I know there was probably a good deal of show prep that happened before the concert; sound checks, setting the stage, etc. Still, it looks like the boys just walked into the Royal Albert Hall off the street, strapped on their guitars and started to jam. Zep’s air of casual awesomeness–especially early in their run–is fairly amazing to modern eyes more used to big light shows, complex staging, massive video screens and a dozen costume changes in the course of a concert.
Led Zeppelin’s minimalist concert brings up a larger question: Could the greatest rock band that ever existed survive in a 21st century pop scene? I really don’t know. Zep’s constant experimentation and abiding interest in music outside the accepted rock-n-roll canon might make them a tough sell in today’s entertainment industry.
“We’re Gonna Groove” is a cover of an old Ben E. King soul ditty. This is just one example of LZ’s diverse musical palette. While the group was certainly grounded in a blues-rock foundation, Zep was capable of doing anything they set their mind to do. Interested in a funk tune? Here you go. Have a hankering for gentle folk? Done. Dig Indian-influenced ragas? At your service. Wanna strut your stuff to some country? So does Zeppelin. Like world music? Let Jimmy Page be your tour guide. Wanna cut the crap and go punk? John Bonham can help you out with that. Hell, looking for an ten minute experimental keyboard-driven disco song? John Paul Jones and Robert Plant are up to the challenge.
Beyond their musical diversity between songs, look at how Led Zeppelin changed over the course of their career. Their first disc, Led Zeppelin, which was released in 1969, is a heavy blues-centric workout. Ten years and seven albums later, In Through The Outdoor is a synthesizer-driven affair that shows a band that has abandoned traditional blues song structures in favor of dance-rock and avant-garde experimentation.
In between all that, Led Zeppelin’s sound would continuously change from record to record. Each full play effort was marked by a very different tone from the albums that came before and after it. Led Zeppelin III’s country and folk stylings felt quite a bit different than the thumping blues of Led Zeppelin II. 1975’s Physical Grafitti was a double album that swung from the keyboard grandeur of “In The Light” to the delicate acoustic fingerpicking of “Bron-Yr-Aur”. 1977’s Presence was Zep at it’s most single-mindedly rocked out, driven by hard electric guitars and heavy rhythms.
Would any major record label today accept a band that went through those kinds of mutations over the course of a decade? Even though music companies have grown less important over the last decade then they once were, the answer is probably not. At some point…probably right around the time the mandolins kick in on Led Zeppelin III…the record label’s A&R dude would go into vapor lock and the record would be shelved. The band would be told to rethink their priorities, get a pop-minded producer and make ‘Whole Lotta Love-The Sequel” for the next three records
More importantly than a music corporation’s behavior, would a modern band be able to survive the sort of creative contortions Led Zeppelin put themselves through? We don’t really have to speculate on that question. It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of rock groups simply don’t attempt to push their musical boundaries all that much. For every Radiohead that has rearranged their sound over the course of their career, there are only about a thousand other bands that have pretty much stayed in the same general artistic space they occupied on their first albums.
I don’t know when it happened, but at some point bands started to recognize that they were also brands. Brands require consistency in order to be successful. McDonalds’ cannot go from selling cheap American-style fast food to gourmet $50 a plate Japanese-Mexican-Dutch fusion cuisine within a few years. Nobody would buy the change and McDonald’s would kill their company. The same process has changed the way rock music operates. Bands are very conscious of the creative space they occupy and hold to it.
It seemed that Led Zeppelin wasn’t all that worried about branding themselves, at least to the degree modern groups do. To be fair, Zep definitely created an image for themselves. Visually, they made certain to carve out a niche. One could consider these things examples of branding. But when it came to music, which is ultimately what a band is known for, the guys in Zep were unafraid to change things up when the mood suited them.
When discussing LZ, we can talk about the legendary three hour concerts, the cool album covers, the record sales and the mind-blowing music that has stood the test of time. But all of that great stuff ultimately is borne out of confidence. Zep’s strength to go against expectations and forge ahead with their singular artistic vision set them apart from many of their contemporaries. Amazingly, it also sets them apart from many bands today.