Thursday, November 27, 2008

Led Zeppelin-Presence

What irks me about the Classic Rock radio format is not so much the bands, but the programming format. The same fifty or so songs by about thirty bands have been in endless rotation for decades now, helping to clog listeners' perceptions about so many aspects of music. I suspect it has a lot to do with royalty rates and point systems, but could be wrong. If anyone ever reads this, and can explain it clearly, by all means explain it to me. That said, at this point the well of sounds from which a careful DJ could draw, in terms of the "Classic Rock" sound, is pretty much endless, what with just about every recording ever produced easily available on the booming reissue market.
Led Zeppelin are by no means an obscure band, even nearly thirty years after their demise. They are often slagged off as classic Rock radio dinosaurs. Punkers like Joe Strummer spit at 'em. Post Punks like Elvis Costello derided 'em with spiteful condescension. Despite their lowly standing with so many of the Official Arbiters Of Taste, Zep's music remains not only a huge monetary source for the music industry (ever notice how often their catalog gets trotted out during dry spells?), but it still sounds really great. I'll grant (no pun intended) that I and II are pretty tuneless and dull, but move past those two in their catalog, and you'll find a wealth of great songs, played with imagination and verve.
Presence, the penultimate document of Zeppelin as an active band, is often seen as their one dud. Why this is, I'll never understand, as for me it's one of their best. Recorded quickly in order to make way for the Rolling Stones, the record has for the most part a raw, simplified sound. By this point in their career, these guys could have sounded tight as a kazoo or washboard ensemble, never mind as a Rock rhythm section.
The album is bookended by two longer tunes, Achilles Last Stand and Tea for One. The former is a great, almost purely Metal tune. My only complaint about it is that it could have been edited down to even greater effect, as Bonham's blasting speed shuffle and Page's cutting riffs are both really heavy. I'd venture to guess that they figured on writing at least one new Big Anthem for their concert repertoire, and Achilles was molded as such. It features as the one constant on said Classic Rock formats from Presence. Tea for One can be seen as pretty much standard Led Zeppelin blues, of course, but it's intro is equal to any riff from the Touch & Go post-Hardcore scene, and it's raunchy guitar playing is great throughout. Dig on Bonham's ride cymbal, too. The rest of the record is made up of shorter tunes that often sound as if the band is trying to fuse Funk and Rockabilly. These songs all feature Bonham as his tightest and most funkified. The paradox of infinite complexity residing within the seeming simplicity of his drumming remains compelling, and the listener will find fine examples of this on all tunes here. His drums were recorded great, too, as usual, beautifully up-front in the mix. Listen to Royal Orleans and try not to be moved by 'em! Page brings the Rockabilly aspect to Presence. His tones are gritty and countrified on tunes like Candy Store Rock and Hots for Nowhere, and most of his solos on the shorter tunes feature at least one instance of whammy bar bliss, as opposed to Guitar Hero pomp. He sounds a lot closer to Carl Perkins and Link Wray than Richie Blackmore or Jimi Hendrix. John Paul Jones adds to the overall feel by subtraction, in this case subtracting the keyboards entirely. He sticks to fundamental bass playing, with his axe pretty much welded to Bonham's big bass drum. His presence is pretty unobtrusive, which I'm sure at least made Page happy. Robert Plant's performance is the biggest surprise on Presence. Eschewing the "golden God" pose, Plant for the most part tones his sometimes histrionic style down, and the vocals' deep placement in the mix helps this process. You can hear the pure Rock-n-Roll approach of some of his 1980's recordings emerge here, along with a new found humour: at one point during For Your Life he makes audible pig grunts! Acts like that, along with a great name check of Barry White during Royal Orleans, seem to show Plant coming to some new way of approaching his method, perhaps willfully shedding the "Percy" persona of earlier years? Maybe the pain of his recent car wrecks and his having to record sitting in a wheelchair had him reevaluating things.
Led Zeppelin always had a raw, immediate feel in their music, especially compared to many of their contemporaries. I've never understood why they were singled out for derision amongst many of the revolutionaries that followed in their wake. Presence is perhaps the best recorded example of this rawness. The fact that they are a big part of the dull Classic Rock Radio cavalcade can't change how great and funky most of the tunes on this record are. If some of the shorter ones got a bit more airplay inside that vacuum, maybe more folks would see Presence for the cool document that it is.


Michael said...

Good post my friend. There is so much good/great music by "classic rock" bands that has been routinely overlooked over the past few decades, since radio stations are set on flogging their couple/three one-time hits to meaningless death. Hell obscuro indie/underground bands stand a better chance of getting radio play today than certain ZEPP moments or, say, STEPPENWOLF's "Slow Flux" LP.

Now I must admit that your post got me to listen to this album for the very first time today. And it is as you reckon totally hot. The rockabilly influence on Page's playing is subtile but everpresent, and I completely dig the less-histrionic performance turned in by Plant: it may well have been less crowd-pleasing, but it suited the rockin' soooo much better.

And of course Bonham is a Norse God, as always. I can't not fall to my knees in utter disbelief when he gets swingin', as he does all over this rec.

Disaster Amnesiac said...

Wow! Glad I got you to check it out. It's a great one. Bonham just never gets old. Plant's restraint here continues to the present. At Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this summer, he was very, cooly understated. I admire the fact that he hasn't agreed to tour with Zeppelin again, instead at least trying to make new music w/ Krausse. I bet Page is fuming.

The_Panic_Attacks said...

That's funny, I was just listening to this album a couple of weeks ago for the first time in years and it does kick ass. For the record I do love the first album even though it's completely overplayed. The sound on that album is just positively brutal.

Disaster Amnesiac said...

I and II are so stale, compared to deeper cuts on Physical Graffiti and Presence. It appears as though we have attained group mind Scott!