Led Zeppelin Reunion: To Be Or Not To Be?

In days of yore when the rock ‘n’ roll world was young, bands broke up for good.

Solo careers ensued. Years, decades, and trends passed like pages in an anachronistic desk calendar. And the stomping feet of rock fandom began to pound for reformations during an era when many bands had been introduced to new audiences by way of the X-Box.

When it comes to returning to the musical homesteads of old  by way of reformation after years of prodigal albeit often fruitful wandering, one big event on the rock fan’s horizon in recent news is the hint of the clue of the possibility that the mighty Led Zeppelin may reform in 2014.

They were the biggest band in the world for over half a decade once. While they roamed the earth as younger men, they defined what a large-scale rock band could mean to an audience in a (then) new technological era of the late ’60s and into the ’70s; moon landings, global satellite broadcasts, exponential amplification advances, and faster air travel. They created a musical template for many while they were at it. But by 2014, what would a Led Zeppelin reunion look like, and what would it represent in the Age of Internet memes and fragmented media?

Writer, cultural critic, and rock fan Geoff Moore is back on the ‘Bin to find out whether or not a Led Zeppelin reunion would sink like a leaden balloon, or soar like a Valkyrie.

Led Zeppelin reunion 2007
Image: Paul Hudson

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Led Zeppelin Play “Going To California” at Earl’s Court 1975

Here’s a clip of stadium rock pioneers and erstwhile New Yardbirds known as Led Zeppelin. It’s a live take of “Going To California”, originally a cut from their untitled fourth album, which is sometimes called Led Zeppelin IV. Here we see it performed on film at one of their five appearances at Earl’s Court, this specific one on May 25, 1975. You can see the entirety of the show on 2003’s creatively titled Led Zeppelin DVD on disc 2.

This is perhaps one of the most era-defining performances in rock history, capturing the band at the height of their powers during a time they were being hailed as the biggest rock act of the era.

Led Zeppelin at Earls Court Going to California

No expense was spared in creating the event on an appropriately epic scale. The lighting rigs and sets used during these shows were shipped from the States where the band had recently toured to Earl’s Court in London, then the largest venue in Britain. Rehearsals stretched out over days while the sound on a technical level was tested and perfected.

It was kind of a big deal.

But, there again so were the band, the biggest concert draw of the era by then in terms of sheer numbers in the seats. Considering the era, this is saying quite a lot, what with both the Who and the Rolling Stones also on the road in 1975. In terms of commercial appeal, they were sitting pretty.

Yet, even if the commercial traction they’d created would sustain them in the immediate years that followed, this series of shows at Earl’s Court would represent the pinnacle of their success for many. And, how so? Read more

The Small Faces Perform “You Need Loving”

Listen to this track by ’60s mod champions and British R&B purveyors The Small Faces. It’s “You Need Loving”, a belter of an R&B tune recorded in 1966, and featured on their self-titled debut record The Small Faces . The song was originally written a few years earlier for Muddy Waters to sing by Chess Records bassist, producer, and songwriting giant Willie Dixon, who christened it “You Need Love“.

This version by the Small Faces had a tremendous influence on the upcoming hard rock scene by the end of the decade. It might actually sound very familiar to you as it inspired yet another song by a group of British R&B enthusiasts, who made that song into something of a signature number of their own – “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.

The blues is a mysterious form, as we’ve seen. Like a lot of vibrant folk music, individual songs aren’t so much owned as they are passed along, and changed through performance and interpretation over the years and decades. But, as we’ve also seen, the modern publishing industry isn’t so mysterious when it comes to the issue of borrowing and adapting without leave. So, how did things unfold with this tune?

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Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Perform “Four Sticks”

Listen to this track from Percy and Pagey, once of conquering Nordic-style hard rock  demi-gods Led Zeppelin, reunited as world-music enthusiasts Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.  It’s “Four Sticks”, a massively underappreciated Zep track from their most soundly celebrated 1971 untitled fourth album (sometimes called IV, Four Symbols, or Zoso), and revisited here on their live No Quarter album, recorded and released in late 1994.

Since 1980, and through solo career efforts of varying degrees of success and quality, Page and Plant were burdened with their legacy as game-changing rock icons.  The pair were constantly asked about Zep re-unions, teased out by appearances with John Paul Jones at Live Aid (with Tony Thompson and Phil Collins sitting in for a departed John Bonham).  There was also a brief show together at the 1988 Atlantic Records 40th anniversary.  Yet, through it all, the commonality that runs through their music was their interest in Celtic traditions and the blues as informed by the musical traditions of North Africa. Read more

Otis Rush Sings “I Can’t Quit You Baby”

otis_rushHere’s a clip of soulful blues belter Otis Rush with a version of his 1956 single on the Cobra label ” I Can’t Quit You Baby”, a landmark single in his career that established him as a first-tier Chicago blues artist along with kindred spirits Buddy Guy and Albert King.

With his powerful voice, and stinging left-handed  guitar work, Otis Rush began his career as a hitmaker on the Cobra label, recording with Ike Turner, and scoring several R&B hits, including this one, from 1956-59.  Today, Rush’s talent drastically outweighs his fame. Yet his early singles on the Cobra label established his voice in electric blues scenes in Chicago and beyond.

And “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a song that would become a part of the blues canon because of its unprecedented intensity. Led Zeppelin’s version of ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby” on their first album in 1968 brought the song to a mainstream rock audience. This band who borrowed so heavily from other blues musicians and their songs sticks pretty close to the Otis Rush’s here, perhaps because they had yet to make their name, or maybe that they saw no way to improve it.

After all, listen to Rush’s performance on the clip.  Get a load of that opening note that immediately rivets the audience to their seats, pulling their eyes and ears stageward.  This is as powerful as any rock performance, and Rush seems to be able to pull this out of himself with very little effort, making his presentation something to behold.

Otis Rush embodies something here which was true to his generation as an electric blues elder statesman.  I find much of the electric blues genre in modern times to be slavish, and very often plain erstatz. Yet, Rush is the real thing, exuding confidence, showing mastery while never showboating, and putting across a performance based around his material, as opposed to one based around a set of aesthetics that have become associated with blues performance .

Rush’s powerful and confident guitar chops influenced the playing of both Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield.  And let’s not forget fellow lefty guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who would later go on to influence even more guitarists of both blues and rock persuasions alike.

Otis Rush continued to record and perform until a 2004 stroke took him off of the road.


Robert Plant & The Strange Sensation Play “Takamba”

robert_plant_and_the_strange_sensation_mighty_rearrangerListen to this track by former Zep-figurehead and recent alt-folk proponent Robert Plant. It’s “Takamba” as taken from his 2005 album Mighty Rearranger recorded with his new band The Strange Sensation.

Being in the position Plant was in, and still is in to a certain degree, isn’t enviable.  He was the frontman of a game-changing rock band from the late-60s to the early 80s, not only establishing a sonic template for many, many bands coming up behind him, but also an image too – the Golden God.

After the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, that entity which was Led Zeppelin was no more.  Yet, the expectations of fans and of music critics, continued along the same trajectory, a phenomenon akin to the rock and roll law of physics as applied to popular frontmen gone solo.  How to proceed then?  Make albums that everyone expects and be accused of resting on your laurels?  Or, make albums that run contrary to those expectations, and risk losing your audience?

On this album, everyone agreed that the seemingly impossible balance between these two powerful solitudes had been achieved. Plant’s interest in North African textures are certainly served here with the Malian-flavoured introduction.  And his penchant for singing atop rock Mount Olympus is also served, particularly thanks to Strange Sensation drummer Clive Deamer, who sounds as though he’s whacking the kit with a pair of telephone poles.

Plant has made a record that seems like a logical progression of all the musical avenues that he has explored earlier.  And as such, it sounds honest, as well as elemental and big, which is what he built his career on since the days of Led Zeppelin I.  And it is this type of honesty which would further spark a duet record with Alison Krauss, gaining him a following that many never expected without compromising his own musical interests in roots music, and R&B which he’d pursued from the beginning.

Rock icons have it tough in some ways, perceived as dinosaurs who walk a razor-thin edge of critical praise when putting out records in the 21st Century.  This is perhaps down to the “hope I die before I get old” factor set rather ironically when many members of Plant’s generation were in their prime.  Yet, rock and roll has always been about tearing down walls between styles, between communities, and now between generations too.

The idea of ‘relevance’ being about keeping up with the newest trends is itself outmoded.  If anything should be made irrelevant, it should be this. Artists making creative decisions that clearly sharpen the definition their own body of work should be celebrated, no matter when they had their initial success.  This is certainly the case with this song, and this album.

To find out more about Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation, check out RobertPlant.com


Ten Years Gone by Led Zeppelin Performed by The Black Crowes with Jimmy Page

The Black Crowes Live at the Greek with Jimmy PageHere’s a clip of the Led Zeppelin staple “Ten Years Gone”, originally from 1975’s Physical Graffiti, performed by second generation disciples, and pros in their own right, The Black Crowes. Take a look, have a listen.

To me, this is a gutsy move, covering Zeppelin. Thankfully, the Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson doesn’t try and sound like Robert Plant – he knows that he doesn’t need to, which may be why they had the gumption to do almost a whole show of Zep songs, with Page sitting in. And Page lays down some authentic riffage which proves that this song is timeless anyway.

The performance here is taken from a show at L.A ‘s the Greek Theatre in 1999. Thankfully, someone had the foresight to record the event, which resulted in the Live at the Greek album, featuring Jimmy Page on a Zep-centric set, including tunes like ‘Celebration Day’, “In My Time of Dying”, “The Lemon Song”, “Whole Lotta Love”, and many others. Also featured are Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” and the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things”. Given that the Crowes were given life in part thanks to British blues-rock, this concert was something more than an event. It comes off as a tribute, in the best sense of that word, which usually has bad connotations in the rock world.


Reunions: Yea or Nay?

The Kinks It’s just come down the pipe that the original line-up of the Kinks will be reforming this year; Ray Davies, Dave Davies, Mick Avory, and Pete Quaife. The original line-up of the band that brought you “You Really Got Me”, “Waterloo Sunset”, “Victoria”, “Sunny Afternoon”, and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” (among others) haven’t played together since 1969.

What is driving this sudden glut of reunions? They all seem to be happening in a very short space of time, as if they put something in the water in 2007 – The Police, Led Zeppelin, The Stooges, Van Halen, The ‘pop’ line-up of Genesis, and Crowded House all reformed last year with varied results. Even the Spice Girls got back together! I suppose the cynical answer, and maybe the most obvious, is the money to be made by sticking to a brand. In some cases, the brand is more compelling when it’s the original recipe. I suppose on this level, I should be suspicious of the motives behind reunion gigs. But as it is, I’m not. This is because I think I know the score.

Genesis - Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Tony  BanksVan Halen 2007Robert Plant of Led ZeppelinIggy Pop of the Stooges

It seems to me that once rock artists age, they are in a no-win situation. They either get criticized for continuing so long in their respective outfits (see the Rolling Stones), or get criticized for getting the bands back together. And there is a certain embarrassment factor which music fans feel to see their heroes complete with the ravages of age; it reminds them of their mortality, perhaps, instead of their youth. There are many other music fans who are concerned with the tarnishing of legacies – that reunion tours and album somehow impact the quality of tours and albums of the past. Whether this has any validity or not is not really the point. We’re dealing with perceptions here. With rock music and rock fandom, the histories of the bands are intertwined with those of their fans. That’s another burden carried by the aging rock star.

Crowded HouseFor me, I like to think of reunion shows without cynicism. I saw the Police this year and Crowded House too. Admittedly, I was a target audience in more than one way. They are two of my favourite bands, both of which I never thought to see live and jumped at the chance to do so. I am a demographic, a cash-cow for promoters everywhere, I guess. Yet, what I get out of it, and got out of it, was not a revisit to my youth or some vain attempt to travel back in time. What I saw were shows put on by guys who were clearly having a ball playing music. I didn’t get the impression that I, or they, were attempting to get back to the past at all. For me, the appeal was all about the present, about how the musicians were interacting on stage, about the energy shifting and dancing between musicians and audience. In short, I saw two great shows. And to me that’s the point.

As for the Kinks, who knows what is driving them to get back together; money or a legitimate intention to create something new together? It doesn’t matter. The proof will be in the pudding.

Take a look at this footage of Led Zeppelin playing their 1975 classic “Kashmir” at their recent reunion show in London’s 02 Centre. Hover over the symbols below, and click the ‘play’ button. To make the window a bit bigger, click the magnifying glass icon in the upper right hand corner. Enjoy!

Led Zeppelin four symbols