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.