music: Led Zeppelin, conscious bloat versus generosity

This funny moment-by-moment review of a single Led Zeppelin song in concert nails the problem people have with them: “conscious bloat”.

But one man’s bloat is another’s inspired riffing. You could just as well label all dance music = mindless repetition, but if the groove is good, why not stay there? The genre I find most tiresome is jazz-rock noodling, exemplified by Traffic and other early 70s bands. If you enjoy real jazz improvisation, it’s hard to stomach. It’s expertly parodied by Derek Small’s Jazz Oddyssey that the band finally get to play in “This Is Spın̈al Tap.”[**]

That’s why I still enjoy and admire Yes. All five band members have compositional skills and insane musical chops, so they cram a ton of stuff in to every “song”, which to abuse and cheapen the language of classical music is really a collection of overture, movements, and interludes. If you don’t like the current musical phrase, it mutates or a brand new one comes along, literally every few bars. (Though even they’re not immune, I sat through a turgid Chris Squire bass solo in which he wanked away on “Amazing Grace” to little point.)

The punks had the answer to the problem of bloat: shorter songs! I’m sure there’s a cultural explanation of 1970s lonnnnnnggg songs, a combination of drugs, laziness, the contrast between pop ephemera on AM radio and real extended rock on FM, and the compulsion to do something different to escape the vast overhanging shadow of the Beatles.

The 2010 New Yorker profile of Elvis Costello digs up his classic put-down: “I am really grossly offended by Led Zeppelin,” he said in 1986. “Not only because they’re total charlatans and thieves, but because it actually embarrasses me.” OK but that doesn’t stop II and IV and parts of everything else being fantastic. (After reading that I pulled my albums off the shelf and listened through them all just to verify.) If Elvis can’t hear the majestic punch of the music, well it just explains why the production of his own songs is so hit-and-miss, and often sub-par.

[**] To full appreciate “This Is Spın̈al Tap” you have to sit through Zep’s “The Song Remains the Same”, “Yessongs”, the ELP tour video, and more. It should come as a boxed set with its genetic source material.

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