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'.