In their heyday, Led Zeppelin carried themselves with the subtlety of Vikings; Jimmy Page and John Bonham pounded at their instruments as if clubbing baby seals, and Robert Plant’s chest thrust was a metaphor for the way the band trampled everyone underfoot. So it was hardly a surprise that, 27 years after it folded up shop, the band has returned with an appropriately big bang.
First came the news classic-rock loyalists have been drooling to hear: As part of a tribute concert to the late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, the band’s three surviving members would be re-forming for a one-off performance in London on Dec. 10 (just postponed from Nov. 26, thanks to Jimmy Page's fractured finger). If that weren’t enough of a stairway to, well, some type of heaven, another long-waited announcement followed on its heels: The entire Zeppelin back catalogue would finally be sold digitally, on iTunes and other services, ending the band’s longtime wariness toward the new medium (and surely guaranteeing that Jimmy Page’s grandchildren will never have to worry about day jobs).The concert announcement touched off such a mad Internet dash for tickets that the server handling the requests crashed.
The day before the plans for the London show were unveiled, the White Stripes had news of their own: Jack and Meg White were canceling the remaining dates of their current tour. Slow ticket sales? A death in the band? Nope. The stated reason was far less dramatic: Drummer Meg reportedly had an anxiety attack.
The timing of the two announcements was coincidental but significant. The White Stripes are the latest, and probably the best, of all the bands that have paid homage to Led Zeppelin; this year’s Icky Thump sounds, in the best possible way, like a compilation of Physical Graffiti outtakes. Fans immediately posted up an Internet storm of snide comments about Meg’s worthiness (“Can’t they just go with Jason Bonham in drag?” posted on Gawker). But the disappointment wasn’t merely about fans’ missed opportunities. It was about the Stripes’ seeming infidelity to the rock lifestyle epitomized by their sonic forebears. Would the mighty Zeppelin have scratched an entire series of concerts over stress? Please.
From Jack White’s lewd guitar squiggles (pure Page) and pillage-of-the-Valkyries singing (very Plant) to Meg’s Godzilla-stomp beats (very Bonham), Icky Thump revels in the touchstones of the behemoth band that preceded them. Throughout the album, the thrill of not knowing what comes next--when the duo will tear a song apart or toss in an East-meets-West musical reference—is also very Zeppelin. But that disc is just one of several indications of Led Zeppelin’s ongoing currency. Tribute bands continue to pop up, the latest being the all-woman Lez Zeppelin. “Me Love,” a song on teen rap sensation Sean Kingston’s recent debut album, incorporates the quasi-reggae, sing-songy melody of “D’yer Mak'er,” which fits into the track more naturally than you’d think.
Of course, the reasons for Zeppelin’s enduring appeal start with their music. Some of their songs (the acid-washed psychedelia of “Your Time Is Gonna Come” from Led Zeppelin, for instance) feel dated. But thanks to the manner in which Page drew upon blues and Stonehenge folk, most of their records sound ageless in the same way Nick Drake’s exquisite ballads do. Led Zeppelin may have been the prototypical ’70s rock warlords, but unlike their peers and contemporaries like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles (much less Deep Purple or Grand Funk), Zeppelin seem far less wedded to a specific era.
There's also the matter of the Led Zeppelin sound. In keeping with the band’s unapproachable-gods status (and their notoriously arrogant manager, Peter Grant), “Whole Lotta Love” and “Kashmir,” among others, felt in their day massive and all-conquering, cocky and confident. In the way the band generally favored sonic wallop over nuance, Zeppelin helped make overpowering rhythm a dominant part of pop music. (In retrospect, Bonham’s quickened b.p.m.’s in “Black Country Woman” almost sound techno.) That alone could explain the reason the hip-hop crowd has taken to them. Beginning with the Beastie Boys’ appropriation of the guitar riff from “The Ocean” for “She’s Crafty” and up through Puff Daddy’s unfortunate, clubfooted redo of “Kashmir” (as “Come with Me”) over a decade later, rappers and rap producers have bonded with Zeppelin’s monstrous beats and in-your-face swagger. It’s telling that the most dominant pop and rock record producer-cum-label head of the moment, Rick Rubin, the newly-minted co-head of Columbia Records, helmed that Beasties’ track (as well as Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” which had a Zeppelin-style boom as well). Plant’s lusty, sexual image and lyrics may be a factor, too: “The Crunge” could almost be a rap boast.
In terms of preserving its stature, Led Zeppelin also made all the right moves. They broke up at the right time, immediately after Bonham’s death in 1980. The popular image of the band remains trapped in amber at the height of their stardom--they never got old or grew uncool. (Compare that strategy to that of the Stones, still making millions on the road but tarnishing their legacy by subjecting us to unnecessary rack-fillers like Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge.) Page, Plant, and bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones have done their share of selling out: licensing “Rock and Roll” to a Cadillac ad five years ago or, most recently, lending their name and music to a Zeppelin rollercoaster at a Hard Rock Café theme park in, of all places, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But Zeppelin haven’t exploited their back catalogue like many of their peers have. Plant in particular has gone out of his way to distance himself from his old band. His just-released Raising Sand album--a collection of muted folk-rock and country covers done in collaboration with bluegrass star Alison Krauss--couldn’t be further removed from Zeppelin bluster.
The renewed interest in Zeppelin, and the desire to see a now white-haired Page and a much stouter, grizzled Plant on stage next month in London, also says something about the state of rock, and what’s missing from it. These days, rock stars pop up regularly on reality shows and in commercials. But Led Zeppelin recognized the power of mystique. Some of their biggest albums didn’t even include their photos. Had MTV Cribs existed in the ’70s, one doubts we would have been subjected to a guided tour of Page’s mansion or Jones’ refrigerator.
Led Zeppelin also embodies something far bigger these days. When I saw Arcade Fire in concert earlier this year, I was struck by the reaction of the audience. They were ecstatic--and expressed those feelings by standing during the entire show and lustily cheering on every chord change and stage move. When Win Butler jumped into the crowd in best Bono fashion, one felt a palpable yearning for some sort of old-fangled rock transcendence. In an age when pop star and genres rise and fall faster than ever, the Arcade Fire crowd revealed a desperate desire for something, anything, to believe in (probably the same feeling one has at a Barack Obama rally, in fact). It was a craving for a grand, potent, credible, unironic rock band with all-conquering sweep. Radiohead has retained a degree of that, but few had it more than Led Zeppelin.
Shortly after Meg White bailed on the White Stripes tour, a supposed sex tape of her surfaced on the Internet. Denials flew fast and furious; although the dark-haired woman in the video kinda looked like White, her camp eagerly declared it a hoax. Again, one couldn’t help but think of Zeppelin, who indulged in plenty of on-the-road shenanigans of their own. If such a tape had been circulated back in 1976, the band probably wouldn’t have confirmed or denied it. The reality mattered less than the myth. The fans knew rock stars were larger than life--and that the audience wanted both them and their music to stay that way.
DAVID BROWNE contributes to the New York Times, NPR.org, Spin and other outlets. Goodbye 20th Century, his biography of Sonic Youth, will be published in May 2008.
By David Browne