Iron Butterfly

FLASHBACK #1

The Beach Boys with Jimmy Page 1985

I was at this Washington July 4th show back in the halcyon mid-80s. I definitely got around back then…cue the music — round, round, git around. It was only thirty years ago, but it seems like two lifetimes and it was so wild, crazy and innocent. To be in the middle of a half million people for an entire day and not even see a fistfight. Contrast that with today’s world where people get blown away with high-powered weapons because they like country music. I don’t think that is…progress. But what do I know? Anyhow, over the course of my concert-going experiences, I was at some other weird gigs and the exciting details of those events will be posts # 2, 3, 4, 5 and I know the 12 people who still visit this blog will be hanging on to hear all about it!

Back in the early 1980s The Beach Boys had developed an awesome rep for throwing huge parties on the Washington Mall for the 4th of July until the Interior Secretary of the time, James Watt, came along and said rock concerts drew the “wrong element”. Unfortunately for Watt, The Beach Boys weren’t Van Halen or Iron Butterfly; the band counted George H.W. Bush and President Ronald Reagan as friends so although Watt tried to replace the “rock concerts” with Wayne Newton, that effort was quickly scotched as people booed the concert and Watt eventually had to relent and apologize to the band. In the 90s he pleaded guilty to influence peddling and corruption charges and in 2008 he was named one of the worst cabinet members in modern history….LOL!

I was in my early 20s in 1985 and I had friends who had moved to DC after school and so I went down for the party. Not only did we party on the National Mall for the 4th, we also saw Santana in concert two days later in Columbia, Maryland. It was really great! We had nice seats and Carlos and his band were just overpowering from the first minutes. He came out first to warm up and find the sweet spots for sustain/feedback onstage while the lights were still down and he was just wailing. I’ll never forget it. He had such a great sound. There is a setlist here, but it’s incomplete because I KNOW they played their big hit, I’m Winning and it’s not listed. I seem to remember a couple of other tunes from the 2nd album like the above Incident at Neshabur, which aren’t listed either.

Anyhow…back to the 4th. We took the train into DC from Maryland and got to the Mall early. Over the course of the day a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in a few years showed up. We had a blast and the mood on the Mall was, of course, festive as only the 1980s could be. People really partied back then, lemme tell you, but it was also very mellow. The music, from the main stage began around 4pm with Southern Pacific, a band made up of Doobie Brothers and Creedence Clearwater Revival alumni. I remember the rousing version of Born on the Bayou that was the closer of the set. Of course the line “I can remember the 4th of July running through the backwoods bare…” is a sure winner for the holiday. However, that’s the only main stage act I remember until much later because of the talent wasn’t very interesting, there were delays and problems with the sound and seemingly endless radio ads. Also, I remember a second stage that was closer to where we were that had some pretty good cover bands playing and we were digging that. Because The Beach Boys, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and The Oak Ridge Boys performed in Philadelphia in the afternoon and were traveling to Washington to do the evening set, they would arrive late. So late in fact that sets got cut and the “Boys” played during the fireworks.

By the time the main event began, we had been partying for almost 9 hours. To say we were SPICOLI-ed! is a total understatement. It was AWESOME! The crowd had swelled to half a million over the course of the day and it was really packed even where we were — so far from the stage that we could’ve been in Virginia. When the Beach Boys started playing we could hear the music and see fireworks and it was a really great show even though I’m not exactly the world’s biggest BB fan. When Mike Love announced from the stage that Mr. T and John Stamos were sitting in with the band (as percussionists), that drew much giggling and guffawing from all of us. However, when a few minutes later Love announced that the one and only Jimmy Page had “flown over from England to jam with the Beach Boys” we straightened up (kinda) and were like, “Wait, WHAT?” We didn’t know that Jimmy was supposed to play, even though there may have been some advanced warning on MTV. So even though we were about 10.5 miles from the stage, two of us guitar guys decided we had to go try and see the band. Everyone else in our group declined and tried to talk us out of going, but we were determined, so off we went.

I don’t remember how long or how far we actually walked. We were both bombed, it was completely dark except for flashes from lighters or flashlights. Helicopters with searchlights buzzed overhead, the fireworks were booming and the Beach Boys and Jimmy Page were playing Lucille. We couldn’t see where we were going and kept tripping over people who had passed out or were getting their July 4th freak on. It was completely and totally surreal. My friend stepped on somebody who started yelling and we stopped. The stage seemed even further away than when we started and Lucille was already over. With more than a little regret, we realized that we were not going to be able to see history (?) being made: The Beach Boys, Jimmy Page, Mr. T, John Stamos and others jamming together to celebrate America’s birthday. We stood where we were for a few more minutes and 5-6 more songs and then, the concert was over. Thanks to the internet, my memories, hazy though they may be, are essentially how things went down over the course of the evening. Getting out of DC on the tube was nuts; people who had been partying in the sun all day were passing out and puking all over the underground and that was just a small part of the massive (and tons of garbage) from party. GOOD TIMES! Here is a hilarious memory from John Stamos where he recalls teaching Jimmy how to play in F# and why Jimmy thought the audience was “hexing him”. Funny stuff.

This past year John Stamos hosted the annual 4th of July concert with the Beach Boys performing. Back in 1985, Stamos was known for being an actor on General Hospital, but over the years he has developed into quite the musician. While there have been many a concert for America’s Birthday since that day back in the mid-80s, I don’t know if any of them matched that year for odd pairings. The thing is I never put it together until recently that the reason for why the gig ended up this way was because only 9 days later…Live Aid happened. Reading over this thread at the Steve Hoffman forums (which I’ve hyped before) I realized that user swandown’ assertion that Page played these concerts because he was in the area preparing for Live Aid is absolutely spot on! I had a chance to go to Live Aid in Philadelphia, but I also had a chance to work overtime and didn’t think the concert was going to be that great, so I passed on it. Bad move there, eh? Aside from all of the other great music, Jimmy Page played with most of his old band. Seeing and hearing Led Zeppelin romp through Rock and Roll, Whole Lotta Love and Stairway to Heaven would’ve been better than (not) seeing Page (but hearing him) play Beach Boys hits…maybe. The thing is that Jimmy wasn’t exactly playing at his best during the mid-80s and from experience I can tell you that these super-large mega shows were always more about the party than the musical quality. Either show was a great time and I’m glad I got to see the one I did!

Flashback #2 will be Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty and Only the Lonely.

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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!