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Sacred Cows, Led Zeppelin and Does the Song Remain the Same?

"Sacred cows make the tastiest cheeseburgers" —after Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989)

I have always said of popular culture, that like a McDonald's cheeseburger, it is to be consumed but never considered. Much of music is nothing more than a reflection of popular culture and certainly falls beneath that grand proclamation. A good deal of hip hop and all of dubstep, electro house, post-hardcore and what passes for R&B today will not be remembered, much less heard regularly, in fifty years. While popular culture may become "classic" culture, it does not do so wholesale.

The same cannot be said for that music made between 1955 and 1975, comprising what some commercial radio call "classic rock," who's staying power is no more evident than twisting the knob on the car radio. No, this is music that has proven to be something much more that simple entertainment, something much more sacred and vital.

In his tribute to Johnny Cash on the artist's death in 2003, commentator and VH1 Executive Director Bill Flanagan opined on the CBS program Sunday Morning:

"It's becoming more apparent with every year that goes by that the period from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s was a golden age for popular music. To have lived in the era where Cash and Presley and The Beatles and Stones and Aretha [Franklin] and Dylan and Miles Davis were around is like to have lived in Paris during the time of the impressionists. That era is moving away ... We can assume that these musicians who loom large in our culture will always be around. They won't. We should appreciate them while we have them because someday we'll turn around and they'll be gone."

When one considers that the popular music made between the two World Wars fell into antiquity by the early '50s, and that we are still listening to music from the "Golden Age," defined above, fifty years later defines "staying power." How many movies released since 2000 have used the The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" as part of the soundtrack? I rest my case.

Saying this serves to lay the groundwork justifying the discussion of a particular long-playing (LP) record (a "double album," actually) and movie from yesteryear that fairly well failed to move me at the time and one I have often cited as one of the poorest live recordings released...much to the chagrin of others.

I seem to have been in a scant minority of naysayers regarding Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same, as I was to learn, all too well, 30 years after its release.

While reviewing The Rolling Stones: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! The Rolling Stones In Concert (40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set) (Abcko Records, 2009), I made the following comment:

What is the measure of a great live music recording? That answer would be intellectual brevity, spontaneity and invention. A better illustration would be examples of poor live recordings ... Ergo, Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same (Swan Song, 1976) ... is certainly full of the invention part, too much of it, in fact. The Song Remains the Same was guitarist Jimmy Page's masturbatory opium dream full of noodling around and self-pleasing, self-aggrandizing (translation: "boring").

From this position, I received the following dissenting feedback:

"The Song Remains the Same was guitarist Jimmy Page's masturbatory opium dream full of noodling around and self-pleasing aggrandizing (translation: "boring")?" Obviously you couldn't recognize or appreciate a musical genius the likes of Jimmy Page sic [I doubt you've ever listened to it in its entirety]. The Song Remains the Same is Page's guitar masterpiece. Although you did do a good job plagiarizing the description of the movie.


"As soon as I heard your description of The Song Remains The Same, you lost ALL credibility! You don't deserve a column to write..."

Yikes! That is easily the worst dressing down I have received since starting to write about music 25 years ago. Immediately, these comments illustrate two things: one, we Baby Boomers take our music seriously (and I hope the posters are fellow Baby-Boomers, because if they are younger, they can take the proverbial flying leap at the proverbial rolling "O")... and why not? It was and is pretty special, and the soundtrack of our collective youth is absolutely something about which to be this passionate. Somehow, I cannot imagine Rihanna or Drake garnering as much attention 50 years from now as Led Zeppelin continues to. Second, the readers betrayed a complete lack of context that perhaps I unfairly have, writing about music released nearly 40 years ago. But Then again, maybe not. And, if so, too effing bad.

When Led Zeppelin recorded what would become its first live album, The Song Remains The Same—the movie, released by Warner Bros. and the recording, on the group's own Swan Song label, in 1976—the band was in a tidal transition. Derived from concerts held in New York City's Madison Square Garden July 27-29, 1973, following up by the March 28th release of the highly successful Houses of the Holy (Swan Song) the same year, TSRTS basically documented the band's tour in support of that recording. That this live recording was not released until after the bathetic Presence (Swan Song, 1976), almost three years after its recording, posed one problem I had with the recording. But first, a digression.

My introduction to Led Zeppelin came over the 1969 Christmas holidays when my older cousin, Jimmy, and I were listening to a variety of LPs at his house. This "variety" included Creedence Clearwater Revival's Green River and Willie and the Poor Boys (both Fantasy, 1969), the Rolling Stones' Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) (London, 1969) with its first LP releases of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Honky Tonk Women," Three Dog Night's One (Dunhill, 1969), Crosby, Stills and Nash's eponymous Atlantic, 1969 release, Johnny Cash's At San Quentin (Columbia, 1969) and Elvis Presley's pinnacle From Elvis in Memphis (RCA Victor, 1969).

Jimmy had just gotten Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic, 1969), cut it from the shrink wrap and put it on the turntable. I don't suppose which side we listened to first made any difference. Neither "Whole Lotta Love " nor "Heartbreaker/Livin' Lovin' Maid" was like anything I had previously heard. Even the sublime first album, Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1969), with its frantic "Communication Breakdown," as I heard on KAAY, "The Mighty 1090," could have prepared me for the radioactive fallout of Led Zeppelin II. We wore that record out.

Though I could not have understood it at the time, these first two Zep records were the most significant transformation, the furthest evolution of the blues in that genre's 50-year history. Whether "You Shook Me," "Dazed and Confused," "The Lemon Song" or "Bring it On Home," what Led Zeppelin was doing (like the rest of the "British Invasion") was recasting America's native music and feeding it back to us and making us like it. It was louder, prouder, hipper and more savvy than even John Mayall's The Bluesbreakers, The Animals or the Yardbirds. This was the dawn of heavy metal a year after Mars Bonfire coined the term in "Born to be Wild."

Simmering beneath this molten layer of blues was a finely crafted alchemy of spacious Celtic and folk acoustic music expertly engineered and recorded by guitarist Jimmy Page, who was squarely in his element in these roles. This vein of Zeppelin's music would assimilate over the next two recordings reaching its triple point with HOTH, when Led Zeppelin would come fully into its own, completely defining its sound. Listen to the carnal delight of "Hey, Hey What Can I Say" or the romantic "Over The Hills and Far Away" and you will hear what I am talking about. But even here, the band was not finished.

But, there are those listeners (like myself) that believe Led Zeppelin IV (Swan Song, 1971)—also called ZOSO—was the apex of the band's output. To be fair, it would be 30 years before I would properly appreciate HOTH or Physical Graffiti (Swan Song, 1975) for what they were and are: Led Zeppelin's definitive statement of who they were and the fullest realization of their sound. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves...

It was raining Tuesday, November 9, 1971. I was outside J.C. Penney in the Little Rock Mall, to buy Led Zeppelin IV, which had just been released. I did not care for Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic, 1970). The frankly Aryan "Immigrant Song" was cool but I was still too young to fully appreciate the more compelling "Gallows Pole" and "Since I've Been Loving You." But Led Zeppelin IV, that was something else altogether. The opening "Black Dog" kicked open that primal passage in my teenaged loins that was brought to its necessary climax in the subsequent "Rock and Roll." "Big-legged women" indeed. Don't get me started on "When the Levee Breaks." That was Led Zeppelin's penultimate blues statement that had it been a historic event would have been Sherman's burning of Atlanta so corrosively urgent and desperate was Page's reimagining of the 1929 Kansas Joe McCoy/Memphis Minnie composition.

But all was not perfect at the time. I thought "The Battle of Evermore" and "Going to California" was a bit of Left-Coast Hippie-ness blended with Bag End Seed Cakes (not that this was bad). "Stairway to Heaven," which I will not mention again beyond this paragraph, was perfectly awesome the first billion times I heard it. Like every other guitarist, I learned to play it. But in the same way that one billion overpriced and ill-fated weddings made a barking bromide of First Corinthians, "Stairway"—like its near contemporary, "Freebird," if you were of American Southern heritage—has become, yes, a soundtrack of the '70s, but also the Muzak set list played in Hell's waiting room.

I just wanted more of that stuff flowing through the veins of "Ramble On" through "When the Levee Breaks." That sonic blues crunch. These more Celtic/Folk-oriented songs represented the band's necessary evolution toward HOTH and PG, both of which appealed to an almost wholly different population. I heard a creative fault line between Led Zeppelin IV and HOTH and I stayed on the side of the former for many years. The majority of my friends completely abandoned the first four records for HOTH and PG and even went on to spout some propaganda-laden madness about Presence and In Through the Out Door (Swan Song, 1979) being superior to those early recordings.

Stop it. Now.

So, what was the problem with TSRTS? The movie for one thing, and I was not the only one that thought Deep Throat (Bryanston Pictures, 1972) was vastly better produced and directed. Even Page stated in the year the movie was released that:

[TSRTS] is not a great film, but there's no point in making excuses. It's just a reasonably honest statement of where we were at that particular time. It's very difficult for me to watch it now, but I'd like to see it in a year's time just to see how it stands up.

Well, it didn't improve after a year either...or another year, or another year. What really bugged me about the film was Page's noodling around with a violin bow and his absolutely unnecessary use of an Electro-Theremin (something better used on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"), not to mention close-ups of Robert Plant's inflated manhood testing the resolve of his Levi's. It was this I had in mind when I characterized the album as, "guitarist Jimmy Page's masturbatory opium dream full of noodling around and self-pleasing aggrandizing (translation: "boring")." To be fair to Page, it was the 1970s, and self-indulgence was not unique to Led Zeppelin—may we say "The Grateful Dead," but that is a whole other river of opposition, though 50+ minutes of "Turn On Your Lovelight" at Woodstock could possibly be considered excessive by even to most dedicated fan. The same might be said for 26+ minutes of "Dazed and Confused" a song never out of the Zeppelin book. Like the song-whose-name-I-dare-not-repeat: enough, already. "Dazed and Confused" and "Moby Dick" would eventually chase the casual listener into a burning building.

But, then again, we are not casual listeners.

When first released, my perspective of TSRTS was that it did not contain nearly enough IV and had way too much HOTH, a personal preference to be sure. Today I realize that was by design. When the original two-LP version was updated in 2007, adding "Black Dog" and "Misty Mountain Hop," I was partially mitigated, but How The West Was Won (Atlantic, 2003) had proven earlier that TSRTS was just a bad night and that Led Zeppelin was indeed capable of live greatness, and they could perform like the rock gods they were. There are dozens of bootlegged performances capturing a much greater Led Zeppelin than on TSRTS. To call it any kind of a definitive statement is simply not correct.

My other complaint with TSRTS was the timing of its release. The live album enjoyed its release October 22, 1976. The album this live performance promoted, HOTH was released March 28, 1973. The album after TSRTS, Presence, was released March 31, 1976. What is wrong with this picture?

Physical Graffiti, released February 24th, 1975.

What PG was, was the full realization of Led Zeppelin. The transition begun on HOTH came to completion on it, as well as the band's definitive evolutionary blues statements, "In My Time of Dying" and "Trampled Under Foot" (the latter referred to by Robert Plant on Celebration Day (Atlantic, 2012) as the band's "Terraplane Blues"). Yet, the powers-that-be saw it unnecessary to include its material on TSRTS. The historic folly of this decision is no better illustrated than on the myriad of bootlegged performances available from the 1975 North American Tour that provided the likes of the February 12th Madison Square Garden (Four Blocks in the Snow) and the February 16th St. Louis (Bertha Blues) shows. This was the band at full gale with the material fitting for rock royalty—a balanced display of genius before decline. Led Zeppelin eclipsed all bands at the time and rarely achieved the same artistic sizzle and success again. In light of this, TSRTS is anything but "Page's guitar masterpiece."

Hindsight is 20/20? Indeed. But the intervening years have only bolstered my opinion that the hero worship of TSRTS was exactly that—hero worship—because it was Led Zeppelin, not because it was good Led Zeppelin. Just because Page was a genius in the studio didn't let him off the hook. If one is to receive the accolades Zep has received, they best prove it on stage, and they did not on the original release of TSRTS. Thus it will remain, to me, a recording that offered so much promise only to come up short on delivery. Having said this, TSRTS is light years better than a majority of rock music released since—which is nothing if not indebted to Led Zeppelin.



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