There was an empty field before Led Zeppelin planted their flag. Somebody else could have done it. The advent of rugged English amplification in the early ’60s opened the door, and oodles of British people were in love with American r&b. (See also Northern Soul.) The elements were available. But once Zeppelin’s debut punk/funk single “Good Times, Bad Times” (see also Bad Brains) came out, it was all over. Zeppelin became like pasteurized milk and public transportation—it was just part of the way things were. It’s hard to conceive of rock not related to Zeppelin in some way, just as it’s hard to hear pop now as not having hip-hop in it somewhere, in some way.
Zeppelin’s syntactical decision to MAKE. EACH. PART. AS. IMPORTANT. AS. THE. OTHER. PART taught rock bands how to make heavy rock read to a large audience, especially stadium crowds. Proposing the riff, rather than verse-chorus motion, as the engine of a song was hardly a new idea, but Zeppelin rewrote it in letters so big only a fool could ignore the value of the idea. (See also all rock criticism in 1969.) Bonham crowned the kick drum king of his set. (See also DJ Premier, dancehall, and Newcleus.) As a fan of Booker T. & the MGs’ Al Jackson and the Meters’ Zig Modeliste, Bonzo didn’t hit on this plan in some kind of happy accident. He knew where the best beats were, and knew that Zep could amplify this meme, this combination of rock’s not-stopping-not-letting-go quality with African American swing and patterning. (See also DJ Shadow’s Diminishing Returns mix CD and gohomeproductions.co.uk.) Jimmy Page listened to Bonzo’s complaints about his “cannons” being made to sound like “cardboard boxes” on records, and then realized that sound is made mostly of the air in a room. (See also Albert Einstein.) If you pull a microphone away from any sound source, you get more air, and more of the room. (See also Steve Albini.) It worked out pretty well. (See also the Beastie Boys’ “Rhyming and Stealing,” from Licensed to Ill.)
Zeppelin’s every act enlarged the room, opened the windows, and shed light on their multiple agendas, which included, in no order: preaching the truth about badass English folk guitar fingerpickers like Bert Jansch (see also Steve Malkmus’s Pig Lib), testifying that music from non-Western cultures was heavier than the Beatles let on (see also Jeff Buckley, Panjabi MC), and proving that men work best when they sound like birds and look like women (see also Axl Rose, entire 1980s).
The first disc of How the West Was Won is the best live rock recording I’ve ever heard, except for the live tracks on Gang of Four’s Another Day/Another Dollar EP. Nothing goes wrong, and almost every song is better than the studio version. (See also dissociative identity disorders.) After a brief 14-second piece indexed as “LA Drone” (see also Labradford), “Immigrant Song” kicks in. Not like a rock writer cliché (” . . . and then the DJ kicked in with a dope beat!”); I mean that somebody kicks over the world and a little bit of smoke goes poof! out of the speakers. Zeppelin perform with actual maturity, if we believe Nietzsche’s definition: “Maturity is the recovery of the seriousness of a child at play.” We could also use Alfred E. Neuman’s definition of maturity: “Absolutely unafraid of motherfuckers who don’t like Celtic go-go.” (See also the unreleased Fairport Convention versus E.U. mash-up.)
These high priests of the idiom were often pretty sloppy, because they really just wanted to keep the beat going, to flow, to go. Led Zeppelin weren’t, despite a million taxonomic mistakes, heavy metal. (See any music guide anywhere.) And that sloppiness is for the 20 great bootlegs I already own. But this time they’re not sloppy. They might even be straight. I’ve never heard Zep play this fast, swing so hard, make such windy and brutal music. You know those show-offy things Bonham does on the tom-toms, the thing that drummers do when someone is tuning that drives your girlfriend insane? Here, he just drops them into the river of music without admitting he’s done it—just little turnarounds in the fray, because he’s so fucking happy to be in this band with his boyfriends. He doesn’t even know he’s done it. Plant hits the Viking war cry dead on, and John Paul Jones’s bass sounds like the Paradise Garage is underneath the Long Beach Arena, bleeding into the midst of this . . . this . . . what? Rock band? Weapons testing? (See also Los Alamos.)
It is a well-worn truth, even a piece of furniture, to say that Led Zeppelin are sex. But what could be more reassuring at this point in history than to find out that a received truth is actually true? (See also the Constitution.) If you get five minutes into Disc One without feeling special feelings, then you need to play it again. It will eventually work. The potential customer does need to know that there are some longueurs on discs Two and Three, but all of the change-ups and solos and breakdowns are pre-irony attempts to pace a show the same way any modern DJ would, constructing hills and valleys to make successful dancefloor topography. (See also Larry Levan.) The solos are honest cliff jumps that make spiritual sense in a way they wouldn’t the next 100 times. (See also This Is Spinal Tap.) The medley of other people’s songs in “Whole Lotta Love” does increase the friction a bit too much, though. The medley of Zeppelin inside Zeppelin’s own “Dazed and Confused” is better, but that’s because we prefer Page-Plant to Leiber-Stoller.
You know when a band starts a song all agog in the sunflowers and peppermint, picking out a nice guitar figure that just goes tra la, only to turn the corner and bump boo! INTO AN ENORMOUS LOUD FULL BAND DOWNBEAT, BWAHA! Do you? (See Pixies, Slint, Nirvana.) That’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” here. The band samples itself, too. (See also Jay-Z.) They paste the opening of “Out on the Tiles” onto the opening of “Black Dog,” which wasn’t exactly wanting for a good opening. When “Black Dog” finally kicks into the “ah! ah! ah! ah!” bit (is that the bridge or the chorus? I’ve never known) it sounds exactly—not suggests or recalls, but sounds materially, sonically, exactly—like the Stooges and Trouble Funk playing at the same time. This is all I want from life.
The band has also released a two-DVD set of live footage called, hilariously, DVD. Because it is footage of Led Zeppelin playing live, it is the best film ever made.
This is my pledge to you: complete and total scientific objectivity. If you think the originals are all better, just A/B them. You’ll see.