Jump to content

Rolling Stone Article

Recommended Posts

Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same

— From Issue 522

STEVEN POND Posted Dec 05, 2007 7:42 AM

Nearly a decade after the band's demise, Led Zeppelin's musical influence lives on and on

The Word Was Out About Kingdom Come. Even before the band's debut album was released, the record-industry buzz was that it had the potential to be a smash hit. And there's a good reason, say the buzzers: Kingdom Come sounds exactly like Led Zeppelin.

So it Kingdom Come hits big, nobody'll be too surprised -- because although the band may be the latest and most shameless outfit to learn that sounding like Led Zeppelin is a ticket to the top, it certainly isn't alone. In just the past year or so, we've seen a slew of "New Zeppelins" of one sorr or another, including the L.A. underground thrash band Jane's Addiction, the English reformed-punk band the Cult and the revived heavy-metal band Whitesnake.

Yeah, its been a long time since Led Zeppelin rock & rolled, but when it comes to modern mainstream rock music, Zep still has the touch of the gods. Classic-rock radio stations play the band's music incessantly; bands from Def Leppard to Crowded House do versions of its songs; the Beastie Boys and the Cult appropriate its guitar riffs; just about every hard-rock and heavy-metal band that ever tromped onstage has borrowed something from its style and sound.

"In my opinion, next to the Beatles they're the most influential band in history," says Geffen Records A&R executive John David Kalodner, whose label will soon release a Jimmy Page solo album that advance reports say has a distinct Zeppelin feel. "They influence the way music is on records, AOR radio, concerts. They set the standards for the AOR-radio format with 'Stairway to Heaven,' having AOR hits without necessarily having Top Forty hits. They're the ones who did the first real big arena concert shows, consistently selling out and playing stadiums without support. People can do as well as them, but nobody surpasses them."

But if nobody surpasses Led Zeppelin, lots of people pay homage. Led Zeppelin's ten albums -- especially the string of six classics that began in 1969 with the band's debut, Led Zeppelin, and ended in 1975 with Physical Graffiti -- are reportedly one of the most lucrative back catalogs in rock, selling consistently year after year. Certainly, those sales are helped by Zeppelin's status as the backbone of AOR and classic-rock radio, where "Stairway to Heaven" regularly ranks at or near the top of listeners' polls and such Zeppelin songs as "Rock and Roll" and "Kashmir" get regular airings.

"Other than the Beatles, for album radio they're the most important band," says radio consultant Lee Abrams, who developed the superstars formar, which emphasizes star attractions like Zeppelin. "Nobody seems to get tired of them, and a lot of the new bands in that genre obviously owe a debt to them."

If you want to start sending out bills to collect on that debt, you could start with the bands that are still using Zeppelin songs on their albums or, especially, in their live shows, where a few chords of "Whole Lotta Love" or "Rock and Roll" are a sure-fire way to ignite audiences. The latter song has become a hard-rock standard: it's been performed lately by Patty Smyth, Def Leppard and Heart (which has been doing it for more than a decade). Frank Zappa has played "Stairway to Heaven" in some recent sets, as has the California underground band Camper Van Beethoven. Another California band, Lawndale, threw a few bars of "Whole Lotta Love" into a version of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" on its last album. On its tour last year, Crowded House would occasionally perform "Dancing Days" and "Whole Lotta Love." And jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who patterned one of his album covers after the cover of Plrysical Graffiti and says that even his purist brother Wynton has a fondness for Zeppelin, performed a pair of Zeppelin songs on Late Night with David Letteman.

"We've tried to drop 'Rock and Roll' from our sets," says Heart singer Ann Wilson, a longtime Zeppelin fan, "but there's always a place for it, and people always yell for it. They won't let us stop, because it's the kind of straight-ahead, no-tricks, no-nonsense rocker that people just crave."

Crowded House isn't quite as reverent with its own Zeppelin covers. The popsters from down under do "Whole Lotta Love" in what they call a "swing-shuffle arrangement."

Still, they're admirers. "Believe it or not, we are actually very, very big fans of Led Zeppelin," says bassist Nick Seymour. "They're probably one of the strongest influences that we have in common as members of the group. We do 'Whole Lotta Love' jokingly, tongue in cheek, but that's not to say that we're not big fans of the band.

"And I think the main reason one could find it amusing in 1988 is that there are so many bands that have supposedly been influenced by Led Zeppelin that don't really seem to understand the soul of what Led Zeppelin were about. They just seem to have taken on the cosmetic appeal of the legacy that Led Zeppelin left around. And that's unfortunate, because they're taking advantage of a generation of kids that weren't around for the original thing."

This is the territory where Led Zeppelin's real influence can be measured: in a way, nearly every heavymetal or hard-rock band has borrowed from one or another of Zeppelin's innovations, whether it's the massive, slow-paced blues sound, John Bonham's thunderously plodding drums or Robert Plant's posthippie visions of a land of myth and fantasy.

"So many bands have taken from Led Zeppelin it's been quite incredible to watch," says Ian Astbury, lead singer of the Cult, the British band whose second album, Electric, showed off a heavy quota of Zeppelin-style guitar riffs. "The whole 'Hall of the Mountain King' vibe was one thing for glam rockers to get into, you know? So all of a sudden you get fifteen American bands singing songs about climbin' up mountains and slayin' dragons and stuff, which is one of the things that Plant was into, that Old English and Celtic imagery. And then a lot of bands are into the black magic and the sorcery, which was Page's kind of thing. And then you get other people trying to base a band around what Bonham did. It's incredible that even as individuals they influenced differenr kinds of music."

And so Zeppelin has made its mark on postpunk British rock (the Cult and the Mission U.K.), on rap music (the Beastie Boys, who rap to a couple of Zeppelin riffs on their album and in their concerts), on mainstream rock (Ann Wilson says she learned how to sing rock & roll by performing Zeppelin songs, and Boston has based its career on Tom Scholz's version of Jimmy Page's guitar grandeur) and on hard rock (everyone, including, of course, Kingdom Come).

And the band has also influenced two of last year's biggest success stories. On "Bullet the Blue Sky," from U2's album The Joshua Tree, the Edge's guitar sound is strikingly similar to the kind of churning, raw sound you'll find in Zeppelin tunes like "The Rover."

"I was never really interested in heavy metal or that kind of thing," says the Edge, who has been known to toss off a Zeppelin, song during the band's sound checks, "but Zeppelin, of all those groups, really had something."

Whitesnake, meanwhile, became last year's most surprising hard-rock hit at least partially because it sounds a lot like Zeppelin, Last summer. John David Kalodner, who is Whitesnake's A&R rep, said, "Whitesnake is selling because of the quality of the record and the lack of a Led Zeppelin record in the marketplace. The kids really like records that sound like Led Zeppelin, so they'll buy anything that's close." Kalodner now says that he's unsure if the young record buyers are aware of Zeppelin's influence on bands like Whitesnake and Kingdom Come. "Obviously it's the same sort of music," he says, "but I don't know if seventeen-year-old kids make that comparison." Nonetheless, the sound remains the same: lucrative. (White-snake singer David Coverdale declined to be interviewed for this story; a spokesman for Coverdale says the singer was irritated by a recent story in Rolling Stone in which Robert Plant called Whitesnake a "Led Zeppelin clone.")

So why did Led Zeppelin, which seldom had its records played on AM radio and probably sounds like sludge to many casual listeners, become so influential? You could say it's partly because of nostalgia, but in this case it's nostalgia that cuts in different ways at once: if it's reasonable to call Zeppelin the first band of the Seventies, the band that ushered in the heavier, gloomier, more ponderous music of that era, it's just as easy to dub it the last band of the Sixties, the final glorious moment fora community of starry-eyed dreamers bound together by music. Led Zeppelin in many ways marked a dividing line in rock history - but with the unbearable heaviness of its sound, the often surprising finesse of Jimmy Page's arrangements and production and the mystical yisions in Robert Plant's lyrics, the band appealed to listeners on both sides of that dividing line.

"They balance that hard-rock edge with being ethereal," says Lee Abrams. "And when I probe people and ask them about why they're so into Zeppelin, it always gets to that. They have that hard edge, but they don't drive you nuts. They're sort of cosmic at the same time, and it's a balance that people really like."

Or you could ask a few fans about Zeppelin - fans like Wayne Hussey, lead vocalist for the Mission U.K. His band recently enlisted Zeppelin bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones to produce its upcoming album. "I think, essentially, they were a band," says Hussey, "and everything they did came across as a band. They got self-indulgent at times, but they wrote great songs, and when they performed them as a band, the power of it really came across."

Mitch Easter, the leader of Let's Active, who is also a noted producer, became a Zeppelin fan for life around the time of Physical Graffiti. "We started this sorta crusade when Let's Active first toured," he says, "playing 'Black Dog' and stuff when we'd go to do interviews at college radio stations. It was really outrageous to do that back then, but it was good fun, and there was no denying that those records were powerful and cool. And we also did 'The Rover' and 'Dancing Days' in concert for a while. Every few shows we'd get a New Wave-diehard type who just didn't get it, who'd say, 'What are you doing, man?' like it's a sacrilege. But most people really dig it, you know."

Ian Astbury became a fan of Zeppelin when Liverpool clubs started playing Seventies hard rock around 1980, when punk began to fade: "I think they're probably the greatest British live rock band," he says. "The one that had a real mystique, a real aura and presence about the band. It wasn't like a band; it was like some kind of moving spiritual roadshow. Led Zeppelin were a major influence on the Cult - I mean, we feel like the new generation, ourselves and the Mission and other new bands. I guess we feel like the new, shall we say, golden gods." He laughs. "If anybody reads that, they're gonna go, 'Oh, what an asshole.' But it kinda feels that way, and it's great."

Still, Astbury admits that one event could give all the new golden gods a real run for their money. "I'll tell you one thing," he says. "If Zeppelin ever did a reunion tour, that'd be the biggest challenge for any of our lot. Led Zeppelin, you can't compete with them."

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...