indeed, is the same as that of Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”). There is a climactic explosion, particularly with regard to the drumming, and a final wistful Shadows coda.

Then comes “Dazed And Confused.”

The other notable double rock live album of 1976 was Frampton Comes Alive, a record (or records) which did well enough here (peaking at #6) but was nowhere near as omnipresent as it was in bicentennial America’s summer. And perhaps there’s a reason why punk took so long to take off in the States and was far more readily successful in Britain; in the USA, the mood and climate didn’t take to bitter, grey isolationism. These were, as unbelievable as it may today read, optimistic times; Vietnam was done, Jimmy Carter was running for election, there was generally “a more positive attitude.” Swimming pools and freeways alike swam and bounced to the gently euphoric chimes of “Show Me The Way.” Even when Frampton seeks to unleash the detonator – his fourteen-and-a-quarter-minute “Do You Feel Like We Do?,” the performance which some say wrote the first page of the final history, an unexpectedly uncompromising (“hyperthyroid” is indeed the best way to describe it) octopus of an improvisation on a song which implies that this summer may not be endless – we still do not listen to it and think “apocalypse,” even if it took one arm of rock and pushed or pulled it as far as it could humanly go (including the talking box); instead we view it as an affirmation, a collective chant of as yet unchained power and freedom.

But this “Dazed And Confused” spells a different kind of end, and beginning, and ones which maybe could only be fully appreciated in 1976 Britain.

It begins just as it did in 1968, with Jones’ methodically stealthily crawling bass, and we are back in a leaky London basement with the blues. Except Page is already impatient to get out of that basement, lest it turn out to prove a dungeon. There is hardly any “conventional” guitar being played here; it is if the guitar is playing him, teasing him with wah-wahs, delay pedals, volume controls, as though sneaking around, not wishing to be unmasked. The collision of ancient and modernist in this sequence leads directly to the work of Portishead. Plant cautiously sidles into the picture but doesn’t take long to settle in; by verse two he already thinks he’s James Brown (and there is some similarity between his vocals here and Brown’s on “Stone To The Bone,” recorded later that same year; a non-encapsulated air of desolation, betrayal). Soon he and Page are ebbing in and out of each other’s whirlpool, Plant resorting to Cathy Berberian gabble to usher in the fast section, a section so furious and intent, and so unconventional melodically, that one is almost in the SoHo lofts (as documented on the Wildflowers set of albums recorded live in summer 1976, some tracks of which feature me as a member of the audience). This moves into a more pensive section. Plant paraphrases Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” – casting around for memories, anything to remind him of how things once were – but soon the band swells up again and his voice is tossed around on board the stormy whaling ship. The group launch into a Fleetwood Mac-ish section which manages to invoke both Peter Green and Lindsey Buckingham, while Plant wails far in the distance.

And then, after some hard-set guitar, bass and drum unisons, Page is left on his own, with his effects pedals, the two necks of his guitar, and a violin bow.

How many pasts, presents and futures does Page’s solo echo? Here are a few observations:

1. When he applies the violin bow to one neck and somehow manages to keep playing on the other – however this was addressed in performance or post-production – it is reminiscent of Jerry Goodman jamming with John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

2. When he utilises his effects pedals to work on expanding his solo’s modal base, he somehow helps invent shoegazing.

3. The sequence of distended riffing broken up by long but gradually decreasing pauses, followed by what can only be described as free improvisation violin, is highly reminiscent of the title track of the Revolutionary Ensemble’s 1976 album People’s Republic.

4. The “violin” tones, initially conjuring up thoughts of Papa John Creach with a headache, are processed into areas so violently abstract that one thinks of Derek Bailey’s 1977 work with Tony Oxley (Soho Suites) and Evan Parker’s landmark solo 1976 recording Saxophone Solos. The same unending chirruping and abrupt howls, like blackbirds newly shorn of Eden.

5. Page’s work does not sound particularly close to that of Bailey, Fred Frith, Hans Reichel, or others who appear on the 1976 Caroline anthology Guitar Solos, but would also fit in perfectly there.

6. When Plant begins to yell wordlessly in the background behind Page’s abstractions, I think of the more jagged/euphoric moments of Ovary Lodge’s eponymous 1976 album. One member of Ovary Lodge, Julie Tippetts, was once Julie Driscoll, secretary of the Yardbirds Fan Club.

7. Page then launches into an ungainly Hendrix-type march before slamming back into the rock at an impossibly fast speed, then into a James Brown-style funk workout (Plant bellows “Uh!” and somewhere within this dense undergrowth the group are playing “Cold Sweat,” which very naturally mutates into “Crosstown Traffic.”

8. Page’s nearly ceaseless invoking of Hendrix echoes another live double album of this time, Miles Davis’ Agharta. Whether his own trumpet, or wah-wah organ, or via the two faces of Hendrix Miles projects onto Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, you are left with no ambiguity towards whom the music is about. Page even nods at “Are You Experienced?”

9. Following some gargled vocal/guitar fanfares, then call and response, guitar locks in with bass and drums like an out of control sack race, the rhythm section snapping open and shut like a sadistic money box. Then Page calls up “Sabre Dance,” done by Dave Edmunds and Love Sculpture in the same year “Dazed And Confused” was first recorded.

10. The violin/guitar pseudo-interplay, and the genuine interplay with the rhythm section, make this track sound at times like an outtake from King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic.

11. Then Page starts playing the “Black Sabbath” riff, so fast as to be psychotic. The band speeds up and up, plateaus and starts playing…

12. …Punk rock! If “Dazed And Confused” is a statement of any intent, then far from being the reason for punk, it if anything is calling up all the punks – here we have witnessed the rhythmic attack of the Damned, the lyrical quietude of mid-period Siouxsie and the Banshees and the post-everything approach of Public Image Ltd., amongst many others. In its way it is spelling out the end of one chapter, or history, of rock, perhaps even sealing Zeppelin’s own doom. And we are still “only” in 1973.

There is not much else for Page and Plant to do here except go back to the song’s “head.” Page opts for his Albert King mode while bass and drums pick the song up behind him, and without anyone really noticing, moves into Hendrix. Meanwhile, Plant impersonates a police siren. “Ohhhhh, SUCK it!” he is reduced to exclaiming. He roars as though still in the Tottenham Royal, almost demanding Lydon and Strummer and all the rest of them to make themselves known. “Jimmy Page, electric guitar,” Plant announces at the end, as though the Light Programme were still in the present tense.

There is no sentient response to this half-hour, nor any other way in which it can satisfactorily be followed up. So, in the second album, instead of seizing this terrifying new music and taking it and their audience into the future, they fall back on the oldies and goodies; “OK,” they seem to say, “you’ve seen how far out we can go – now let’s get back to the classics you’ve paid to come and hear tonight.”

“No Quarter” is decent enough, with Plant’s phased vocals almost implanting AutoTune a generation too early. Page’s solo starts interestingly in Jeff Beck territory before again morphing into Hendrix; as Bonham’s drums buffer against his guitar, the whole begins to resemble Santana, although 1973-4 Traffic is a more accurate pointer (particularly with Jones’ very Winwood-ish organ lines). On the reconstituted 2007 edition it sits far more comfortably on CD1, as part of a long, meditative section that also takes in the abovementioned title track and “The Rain Song” before the latter’s climax leads, very naturally, into a thunderous reading of “The Ocean” (and, on the same CD1, as “Black Dog” comes charging out of “Celebration Day,” you can feel a euphoria and certainty which would most assuredly be at home in the realms of Stupidity).

Then it’s the “hits.” “Stairway” is done more or less straight, with a longer Page solo, a looser, more improvisatory feel to the performance as a whole, and some meaningful audience asides from Plant (“Does anybody remember laughter?”). “Moby Dick” is the band going backstage for some dandelion and burdock while Bonham does his party piece (look, no hands! Look, phasing! Look, is there a human being there?), clearly a child of Krupa (as opposed to Keith Moon, always an Elvin Jones – via Phil Seamen – kind of man) with his references to “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Impressive if you’re the type who’s impressed by it, but the football chant of “John Bonham!” at the end sums it up most succinctly. Finally it’s a flag-waving-bring-the-boys-home “Whole Lotta Love”; despite some very adventurous improvising here (Page at one point struggling to keep up with Bonham, and then vice versa) including Eno whoops and Sharrock-via-Sun-Ra free guitar swirls, one senses the multi-coloured lasers at work on the stage. Then suddenly it’s Plant and Page alone doing a bit of Elmore James business before the band launch into the otherwise (i.e. in the group’s lifetime) unrecorded “Boogie Mama” and suddenly become a rockabilly group (“Shake it down for Elvis, alright!”). Page plays a slightly pained solo against Jones and Bonham’s fifties swing, recalling everything he had learned from his Play In A Day book, before the band switch triumphantly back into “Whole Lotta Love,” Plant shrieking, invocating Wolf (“I won’t be your back door man”) and Cliff (“Move it!”). He says goodnight to New York, and New York remembers it, and him, and them, forever.

Me? I think the first album (as the original issue stands) is far better than the second, although probably needed the second album to justify its release. I also think that labelling Zeppelin as the root cause of Why Punk Had To Happen is extremely misleading; punk had many causes, musical and non-musical, and perhaps the sword-and-sorcery stuff in the film did have a part to play; but get beyond the fa├žade and listen in particular to the extraordinary “Dazed And Confused,” the musical implications of which I do not believe have been fully followed through. There is one more Zeppelin album to come, at a time when it could have been reasonably (if erroneously) argued that Britain had forgotten about them, but like it or not, and regardless of what was or was not about to happen, they are, at this stage, and on this stage, still on top. On top of what, though? Now there’s the rub.