Guitar World

LED ZEPPELIN in Guitar World 1993

Iwas looking for something in my closet the other day and came across this magazine. Always loved the cover art. Brilliant! It’s hard to believe this almost 21 years old already (it was the 12/93 issue). How time flies. But the Song Remains the Same doesn’t it? The mystique, magic and music of Led Zeppelin continues to hold up to the present day. A quick glance at the other names on the cover yields some nods of recognition and maybe even a few “oh yeahs”, but it’s not like the legacy of Smashing Pumpkins or White Zombie is setting the world on fire. I guess people still buy magazines (do they?). I’m so out of touch since I found this here internet thing. Like much of the print world, I do believe most printed publications are also available to be viewed online or people just don’t bother anymore since there are exactly zero musicians in the western hemisphere who can’t be found online in some form or another. The other attraction, at least back in 1993, was that songs were tabbed out with painstaking detail, which, in the case of a song like Zep’s Ten Years Gone, was a bit of an undertaking best left to the professionals. However, even this feature, along with gear and music reviews has been usurped by advances in computer applications and the mighty online community. It is a nice little reminder of what used to be and inside were other reminders of things that used to be.

Can you believe this image? Have you ever seen anything like that? No, not Robert Plant playing guitar, although I don’t think there are many pics of him out there playing an axe at what looks to be a LZ session (maybe the “outdoor” recording of Black Country Woman). (Both pics are courtesy of Eddie Kramer) I mean the very crappy text/image spacing between Robert’s picture and the text at left. I didn’t manipulate, that’s how it is in the magazine. What’s really funny is a guy named Michael Chatham is given a “typography” credit at the beginning of the article. There’s something you don’t see very often, but maybe it wasn’t his fault. Blame the temp who was doing paste-up or whatever. Anyhow, this interview with Andy Johns and Eddie Kramer details recording the band at various times during their career; Kramer on II and then Johns taking over for III and IV before Kramer came back for Houses of the Holy. Interestingly enough, according to Kramer, III started out at Electric Ladyland in New York but a roadie affiliated with the band spilled Indian food on one of the studio carpets and refused to clean it up. This led to a row between Kramer, who had a major role with Jimi Hendrix in planning and getting Electric Lady built and the band who backed the roadie. So long-story-short, they told each other to piss off for a few years. Another interesting tidbit involving Kramer and Page is that the middle section of Whole Lotta Love was mixed basically the same way as the “sound paintings” (1983) on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland record. “…we just flayed, around the console twiddling every knob we could. While the Altec console might have limited our options, especially the panning effects, we somehow managed to stretch our limitations and create a very effective mix.” (The Altec console used to mix Whole Lotta Love had exactly 2, count ’em, 2 pan pots. Wow!) Both engineers gave Page high marks as a producer and as a band, Zeppelin were very quick in the studio once the arrangement was set and the tricky bits of timing had been worked out. Neither Bonham on the basic tracks or Plant on the vocals took more than a few takes to get what everyone hears and has heard over the past 40+ years. Jones and Page would overdub as much as was necessary to fill the song out and because the band, especially Bonham were so easy to record, the mixing was almost never a laborious process either. Johns recollections of IV include Stairway coming in as a finished piece, placing mics on a stairway landing and then adding heavy compression and a bit of reverb to the drums for the very awesome When the Levee Breaks, which Bonham was very happy about and not getting Four Sticks right even after 3-4 tries at the mix. Although they found something they could live with, he blamed too much initial compression during the recording and this was the one regret of an otherwise perfect set of sessions.

In one way I think I’m the typical Zep head when it comes to their albums — I through Physical Graffiti are as close to perfect as a band can get. Presence is ok, In Through the Out Door was less than ok and a harbinger of THE END. Overall, my favorite album is probably Houses of the Holy, not so much because of the songs, even though they are all good and several are fantastic. No it’s that shimmering brightness combined with CRUNCH that wasn’t really captured as well on any other album. Houses of the Holy was recorded at Mick Jagger’s mansion, Stargroves, in the English countryside and maybe it was the mood the locale created or maybe because it was the band approaching the pinnacle of their career or the sounds they were able to get from the rooms that were used. While Kramer didn’t have much to say in this issue about the recording of Houses of the Holy, he recalled in the infamous book Hammer of the Gods that all four members of the group were dancing in a line on the lawn as they listened to the Dancing Days playback. As others have said, “the album sounds orange” (a reflection of the color of the cover art) and I agree. Those who go more for the Zeppelin blooze riff-fests don’t like this record as much and I like those albums too, but sometimes the sound, especially on Physical Graffiti has a very muddy quality to it. Some of the tracks for Graffiti had been recorded at the Houses of the Holy sessions which is why they sound a bit different, but the tracks recorded specifically for the record (Kashmir!) suffer from a lack of clarity. Just my opinion.

The final interesting bits of the magazine’s profile of LZ are thus: An interview with Robert Plant that sounds like it could have been done yesterday, or in 1984 and some quick musical tabs of some of Jimmy’s best riffs. At the time it was great to see the latter. I literally smacked myself on the side of the head when I realized how overcomplicated I had been trying to make the outro to What is and What Should Never Be. It really is dead easy and any of the footage now available shows how completely simple it is. The Albert Hall 1970 is a good place to start. The interview with Robert is funny in that he pokes a bit of fun at Jimmy Page and the idea of “going to prison to go around the world playing Black Dog”. Of course around the time he was giving this interview plans were being made for the big Page/Plant reunion that would commence recording during the following year. The project was acoustic and very different than a straight-up reunion, including a limited long-term commitment, which was probably part of the attraction. Plant says as far back as 1993, “I don’t think of myself as a rock singer anymore”, and part of the reason is he can’t. All of the wild screaming that many associate with Zeppelin (from hearing the records, especially the early ones) is no longer doable. The guy is closing in on 70, so he deserves some slack. In the 20 plus years since this interview he has been a very successful solo artist and collaborator and has earned much respect outside of the Led Zeppelin milieu. While there is definitely some attraction to playing great music with top-notch musicians like Page, Jones and Jason Bonham, he’s a guy who can pretty much call anyone he wants to a session, so the avoidance of a big reunion (then or now) is completely understandable, even though it’s still a hot topic.

One of the strangest most far-out rumors that dogged Led Zeppelin throughout their career was the one that alleged they (minus John Paul Jones) had made a pact with Satan, dark master of all things heavy. This surfaced in the mainstream in books like Hammer of the Gods and most people, including the band, wrote this off as silly legende right out of the realms of Anton LaVey and the Manson Family. When I wrote about Gimme Shelter I explored some of the very strange connections between famous rock stars and people who maybe felt a little too comfortable on the dark side of the street. These “satanic” rumors also dogged the Stones for years and having a very popular song titled Sympathy For the Devil can lead to a whole lot of misunderstandings. Some (referencing Hammer of the Gods again) believe that by Presence and specifically Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Robert was looking for a way out from what he saw as the intensely negative vibe that was starting to surround the band and his life. Statements he made after the 1977 tour (notable for it’s junkie overindulgence, sub-par performances and ultra-violence) and the death of his son Karac hint that these feelings had only increased. Childhood friend John Bonham’s death was supposedly the final nail and ever since then Led Zeppelin as it was has ceased to exist for Robert Plant. Or so the story goes. Personally, I don’t believe that Robert and the rest of the band signed anything in blood to Satan, but maybe there is a case for a more nuanced reading of “dark forces”. I found out a couple days ago that during the period Peter Grant was negotiating Robert’s first solo record deal in the early 1980s, Robert sold all of his rights to the first 10 Led Zeppelin albums away to an unknown buyer. He retains creative control and the whole issue of what he gets from reissues and new product like the 2003 DVD is not so clear, but think about that! You want to talk about cutting the cord! Was it a financial decision? Was it about wanting to make it completely on his own post 1980? I dunno, maybe. The figure he got for his rights (and you can read an informative thread on the official Led Zeppelin forum) was $7 million. Obviously he would’ve made much more than that had he hung on to them; this was before compact discs came into existence. But Robert is quite wealthy and has succeeded in his quest to be a respected bona-fide artist outside of the realms of Led Zeppelin. Perhaps that was his only consideration. Perhaps, he wasn’t (and isn’t) entirely comfortable with Led Zeppelin’s legacy, especially outside the music. While the Zeppelin Devil Pact is silly and unsubstantiated, the band’s image as egocentric, intoxicated barbarians was earned and well-deserved. Some of it was all it good fun and one would be hard-pressed to find a band in the 70s that didn’t indulge in mindless hooliganism from time to time. But since the better half of Robert has always cultivated an intelligent and spiritual vibe, it is possible that he made a decision in the early 80s to close the door, let go and move on…permanently, as in “I’m not that guy anymore”. If nothing else, there was probably an intense desire to not let those crazy days be the complete Robert Plant legacy and he has certainly spent the last 30+ years ensuring that Led Zeppelin would not be his whole story. But it will forever be a huge part of his history and legend and as he says in the following clip, The Song Remains the Same!

Advertisements

Mick Ronson

Mick Ronson in Guitar World magazine 1990Many years ago I had the opportunity to write for Guitar World Magazine. It was a whole lot of fun and over the course of a few years I was able to sit down and talk with some great guitar players, some of whom were legends and others who were young up-and-comers. I’ll be reliving some of these interviews in this blog from time to time and I’m going to start with my favorite, the late, great Mick Ronson. Most people know him as the guitar player for David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust years, but he was much more than that. When I sat down with him for a couple of hours in late 1989 he was on tour with his long-time buddy Ian Hunter, promoting the Yui Orta album. He was such a super-nice guy it was unbelievable. I was a huge fan of the albums he’d done with David Bowie prior to their big break-out, Ziggy Stardust in 1972 and he was genuinely pleased that I was asking about stuff he did on Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World as well as Ziggy’s successor, Alladin Sane, an album I played out even more than Ziggy Stardust. Aside from being an awesome guitar player, he was heavily involved in the production of not only the Bowie albums, but also, Lou Reed’s Transformer, string arrangements for Pure Prairie League, and this, lifted from Wikipedia, which he and I didn’t even discuss (I don’t really dig John Mellencamp but the Uh-huh album was okay, I guess).

“I owe Mick Ronson the hit song, Jack & Diane. Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for ‘Jack & Diane’, Mick said ‘Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What the fuck does put baby rattles on the record mean? So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.” (John Mellencamp, Classic Rock magazine, January 2008, p.61)

That was Mick’s attitude and effectiveness at production and playing. He used his imagination to come with some of the coolest stuff and it resulted in big records, not only for his own band, but others as well. He wasn’t afraid to do or say something outlandish that would leave people scratching their heads…until they actually heard it.

As a journeyman guitarist, he also played with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder tour in 1974, Mott the Hoople, Van Morrison and, he recorded three of his own solo albums. He wasn’t a chops monster, especially considering we talked during the height of the hair metal years, but he could play a great solo if the song demanded it and lots of songs he is on are layered in a way that gives them a very dramatic and symphonic sound. He embraced the solo as a motif or story within a story theory and that certainly helped with his writing and production roles. Sometimes guitar players just wanna play too much.

He also, during the course of our conversations, told me of his great love of punk rock because of the energy and the willingness to try new things. He embraced many styles and was a man at home in whatever style he happened to be playing at the time. As it was time to say goodbye I mentioned that I was recording with my EV punk band that day and he started asking me questions! How cool is that? Mick Ronson asking “what’s the studio like? How many tracks are you using? etc, etc. We spent another 10-15 minutes talking about the session and I have never gone into a session, before or since, as pumped as I was that day. His one nugget of advice that I have never forgotten was, “don’t be afraid to do something outrageous or spontaneous to get something going. Everything doesn’t have to be planned out.”

It was really sad to hear of Mick’s passing a few years later at the young age of 46, but it is beautiful to see that the influence he had on many people has not faded away. I feel lucky to have been in his presence, if only for a couple of hours. Here he is talking guitar on video.