Thursday, December 17, 2009

The First Review

By Steve Sauer,
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On the ninth day of Zeppelin, my true love gave to me:
A how-to guide to Led Zeppelin's complete existence

Have you ever wondered just how Led Zeppelin ever happened? Whether life is directed by free will, or by the determined hand of an interested higher power, or by a never-ending random collision of molecules, the four-man and one-time-only collaboration known as Led Zeppelin did take place. The group did what it did, achieved what it achieved, and essentially played no more since 1980. Even with the realization that the circumstances that allowed Led Zeppelin to flourish at the time it did can never be repeated as, simply, times have changed, there is a lot to be learned from everything this band did over time, everything the band was about.

Kevin Courtright is perhaps the first person ever to approach Led Zeppelin's achievements as a finite list of lessons that can be passed on to hopeful musicians of the present and future. If there was ever another publication that attempts what "Back to Schoolin': What Led Zeppelin Taught Me About Music" accomplishes in about 400 pages, it hasn't landed on my shelf. This book isn't another unnecessary biography of the band. He leaves recasting the history to those who've already written it. What Courtright tells here, in a very logical and neatly structured organization of topics, is exactly what musicians can and should glean from knowing anything and everything about the band.

Led Zeppelin's story begins as two sets of virtuoso musicians who were strangers to one another met and promptly started checking things off the to-do list of the one who brought them together. Now already, I've hit upon several things that need to be analyzed further. Inherent within this statement are a lot of facts. The group consisted of four people; that's one. All four people were virtuoso musicians. Two knew each other, and two others knew each other, but neither half knew the other. One person, the founder, had preexisting notions of what could be achieved in this group setting. Only with the entire assemblage of all four could those things be tackled. And once that congregation was formed, their success in meeting or exceeding those goals was almost immediate.

The above paragraph is only my crude way of pinpointing some of the important lessons that can be observed without overlooking a single intertwined detail. Courtright's technique, which is much better undertaken than mine, is to dissect every aspect of the Led Zeppelin story in a unique and sensible format. The topics of his 32 distinct chapters spanning about 400 pages range from the band's collective and individual musical diversity, the art of improvisation, their use of dynamics, their use of tempos, and other areas not about the music but the presentation of it.

Lest we believe there is little to be learned from the procedure of titling an album, Courtright begs us to think again. He explains how the look of the albums resulted from a concerted focus on symbolism and mysterious imagery, preferred over group photos; how the creation of demand came about as a combination of perfectly timed tours and rare media interaction; the contributing ingredients to Led Zeppelin's success in the music business; and just why the band's influence is so lasting.

For each one of the 32 subject areas covered in this book, Courtright details Led Zeppelin's methods, what their achievements meant to him as an impressionable youth first turned on to their music, and how this can -- or in some instances cannot -- relate to any budding musical career in today's climate. I say "cannot" because, as Courtright allows: "[J]ust know that the tactics used by [Peter] Grant and Zeppelin are innovative and successful for them in that time, and any lack of compatibility with today is only indicative of how corrupt, controlled and crushing the industry has become. However, I maintain that with a 'grass-roots' movement of like-minded musicians, utilizing today's technology which does in fact afford some level of autonomy, the trend can potentially be turned back to an at least reasonably equitable state for today's artists."

This book is not a template for success in the music world. Billy Squier, Whitesnake, Kingdom Come and Bonham may have all had their time on the charts, but none was able to do what Led Zeppelin did or enjoy anything close to that kind of lasting power. It simply cannot be repeated intentionally. Still, if the idea that the band's existence can be summed up in a logical way across 400 pages appeals to the aspiring young musician you just know could be the next Jimmy Page, this is the right book for that person. This book will ensure that person seeks out the next Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham.

Basically, if you learned something from reading last month's Web gem of eight lessons in creativity and productivity as gleaned from Led Zeppelin, you ain't seen nothing yet. Kevin Courtright is gonna send you back to schoolin'.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rocking the Classics: Led Zeppelin and Eclecticism, Part 2B - Classical

Our look at Led Zeppelin's connection to Classical music picks up with Jimmy Page. He expresses his desire to pursue a classically-oriented, heavily orchestrated approach to some of his music in a 1976 Circus Magazine interview. Page: (Speaking of what he anticipates for the future of Rock at that time) "I feel that young musicians will emerge again, but through a level of really good writing, of depth and intellect, like the classical...I think it will be the actual writing that will count, it will be back to composition like in classical music or the jazz of someone like Ellington." As for his own approach: "I'm very interested myself in scoring orchestral music...there's so much more that can be done with an orchestra...I'm working on a few things at the moment which first I'll doodle up with banks of guitars...A complete guitar orchestra isn't a joke idea at all...I've got one piece which is a perfect vehicle to explore those areas with banks of guitars, which would be orchestration as such and if that is successful it could possibly be arranged differently for an orchestra." Unfortunately, this piece never materializes, but Page has stated that this guitar orchestra approach has seen fruition in songs such as "Stairway to Heaven", "Ten Years Gone" and "Achilles Last Stand". And thus, Page's Classical sensibilities have found flowering in Zeppelin's music.

Not surprisingly, John Paul Jones is the most classically influenced Zeppelin member. In his formative years, he is exposed to the full gamut of the Classics. His training entails mastering of reading, writing, arranging and orchestrating music. In his 1960's, pre-Zep career as a session musician, Jones' abilities are highlighted in his string arrangements for The Rolling Stones "She's a Rainbow", and the Page-era Yardbirds track "Little Games", both from 1967. Jones himself speaks of his Classical leanings in a 1977 Guitar Player interview: "I always get the feeling I'd like to write a symphony. I like all music. I like classical music a lot -- Ravel, Bach, of course, Mozart I could never stand, though to play it on the piano is great fun. If Bach had ever come across the bass guitar, he would have loved it." During his Zeppelin tenure, Jones' Classical background comes through in a couple of ways. In 1977 performances of his "No Quarter" showpiece, snippets of Rachmaninoff music find display during his unaccompanied piano solo. And the Jones/Plant original "All My Love" contains the most Classically oriented, and beautiful passage in the entire Zeppelin canon. In the middle, instrumental section, Jones unleashes a magnificent piece of keyboard orchestration with significant use of counterpoint.

As with the Jazz connection, Classical music is a rare but welcome excursion for Zeppelin. But it is firmly entrenched in their musical DNA. And these Jazz and Classical touches go a long way in mitigating against the oft-repeated misnomer "Heavy Metal" in describing Zeppelin and their music.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rocking the Classics: Led Zeppelin and Eclecticism, Part 2 A - Classical --

In my previous post, I attempt to elucidate the not-so-often-discussed relationship of Led Zeppelin and traditional Jazz. Hopefully my point is secure with my readers that this Jazz influence is not merely tangential, but rather occupies a legitimate place in Zeppelin's musical DNA. I now ask my readers to take another step forward with me as we examine the roll Classical music plays with the band.

Perhaps the least likely Zep member to express any connection to the world of the classics is John Bonham. It will probably be a surprise to read the following quote: "My ambition is to record the 1812 Overture [by Tchaikovsky]. I would overdub all the rhythm sections -- the bells, cannons and timps. I'll do it one day." Tragically, this ambition goes unfulfilled, but the expression of it betrays a surprising side to a drummer so inextricably linked to Rock drumming. As for Robert Plant, though no explicit desire to perform or compose music in a Classical vein is expressed, at least an acquaintance with some of the genre's masters is made apparent. In describing his former Zeppelin partner, Jimmy Page, Plant says: "He's the Wagner of the Telecaster. He's the Mahler of the Les Paul. He's brilliant." Such a sentiment, the intent of which is to praise Mr. Page, also equates 19th and 20th century Classical masters Wagner and Mahler with brilliance. And Plant's comparison of Page with the Classical masters is not unique. Veteran british music journalist and Zep supporter Chris Welch presents a three-part series for Melody Maker Magazine in February 1970 in which he interviews Page. His choice of title for this series is: "The Paganini of the 70's."

The Classical connection with Led Zeppelin is proving to be intriguing. The Bonham and Plant quotes only hint at this connection, however. Next we'll see the extent of influence that Classical music and practices have on Zeppelin from the words of Page and Jones.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Swingin' With the Best of 'Em: Led Zeppelin and Eclecticism, Part 1 - Jazz

From day one Led Zeppelin is a band determined to be musically eclectic. In the early 70's, when asked which bands/artists he fancies, Jimmy Page reply's "[P]eople...fusing styles of all kinds of music," citing Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra as particularly apt examples. Zeppelin's love affair with the Blues and Folk is well known and well documented. But what of traditional Jazz? A relationship between Led Zeppelin and Jazz may seem a stretch, but is it?

In their young and most impressionable years both members of Zeppelin's highly formidable rhythm section are exposed to, and intimately influenced by, traditional Jazz masters. For John Paul Jones, such luminaries as Scott La Faro, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Charlie Mingus spark his bass aspirations. (Source: Guitar Player Magazine interview, July, 1977.) As for John Bonham, the two fathers of jazz drumming, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, play indispensable roles in his earliest drum explorations. But how does this jazz influence find manifestation in the confines of Zeppelin's rock base?

The use of swing rhythms is one way in which this jazz leaning finds voice. Used sparingly but consistently throughout Zeppelin's eight official studio releases, swing brings a welcome element of rhythmic sophistication to the bands already broad approach. In Jones' own showcase piece, "No Quarter", he, Bonham and Page (with Jones on piano) engage in some jazzy interplay during the extended instrumental solo section for 1975 live versions. A particularly playful version of the acoustic gem "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" from LZ III, as performed during the acoustic set in Seattle, WA, 1977, develops into an impromptu jazz excursion with Jones on amplified stand-up acoustic bass and Bonham in full Krupa/Rich mode. But perhaps the shining example is the opening section of LZ I closer "How Many More Times" in which Bonham and Jones swing like mad as they establish a groove over which Page and Plant unleash their blues explorations.

Jazz may be an occasional diversion for Zeppelin, but what an enjoyable diversion it is. And Zeppelin's eclecticism, as evidenced by their jazz inclinations, seems to know no bounds.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Led Zeppelin

I'm convinced that any author, particularly one whose work falls under the banner of non-fiction, will tell you that his/her work has an end-game in mind; a goal sought to be achieved. My work, Back to Schoolin': What Led Zeppelin Taught Me About Music, is no exception. In fact, the very title itself, is self-explanatory as to its essential purpose--that of passing on a body of teaching and understanding as compiled and absorbed by me, to my readers.

However, along with this more obvious purpose, is that of convincing my readers, perhaps somewhat subconsciously, that Led Zeppelin is indeed the ultimate rock band; the very locus crucis of rock music itself. It is acknowledged that music, as with all the arts, is appreciated on a gut, and individually subjective, level. This does not, however, supersede the notion that the arts can be analyzed with objectivity. The seeming paradox of a harmonious relationship between the subjective and the objective may for some be tenuous at best. And for me to hypothesize a notion of Zeppelin's rock supremacy is tantamount to attempting attribution of superiority of one member of the Holy Trinity over another. Undeterred, I maintain my stance that my subjectivity can be articulated objectively; that my hypothesis indeed does have firm basis. With that in mind, my goal is to educate on both emotional and intellectual levels.

Any attempt to present one's pre-determined bias(es) is precarious, fraught with an ever-present danger of disharmony as regards fact and opinion. And though my attempt to harmonize alleged polar-opposites (subjective/objective, fact/opinion), is perhaps fool-hardy, I'm ready to proceed armed with a sense of unshakable purpose. So, I offer the following dictum: I both believe (subjective/opinion) and know (objective/fact) that Led Zeppelin is the very embodiment of all that a rock group can and should be; they are the superlative example of rock music at its apex. My book unveils to my readers the multiple ways in which Led Zeppelin teaches me about music. Perhaps it also convinces even the hardest skeptic that Zeppelin is indeed the top of the Rock heap. If so, you'll know that you're learning from the masters.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Writing Led

Authoring a book is an experience with excitements and frustrations, successes and failures, self-congratulations and self-condemnations. But through the course of this roller-coaster ride, a sense of unmitigated determination must prevail; a pre-ordained belief that one's work is necessary, important, even...destined!

When choosing Led Zeppelin as my subject, inspiration is an intrinsic driving force. Their triumphs, their tragedies, their experiences and wealth of knowledge, all inform my own progressively developing musical path. Sharing this with others becomes an obligation, and a duty. However, inherent to any endeavor of teaching others (whether in a personalized or depersonalized setting) is a responsibility to be as thorough and accurate as possible as regards the information proliferated. No matter how much one has learned about a given subject, more can be known, and details must be clarified. A certain amount of subjective analysis is inescapable, but shoddy research and sloppy recall is not. But, perhaps most important of all, is an emphasis on implementation, so that what one learns is seen as demonstrable (where applicable.) This serves to authenticate what one teaches. It's one thing to regurgitate ones learning; it is quite another to demonstrate it from one's experience. Thus, the tri-fold tools of inspiration, information and implementation form a balanced triangle of teaching.

So, what of the hind-sight evaluation of my first book-writing experience? Though the process is rife with those previously stated highs and lows, I am convinced of this one thing: Back to Schoolin': What Led Zeppelin Taught Me About Music, is one more step in the generational passing down of musical knowledge and experience which is begun with Jubal (Gen. 4:21) and culminates with the song of the redeemed (Rev. 5:9-13). Since music ultimately transcends our empirical experience(s), Back to Schoolin' is, despite its author's many faults and lack of qualifiers, indeed necessary, important and destined.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Led Zeppelin

"Back to Schoolin'" by Kevin Courtright

Led Zeppelin. As with most things in life, these words hold different meaning(s) to everyone who reads them. For some, that meaning may be simply "The premiere rock band of the 1970's"; for others "Four excellent musicians whose music defines a generation"; for yet others "The very apex of rock and roll excess and debauchery." As for me, though the meanings above have at one time or another spilled from my lips, I never could have imagined that the meaning "The first and most important music teachers I've been privileged to have", would find utterance.
"Converting" to the music of Zeppelin as a teenager in approximately 1978, I am certainly ignorant of the fact that my quickly growing obsession with the band from that point on actually entails a subconscious absorption of information concerning music and the music business that will one day manifest in my own burgeoning musical career. This manifestation is at once subtle, and obvious. The subtlety reveals itself to me when, after repeated listenings of a particular piece I've written, I come to discover particular shadings, colorings or other such elements have subconsciously found their way into my work which I first hear in Zeppelin's. The more obvious manifestations are when conscious "borrowings" from Zeppelin are employed in my music--a practice that any Zeppelin fan knows is common within Zeppelin's own music. This same scenario finds manifestation in my approach to the presentation of my music (album covers, album titles, etc.), as well as the business approach I utilize with my music. So, whether it is the music itself, the presentation of that music, or the marketing strategy within the confines of the music business, I am indebted to Zeppelin in a multiplicity of ways.
Once I fully realize this indebtedness, I become eager to share what I've learned. The most practical way to do this is to write it down in book form. Thus, Back to Schoolin': What Led Zeppelin Taught Me About Music, is my expression of musical indebtedness to Zeppelin, with the express purpose of passing on a wealth of information and wisdom that I have been pleased to receive over the years to whomever may be teachable enough to likewise reap the benefits. This book is testament to the wonders of both a band of extraordinary power and purpose, as well as the less-than-obvious way in which they have impacted one musician. My gratitude knows no bounds.