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Zep — and a misspent youth

Led Zeppelin is the sound of my misspent youth.

In the early ’70s, Zep was the “heavy” in “heavy metal,” pounding out a thundering mix of sledgehammer blues, skull-shattering rock and folk music shrouded in allusions to Aleister Crowley and other mythopoeic drivel. The sound was stentorian, screeching and ham-handed, throwing the flower-power ethos of the previous decade to the ground and kicking it squarely in the ribs.

It was the perfect soundtrack for white male adolescents out late and looking for trouble. Small wonder that one of the great stoner movies of all time was named “Dazed and Confused” (the “Whoa, dude” centerpiece of Zep’s first album).

At the threshold of my teen years, Zep grabbed me firmly by my skinny arms and shook me hard, ripping me from the last vestiges of childhood. Down came the sports pennants and pictures of the Apollo program, replaced with blacklight posters and album art (back in the day of the LP, you often got a free poster — imagine that, kids). How my parents dealt with the transformation is lost to the fog of memory, but I knew my life had changed forever.

I remember how the rune-like lettering on the cover of “Houses of the Holy” made me draw graves, dark things, black candles, dolls pinned with knives and the heads of kittens on a stick. Of course, kitten-head sticks are now the food of choice at every OzFest (and I’ve yet to see a dime of royalties) but at the age of 13, an oddly appropriate age for you triskaidekaphobics, it was a gesture of nascent rebellion, the macabre held up as a shaken fist to the mundane.

In retrospect, the mundane is my story. At the time, there were a million other teenage boys marching to the same tune. Monster rock as a mask to wear through the fear and elation and confusion of adolescence.

There’s a little to gripe about Zep — but not much. Most is classic and, while a bit is mindless tripe, all of it changed rock music in a profound way.

Zep came about at the end of the ’60s, a groaning response to the inevitable hangover of that decade’s excess, the shadow of Altamont smothering the brief optimism wrung from Woodstock. As the hangover intensified, Zep brought their toxic brew to announce that the party was over and a new generation would be kicking the hippies from the couch.

It’s no surprise that Zep was roundly despised by the rock press at the time. Viewed as vulgar and shamelessly commercial, the critics’ boos were quickly drowned out by the public’s response.

Indeed, from the start the band was deemed doomed to failure. Although Jimmie Page had always been a known quality (his work with the Yardbirds and as a session musician was legendary), nothing else seemed to fit. The rest of the band he’d handpicked to suit his needs (a mixture The Who’s John Entwhistle said, “Would go over like a lead balloon,” and whilst considering that, he thought up the band’s name). Snatching up Robert Plant for vocals (whose style would forever define heavy metal vocals) and John Bonham on drums from a British blues band, along with studio musician John Paul Jones on bass, Page created a lineup that would eventually become one of the most successful bands of all time.

The rest is history: theirs, mine and so many, many others.

“IV” was my first Zep album, I had to work backwards from there. “Black Dog” was the hardest rocking song I’d ever heard and if those guys rocked that hard, I had to hear the rest.

The first album didn’t disappoint, at least not the listener seeking to get his head smashed. Between steamroller blues (“You Shook Me,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby”) and bulldozer rock (“Dazed and Confused,” “Communication Breakdown”), the album hit like a brick, knocking out the general disdain of contemporary critics as listeners snatched up unprecedented numbers of copies. Released less than a year later, “II” expanded the heavy by a ton and, with songs like “Whole Lotta Love,” “Heartbreaker” and “Ramble On,” extended the band’s reputation as the hardest rocking band in the world (and is largely regarded as a template for the future of heavy metal).

“III” was a bit of a disappointment for heavy fans (but finally gaining the band some critical accolades), with only “Tangerine” and the whiplash “Immigrant Song” really demanding attention. However, it was “IV” (aka “Zoso”) that became the band’s magnum opus as well as one of the best selling albums of all time. While songs like “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll” and “When the Levee Breaks” are classic rock radio staples (among other cuts), it is the ubiquitous “Stairway to Heaven” that will forever stand out, one of the greatest rock songs on one of the greatest rock albums.

The next album, “Houses of the Holy,” pushed Zep in a different direction, more experimental and less blues-influenced. Songs like “Dancing Days,” “D’yer Make’er,” “The Ocean” and “No Quarter” found the band creating new sounds while not relinquishing an ounce of heavy.

As far as I’m concerned, it was “Physical Graffiti” which marked Zep’s artistic and musical peak. A double album marked with some filler (it was not as consistent as the previous two albums), songs like “Trampled Under Foot” and “Houses of the Holy” show the band in possession of their full power, wielding their talent like a battle axe. However, it is “Kashmir” that shows the band at their creative zenith. Eight and a half minutes of restrained tension, the song is quintessentially Led Zeppelin, a heavy metal locomotive careering towards Valhala. It is also, in its thunderous way, a thing of beauty.

Unfortunately, “Physical Graffiti” marked the end of Zep’s ascendancy. “Presence” is a nice enough album if mostly forgettable, while “In Through the Out Door” exhibits little distinction (despite the inclusion of “In the Evening” and “All My Love”). With Bonham’s death soon after the release of “In Through the Out Door,” the heavy metal locomotive that had been Led Zeppelin reached its terminus.

Still, the influence continues — as does the notoriety. Someone silly will always say there are Satanic messages to be heard in playing any given Zep cut backwards but it is playing it forwards where the band continues to pay it forwards.

There will always be those who think that your generation is the worst, either from behind or in front, an infinite process, a generation that is the worst or the best until it becomes irrelevant, anecdotes lost to history as an amusing footnote. “What’s wrong with these kids?” or “What was wrong with those kids?” — either way, get used to it, it never changes.

However, while covering the final Pirates’ home football game, I saw no less than three Led Zeppelin T-shirts being worn by Pagosa Springs High School students. I’m pretty sure those shirts were not some expression of wry irony but were a testament to the staying power of the band. If the next generation looks askance at me and my peers, they have taken Led Zeppelin with no thanks.

Ingrates... what’s wrong with those kids? Well, I hope they enjoy their misspent youth.

jim@pagosasun.com