Jimmy Page and Improvisation

It occurred to me the other night that Led Zeppelin was, at the height of their career, the world’s best JAZZ band! Of course the concept began began with, and revolved around, Jimmy Page. Onstage he was the lead soloist of a combo that would sometimes do 30-minute versions of Zeppelin studio material/cover songs. In the studio, whether as a guitarist or producer, he constructed Zep’s body of work with the precision and care of Mozart or Wagner, layering instruments and tracks into sonic artworks of beauty, power, mystique and awesomeness. Everybody knows all that already, but approaching it from the angle that they weren’t really a rock band means you might hear something different the next time you encounter a Zeppelin tune. I’ve been listening to them since the 1970s and believe it or not, this happened to me recently. So let’s have a go! (as they say in the (UK)

As the Yardbirds were dissolving in 1968, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant came up with a strategy for the group that would become Led Zeppelin based on what they had seen in the USA on the Yardbirds’ final tour – music that was outside the milieu of the radio-friendly singles market. Both Grant and Page thought that the group that would be Zeppelin could take on American heavies like Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly and do way better with the same formula. Interestingly enough, as related in Hammer of the Gods, Page had been considering a group in the Pentangle mode, because of his love and respect for artists like Bert Jansch, in particular, and acoustic music in general. Page is quoted as saying, “At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP, I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch that.” However, once Page heard and saw John Bonham play he quickly scotched the acoustic idea (at least full-time) and heard everything Zeppelin would become. From the beginning, Zeppelin focused on albums in the studio and explored a wide range of improvisations live. Many of these improvs were blues-based but because of Page’s wide range of influences and the outstanding abilities of Jones and Bonham, the music careened into many different directions with dynamics, including acoustic-based music, that would eventually be known as Zeppelin’s Light and Shade. Robert Plant would also help take the band into interesting directions as he became a more confident frontman and writer. As the group was in the process of launching their career, the world’s first supergroup, Cream, was calling it quits. Not only was Cream lauded by fans in the same way that Zeppelin would be soon (for their ability to just play), they were also taken to task by critics for their “excesses”, which would become a major point of attack by critics against Page and Zeppelin as the 60s gave way to the 70s.

Led Zeppelin has never said their approach had more to do with jazz than pop music, which was still the only alternative at the time. CLASSIC ROCK didn’t exist and even though The Beatles had been successful releasing a 7 minute single (Hey Jude), they were The Beatles and had earned the right to do that. Conventional wisdom at the time dictated that music be produced in the conventional format and many bands like The Yardbirds and Cream, were constantly pressured by management that valued hit singles over a sound or a good album that would’ve sold in the newly emerging markets. Led Zeppelin didn’t have to worry about this because their manager, Peter Grant, never pressured the band for music and took anyone who did to task. He was savvy enough to see where the money was in the coming decade and left Jimmy and company alone to do what they wanted. While there are some to this day who view Grant as a gangster and bully because of his tactics, he was the first manager who ensured that the artists he represented got a huge percentage of the credit and compensation for their music and performances. Page insisted on complete creative control as a bargaining chip for Zeppelin’s record deal and Grant made sure he got it. He was the fifth member of Led Zeppelin and was a major factor in their success and has been recognized as a major game-changer in the history of popular music. With his help the band racked up album and concert sales that blew away everyone’s expectations. Not only was the writing and playing good enough to swing multiple generations of fans into Led Zeppelin’s corner, the band took their improvisation ethic to new heights and their live shows became an ever-changing exercise in a variation on a theme. This isn’t what most people think of when JAZZ is discussed, and heavy rockers and serious jazz artists would be equally offended by the term, but the basic drive and aspirations of Miles Davis and Jimmy Page or any of a number of ALT artists, which Zeppelin definitely were at the time, are primarily the same. It matters little what ends up on the disc. So much of that genre classification is all about selling units to consumers. A Led Zeppelin concert from the early days always had “songs”, but the highlights of the show were long improvised workouts on certain studio recordings — How Many More Times, Dazed and Confused, Trampled Underfoot, No Quarter, Whole Lotta Love,Moby Dick and whatever Jimmy picked as his “solo” spot (White Summer/Black Mountainside). As time went on the band was able to create long pieces that didn’t contain the same amount of improvisation but were arranged and conceptualized extended pieces of art: Stairway to Heaven, The Song Remains the Same/The Rain Song, Kashmir, Ten Years Gone, In My Time of Dying, Achilles Last Stand. None of this stuff is really ROCK music even if it sounds like ROCK music. It’s played with rock instruments and played at high volumes but the combination of instrumental prowess and artistic vision in the writing and live interplay produced something more than what most bands, even of that era, were capable of. It really does compare favorably to the best jazz and how the best jazz bands functioned without sacrificing any of the heaviness or youth signals (lyrics, stage theater, drama) that fans responded to.

LZ_1Before I started playing jazz music I always thought the version of Dazed and Confused (from The Song Remains the Same movie) was a bit too long and went through one too many “movements”. If it had been up to me, I thought there were two that could have been cut without losing anything from the performance (and this still might be true…improvisers are always in the process of editing and perfection is completely relative). Watching it recently, I thought the band’s performance was and is completely phenomenal. I’ve never liked the “fantasy” sequences in this movie because the band’s ability to take an audience through a half hour of music, power, drama and performance is totally cool and would certainly have been enough even in 1976. Is some of the drama silly? Of course, but the band didn’t take themselves as seriously as everyone else did and the limits of what could be done in a live performance were still expanding. Throughout the song Jimmy Page employs power chord thud, blues and country fills, dramatic wah-wah arpeggios and harmonics, slashing funk chords, avant-garde bowing and noise ripples and plenty of ripping riffs and zipping lines. When he was at his best Jimmy, like all of the great guitar improvisers, was a great synthesizer of all his influences and whatever was floating in his imagination at the time. By 1973 not only was the band firing on all cylinders live, their confidence level was completely off the charts. There is also maturity seen (and heard) in these shows that doesn’t exist in the early days and there is none of the dissipation and exhaustion that creeps into the band by later in the decade.

In 1973 Dazed and Confused was still a major centerpiece of Zeppelin shows. Typically, it occupied the 10th slot of the set, preceding Stairway to Heaven. In 1997 artist and Led Zeppelin bootleg expert extraordinaire Luis Rey analyzed Dazed and Confused in his book Led Zeppelin Live: An Illustrated Exploration of Underground Tapes. He split the song (1975 live version, which ran even longer than 1973) into 12 basic sections as a means of identifying the changing parts and progression of the piece. You can check the Wiki link for the actual sections and I think they’re pretty close in general to this version, at least the overall substance. Obviously some of this was rehearsed prior to the tour and Zeppelin played the set they rehearsed pretty much at all shows on a tour with only the encores varying from show to show. BUT…as was said at the time and what is obvious if you listen to enough copies of shows from their tour, within the general framework, there was plenty of room for improvisation and spontaneity, especially as far as Page is concerned and he certainly took advantage of that freedom.

Dazed and Confused was originally “picked up” by The Yardbirds after seeing Jake Holmes perform it in New York City when he opened for the band in summer of 1967. The title, bassline and general vibe of the song were lifted intact, but the lyrics were rewritten and even before Led Zeppelin came into fruition it served as an instrumental vehicle for all of Page’s guitar wizardry. (In 2010 Holmes filed a copyright infringement suit and is credited with inspiration and no doubt got a bunch of cash as the writing credit remains with Page). Zeppelin started playing Dazed at its first rehearsal and did a brisk 6+ minute version on their first album. But the song was in a constant state of evolution and serves as a very good barometer of how the bad grew over five years. As the song begins the confidence level I was talking about is evident in the dramatic intro and sung verses. Nothing is rushed and Bonham’s drum punctuations keep the song from being a dirge. Notice how Page varies the main riff every time he plays it, either with different phrasing, bends or playing the harmony notes of Jones’ bass riff at one point. At about the 4 minute mark the band is off!! and the camera starts to focus on Bonham and then Jones and Bonham as they follow and react to what Jimmy is doing. Along with all of his many other talents, John Bonham was easily one of the most reactive drummers that ever rock and rolled and Jones is also amazing. The fact that all of his brilliant lines are finger-picked also adds a layer of fluidity and depth to the song. Notice how Jimmy breaks his first set of riffing with some funky slash chords, setting up his next high-register solo. That’s improvised composition in action. As the song comes to it’s first breakdown the camera catches Bonham and Jones trying to puzzle out where Jimmy is going (5:38). Even though the band has been playing this song for 5 years at this point, but there is obviously no formula employed here. It’s called spontaneity and there was never a band as heavy as Zeppelin who pulled off this type of spontaneity so well. I love the interaction between Jones and Bonham at the 6 minute mark — it shows the essence of what I’m talking about so well. As guitar players we are usually told to “sing” our lines to make better improvisation. Notice how Bonham seems to sometimes “sing” his hits (6:19-6:25). You can hear snatches of the 3-years in the future riff for Achilles Last Stand in the arpeggios that set up the “San Francisco” bit. Excellent casual flamenco-esque strumming by Page on the “San Francisco” bits before bringing the wah-wah to lead to another heavy crescendo. Up and down the band goes, bringing everyone in Madison Square Garden with them. Isn’t this exciting? Robert Plant’s various vocalizations (scatting) have the same dynamic spontaneity throughout the song. He knows when to sing and then drop out and let the band play again. The “I Knows” that he brings in to accentuate the heavy part that comes in around 7:50 don’t mean anything and he isn’t really singing. His voice is just another instrument in the mix that adds another layer of excitement as the final bit of CRUSH and the segue before the song devolves into complete and total weirdness (and I mean that in a good way). Same with the “Aahs” and “Oohs” as the bass and drums are dropping out. The band leaves as Jimmy takes over on bow at about 9:00. So far the song has been paced beautifully highlighting the band’s talents for improvisation and live drama. Ethereal swoops and echo feedback replace the power of the band and it becomes a completely sonic “event”. The “song” has been left far behind. At 10:20 the Tolkien theater or Mars the Bringer of War (whichever you prefer) is in full effect with bow smacks on an echo-driven guitar with accompany send-outs to the audience. While I’m sure this was the inspiration behind Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel” violin solo“, it doesn’t look as silly in hindsight as it was made out to be. Sure, it’s not a 4 minute rock song, but John Cage and others outside the mainstream were doing stuff like this for years and Led Zeppelin’s fans, while maybe not classical music aficionados, ate it up. You don’t hear anyone screaming or heckling or any audience noise at all until Page does the dramatic slaps… and there is much rejoicing!! As Page continues bowing [the fantasy takes over and] Plant joins him with vocal accents as they fill the Garden with horror movie sounds that I’m sure were pretty awesome to an audience looking for a trip to another world (and under the influence of whatever they could get their hands on before the concert). See the internet and smart phones didn’t exist then kids. The rest of the band joins in with ambient noise effects before they return with the crunch and the blast at around the 16 minute mark. Once again the segue, helped by those little touches of Jones’ and Bonhams’ ambiance and impeccable timing, is perfect. There is another shot of John Bonham as the song kicks into the familiar riff that leads into the guitar/vocal interplay between Plant and Page. Bonham looks like such a serious (and sober) drummer on this performance doesn’t he? Very attentive to what Page and Jones are doing. A whole bunch of awesome, rapid-fire Page soloing follows on the same rhythm gallop. Back in the 70s this is what earned Page universal acclaim as the best guitarist of the era and it’s pretty impressive even today. The song breaks down into a funky rhythm that employs a prominent Hendrix-y 9th chord as it’s anchor. Jimmy has been playing guitar for almost twenty continuous minutes and has yet to repeat himself. Another dramatic major, happy sounding break leads into a different interaction with Plant (along with a bit more theater that totally pleases the audience). And once again Page is off with an Over, Under, Sideways Down-style riff and Jones and Bonham follow him until the song breaks again for another interaction with Plant in a higher register. The scene with the longhair is puzzling and says to me “we don’t have the film of that part of the performance.” Why that bit is chosen or what it’s supposed to represent I’ve never been able to puzzle out. At about 23 minutes the song breaks down again and goes into something that sounds vaguely like Black Sabbath before climaxing into chaotic noise and spiraling to earth and the final familiar strains of Dazed and Confused as you know it from the record are heard again. On the familiar outro figure Page once again takes off with screaming obbligatos and fleet-fingered wah chording and Jones and Bonham turn the rhythmic vibe into something that gets them smiling at each other (26:35-26:50) before a final burst of feedback and Plant’s echoes signal the ending chord slam and Bonham drum thrashing that finishes the song. While there was probably some post-production employed to really tighten the song up, other versions from the tour are extremely close and sound almost as good. Silly or dated as this might seem to some there is literally no one else in the history of rock who pulled this off as well, then or now.

LZ_3Given the nature of the above song and performance, Led Zeppelin has a lot in common with other “jamming” bands like The Grateful Dead, Cream and The Allman Brothers, much more than most “headbangers” would give them credit for. It’s interesting that many of the heavy bands that Zeppelin influenced picked up on the heaviness and the occasional acoustic ballad, but were not adept at either live improvisation or long orchestral-like pieces of music. All of that more or less faded out with the 70s. Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and everyone who followed into the 80s did not play 30 minute songs and did very little improvisation, except for their feature solos. That whole approach to writing and performance became strictly the domain of “jam bands” most of whom descend from the California sound of the 60s and 70s. Coincidentally, there is a lot of that to Zeppelin as well — Robert Plant in particular was a huge fan of San Francisco bands and it definitely shows in his Zeppelin lyrics and his solo material. This is probably why Page and the rest of the band take umbrage of the title Heavy Metal to describe their music, because they weren’t, especially when compared with what came along in the 80s and beyond. (Notice that most of the time Page isn’t using that much distortion live compared to heavy guitarists of later years). The heaviness that Zeppelin brought was always balanced with nuance and other elements, which is very clear by analyzing Dazed and Confused, always one of their heaviest songs. Guitarists of the next generation would by and large take the obvious and simplest elements of Zep’s heavy music and make it louder, heavier, faster and, in some cases, more intricate and in the process lose the elements that gave Zeppelin’s music it’s timeless depth, dynamics and (live) spontaneity.

LZ_6Of course, I was and am a big fan of the later heavy music and have seen many of those bands and played more than a few of those longs in my own bands. However, there is something slightly intense and magical about the ability of a group of musicians being able to improvise or approach music with the type of dynamics and movement inherent in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Call it rock, call it jazz, call it what you like, there comes a point when the quality of the music or performance renders all description and classification useless because there ain’t enough adjectives to really convey what goes on!

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