WHEN THE MOTION picture of Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion gig screened for one night only, I chose to make the pilgrimage to the only just and right venue, at West City cinema, Henderson, where I was delighted to sit next to a genuinely avid fan and rabid Westie, complete with Zoso tattoo (and cell phone screensaver), who had clearly devoted the better part of his meagre life to the monsters of rock.
One of the enduring curiosities of ‘classic rock’ bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd is the ardour they inspire in disaffected young men – an ardour that borders on obsession. When I quizzed this chap about which Zeppelin albums he liked best, he parried with: “They’re all great.” What about their post-Zep solo endeavours? He gave me a filthy look. “Nah!” Even Robert Plant’s album with Alison Krause? For a brief few seconds, I thought he might swell up out of his seat and give me the bash. He was clearly disgusted by the idea. And anything that fell short of flying the group flag was tantamount to treason.
As it happened, my carefully planned pilgrimage, in which I hoped to witness a theatre writhing with rapture at this simulacrum of a live event, was a letdown. The room was less than half full, which made me wonder if Led Zeppelin’s time had come and gone again too soon. Or had all of Henderson’s petrol-heads expired, or simply become paralysed by their 50-inch plasmas, and too lazy to venture out on a Wednesday evening? Maybe – horror of horrors – the latest generation of disaffected young fans had got into the dreaded rap instead of ‘classic rock’? God defend the Western suburbs!
Event Cinemas bungled it, as well: for the first 30 minutes or so, the sound levels were so low we could have heard a mouse fart, and one thing about Zep – especially a replication of a Zep gig – is that volume is a requisite. The sound did get a little louder as it went on, but it was never even at what I would call respectable home theatre levels. Shame on you, Event Cinemas, you really do need to get your shit together if you want to keep people paying those exorbitant prices.
Still, the motley assemblage clapped and hollered just like they were witnessing a real concert.
And I was impressed with Celebration Day, the movie. Expecting a travesty, I was taken by surprise. Unlike so many absurd, appalling, gratuitous reunion cash-ins, the performance rammed home the explicit, brutal machismo at the core of their work, while showing that the hard rock behemoth’s music endures because there’s more than just cut and thrust to this band.
Critics frequently get it wrong about Led Zeppelin, and that’s because they’re rife with contradictions and complexities that get muddled by time and hagiography and easy assumptions. Heck, during the punk era the group were so vilified by the music press that, believing everything I read in the NME (as an impressionable teen), I traded in my two Zeppelin albums for something undoubtedly much more street cred. That was a decision I later regretted, mainly because my copy of the group’s third album contained a special circular card thingy that wasn’t available in later editions.
So, what made Zeppelin such a great band, and why are they so misunderstood? Their masterstroke was not only the way they raided the work of legendary bluesmen, but what they did with that material. If Robert Johnson did a deal with the devil, Jimmy Page had more than a little bit of the devil in him, and it was way more virile than anything Mick Jagger ever played with. Led Zeppelin took some of that old blues voodoo, but these were young cocks strutting their stuff, and utilising the first wave of electric rock technology to come up with a sound that perfectly represented wannabe virile young men everywhere, expressing every inch of their machismo.
Listen to the first four Zeppelin albums today, and you can still feel that. But it’s more than that, too. Generations of hopeless hard rock and heavy metal bands aped Zeppelin and bored everyone to death with their laboured bullshit, forgetting that Zeppelin also had musical skill, genuine synergy between the members, and a very real sense of experimentation.
That experimentation manifests itself not only in Jimmy Page’s radical production techniques, but also in dissonant, noise-oriented sections that are more “out there” than so-called legends of experimental rock like the Dead C that The Wire wanks on about endlessly. But we’re not allowed to consider the innovative aspects of a band like Led Zeppelin (the textures John Paul Jones brought to the band, the inherently funk-laced drumming of John Bonham, the extended improvisations) because it’s too-hard basket when they’re also prone to sections of old-school “entertainment”, not to mention the group’s no-cred willingness to “rock out” for the head-bangers.
But the “truth” that generations of music lovers have grown up with in the post-punk era is that you can’t be experimental AND be popular AND entertain – and it’s a big, fat lie. If blues, jazz and rock and roll did one thing well, it was to entertain the punters, and the most innovative jazz artists were more inclined to pull a vaudevillian move to keep the punters wowed than to turn their backs on them with cool indifference.
The other thing that Zeppelin had was pronounced British roots, despite their heavy leaning on American blues material. This comes through clearly on III, with its accent on folk styles, but is also there in spades on the dreaded ‘Stairway To Heaven’, and the Tolkien/Crowley imagery in their mid-to-late work.
But Led Zeppelin, like the Stones, and any rock and roll band, were not made to grow old gracefully. The bluesman they relied on so heavily at the start always sounded old, probably much older than they were, but so much of what made Zeppelin potent was their sexual urgency as young men, expressed through music. It’s the untold story of rock, and the main reason that all of the rock reunions of grizzled, 70-year-old men are smelly old bollocks. BB King can do what he’s always done, and retain his dignity; the Rolling Stones can’t, because they were never predicated on growing up, or old.
Which is why it’s so weird that Celebration Day – the movie, the DVD, the double CD – isn’t half bad. Sure, on the first couple of songs the band sounds a little rusty, but that’s one of the saving graces of this whole thing: it was a one-off reunion, and they don’t appear to have ‘fixed’ anything, or done any major post-production surgery, which keeps it honest.
The worst thing about watching the gig is enduring the Jimmy Page ‘vinegar stroke’ facial contortions. The sad thing is that neither Page nor Plant have aged well, the guitarist making faces that conjure up images of demented old Jimmy Saville, and the singer’s wet poodle haircut doing his sagging jowls no favours. By contrast, it’s almost embarrassing how youthful and chiselled John Paul Jones still looks – in fact, he looks fitter than Jason Bonham, who is in charge of his father’s drum kit for the proceedings.
Still, it’s the music that counts, and despite the unfortunate visuals, Page shows that his ability with a guitar (or even a guitar with two arms) hasn’t diminished one jot. There are more than a few drop-jaw moments for guitar fans. John Paul Jones maintains his reputation as the engine room/glue that keeps it stuck together, while Bonham Junior’s playing is pleasingly meat-and-potatoes without ever quite getting the groove on of his father. The weak link is Plant. No one can be surprised that the guy doesn’t wail like he used to, but he sounds bored much of the time, and rarely musters the energy to raise a holler. What makes it more annoying is that he does reach some of those death-defying high notes late in the show, which means he was just saving it for later.
A quick run-through of highlights and lowlights, then. ‘Good Times Bad Times’ and ‘Ramble On’ are just preliminary warm-ups, but ‘Black Dog’ shows how remarkable some of the group’s early material is, with its odd time signatures – this is not a typical rock or blues, no matter how you try and assimilate it.
Interestingly, Plant acknowledges the song’s debt to Robert Johnson’s ‘Terrapin Blues’ before launching into ‘Trampled Underfoot’. Again, ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ boasts one of those undeniably classic guitar riffs, and ‘No Quarter’ really highlights John Paul Jones’ contributions on electric piano. And thank god there’s no footage of knights and castles.
Over on the second disc, ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ features stand-out bass rumbles and phenomenal guitar runs, but Plant sounds out of breath. ‘Dazed & Confused’ is another of those Zeppelin songs that seems to have come from nowhere, with its slow stoner riff and sustained wah-wah wonderment. Suddenly, on ‘Song Remains The Same’, Plant is finally giving it some juice – perhaps he could see the finish line? Plant’s on good form on ‘Kashmir’, too, and it’s another great song and great performance. Unfortunately, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is terrible: in the middle section, Plant’s curdled orgasms are reduced to impotent yodels.
Celebration Day is an album for Led Zeppelin fans, or those who want to reacquaint themselves with the group. While it’s surprisingly not the embarrassment that the Rolling Stones have become, anyone seriously investigating what made the group great in the first place needs go no further than their first half dozen albums. What I’d really like, on the other hand, is for someone other than Page to remaster all the albums, because they sound nowhere as good as they should. Maybe he’s just a little hard of hearing these days? GARY STEEL
Sound = 3.5
Music = 3.5