Friday, July 16, 2010

SONG #128: No Quarter

Led Zeppelin, Earl's Court 5-24-75 (Bootleg)

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I recently read the new massive Zeppelin biography by Mick Wall, which actually had some fresh and interesting information.  Once you've read Hammer Of The Gods by Stephen Davis, all Zeppelin books usually disappoint, but Wall focuses more on the music itself than most Zeppelin books, and he's a smart listener.  Recommended.

It led me to go back and listen to Zeppelin in a more careful way than I have in years.  Zeppelin's albums are so familiar to me now that I sometimes forget actually to listen to them-- I can pretty much follow them in my sleep.  As I read the book, though, I queued up the album being discussed and let it play while I read about it, and remembered what a great, and more importantly, wonderfully weird band Zeppelin was.

I didn't always like Zep-- just ask my poor, beleaguered friend Mike.  In high school, Mike loved Zeppelin, and we gave him endless grief for it.  I was heavily into punk rock and all music fast and short, and Zeppelin somehow struck me as music for stoned, dumb metalheads.  I sat at so many desks in middle and high school with "Led Zeplin" or "Lead Zepplin" or "Led Zepline" carved into them-- if you can't spell your favorite band's name, why should I listen to them?  I also couldn't forgive all the Lord Of The Rings imagery-- I was too busy singing along to songs about the Labour Party and Nicaraguan independence.  Because Mike also loved Rush, documentaries about the holocaust, and foreign films, I lumped Zeppelin in with what struck me as unneeded artistic ponderousness.  Though I had become obsessed with Zeppelin IV in the 7th grade (remember the inner album art?  SPOOKY!):

by high school I had left them behind as a relic of childhood.  I remember driving to Florida on a road trip with four friends after graduating, and Mike trying to play In Through The Out Door on the car stereo, and the rest of us making ENDLESS fun of it.  When I burst out laughing at the beginning of "Carouselambra," (still the only acceptable reaction to that dreadful track-- worst use of a synthesizer in rock history), Mike got so mad that he pulled the tape out and wouldn't talk to us for half an hour.  I'm sure I made him listen to Husker Du for four hours after that as artistic punishment.

Now, of course, I have to eat crow and admit that I was just wrong and small-minded (except about "Carouselambra," which I think might be the worst track by a "major" band in rock history.  Just check out the first thirty seconds--    Yipe!  Makes Rush's synthesizers sound like poetry.)  

Forgive me-- I was seventeen, after all.  What turned me around was the release in 1990 of the Led Zeppelin box set. I got a review copy for our college paper, and damned if it wasn't great, and since I had ignored them for years, I hadn't burned out on all the songs.  Though people used the words "Zeppelin Fan" as an insult on campus (indicative of incurable whiteness and a lack of love for hip-hop and globalism) I had to admit that they sounded tremendous to me, and I went back and really listened to the band's work for the first time in almost a decade.

I want to return to that word "weird" now.  It's impossible to hear Zeppelin anymore with new ears, since they're everywhere, and now sound like what rock music always sounded like, if that makes sense.  But as I spent the last two weeks with the catalog, I'm reminded how bizarre some of these records are, and I think the band's strangeness is why they continue to survive and transcend their time period.  It's too easy to forget that Zeppelin invented a sound and approach, and that some of their stuff is unthinkably strange to end up on an album these days.  

As exhibit A of the band's forgotten weirdness, I present this track.

"No Quarter" is originally from Houses Of The Holy.  It's written by John Paul Jones, the band's bassist and keyboardist.  Jones was famous for staying out of the craziness in the band's heyday, and also for being ignored by Plant and Page ever since.  I'm not sure why-- he's a phenomenal bass player, and not a bad keyboard player either, and seems like a friendly, smart guy who has aged gracefully.  "No Quarter" is his finest hour-- the one great song he's written (he also wrote "Carouselambra," so he's docked 725 cool points for that one).  

This version is from what Wall in his book suggests is Zeppelin's highest point-- a five night stand in May of 1975 at Earl's Court in London.  The band had just released Physical Graffiti, and sold out the 20,000 seat arena for five shows in minutes.  They were the biggest band on Earth, and were feted in the coolest city on Earth at its premier venue by hipsters, critics and rabid fans alike for an entire week.  By then, the show was close to four hours in length, featuring a sit-down acoustic section, and three mammoth solo moments-- this one for Jones, "Dazed And Confused" for guitarist Jimmy Page, and "Moby Dick" for drummer John Bonham.  Though four hours long, the show only featured about fifteen songs.  These three songs plus the "Whole Lotta Love" finale frequently lasted more than two hours by themselves.

See?  That's just weird.  No band would try that today-- even Phish or the most aggressive jam band.  It's not just bombastic and self-indulgent (it is surely both of those things as well-- remember Page's violin bow solo?  I prefer Nigel Tufnel, myself):

Page:   (complete with hilarious Crowleyesque visuals)

Narcicissm aside, this kind of approach to live performance is also extremely experimental and risky.  This "No Quarter" is almost 25 minutes long.  It has a solo piano section, but then it also has about twelve minutes of improvisation among Jones, Page and Bonham.  There's a template at work here, but they're also obviously working things out on the fly.  It's as adventurous as any Dead jam, perhaps more so because there are only three musicians onstage.  Jones is playing the bass with his feet on organ pedals.  The jam itself dips its toes in classical and jazz idioms as well as straight blues.  It's completely dissimilar to the "Zeppelin" sound people think of, and reminds us of the band's broad musical tastes.  The problem with bands that imitate Zeppelin is that they only like Zeppelin-- these guys liked all kinds of stuff, and it shows up in different places and ways all over their catalog.

What I find most appealing about this "No Quarter" is how much it expects of us as listeners.  The most admirable thing about Zeppelin was their assumption that their audience would follow them wherever they decided to go.  There were no singles, no attempts to placate radio, and they didn't play it safe in concert.  Quite the opposite-- a Zeppelin show was three plus hours of a band pushing itself.  There are a LOT of bad notes, and some moments when the band loses its place, but that's also pretty thrilling.  There's no drama in an AC/DC show-- it's the same every night.  I think that's what separates Zeppelin for me from other 70s dinosaurs; say what you want about them (and there's plenty to mock-- let's just remind ourselves what Page wore on stage at Earl's Court, shall we?)--

That silliness aside, this band was extremely musical.  And weird.  I really respect Plant for not wanting to go back on tour with the band.  There's no way they could ever recreate this kind of performance now, so better not to try,

So sit back and enjoy an unconventional way to reintroduce yourself to Led Zeppelin, almost half an hour of a kind of musical performance you can't get anymore in the age of 90 minute sets and "It has to sound EXACTLY like the album!" live performance.  Even Wilco, a band I admire as much as any other and whose live show is as good as it gets, would never push the envelope this far.  Keep music weird, I say!  

Mike-- enjoy your moment, even if it comes 23 years too late.

LINK:      (Part 1)  (Part 2)     (Part 3)


  1. Yeah! Zepplyn baby!

  2. Always knew it was you vandalizing those desks.

  3. There is something deeply likable about the very weirdness of this version of an already relatively weird song. That said, there is something way, way too 1975 about the sheer solipsism of this unending effort. I'm a pretty big Zeppelin fan, but there is never a reason to play any song (let alone this song) for 20 minutes. I do remain ever pleased that the Zeppelin minions eventually wore you down.

    I thought it was hilarious to learn that "zeppelin fan" was an insult in College. Anytime someone called me that I screamed "f**k yeah" and turned up the volume, so I guess I never really got the context.

  4. Excellent. So I was on a huge Zep kick last year. It had been a while since they were a mainstay, just an occasional "D'yer Maker" or "On the Tiles." Then last summer while on vacation on Cape Cod I reread "Hammer of the Gods." Silly, poorly written but epic. That book formed part of my core cirriculum in high school along with "Scuse me while I kiss the Sky" and "No One Gets Out of Here Alive." While Jimi has been a consistent mainstay (for the most part) and the Doors had fallen away never to come back (until recently), Zep had, like their music, gone quiet and then raored off and on over the years. I then proceeded to listen to nothing but Zeppelin for the entire 8 hour ride home. My wife (then girlfriend) was, needless to say, not pleased.
    I agree with Ben. Listening to the bowing and endless musical masturbation only makes me think of Spinal Tap. "It's no wonder the girls are afraid, after all we've got armadillos in our trousers!"