The Heaviest Band Never

[from MadeLoud / February 23, 2009]

In any documentary, countdown, feature, profile, best-of, greatest-ever or artists-on-art piece created around anything remotely related to metal, the discussion always ends at the two-headed monster of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

Widely viewed as the forefathers of the genre, the two have been inexorably interwoven in the fabric of metal history, often pointed to as the Stones and Beatles of the Dark Lord’s oeuvre.

Both shared critical revilement in their day, both enjoyed massive followings that have lasted well past their respective heyday, and both have endured countless accusations of doing the Devil’s work. But what very few people ever think (or care) to address is the simple, startling, overlooked fact about the glaring flaw in the pairing: Zeppelin may justifiably lay claim to half of the parentage of heavy metal, but Zeppelin most assuredly was also not a metal band.

Most casual observers would scoff at this suggestion, citing the sheer volume of metal and metal-associated bands that either acknowledged their debt to the work of Led Zeppelin or else just quietly borrowed the quartet’s ideas as needed. Despite all its splintering and warring factions, metal is essentially an isolated culture that most strongly and voraciously feeds upon itself; it would make sense that a band as heavily cannibalized as Led Zeppelin would be nothing less than the mother hyena nursing her steel-fanged cubs.

Here’s the kicker: Zeppelin’s gift to metal music was entirely into metal culture, but only marginally into metal music.

In 1973, Led Zeppelin released Houses of the Holy, which featured a song about how awesome partying is when you’re on the road, two love songs, a song about how much Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant loved fatherhood, arguably lame attempts at reggae and funk, and one song about summertime being the right time for fun in the sun.

Around the same time, guitarist/producer/mastermind Jimmy Page moved into Boleskine House. Boleskine House was previously owned by “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley, who purchased it to perform the fabled Abramelin Operation. As described in The Book of Abramelin, the ritual allows the caster a six-month communion with their guardian angel. This angel, the book reported, would teach the magician the mystical secrets of both the physical and metaphysical worlds: invisibility, flight, telekinesis and love charms, to name a few. One could easily infer which of these makes a better example of “metal.”

Zeppelin’s heaviest song, “Kashmir” from 1975’s Physical Graffiti, laid a pretty good blueprint for a lot of heavy music to follow, ironically also making the case against being a metal band: D modal (DADGAD) tuning, plodding drum beats punctuated by very primitive blast beats near the end of the track, string arrangements over heavy riffs and borrowing liberally from Eastern music. Throughout the entire track, the band hits with as much authority as they ever had before and ever would again, with surprisingly few sections for such a lengthy and complicated-sounding piece of music, and with such complex keyboard and orchestral arrangements courtesy of bass player John Paul Jones.

Lyrically, Plant’s words never came off more mysterious to the ear yet more banal to the eyes. While he wails in the majestic rock-god way only Plant could, his lyrics really only speak about driving through Morocco. On much simpler songs (“Ramble On,” “Misty Mountain Hop”), Plant could reach effortlessly into tales of Vikings, elves, magic, epic battles for kingdoms in the sky and all sorts of eventual power-metal staples, but handed the heaviest of music Plant opted to reign the foursome in from producing heavy metal music. As Page said in Chris Welch’s 1994 book Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir possessed all the latent energy and power that wasn’t heavy metal. It was something else. It was the pride of Led Zeppelin.”

Imagery pulled from the ether about traveling through time and space? Definitely metal. Incorrect geography? Probably metal. Denouncing metal? Unforgivable.

Following suit, the Zeppelin catalog reads like a set of riddles and paradoxes about the nature of being metal versus playing metal. Besides “Kashmir,” the band’s most metal-leaning lyrics and penchant for metal song structures really only intersected twice: III’s “Immigrant Song,” with its low-end staccato riffing and retelling of Leif Ericson’s Middle Ages quest for Valhalla, and the ten-minutes of wide-open prog of “Achilles Last Stand” from Presence. Considering the revered status both tracks have in the canon of heavy music, one could say those two are all the metal Zeppelin ever needed to prove itself, but that would ignore the fact Plant’s mythological allusions are really about visiting Iceland prior to writing the former and visiting Africa and hurting his foot on vacation prior to penning the latter.

Ancient mythology as a songwriting device? Absolutely metal. Showing equal comfort in both compact and epic song lengths? Most likely metal. Travelogues? Not metal (except in the case of diaries from traveling through space and time as with the aforementioned “Kashmir”).

And yet, the masses still point to that indescribable element, that invisible, indescribable aura that comes along with selling hundreds of millions of records. Maybe it’s their legendary exploits with groupies, or the motorcycles in hotel hallways, or Page’s famous dance with heroin, or drummer John Bonham dying a now-legendary rock star death, or Plant’s fascination with paganism, or Jones’ reputed unwillingness to stoop to any of that.

But all of those things, as echoed through every discussion of every band that came after them, are all mere elements of being metal. Zeppelin never employed flatted-fifth scales. Outside of Plant’s sex-as-food metaphors, Zeppelin never made much reference to their extracurricular activities in their songs. They never actively employed louder and faster into their work, nor did they use their songs to put other artists on notice (musically or otherwise).

They made a legend for themselves, and they certainly manifested the lifestyle better than even the grimy, blue collar Black Sabbath. Led Zeppelin spawned an entire subculture of Western civilization yet never participated in it, and even actively disassociated themselves with it: all things considered, this may have been the band’s greatest achievement of all.