Number One with a Bullet(belt)

If you’re my age, you discovered music on the radio. And, like me, you were probably listening on an AM Top 40 station; in the 1970s, Top 40 radio was almost exclusively found on the AM band. A glance back at the charts from that era reveals a pretty bizarre musical landscape; country music rubbing shoulders with soul and disco, hard funk fraternizing with soft rock, weepy ballads mixing with crunchy hard rock. A little bit of everything could be found on Top 40 radio in the 1970s… And if you were willing, as I was, to listen to 30 minutes of schlock in search of one hard rocking gem, the payoff was worth it.

Placement in the Billboard Top 40 in the 1970s was based on a combination of airplay and sales. Sales were largely driven by airplay; airplay was dictated by what appeared on the charts. Record company manipulation was also a major factor. But however dysfunctional these formulae were, this was the system many of us grew up with, and the way most of us found our music in the 1970s. This was how it was for me, and this is what I found…

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If we limit our look back to only the hardest and heaviest tunes ever to rough up the Top 40, there’s still a surprising number that make the cut. Let’s start with The Birth of Heavy, and Blue Cheer’s epic meltdown ‘Summertime Blues’, which peaked at #14 in 1968. This has got to be the heaviest song ever to feature in the Top 20. Also in ’68, Cream made the Top 10 with ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (#6), Iron Butterfly hit #30 with ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’, and Mountain climbed to #21 in 1970 with ‘Mississippi Queen’. In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ made it to #4. Zeppelin continued to appear in the Top 40 into the early years of the 70s; ‘Immigrant Song’/’Hey Hey, What Can I Do’ hit #16 in 1970, ‘Black Dog’ reached #15 in ’71, and ‘Trampled Under Foot’ crept in at #38 in 1975.

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While Black Sabbath never achieved Top 40 status with any of their singles, they were there in spirit. Bloodrock’s ‘D.O.A.’ hit #36; a truly unsettling song (at it’s core, it’s a re-write of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’), ‘D.O.A’.’ was banned from many radio stations due to it’s graphically gory lyrics and dark musicality… which only helped boost its popularity. Alice Cooper hit #7 with ‘School’s Out’, another song that radio stations banned. With its subversive lyric, including a line about blowing up a school, it’s doubtful that this song would even be recorded today. The Edgar Winter Group’s monster instrumental ‘Frankenstein’ topped the charts (that’s #1, kids) in 1972. Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 masterpiece ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ (#12) may not qualify as ‘heavy’, but its epic middle section and morbid lyrics certainly do; the song caused a minor uproar when it was (correctly?) labeled a ‘pro-suicide anthem’. This was seriously heavy stuff, kids, and it was also considered pop music.

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Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ was only ever released as a single in the ‘double-A-side’ format, with the live version from ‘Made in Japan’ on the A-side and the studio version from the previous year’s ‘Machine Head’ on the B. Released in May of 1973, it climbed to #4; radio stations played both sides. Also in ’73, Rick Derringer’s kick-ass ‘Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo’ placed at #23, and Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’ reached #5; Sweet would hit again in 1975 with ‘Fox on the Run’ (#5) and ‘Action’ (#20). Alice came back in ’73 with three Top 40 placings from the ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ album: ‘Elected’ (#26), ‘Hello, Hurray’ (#35) and ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ (#25), before a bizarre run of four consecutive Top 40 ballads. Not bizarre because the ballads were bad; bizarre because … he was Alice Cooper. And these were ballads.

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Aerosmith were a dominant presence in the Top 40 for a few years, but didn’t exactly play fair… ‘Dream On’ originally peaked at #59 in 1973, but after the success of the ‘Sweet Emotion’ single (#36), Columbia re-released ‘Dream On’ again in 1976, and the song hit #6. ‘Walk This Way’ has a similar history: when originally released in 1975, the single didn’t even chart. In 1976, it was re-released in between the ‘Last Child’ (#21) and ‘Back in the Saddle’ (#38) singles, and this time ‘Walk This Way’ would hit #10. Aerosmith’s last visit to the Top 40 in the 70’s would be with their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ (#23) in 1978, from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. Aerosmith would re-appear as chart darlings a decade later, but as a drastically different kind of band (sob).

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The Hottest Band in the Land paid frequent visits to the Top 40. Kiss hit #12 in 1975 with the ‘Alive!’ version of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, with ‘Shout it Out Loud’ (#31) in ’76, and with ‘Calling Dr. Love’ (#16) and ‘Christine Sixteen’ (#25) in 1977. Two other Kiss singles charted just as high or higher; one was a ballad produced by Bob Ezrin (it worked for Alice). Neither single rocked, so they will not be acknowledged here. For about two years, Foghat were huge; ‘Slow Ride’ (#20), ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ (#34), and the live version of ‘I Just Want To Make Love to You’ (#33) were all over the radio. Heart showed up big with ‘Crazy on You’ (#35) and ‘Magic Man’ (#9) in ’76, and the absolutely awesome ‘Barracuda’ (#11), another solid candidate for the heaviest Top 20 song evah, a year later. Just goes to show: you can’t judge a 45 by its picture sleeve.

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I’ll round out our research here with a few more notable one-offs: The manic flute freak-out of ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus reached #9 in 1973, BTO’s ‘Let it Ride’ got to #12 in, and ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ reached #20 in 1975. In 1976, Thin Lizzy broke big with ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ (#12), and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ topped out at #9. In 1977, Ted Nugent returned to the Top 40 (The Amboy Dukes’ ‘Journey to the Center of Your Mind’ hit #16 in 1968) with ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ (#30), and Ram Jam’s recording of the blues tune ‘Black Betty’ caused the NAACP to call for a national boycott. ‘Black Betty’ hit #17, which seems to indicate that the boycott failed…

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It sounds improbable today, but in the 1970s, the place to go to for hard rock and heavy metal was Top 40 radio. In 1978, the Top 40 format began migrating to the FM dial, where singles mingled with album cuts, diluting the power of the ‘Hit Single’. As touring became big business, the hard and heavy bands began working the road the way they had previously worked radio. It was the end of the era when the Top 40 ruled the AM airwaves.

…Until today. The Top 40 format rules the airwaves once again, although these days it seems as though there are only 5 or 6 songs ever aired on the radio, played over and over and over. Today, there is ZERO rock music on Top 40 radio. Kids are finding their rock and metal music on the internet, acquiring it for free, and deleting it when they tire of it. To a child of the 70s sitting on his bed, staring at his battery-powered radio, waiting for the DJ to play ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ (Kansas, #11/’77) again, the music culture of today would seem like pure science fiction.

(Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything; everything that appears here is based on my (subjective) opinion of what constitutes hard rock and heavy metal during this era. Besides the omissions specifically mentioned in the article, some Top 40 singles by Jethro Tull, Queen and Nazareth were left out because imho, they just didn’t ROCK to a sufficient degree.)

 

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Led Zeppelin’s Copyright Blues

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It’s always fascinated me that Led Zeppelin’s music could be so far ahead of it’s time, and at the same time owe such a monumental debt to the music that came before it. Over the years it’s come to light that a significant portion of Zeppelin’s catalog is comprised of songs pieced together out of bits of this or that blues song, and the band has been called on to pay that debt– literally, several times over the decades. For those unaware of this ugly aspect of the Zeppelin legacy, here’s a quick rundown of Zep’s previous brushes with the law over copyright infringement:

“Dazed & Confused”: a re-written version of a song by Jake Holmes, an American folk singer that Jimmy Page’s previous band the Yardbirds played with in 1967. Page first reworked the song for the Yardbirds, altering the melody and the lyrics, but eventually recorded a version for Led Zeppelin’s first album, without crediting Holmes. Holmes finally sued Page for copyright infringement in 2010, and the songwriting credits now read “Page; inspired by Jake Holmes”. Zeppelin still holds a separate copyright for their version of the song.

“Bring It On Home”: The intro is a tribute to “Bring It On Home” by Sonny Boy Williamson, written by Willie Dixon, while the middle section was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. The entire song was originally credited to Page and Plant, but was corrected in 1972 to include Dixon’s name, after Arc Music, Dixon’s publisher, brought a lawsuit against Zeppelin, which was settled out of court.

“Whole Lotta Love”: Zeppelin was sued over this song in 1985, and again the lawsuit was settled out of court. Lyrically, the song is based around “You Need Love”, written by Willie Dixon; Dixon is now included in the songwriting credit, and once again the case was settled out of court.

“How Many More Times”: Originally credited to Page, Jones, and Bonham. Since 1993, the song has included a credit for Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf), whose “How Many More Years” shares a lot of lyrics with the Zep tune. Burnett’s estate settled out of court and demanded several credits in the Zeppelin catalog be corrected, including “The Lemon Song”, which includes several elements of Burnett’s “Killing Floor.” (That song’s “lemon” lyrics are taken from another old blues song: Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues.”) “How Many More Times” also includes uncredited passages from “The Hunter”, written by Jones, Cropper, Dunn, Jackson, & Wells in 1967 and recorded by Albert King. No legal action was ever taken over this.

“Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” is a sort of medley made up of pieces of blues songs and lyrics, including “Shake ‘Em on Down” by Bukka White, to name just one. It’s unclear if Zep claimed ever profited from this amalgam of established, legally held songs; the song’s credits read “Trad. Arrangement: Charles Obscure”. Mr. Obscure is none other than Jimmy Page. So, ya, they probably did.

“In My Time of Dying”: A tradition gospel song in the public domain and with no legal authorship, the song is nonetheless credited to all four members of Zeppelin. “…Dying” is a prime example of Zeppelin’s overall arrogance, in that it claims sole authorship (and ownership) of a song in the public domain to the tune of millions of dollars. A ballsy move; at least there were no actual copyright holders getting screwed.

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In Zep’s defense, I’m gonna quote some experts who make a very valid argument in the band’s favor:

Noted blues author and producer Robert Palmer has said “It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own”.

Folklorist Carl Lindahl refers to the recycling of lyrics in songs as “floating lyrics”. He defines it within the folk-music tradition as “lines that have circulated so long in folk communities that tradition-steeped singers call them instantly to mind and rearrange them constantly, and often unconsciously, to suit their personal and community aesthetics”.

In this context, Zep’s shameless pilfering of the blues can be viewed as a musically valid form of participation in ages-old musical tradition. The problem is, the original writers of much of this material and the fledgling publishing companies that administered royalties ‘back in the day’ earned a mere pittance from their work when compared to Led Zeppelin’s earnings during the album era. The music business didn’t really become The Music Business until the mid-to-late 60’s… right about the time Led Zeppelin came along. Zep’s claiming owner/authorship of material that was generally accepted as ‘community property’ places the band well outside of Palmer and Lindahl’s safety zone.

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To me, the single most fascinating chapter in this sordid saga involves a band from Atlanta, GA called Mother’s Finest. MF were an unlikely (at least in the mid-70’s) combination of hard rock and hard funk. Despite touring as openers for Aerosmith, AC/DC, Ted Nugent, and Black (!) Sabbath, and their excellent Tom Werman-produced third album, ‘Another Mother Further’ (Epic 1977), the band never broke through commercially; MF’s music was too white for black audiences and too black for white audiences. ‘Another Mother Further’ began with a version of The Miracles 1963 Motown hit “Mickey’s Monkey”, and it kicks major ass, but… hold on a second…

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The Mother’s Finest version of “Mickey’s Monkey” is a cleverly-assembled amalgam of Led Zeppelin’s “Custard Pie” and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey”, with “Custard” serving as the backing track and The Miracles’ lyrics arranged on top. The mash-up works well musically, but also makes an important point. By 1976-77, Led Zeppelin had largely gotten away with stealing licks and lyrics from blues artists at will, plundering the rich history of black music, creating ‘new’ works from them, and making millions in the process. Mother’s Finest was clearly looking to provoke, to challenge; their blatant steal of the Zep song, performed note-for-note, and identical in key, tempo and arrangement, completely uncredited to Zeppelin, was a response to Zeppelin’s blatant theft of black music. Here was a band that identified as Black (their 2nd album contained a song entitled “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock ‘n’ Roll”) stealing from a mega-band that arguably built its career on the uncredited appropriation of black music…

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The tables had been turned. The question so provocatively posed by Mother’s Finest was: How would Led Zeppelin respond to their music being stolen by black musicians? An absolutely brilliant move, ingenious in it’s construction, and, imho, 100% punk rock. It’s now 35 years later, and Led Zeppelin never challenged MF on their use of “Custard Pie”; no legal action has ever been taken. Zeppelin’s non-response can be viewed several different ways: as an admission of guilt, an atonement for past sins, or as an apology. Make of it what you will.

In the present day, Led Zeppelin is vehemently refuting claims that their magnum opus, “Stairway to Heaven”, was stolen from Spirit; the legal action is moving forward, and gaining momentum daily. A cursory listen to audio samples of both songs reveals a stunning similarity… Is it any wonder?

How Can We Miss You if you Won’t Go Away?

Have you ever found yourself wishing Black Sabbath broke up after ‘Never Say Die’? ‘Live Evil’, maybe? Daydreamed of a world in which ‘Music from the Edler’ never happened? If time travel were possible, I know the first two things I would use it for would be to a) kill baby Hitler and b) prevent ELP from recording ‘Love Beach’. My point is that some bands just oughtta have expiration dates. Didn’t someone once sing ‘Hope I die before I get old’? And didn’t he mean that shit?

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We can blame the Rolling Stones, I guess, for continuing to record and perform into their 70’s and showing rock n rollers everywhere that if you can still deliver the goods, and if you’ve still got something valid to say, then there’s no reason to stop. But those are two pretty big ‘ifs’.

This is not ageism. It’s not about how old you are but rather about the quality of your product; the consistency of your brand. I don’t begrudge these bands making a living, or extending their careers as long as physically possible, as long as a market exists for their music. But all of these so-called ‘Legacy bands’ face the same problem, if they are around long enough: they find themselves competing with their glory years. Clearly this gets harder as the band gets older, and usually quality suffers. Are UFO ever going to make another ‘Lights Out’? Doubtful, but they soldier on, age and line-up changes be damned, releasing solid records that still carry forward a semblance of the ‘classic’ UFO sound. But purists like me will always compare anything they do to their heyday output. And they just don’t measure up. But all due props to Mogg and whoever’s in his band this week; more power to ‘em.

Line-up changes, in-house acrimony, contract disputes, drug battles, publicized lawsuits, and even original member ratios are other indications that a band may have exceeded it’s expiration date. And nowadays it’s played out for all to see over the internet. Witness the recent public disintegration of Queensryche, in which years of dirty laundry were aired out online for all their fans to see. It was ugly. Every court document, every testimony transcript and legal brief accompanying that drama was available within hours on Blabbermouth. I’m sure this type of thing has occurred hundreds of times over the years but before the advent of the internet, we never knew about it. We were better off. Van Halen were finally able to get to the point of releasing a pretty decent album, ‘A Different Kind of Truth’, after years of very public mud-slinging, trash talking, back stabbing and even Gary Cherone. It’s hard to listen to anything after ‘1984’ after reading Sammy Hagar’s bio, though. Although honestly, it was hard to listen to that stuff before that too.

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Clearly if bands hang on long enough, sooner or later the members will begin suing each other. Cheap Trick are in the midst of an in-house legal battle; lawsuits and counter-suits are circulating between band members who have been playing together since high school. Pretty sad. Their post-major label records have been of very high quality, and their live show just seemed to get better and better over the years; now this. CT are currently touring with guitarist Rick Nielsen’s son Daxx on drums while the lawsuits simmer. To their credit, neither side has let loose online, and have remained pretty classy about the whole thing. Speaking of classy, Aerosmith had to sue Steven Tyler to get him into the studio and get their most recent record done. How UN-rock n roll is that? Of course the record wasn’t very rock n roll either, despite the year-long hype campaign that insisted that A-smith were working with Jack Douglas (‘Toys’, ‘Rocks’) and getting back to the ‘old school Aerosmith’ vibe. Promises, promises. Even the band members themselves have recently referred to ‘Music From Another Dimension’ as having ‘missed the mark’. Someone tell Aerosmith that if you have to sue a member of your band to get him motivated to work on a record, your band is no longer a band; it’s time to start gardening. News Flash: Corporate board members, business advisors and their legal counsel just don’t make great rock records. Duh.

Okay, so, if you’re not going to break up, maybe a name change is in order? That would have worked for Sabbath; also for Deep Purple more than once. That said, Purple’s latest, called ‘Now What?!’ is among their very best, and does the name ‘Deep Purple’ proud while validating their hanging in there for 45 years. I also salute Scott Gorham for finally coming to his senses (probably received one too many death threats) and changing the name of his downright sacrilegious version of Thin Lizzy to Black Star Riders (an ironically fitting and therefore unfortunate name) just before releasing a record. And then there’s poor old Tony and Geezer, who had to stop calling their band Black Sabbath because Ozzy wasn’t a member, and change the name of the band to Heaven and Hell while they continued touring and recording with Ronnie Dio. As much as I despise puppet master Sharon Osbourne, and love the Dio-era Sabbath albums, I felt good about that name change, and, as alluded to earlier in this post, feel like they should have done it sooner. ‘Cause it’s really not Black Sabbath without Ozzy. Or Bill Ward. D’oh!

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So when a ‘legacy’ band finally does decide to retire, just how long does it take to say ‘Farewell’? Scorpions announced their retirement in March of 2010, and are still on tour today; their ‘farewell tour’ is now stretching past the 4 year mark, with no end in sight. At time of writing they have dates scheduled through March of this year. They’ve released 3 albums since their announcement; none of which are compilations or best-ofs. Goodbye, already! Judas Priest made the same announcement in December of 2010, and played shows right through 2012, though guitarist KK Downing decided to skip the farewell nonsense, indicating that he felt the band was becoming a nostalgia act. A DVD was culled from the tour, ironically titled ‘Epitaph’; ironic because the band refuses to die, and in fact are currently booked to appear at Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp (whatever that is) in Las Vegas this February and March. Priest in Vegas? KK was right. A new JP album will appear in 2014… No one cared about their last handful of records; expect more not-caring later this year.

Kiss has put the ultimate plan in place: Cloning. When you lose members, replace them with younger versions. They did it with Ace and Peter, and I promise you Gene and Paul will do it for themselves too, when they can no longer walk in those platform boots without a cane.

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Looks like only Led Zeppelin got it right. But there are a few notable cases of bands keeping it together for the long haul: Thank you, Rush, for hanging in long enough to be around when the rest of the world finally caught up to you, and doing so with your sound, your chops, and your roster intact. Thank you Motorhead, and thank you AC/DC, for showing us how a metal band can grow old gracefully, stay consistent, and command the respect and appreciation of millions in the process. Both bands have weathered major line-up changes, decades of significant trends in popular music, and monumental changes in the music business, all the while retaining their character, their sound and their integrity. We may have just enjoyed the final Motorhead album in ‘Aftershock’, while AC/DC are apparently working towards another record/touring cycle, but it can’t go on forever… that kid in the schoolboy outfit is 59 years old…

It’s almost over, folks; the era of our 70’s hard rock heroes is fading, and there’s no one, I mean NO ONE waiting in the wings to carry the flame forward. Two guys dressed as robots won 5 Grammys this year. That’s the future, folks.

By the way, the guy who wrote ‘Hope I die before I get old’ performed with his band the Who during the closing ceremonies at the 2012 Winter Olympics in London, at age 67.

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Van Halen: The Ramones of Heavy Metal

OK, calm down… Allow me to explain.

Punk Rock was a largely a reaction to the excessive, overblown rock music of the 70’s. Bands like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, with their orchestrated side-long concept pieces, and the endless improvisational ego trip jamming of bands like Deep Purple and King Crimson. Tales from Topographic Oceans… Need I say more? Actually, Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt said it all. Punk cleared away everything that came before it and re-set the table with a new aesthetic, new ethos, new rules (or no rules). No matter how you feel about it, it was a fresh start for rock n roll, and a sorely needed one.

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This new aesthetic crystallized in the form of the 1976 debut album by the Ramones. The Ramones used elements of the music they grew up with as a template, specifically the surf, bubblegum and girl groups of the 50’s and 60’s, and stripped rock music down to its basic elements while adding a primitive, just-the-basics delivery. The resulting record, simply titled ‘Ramones’, is a masterpiece of economy and raw intensity. The longest song on the record clocks in at an epic 2:35; the brevity of the songs maximized their impact. There are no guitar solos anywhere to be found, in a deliberate attempt to distance the band from the hard rock guitar wizards of the day. Guitars were placed on the right channel; the bass on the left, adding to the street level, bargain basement vibe. The ‘Ramones’ version of rock and roll was a slap in the face to the mid-70’s status quo; it reminded us all of what was great about rock and roll, and how far away from that it had evolved.

Heavy Metal was out of gas toward the end of the 70’s. The punk rock explosion had changed the rules, drastically changed the landscape, and generally shaken things up in a major way for most of the hard rock and heavy metal bands that had dominated the scene in the early 70’s. Most of metal’s standard bearers had either gone the way of the dinosaurs, or drastically lost their way; Led Zeppelin was MIA, Deep Purple had imploded, and Black Sabbath had forgotten how to be Black Sabbath. Once-mighty hard rock bands became… confused, and reacted in interesting ways to being knocked off the throne. Ian Gillan was fronting a jazz-rock combo. Several bands had given in and ‘gone disco’; others tried to maintain credibility by dabbling in the punk ethos themselves (if Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” from their 1977 album ‘News of the World’ isn’t a direct response to the Ramones, then I don’t know what is). Lyrically, the impact was also evident, as in Robin Trower’s ‘Victims of the Fury’, or the entire concept of Pink Floyd’s “Animals”, or the title of Rush’s 1977 album, “A Farewell to Kings”. Many young metal fans (like me) were waiting for a new band to emerge and end the meandering experimentation, and re-invent, redefine, re-energize heavy metal music.

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Blasting out of nowhere in 1978, Van Halen’s debut album did all of that and more. A true wake-up call to the metal faithful, ‘Van Halen’ blew the doors off of the hard rock scene and rewrote the rule book for a new generation of metal bands. VH took the music they grew up with, mainly early metal, AM top 40, Soul and Funk, placed it all in a hard rock context by playing it with the basic guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, and created a sound and style that changed the course of rock music forever.

Like ‘Ramones’, the sound of ‘Van Halen’ was itself a reaction to the played out, unfocused hard rock produced in the years just before its release. If ‘Ramones’ was a slap in the face, then ‘Van Halen’ was a swift kick in the ass. The collection of short, powerful songs explodes with a dynamic intensity. The production is stark, sounding like four guys playing together with minimal overdubs, guitar on one side; bass on the other… Hmmm… but the performances are jam-packed with excitement. Van Halen didn’t invent heavy metal on ‘Van Halen’, but rather re-invented it for a new generation. The record single-handedly jump-started the metal movement on the US side of the pond, just as the NWOBHM (itself a reaction to Punk) would on the UK side. Simply put, it was a game-changing debut, and one that “reminded us all of what was great about heavy metal, and how far away from that it had evolved.”

Oh, and, uh, contrary to the Ramones’ debut, there are a few guitar solos on the VH debut… So yes, musically, the differences between these two records are obvious, but the level of impact and influence they had on their respective genres is equal and enormous. Punk Rock’s seismic shockwave had crossed genre borders and had taken root in the realm of Heavy Metal (or, what Creem Magazine once called ‘Dinosaur Music’ in 1977), where its impact would manifest itself in a young upstart band from California that would itself shake up a complacent and confused Metal Nation. Thus, Van Halen became the Ramones of Heavy Metal. Need I mention Track 2, Side 2?

The Song Remains… Completely Different

Let’s face it: Led Zeppelin peaked with ‘Led Zeppelin IV’. Or whatever you choose to call it.

‘Houses of the Holy’ was a bit of a come-down, with Plant’s high-register vocals sounding comical in places, and two throwaway tracks, “The Crunge” and “D’yer Mak’er”, wasting about 7.5 minutes of the record. And no one’s ever going to convince me that ‘Presence’ is a great or even good album. The band sound thin, tired, and worn-out, and the songs (yes, with a few exceptions) are weak. ‘In Through the Out Door’? Please.

Many would argue that the mighty Zep peaked with ‘Physical Graffiti’, often referred to as Led Zeppelin’s tour de force, their magnum opus, their epic masterwork. I agree with all the hyperbole; the record, as delivered, is amazing, and perhaps their definitive work. But there’s another album hidden inside ‘Physical Graffiti’, an album that is seldom acknowledged when this record is discussed. Of the 15-tracks on this sprawling 2-record set, only 8 were recorded for at Headley Grange in early 1974 for Led Zep’s sixth studio album. It’s these 8 songs that make up the real ‘Physical Graffiti’.

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Why pick it apart? For those interested in following Led Zeppelin’s career trajectory, or their creative arc, the version of ‘Physical Graffiti’ that we all know and love does not paint an accurate picture of where the band was in terms of songwriting or musicianship in 1974, as it contains 7 songs (almost half of the album) that were recorded years before the ’74 sessions; some as far back as 1970. While there’s no doubt that Zeppelin’s outtakes and throwaways are far superior to most bands’ best material, the inclusion of so many older songs here obscures what was really going on with the band musically and creatively at this period in their history. Dealing with the material from the ’74 sessions exclusively is the only way to truly understand and appreciate Led Zeppelin’s 6th studio album.

So what have we got here? The eight songs at the heart of ‘Physical Graffiti’ (in order of their appearance on the album) are:

Custard Pie
In My Time of Dying
Trampled Under Foot
Kashmir
In the Light
Ten Years Gone
The Wanton Song
Sick Again

This ‘album’ clocks in at a little over 53 minutes, which is why the band, rather than cut out 10 minutes of new material, opted instead to expand the project to a 2-record set by adding some leftovers from previous sessions. This moved the album away from being a major statement like ‘Exile on Main Street’ or the ‘White Album’ and into compilation album territory. But with the older songs eliminated, one can appreciate the record in an entirely new and different way. I have the songs set up this way in my iTunes, without all of the extraneous material, and have been listening to this version of the album for a few years, long enough to have fooled my brain into perceiving it in the same way it perceives ‘Houses…’ or ‘Presence’ or ‘III’. For me, this is Led Zeppelin’s 6th album… This is ‘Physical Graffiti’.

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The verdict? No surprises here; it’s still great. But removing all of the extraneous material reveals what could easily be considered Led Zep’s heaviest album. It’s certainly their last great one. Any band would kill to sound this vital, this dangerous, on their sixth studio album. The production is a little ragged (Plant himself called the sessions ‘really raunchy’); however, the lack of the fourth album’s production polish suits the material. Many of the vocals were cut live and are a tad low in the mix, perhaps to hide the rough edges evident in some of the performances. Page’s multi-layered guitar arrangements, at the forefront on ‘Houses…’, are in evidence everywhere. John Paul Jones, Zep’s secret weapon, shines on keyboards in several songs, most notably on “In the Light” and “Trampled Under Foot”. Bonham sounds absolutely massive, as ever. The songs are at once hard-hitting and dynamic; crushing blues, wistful balladry, Middle Eastern prog, and razor-sharp hard rock— the only thing missing is an acoustic number. But what this version of the record lacks in scope when compared to the double-album version, it makes up for in raw creativity, not to mention raw power. It makes perfect sense as a successor to ‘Houses…’, has its own distinct personality, and is more than worthy of recognition on its own without all the extra baggage.

Zep Fans: Take a few minutes and set up the real ‘PG’ in  your mp3 player and check it out with fresh ears; revisit the classic record and discover the buried treasure within. I still think they peaked with ‘IV’. But the true ‘Physical Graffiti’, not that overblown yard sale of a 2-record set, is my favorite Led Zeppelin album. After all, I ‘produced’ it myself.