I was told I wouldn’t have the stones to admit it out loud. “You write for a pop culture website,” said they, “and profess your love of rock. This is going to destroy what little credibility you have left.” Gee, thought I. Thanks a heap. Regardless, this is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately and the time has come to get it out there, see how it sounds in the open and take whatever flack comes from the statement that – deep breath – I don’t really like the fourth Led Zeppelin album much and never have.
Don’t look at me like I just pooped in the pool.
I know I’m supposed to. Heck, from my earliest memories of school I was supposed to like Zeppelin, and I do to an extent. My favorite Zeppelin album is In Through the Out Door (“Oh God, is he out of his mind?”) and I think the band’s fifth album, Houses of the Holy, is in every way a stronger piece of work (“This is unacceptable! Shut him up!”) But that fourth album, sometimes known as the Zoso Album, sometimes also referred to as the Runes album, just seems to drag on and on in spite of it’s running time, short of 50 minutes. It’s difficult to not like “Stairway To Heaven” especially when it is removed from the confines of context, and I have fond memories of the song lingering over a room with a coffee table made from a wooden power cable spool (Does anyone remember spool-tables?!) and extra cheese pizza on top of it. Friends would quickly move into conductor poses when the tune transitioned from the folky acoustic side to the electric side. “Wait for it!” someone would shout. “Dugga-dum! Dugga-dum! Dugga-dum, dum, dum, doooo!” In hindsight, was it the pizza, the company or the makeshift furniture that decorate the memory or a real affinity for the song?
That’s a tough question, made tougher by the last few rock radio stations in the New York tri-state area. Spin that dial any time of day, you’re likely to get one of these five songs: “Stairway To Heaven,” “Dream On,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Sweet Child ‘O Mine,” or “Welcome To The Jungle”. To show you they’re still in touch with “the young peoples” they may throw in a 20 year old U2 track for freshness, and if all this sounds like your broadcast dream come true, I have a stinky pair of checkerboard Vans and an Atari 5200 I’d like to sell to you. No cartridges, of course – who knows where the hell those got to. My complaining will do me no good as most of those five songs have been in the infernal rotation since the Eighties, with “Ramblin’ Man” and “Smoke On The Water” being the discarded tracks in favor of Axl and Friends. (By the way, if Cartoon Network ever decides to develop an animated series called Axl And Friends, I will be its biggest fan, not for the music but for the pathos.) Radio stalwart Carol Miller had a daily segment in her broadcast called Get The Led Out, a feature that endured for decades. Nobody seemed to mind.
Mostly, I turned the channel. Now with the amazing variety you can have in your car stereo, from CDs to USB flash drives to iPods, you never have to rely on the obsessive playlists of disc jockeys who have never heard a song after the year 1995 they didn’t hate. If I listen to the radio now, it’s NPR, where I can calmly and tenderly be told the New Jersey shore is likely to be swamped by tar-balls this summer (Take a bite out of that, Snooki,) Arizona is devolving into the gun-slinging old west exponentially, and the word “absolutely” is uttered every seven seconds. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to listen to rock radio; it’s that aside from that classic rock station with the infinite repeat button stuck on, there are very few alternatives my antenna can actually latch on to. The one that comes in clearest drifts in from Pennsylvania, it’s a classic rock station and, craptacularly, plays the same bunch of songs.
This has nothing really to do with radio though. It doesn’t have to do with friends who insist, no demand, that I get my priorities straight and love the fourth Zeppelin album. It doesn’t even have to do with critics that say the album is one of the hundred I should hear before I die (and how impossible would it be if I didn’t?) To my ears, it just has not aged well. Robert Plant comes off as much more shrill, and much less slinky, than he did on the first and second albums. Jimmy Page’s technique on the guitar isn’t blowing the doors off either, something he did monumentally on both Physical Graffiti and the vastly underrated Presence. John Paul Jones would come into his own as an arranger later on, and that leaves John Bonham to try to punch up the groove with his drums. To his credit, he gets in a good one now and then, but mostly it sounds like he’s a backbeat, not much more. I suppose, for some, the album is better when you’re high, but I prefer my pizza to peyote, so thanks but no thanks. Still, I’m told, this is it, The Rock Of Gibraltar, Mount Everest, the Biggest Ball Of Twine In The World and, for the life of me, I just don’t see it.
Just maybe I don’t want to see it either. What’s my favorite Stones album? Goats Head Soup. Aerosmith? Rocks. Fleetwood Mac? I’m seriously leaning toward Tusk these days, and you get my meaning, I’m sure. It’s a pretty good time to be a classic rock fan then, with the wide array of available options I don’t have to constantly stand up for Let It Bleed, Toys in the Attic or Rumours, and if I occasionally drag out ABBA Greatest Hits, that’s your hang-up, not mine. (Wait, no, it’s absolutely your hang-up, not mine.) There’s nothing wrong with any of these choices, and the reason why they’ve stood up to time’s trials is because of the love the audience has for them. Just because I don’t favor the Zep 4 doesn’t take anything away from it, nor does it denigrate the discernment of those who hold it in highest esteem. All art is subjective, no opinion is gospel, and when a critical observation doesn’t match to the expectation of the audience, it doesn’t mean the speaker is jealous, vindictive, uneducated, learning-disabled or otherwise found with their head up their bum. They just didn’t like it, that’s all.
And as for my personal take on the Grateful Dead, well, that’s for another day, my friends. Absolutely.