Monday, December 14, 2009

The 12 days of Zeppelin: A book with reproduced memorabilia

On the eighth day of Zeppelin, my true love gave to me:
A book with memorabilia reproductions
In "Led Zeppelin: Shadows Taller than Our Souls -- The Albums, Concerts, Memorabilia, and Biography of the Gods of Rock," rock critic Charles R. Cross attempts to summarize the nine albums of studio work produced by Led Zeppelin. For the most part, he does a good job of explaining the conditions under which Led Zeppelin's catalog was written and recorded, along with the humbling reception given those albums upon their release. The fact that the manuscript contains quite a few errors at first does not detract from its overall intent, which is to pay tribute to the group that formed in 1968 and ended in 1980. However, some of his expressed opinions do eventually detract from an otherwise positive reading experience.

The continuous narrative spread across 96 pages might at first glance appear to be the book's focus, but the highlight is actually what can literally be pulled off the pages. This isn't quite a pop-up book; it's better than that. In several instances, the turn of a page reveals a brilliantly reproduced piece of memorabilia waiting to be examined. The replicas are of concert tickets and programs, vinyl discs, newspaper clippings, press kits and more, straight from the collections of Hugh Jones and Alberto Lo Giudice. Having handled a few originals myself, I can vouch for the accuracy of the look of these quality reproductions.

These hidden treasures, more than anything else in the book, make leafing through it a pleasure. The experience is much like discovering the customizable cover art of the Physical Graffiti and Led Zeppelin III album packaging, the Aleister Crowley-inspired inscriptions on the Led Zeppelin III vinyl or the watercolor portion enclosed with In Through the Out Door. That's exactly the kind of reaction Cross says he wanted to inspire. In his preface, the author invites readers to play each album while reading the corresponding chapter. "If you own the original vinyls, inhale the musty smell of the jackets with their telltale ring wear," he writes. "If you must listen to Led Zeppelin on CD, make sure you get the version that Page remastered, since early pressings left off the studio chatter that can be heard with a focused listen."

One part of the package that's especially revealing is a CD that contains 53 minutes' worth of the six-plus hours of recorded conversation between Jimmy Page and Dave Schulps, who was senior editor for the Trouser Press, a homegrown underground publication about rock music. The portions included on this disc refer to the seven studio albums that had been released by the time of the interviews, which were taped over the span of four days in June 1977. The disc kicks off with Schulps and his tentative voice, announcing that he wants "to start out, um, talking about ambitions, like, before we get into all that kind of stuff." Before he even concludes his initial question, Page eagerly jumps in to set the pace of the interview: "It's in stages, isn't it?" The guitarist intends to go bit by bit and take it slowly, which he does, almost frustratingly at some points. But with headphones on and limited distractions, following along with three pages of transcriptions in the book makes for an overall enjoyable experience and an enlightening one.

What I haven't mentioned thus far is another of the most attractive aspects of the book, its photographic journey from the studio floor to the concert stage and beyond. The band's photogenic streak began prior to its formation -- just look at Robert Plant's sideways gaze in a promotional photograph with John Bonham and the rest of the Band of Joy; Cross marvelously notes that "Plant was already dressing and pouting like a character out of a Jane Austen novel."

As mentioned, the text of "Shadows Taller than Our Souls" is not without its faults. Cross discredits himself as an expert on Led Zeppelin's influences in the chapter on Led Zeppelin II with his pedestrian interpretation of the Willie Dixon track "Back Door Man" as being a song about sodomy; as any novice blues appreciation student is capable of pointing out, the song is about adulterous married woman whose male daytime lovers slip out the back door daily upon the husband's return. Cross could have picked up on that meaning from listening to "Since I've Been Loving You," with its mention of a "newfangled back door" that must open and close itself because his woman would certainly not allow any other man to creep through his home. Instead, the only thing Cross can muster to write about "Since I've Been Loving You," apart from a plaudit for the band's musicianship, is an exaggeration of the debt owed to Moby Grape's "Never": "The band's borrowing here is as egregious as their previous remakings of Willie Dixon songs, yet few pundits noticed the parallels, and no lawsuits resulted." You'd expect such a dismissal from Will Shade, but Will Shade he is not, for Cross can't even assemble three paragraphs about the Yardbirds without providing two errors and also later giving an incorrect title for the Jake Holmes song from which "Dazed and Confused" almost certainly derived; it was not called "I'm Confused" but -- get this -- "Dazed and Confused."

While the Houses of the Holy and Presence chapters are especially besmirched with the opinions only a rock critic would proffer -- notably that "The Crunge" and "D'yer Mak'er" were failures, and that "Candy Store Rock" was too heavily produced -- the Physical Graffiti chapter in between refreshingly offers beautiful insight on Page's expertise as a producer. However, no mention of "In the Light" is anywhere to be found.

Gladly, an anecdote conveyed much earlier deals with an in-studio dispute between Page and John Bonham, settled quickly by Peter Grant's determined reprimand for the drummer to listen to Page, who was his producer. Appropriately, Cross provides not only this insight into a feeling of deference to Page but also the ways in which various couplings of the band members would work together to create the Led Zeppelin sound.

The Led Zeppelin that Cross presents is a band that was always teetering on the edge of breaking up. Right from the aftermath of the widely panned Led Zeppelin III, Cross cites a quotation from John Bonham questioning whether poor record sales might mean he would find himself back in construction work in another year.

This foreshadows the later threat of John Paul Jones wanting to depart from the band in 1974. Whereas some authors report this matter skeptically and others discount Jones's desire to leave as a joke (which, I must add, is the way Jones himself presented it during my interview with him in 2001), Cross insists not only that it was true but also that Peter "Grant, with his gangsterlike demeanor, assuaged Jones and brought him back into the fold." Where Cross gets that detail from is uncertain, but it's rare to hear about Led Zeppelin's manager using his gangsterlike demeanor against members of the band.

Obviously, the tragedies of 1975 and 1977 made for a dodgy period for the future of the band, as Cross recounts, and he even cites a remark from Plant to Chris Welch saying that he believes he "left Zeppelin completely" after his son died while he was on tour half a world away. It took press interviews from Page to deny reports that the band had splintered, Cross notes, also admitting to the agenda of the rock press, that both the breakup rumor and the subsequent official denial made good ink.

That bias is reflected in his own writing. For Cross, the possibility of a breakup also recurs through the rehearsals, recording sessions and post-production of In Through the Out Door as Jones and Plant believed they were too sober for the others, while Jones was too dissatisfied with the lack of a production credit for him on the album. Again, it's not a detail that is reported often, if accurate at all. Cross later hypothesizes, "If it hadn't been for that initial American success, Led Zeppelin surely would have broken up long before 'Stairway to Heaven' was written in front of a fire at Headley Grange." Sure, presenting an alternate reality is one way to avoid being told you're wrong. Rock journalists spent the '70s constantly predicting the breakup of Led Zeppelin, but for one to assert breakups retroactively when they never happened in reality is odd.

If I understand Cross correctly, even Page himself was mulling over leaving Led Zeppelin in 1978, the reason being that Jones had usurped even the most ultimate power any group musician could seek: to change the key of a song. According to Cross, it would not be unthinkable this was the second time Page considered packing it in, the first being when the 1976 Melody Maker reader's poll named Steve Howe of Yes, and not Page, the favorite guitarist of the year. How fitting it is to assign this much influence to a single periodical is debatable.

His final chapter brings the story up to date from the band's breakup to the lingering possibility of a reunion; it lingers, he says, because the singer secretly longs for nostalgia, as evidenced by his recent and mostly unreported visit to Page's Pangbourne boathouse, where Led Zeppelin was essentially formed. That being said, Cross avoids major flaws during this period in the chronology, except for the occasional gaffe:
  • He gives 1990 as the year in which Plant finally started singing Led Zeppelin songs in his solo concerts; it was 1987. Eh, but that's understandable as Cameron Crowe once said Live Aid was in 1987, not 1985, and that was in the liner notes of an official Led Zeppelin box set.
  • Cross calls the John Paul Jones solo album The Thunderchief instead of its proper name, The Thunderthief. Such mistakes seem inescapable; I've also seen Ritchie Yorke refer to Walking into Scarsdale when, we hope, he meant Walking into Clarksdale.
  • Cross gets the name Walking into Clarksdale right but forgets "Please Read the Letter" had been on that Page/Plant album. In noting that Plant won a Grammy in February 2009 for a version of that song recorded with Alison Krauss, he says it is "a song that Plant had cowritten with Jimmy Page post-Zeppelin but had not released previously." Oops, except for that one time, he meant.
  • Cross gives 1990 as the year in which Stephen Davis's Hammer of the Gods was published; it was 1985. Ironically, Cross makes mention of that book's reputation as being "error-ridden." Pot, meet kettle.
Like I said, the memorabilia replicas and the photographs are great! It's a really enjoyable book!

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