Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Power Plant

When Led Zeppelin formed, around four years ago, the American rock audience was totally infatuated with Cream, the power blues trio featuring Eric Clapton. Meanwhile, a Los Angeles group, Iron Butterfly, was making more noise than most people thought necessary with an album called Heavy.

The idea for Led Zeppelin's name, as well as perhaps half of its musical concept, relates to Iron Butterfly, which, on the strength of its classic "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida," remained the premier American heavy rock band until the advent of Grand Funk Railroad. But the other half of the musical concept came from Cream, and so did the group's initial success, for Led Zep's lead guitarist, Jimmy Page, had succeeded Clapton in the Yardbirds, which meant that every Cream freak in the country went to see the band once it surfaced. Unlike Cream, Led Zeppelin never woodshedded. It was playing to mass audiences from the start, and it is still rolling.

Last night at Nassau Coliseum, 16,000 heavy-rock fans cheered Led Zeppelin through three hours and four encores, and tonight another 16,000 will make the pilgrimage. No opening acts have been scheduled because Led Zeppelin stands alone--the band is the personification of heavy rock. Limiting its personal appearances, and carefully refining the basic concept in its annual album, the band appears quite likely to continue long after the various challengers--Black Sabbath is currently ranked first--have their plugs pulled. And every bit of that ascendancy is deserved.

Jimmy Page is a highly proficient electric blues guitarist whose expertise is essential to the group's effect, but the star of the show is vocalist Robert Plant. By talent or design, Plant is the man who discovered that the key word in the term "power blues" was not "blues" but "power." Blues singing is about emotion. Its influence on popular singing has been so widespread that, at least among males, singing and emoting have become almost identical--it is a matter of projection rather than hitting the notes. Plant reverses all that. Whether he is mouthing sexist blues cliches or running through one of the band's half-audible, half-comprehensible--and who listens to the words anyway--lyrics about chivalry or the counter-culture, his voice is devoid of feeling. Like the tenors and baritones of yore, he wants his voice to be an instrument--specifically, an electric guitar.

Some find this effect chilling, but I think it is exciting when it works, which is most of the time. It's not that Plant can't emote. On some of the band's acoustic selections, especially "Stairway to Heaven," he hints at real feeling. But just as he begins to reach out, his voice shifts into one of its shrieks or wails, and you realize that Page's guitar is so heavily miked in the huge arena that he could just as well be playing electric--it's another mechanical effect, that's all. At some deep level, Led Zeppelin's music is about the relationship between humanity and technology. Philosophically, the band prefers humanity pure and simple, but in practice it must realize its humanity technologically. That seems truer than most good-time pastoral fantasies.

Led Zeppelin attracts a rougher, less affluent and less self-righteous crowd than the country-flavored bands that dominate rock these days. For some reason, this crowd gets off not only on the kinky textures of Led Zep's ensemble playing, but also on displays of dubious instrumental virtuosity--Page bowing his guitar, or John Bonham clubbing his way through a 15-minute drum solo. Also, the music ran a little long for someone as jaded as myself. But "Since I Been Loving You," with John Paul Jones providing a great thick wall of organ behind Plant and Page, is the ultimate power blues, and "Rock & Roll," the first encore, is simply the most dynamic hard-rock song in the music.

It was a heavy evening.

N'day, June 15, 1972