Friday, December 11, 2009

The 12 days of Zeppelin: Atlantic Records 'Time Capsule' contains two Zep songs, one from Plant solo

On the fifth day of Zeppelin, my true love gave to me:

Atlantic Records 'Time Capsule' box set

Here's an important compilation for music historians and a unique artifact for collectors. The Time Capsule is a box set that, between a sensible assemblage of essential music and a new 140-page book, tells a near complete story of the Atlantic Records label from 1947 through today.

A 45 rpm single included with the box set shows where it all begins. It's a reissue of "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" by Stick McGhee & His Buddies. Aided by the promotion of Atlantic Records, this A-side went to No. 3 on the Billboard R&B chart during the fledgling record company's first year. It has tons of edge. Here was a controlled voice singing about his predilection for the heavy consumption of wine and tendency toward the after-effects, namely dancing, being unabashedly sloppy and carelessly ruining property. In one sense, McGhee's version released on the Atlantic label was sanitized from earlier versions. "Spo-dee-o-dee" was four syllables of nonsense intended only to replace one choice four-syllable obscenity that nowadays does make it onto records with a parental advisory sticker. Another singer's "Mah-mah" is a two-syllable substitution for a profanity of the same length. These terms may have simply been nonsense to Atlantic's mass audience in 1947, but those in the know realized what they were getting away with.

The song kicked off a tradition for Atlantic, that no matter what kinds of artists were going to be signed, or what genres their music would fall into, Atlantic would always be breaking new ground. And the label would refuse to go unnoticed. With names like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin passing through Atlantic's artists ranks in the '50s and '60s, those tradition carried on. It was 22 whole years from Atlantic's founding before a young virtuoso guitarist by the name of Jimmy Page was forming a new band. When word reached Jerry Wexler, remarkably, that Page's new group was not going to settle for a contract with the Yardbirds' record label, Wexler jumped at the opportunity to sign Page without hearing a single note of material. The conditions of his agreement with manager Peter Grant allowed the group to retain all rights to its own image, recordings, releases -- everything. Wexler, having negotiated the deal and landed the band an immense deposit, passed on the duties of corresponding with this new group, Led Zeppelin, to Ahmet Ertegun.

Perhaps the least dispensable name in Atlantic's history, Ertegun was crucial to Led Zeppelin's success in that he could be a friend and a professional coach while also possessing the restraint to respect off-the-wall decisions being made by band members who might have been under questionable influence from time to time. Included as part of The Time Capsule is the DVD titled Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built, released in 2007 as a tribute to him shortly after his death. Many portions were filmed with Ertegun participating while artists owe up to their debts to his professional judgment. For Led Zeppelin fans, two such moments in particular stand out from the DVD. One shows Jimmy Page facing Ertegun, telling him:
"Good for you to have, for sort of, letting us get away with certain things, and I'll give you a good example with the fourth album. Because, by that time, we were getting so much bad press over here and, you know, they were saying it's a hype and it's this and it's that because they didn't understand, for one moment, what we were doing. And so the reviews were crap, and so by the time it came to the fourth album, we said, 'Right. OK. This is what's gonna happen here. We'll put out an album with no name of the band on it, no nothing,' and just say, 'Here you are, take it or leave it.' Well, of course, it was the biggest album we ever had up to that point. But, you know, it could have been one of those things that was drawn out, 'No, the name's got to be on there, no.' But in the end, you did. 'OK, let's give it a shot.' And it was brilliant, you know. Thank you for that. It was good."
In another scene, Ertegun does some of the talking with Robert Plant, discussing the blues influence on Led Zeppelin. While Plant interjects a "yeah" several times, Ertegun tells him, "When you heard the black music on the radio, it got you. It not only got you, but you went into more depth of study. And it wasn't a study for you. That was fun." Plant adds, "It's an obsession for me. I love it so much, yeah." Ertegun says, "That's right. So, when you heard it, you became part of it, and it became part of you." Then Plant takes over: "We all were basing most of our skills on American musicians, and I was listening to your man, Ray Charles."

There are 168 tracks spread across nine CDs, and just like the label itself there is no one genre associated with this box set. Basically, if Atlantic released it, it's on here. There are recordings from all of the artists you would expect to see.
  1. Ruth Brown features twice on the first disc, as does Ray Charles. Jazz men John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus are included along with the Coasters, Professor Longhair and Big Joe Turner. And that's just disc one!
  2. The second disc goes on to feature Ben E. King, Booker T. & the MGs, the Drifters, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Sam & Dave, Albert King and Aretha Franklin, but in the same breath begins to bring in white artists such as Sonny & Cher, the Young Rascals, Buffalo Springfield, the Bee Gees and the Vanilla Fudge.
  3. The full force of the British invasion on Atlantic Records is felt with the opening notes of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" as Disc 3 begins. Then it's back to a still-vibrant Otis Redding before, a few songs later, tracks by the Iron Butterfly and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown display Atlantic's acceptance of psychedelic music as an art form. Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" is the final track before, finally, the entrance of Led Zeppelin takes place. This is represented by no better than album one, side one, track one, "Good Times Bad Times." Now, the bar is set awfully high, but classic tracks by Blind Faith, Thunderclap Newman, Crosby Stills & Nash, the Allman Brothers Band, and jazz men Les McCann & Eddie Harris follow it up rather nicely.
  4. There are more discoveries to come on the fourth disc, including the addition of Neil Young to the Crosby-Stills-Nash lineup for "Ohio," the Velvet Underground on the heavily layered "Sweet Jane," yet another Eric Clapton band, ELP, Yes, the Stones, Genesis, Bette Midler ...
  5. What's this? Another Led Zeppelin song? "Kashmir" becomes the second Led Zeppelin track selected for The Time Capsule. There are also tracks from Abba, the Trammps and Foreigner.
  6. After the era of disco has passed, tangentially mentioned here by the inclusion of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and Chic's "Le Freak," the Blues Brothers show up with their recording of "Soul Man." After this, the era of former group members going solo is ushered in, big-time. One minute, it's Pete Townshend with "Let My Love Open the Door," next it's "In the Air Tonight" with Phil Collins and "Edge of Seventeen" with Stevie Nicks. Then, before you know it, a post-Zeppelin Robert Plant is in with "Big Log."
  7. Disc 7 has "Rockin' at Midnight" by the Honeydrippers, which features Plant on vocals and Jimmy Page on guitar. The disc closes with a track that once drove Robert Plant wild, "Black Velvet" by Alannah Myles.
And so end the tracks of special interest to Led Zeppelin fans, although the chronological story continues with big hits by En Vogue, Marc Cohn, Mr. Big, Hootie & the Blowfish, Jewel, Brandy & Monica, Gnarls Barkley, T.I., Estelle featuring Kanye West, and Jason Mraz. The story hasn't ended either, which prompts curiosity as to why arbitrarily make this compilation after 62 years. But why wonder? Just experience it. Atlantic has given plenty of examples over the years of music worth hearing and enjoying, and this box set is the best and most complete testament to it yet to emerge.

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