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“Waxing Nostalgic on Innovation: My Current Led Zeppelin Kick”

PJ Harvey’s got a new album out. I heard it. Eh. It’s another album: not sure if it stacks up against the new Ty Segall, Twin Peaks or Fruit Bats.

But along the way, I did happen to gather up a certain amount of gossip tumbleweeds in my thicket, things like how she put out a little thing called a poetry book this past year, The Hollow of the Hand (http://dolbydisaster.com/?p=20112) [1], and how for her last album she recorded the whole thing in front of an audience.
Now, this tells me a couple of things: that, sure, Harvey is a very innovative artist, which we all already knew; but two, that her well has run a bit dry in the whole creativity department. As has been often proffered, creative efficacy and self-consciousness are usually directly proportional, so maybe this current ebb in anxiety in the artist’s mind will be correlative with a much-needed spike in her live touring: the inkling to self-showcase in the studio would theoretically suggest this. And on a related note, I know it’s bad, but please let me add that Harvey is really looking good in photos these days. It seems enough distance has finally been placed between herself and that awful relationship she was in (although I think I speak for all fans of her music when I say I’m licking my chops just thinking about it).
But overall, and I think some might disagree with me here, but Harvey has always been more the automaton than the innovator. She nails with palpable authenticity things like relationship qualms and gender struggles, she assumes masculine voices and barrels out intimidating, frightening grunge music with haunting effortlessness… but still, what’s arguably her most powerful tool is her ability to do an uncanny Patti Smith impression. She incorporated reggae and vast elements of world music for her last album, Let England Shake, but that’s nothing The Clash didn’t do. In the ’90’s, she made music (“Rub ‘til it Bleeds,” “Long Snake Moan”) that Soundgarden wished they could have made, but that doesn’t necessarily make her vanguard, more just opportunistic. Her authenticity is what sells.
Now, as has been beaten into us like a damn conglomerate marketing campaign over the years, in their early days, Led Zeppelin were anything but authentic. In fact, the primary purpose of their first album, at this point, is to exist as a showcase upon which detractors may proffer the band’s undeniable artistic criminality: look at all those old blues songs! They’ll never get away with this!
Well, as a Zep fan, do I listen to their first album? No. And yes, that looming tendril is nagging me at the back of my mind, telling me that the band is exactly at its most ferocious when it is its most plagiaristic, again, at least in the early days: “How Many More Times?”, “Bring it on Home,” et. al.
Could you take away these two songs and still have a fine band’s catalogue on your hands. Obviously. But Zep weren’t content with just being fine. They wanted to change the world, and they did.
One thing they realized is that within the shadow, within the specter of that “plagiarism” they were exhibiting, mocking the song structures of the old 12-bar blues and straightup pulling a one jack move on the lyrics, was a TIMBRAL originality which would go on to reshape rock music, and even rap, [2] for four decades and counting.
Think maybe these blokes understood balance? I dare you to try to look at any of their albums as monochromatic or stagnant frat-boy rock-outs. Even amongst my friends, some of the usual favorites are just that, “Friends,” as well as the regal, slowly swelling “The Battle of Evermore,” tackling one of Plant’s favorite fantastical subjects, right on to “The Rain Song,” written by Jimmy Page in response to Keith Moon’s (wrongful) claim that the band never write ballads. I guess this is by rainy-day, all-the-time-in-the-world British standards here.
The heavy metal aspects of the music were the brainchild of the unscrupulously confident Jimmy Page, there isn’t any question, but still, each member contributed to the larger whole something totally inimitable and irreplaceable, even if it weren’t songwriting per se. Robert Plant’s primal, savage yowl still makes sexuality sound like something pantheon and canonical, John Paul Jones had the nimble-fingered versatility to understand and exude any Page arrangement on both bass and keyboard, and John Bonham was the mythical caveman with robotic arms on drums, as effortless as he was relentless. With the knowledge that the direction the band was going would involve forever changing the landscape of rock, Zep conceded a certain artistic authenticity when it came to the songs themselves. They didn’t yet know what to feel, truly, because they had yet to behold the future they would eventually create.
A decade later, they’ve broken records for ticket sales for their snarling live show, which indeed even puts their albums to shame, they’ve survived a near-fatal car accident and recorded a followup album Presence on a deserted island, an album which features a 10-minute opener, but… what is their songwriting legacy? There still isn’t one, it’s still the pummeling, brutish power of their music they get by on, and this was with them since day one. Music had gotten a “Blackbird” in the ’60’s. It was in need of a carrion-gnawing vulture.
And the reason I still listen to the band today has to do with just that: the pure visceral human achievement of men playing this music, the tightness, the blistering speed they take while maintaining such lockstep. Mind you, songwriting integrity isn’t ABSENT from the band’s catalogue at any point, whether it’s the roller coaster opener “Immigrant Song” or the delicate, sporadic ballad “Thank You” these are original melodies and lines which are very hard to complain about. But I mean imagine if this band HADN’T done a bunch of blues covers? We’d think they were inhuman, we’d be checking their DNA and gene pattern for signs of the extra terrestrial. By including all those nods to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley et. al., I think, the band are simply saying that there IS a starting point for this eventual innovation, that there are things prior in the human race to love, and which led to this heavy metal explosion, lest the listener perceive his kind to just be one big mob standing and looking.
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[1] I include my own link firstly as indeed a shameless self-marketing ploy, but also because of a point I made in this post, which is that within the Harvey collection of poems there looms just about every literary STYLE we’ve ever seen, from imagistic, to realist, to lyric, etc. The result makes for, simply, great entertainment value, which we’re fully used to indulging in from this woman.
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[2] See Black Milk’s shoutout on “Keep Going.”

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