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Led Zeppelin needs to come back in black

Mark LeVine says at their core Led Zeppelin were a black band and need to look outside the 'white rock 'n' roll box' if they change their mind about not reforming

January 12, 2009
11 min read

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

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