Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Apparently, the dreams of millions of Led Zeppelin fans are now over. Only two days after raising hopes by ‘confirming’ that the remaining members – Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham – were planning to record and tour with a new singer (thankfully, under a new name), Jimmy Page’s manager Peter Mensch, declared that, ‘Led Zeppelin are over … They tried out a few singers (to replace Plant), but no one worked out. That was it. The whole thing is completely over now. There are absolutely no plans for them to continue. Zero.’
I was lucky enough to see both the previous Zeppelin reunions; at Live Aid in 1985 and at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary concert in 1988 and see band members numerous time on solo tours. So unlike some close friends, I did not spend $5000 to fly to London and get scalped tickets to the 02 show in December 2007.
But that was only because I believed, like most everyone else I know in the music world, that they would make one last foray across the Atlantic as a band before, as Jimmy Page put it, they were so old they’d need ‘zimmer frames’ to get around the stage.
The Zep world has been harshly divided about whether Robert Plant’s refusal to join a reunion album and tour was an act of supreme selfishness, or a legitimate decision by an artist in the middle of an amazing career renaissance, with bluegrass artist Alison Krauss.
Greatest funk and blues rhythm section in the history of rock
It wouldn’t be a Zeppelin reunion without Plant, and thankfully it seems that the other members had no intention of labeling it as such. But if the rumours about whom they were auditioning to replace him -rock screamers from Steven Tyler to Alter Bridge singer Myles Kennedy-are true, I fear that Jimmy, John, and Jason, may have been thinking so hard about recreating the rock part of their sound that they forgot who Zeppelin was at its musical core, and what they could have come back to the stage as: the greatest funk and blues rhythm section in the history of rock.
Don’t believe me? Go listen to or watch ‘The Song Remains the Same’, without a doubt the most underrated, and in my mind, the best, live rock album ever recorded. Listen to solo section of ‘Dazed and Confused’ before and after the violin bow solo. There is a level of rhythmic complexity and funkiness that are simply astounding. (Watch the visual interplay between Jones and Bonham while Page is soloing. Their smiles say it all.) No other rock band has come close to equaling them in terms of power, originality and organic grooveness.
Then listen to the song \’The Song Remains the Same\’ from the eponymous album/film, which to my mind are the most intense six-minutes of live performance in rock history. I remember playing the video of the song when it first came out to my guitar teacher, one of the premier jazz guitarists in the country, and even he couldn’t figure out what Page, Bonham and Jones were doing together.
Or listen to the wah-wah section of Page’s solo on the original album version of ‘No Quarter’ (which unfortunately was replaced on the album reissue in favor of the less funky movie version of the song), or the funk groove behind the solo in ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ (the version on ‘How The West Was Won’, which was recorded the year before, is actually funkier). Then listen to \’Since I\’ve Been Loving You\’ off the movie or ‘The Song Remains the Same’ soundtrack reissue. Its power equals the greatest blues songs ever performed, but with far more complex harmonies and rhythms than most any song by B.B, Freddie or Albert King at their peak (not to mention that along with the live version of ‘Dazed and Confused’ from those 1973 concerts, it’s probably Plant’s most awe-inspiring vocal performance).
And then, go watch Zeppelin play a completely reimagined version of ‘Whole Lotta Love\’ at the 1980 Knebworth shows, which are thankfully available on the Led Zeppelin DVD released in 2003. I remember when they played the same inverted riff at the Atlantic Records reunion eight years later. Since almost no one at that show was lucky enough to have been at Knebworth there was complete pandemonium when the band, with 21 year old Jason Bonham sitting in for his dad for the first time, recreated the Knebworth version (the riff comes in at 3:07).
What made this reworking so special was precisely that the groove was changed from a much straighter rock to a much more syncopated, funkier but still heavy riff, while Bonham’s drums hit new accents that weren’t possible to imagine in the original version. In a Madison Square Garden filled with 20000 musicians, nary a mouth was not completely agape when the new groove kicked in at the beginning of the second verse.
Funk gets better with age
The great funk, blues and jazz musicians have always known this about Zeppelin. At one of Zeppelin’s early festival shows, James Brown’s rhythm section reportedly watched stupefied as these long-haired white kids from England played the meanest funk imaginable, with John Bonham’s drums in particular blowing them away. I’ve been fortunate to meet or work with many well-known funk and blues artist, and invariably in discussions of music the subject would turn to Led Zeppelin. Few of them didn’t shake their heads when asked how they managed to be so funky, bluesy and so intensely rock ‘n’ roll at the same time.
Indeed, songs like ‘The Crunge’, ‘Wanton Song’, ‘We’re Gonna Groove’, ‘The Rover’, and numerous other jams. Such as the never released Page-Bonham rehearsal that could have been on any James Brown album from 1967 through 1974 that often seemed to emerge spontaneously during their renown live shows are as funky as any track the Godfather, or his younger contemporaries like the Isley Brothers, the Ohio Players or Sly and the Family Stone, released in their heydays.
There’s no wonder that Zeppelin is most likely the most sampled band in the history of hip-hop after James Brown. A good friend of mine who was one of the main engineers in the NYC hip-hop scene of the late 1980s and 1990s once confided in me that upwards of half the tracks he was involved with were created (often without credit, admittedly) by sampling some part of a Zeppelin groove.
All of which leads me to believe that if it is true that they only auditioned rock singers, the three Js needlessly limited their horizons. It doesn’t surprise me that ‘it didn’t work out’, if that’s who they were looking at. At this stage in their careers, trying to recapture the sonic – and especially vocal thunder – of the band’s glory years, should not be their only option.
Instead, the three Js should have focused on recapturing the harsh funkiness and bluesiness that were the foundation upon which the ‘Hammer of the Gods’ sound was built. Funk, even more than rock, gets better with age. Indeed, while some have criticised the pairing of Page and Leona Lewis at the closing ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, I would argue that, as has so often happened in his career, Page was ahead of the musical curve – in this case of his own band.
If they focused on their roots as a funk-rock-Motown rhythm section rather than being simply a rock band in search of a lead vocalist, a whole new universe of singers would be open to them: R&B greats D’Angelo or Mary J Blige. Macy Gray or Alicia Keyes (or just go to the source and get Chaka Khan). Fishbone singer Angelo More. Living Colour frontman Cory Glover (and why not bring in Vernon Reid to recapture that great but fleeting Yardbirds Jimmy Page-Jeff Beck era). What about Joe Cocker, whose first album the original Zep rhythm section so famously played on before recording Led Zeppelin I?
What about Lenny Kravitz? What about Prince, perhaps the only musician in rock history who could give Zeppelin a run for its money in terms of combining hard funk and heavy rock in the same song?
Why not put together a funk-rock-blues-and more collective with a bunch of their favorite musicians and friends, and take that on the road? And Plant’s not the only one who can do bluegrass; John Paul Jones has been a serious student of the genre for years, and Page’s roots in finger-picking go back long before Zeppelin’s birth, to his years as the most sought after session guitarist in London.
Jack White and the Edge? You can have them. Give me Page together on stage with Buddy Guy, although I’m not sure that Buddy could pull off such a big tour anymore. But at least for a song or two on a new record or a couple of jams on stage? And if you’re not convinced of Page’s blues credentials, go find his 1965 recordings with blues great Sonny Boy Williamson (released in 1972 under the title ‘Special Early Works’) and listen to ‘It’s a Bloody Life’, one of the meanest blues recordings ever made.
Back in black
What I’m arguing is that ultimately and at their core Led Zeppelin were a black band. They were not merely white musicians who knew how to play blues (see Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Michael Bloomfield, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Peter Green for the best exponents of ‘white blues’). I have no idea how or why it happened, but when they played, they were, deep in their souls, black. Perhaps the only other collection of white musicians who this could be said about was The Dapps, a white rhythm section from Cincinnati discovered by James Brown, and who, amazingly, were the main rhythm section for a few of his most amazing funk jams of the late 1960s and early 1970s (see here and here)
What I am sure about is that more than any other rock band before or since (with the exception of Jimi Hendrix, with whom the band tragically never got the chance to work), Zeppelin’s musical roots lie deep in the soil of Africa. That’s why the music of Morocco, especially that of the Gnawa or former slaves, has so inspired Page and Plant during their careers. Even the folk and Celtic influences that dominate their acoustic repertoire can be traced back to the Gypsy melodies and energies that also made its way into Africa with the arrival of the Arabs and Islam 1400 years ago.
So Jimmy, John and Jason, if you’re still trying to figure out a way to play together, feel free to consider my humble and unsolicited advice: think outside the white rock ‘n’ roll box and hark back to your roots in black music, to the juke box music you all grew up playing along to, and I’m sure you’ll find a host of amazing singers just dying to work with you. Including, somewhere down the road, a curly-haired guy from the West Midlands whose current travels into the heart of bluegrass could well lead him back across the Atlantic to the continent where it all began.
Mark LeVine is the author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press). His new album, Flowers in the Desert, featuring some twenty of the best rock, metal and hip-hop artists from the Middle East and North Africa, will be released later this year by EMI. http://heavymetalislam.net
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite