Queen

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!

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Happy 65 Freddie Mercury!

Freddie Mercury would’ve been 65 yesterday. Dude was AMAZING and so was his band, Queen. They were one of a kind and one of the heaviest of 70s rock. Many of their songs were staples of FM radio and definitely part of my high school/college years. And hey…Brian May is a heckuva guitarist isn’t he? I remember being like 12 and seeing the video (the first music video ever) of Bohemian Rhapsody on The Midnight Special in the 1970s. That was friggin’ unbelievable at the time…supposedly when he heard it Brian Wilson was so scared he cried for 10 minutes. {If you watch the video again starting at about 5:15 Brian May is doing obvious tapped-hammer-ons. Interesting because he never made a big deal out of it. Brian and Eddie Van Halen did play together in the early 80s in the Starfleet Project} Freddie was an extraordinary writer and showman and had one of the best if not THE BEST voices ever heard in rock. Queen at Live Aid is easily some of the greatest 18 minutes in popular music history and even back then it was obvious they stole the show. Here is the first section…view the whole thing by following the You Tube chapters. Freddie leading the crowd in the call and response at the beginning of chapter 2 embodies what Tony Soprano called “BALLS”. Freddie is as comfortable and confident in front of literally (with the TV audience) millions of people as he would be in his living room.

I’ve always really liked early, prog-rock Queen and long-hair, black fingernails Freddie. This song is a real great showcase for the rest of the band too. I’m pretty sure Keep Yourself Alive was written by Brian and it’s a total show-off song, but also way cool!

Queen never sounded like anyone else and it was obvious from the beginning that all of the members had extraordinary talents. Freddie’s operatic rock god vocals, Brian with his homemade guitar, wall of Vox amps, and mega-chops, the brilliant drumming and high harmony vocals provided by Roger Taylor and quiet John Deacon holding it all together on bass, these guys could ROCK! Stone Cold Crazy was so heavy that Metallica covered it.

I also like some of Queen’s offbeat material. Many people in the USA, including some critics, didn’t get the humor that was involved in the writing and performances. I’m not sure why it was so hard to understand — Queen named two of their albums after Marx Brothers movies didn’t they? That probably should have been a clue that they didn’t take themselves very seriously. Jazz was a really funny record and for a time, back in the late 80s at the VITAL VAN loft, that record got frequent airplay, especially Bicycle Race with lots of air guitars and shouting along. The first hint of this smart, clever writing and tight musical arrangements appeared on Queen’s first real hit, Killer Queen. I still love this song too, especially all of the phasing and the triangle hit before the 2nd verse. Of course the guitar parts are great and was there ever as glamorous a rock singer as Freddie Mercury? I think not.

While all of this stuff is from a long time ago, that’s okay. Because if you were there while it was happening you know how super-duper cool and important it was and if you weren’t, that’s okay, because you probably wish you could’ve been. I never got into Queen’s dance music very much — Another Bites the Dust was so EVERYWHERE in 1980 that it was almost a pop-novelty song. Thanks to Weird Al Yankovic it did become a novelty hit when he turned it into Another One Rides the Bus. (I saw this performance on Tom Snyder’s show when it was first broadcast) It was funny at the time because a lot of people, especially in the USA, thought this was something Queen was doing as a one-off. They were a different kind of band in the 80s but that was alright because they were still able to bring the rock and a really great show. Some of their ballads were similar to Elton John…he wasn’t the most rockin’ guy, but he sure had a lot of great songs on the charts in the 1970s-1980s and, like Queen, was really stellar in concert. One of the benefits to being old now is that I (we) were able to live through some very special times. There will never be another Freddie Mercury and I can say that with 100% confidence. Some people are just one of a kind and to have seen them, rocked to them and enjoyed their artistic endeavors is part of what has made my life a blast.
Happy Belated Birthday Freddie!