Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bonzo’s Legacy Lives On

It was 30 years ago today that the rock world, and an admittedly fanatic teenage music lover (me), was stunned to hear of the sudden death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. It was a tragic and rather pathetic end for the man (having choked to death on his own vomit after an all-day drinking binge). It happened around what were supposed to be rehearsals for the band’s triumphant return to North America following a three year absence and the tragic death of singer Robert Plant’s 5-year-old son that had nearly ended the group’s glorious run. Overnight, Bonzo’s death snuffed out the light of the dominant rock band of the 1970s.

Though clearly shaken, yet persevering through radically changing times in the music business, Led Zeppelin was showing signs of reinvigoration and optimism about the prospect of rebirth and resurgence in the new decade. Nevertheless, despite the band’s successful string of streamlined shows throughout Europe during the summer of 1980, beneath the facade there were still some signs of trouble, notably Bonham’s and guitarist Jimmy Page’s ongoing drug addictions.

I distinctly remember hearing the news of Bonzo’s death on that fateful Thursday at the end of September 1980. It was late morning and, being in boarding school at the time, I was walking down the hallway of my dormitory, passing a classmate’s open door. A radio was on inside (rather loudly, as was the norm). The voice of a Philadelphia rock station’s D.J. drifted out into the hall and I caught the words: “... dead of Led Zeppelin.”

I stopped in my tracks and listened for more details. “Who?!” my mind raced. But it was the end of the bulletin and no more information was forthcoming. I bolted down the hallway to my own room and turned on my stereo and frantically scanned the dial for other news reports. (There was no internet providing real-time updates on breaking news in those days. Hell, there were no personal computers!) It wasn’t long before I got the full story, such as it was. Details were scant other than that the drummer had been found dead at Page’s home and an autopsy was being performed to determine the cause of death.

Even then, I had little doubt that, unlike other bands, the death of any member would mean the end of Led Zeppelin. I was gravely disappointed at the realization that I would never get to see my favorite band play live – tickets for fall shows in Chicago were already on sale and dates were planned for Philly. But I was also reassured by the belief that the band would not compromise their ideal and taint their legacy by carrying on in some lesser form – which, without Bonham, it would inevitably be. And I’m glad that to this day they (more or less) have stayed true to the declaration that they “could not continue as we were” that came that December.

While Bonzo’s untimely passing abruptly ended Led Zeppelin, his reputation and stature as a rock drummer have only accrued interest over the years. There’s no doubt that his contributions to the band’s sound and success are more appreciated today than during the group’s heyday.

And while we must admit that if even a portion of the many sordid accounts of the road antics on Zeppelin tours during the late 1960s and early ’70 are to be believed, the guy was clearly a bad drunk capable of not only being obnoxious, but outright abusive to those who might be unfortunate enough to cross his path. That said, his intimates (bandmates and friends alike) have remained quick to pay tribute to the Dr. Jekyll side of Bonham’s persona: The loyal friend, loving family man and, ultimately, insecure performer.

Personality flaws aside, his legacy is based on what he did as a musician. His spirit lives on in the tracks. Forget the lengthy drum solos. Those were de rigeur at the time, and Bonzo’s was more impressive as a visual spectacle in concert (and a much needed respite for his bandmates) than as a demonstration of superlative technique. It was in the rest of Led Zeppelin’s catalog that John Henry Bonham’s vitality, taste and technique really shined.

The drum lessons embedded in the Zep canon range from bombastic bashing to subtle nuance and touch; in other words, it was all about feel. As Robert Plant has aptly stated, Bonzo was Zep’s secret ingredient. “He put the sex in the grooves,” Plant says. And, if you have any appreciation for James Brown, you’ll know exactly what he means.

So, in honor of the 30th anniversary of Bonzo’s passing, here are my 30 favorite Led Zeppelin drum tracks. With the exception of the unparalleled powerful drum sound captured on Led Zeppelin IV’s “When the Levee Breaks,” it’s likely that even more impressive examples of Bonham’s talent could be culled from the hundreds of live Zeppelin bootlegs floating around out there. (For example, give a listen to “The Song Remains the Same” from the L.A. Forum in 1977.) But to avoid sounding like a Deadhead, I’ve confined this list to the readily accessible studio recordings:

1. When the Levee Breaks (LZ IV) – Undoubtedly the most sampled drum beat of all time. Thanks to the sharp snap of Bonzo’s wrists and Page’s production wizardry, this drum sound is unsurpassed!
2. Achilles Last Stand (Presence) – Nothing short of epic. In fact, every song on Presence has incredible drumming (it being Zep’s funkiest album overall), but this is the pinnacle – almost prog rock!
3. In My Time of Dying (Physical Graffiti) – Along with his fellow bandmates, Bonham took blues into another dimension on this song.
4. Rock and Roll (LZ IV) – Bonzo started out playing the intro to a Little Richard song and it took off from there.
5. The Wanton Song (Physical Graffiti)
6. How Many More Times (LZ I) – The climax of the band’s debut album, this left no doubt that here was a new force to be reckoned with.
7. For Your Life (Presence)
8. Fool in the Rain (In Through the Out Door) – Yes, he could even do samba.
9. Good Times Bad Times (LZ I) – For the high-hat and tom-tom work alone. This was an arrival announced!
10. Poor Tom (Coda – outtake from LZ III sessions) – Proof that even on an acoustic blues track drums can rock.
11. Trampled Under Foot (Physical Graffiti) – The bass, clavinet and electric guitar ride Bonzo’s relentless groove with joyful abandon: Simple funk perfection.
12. The Ocean (Houses of the Holy) – Crisp, sure-shotted drum sound, plus the added bonus of Bonham’s vocal intro.
13. Whole Lotta Love (LZ II) – That quintessential guitar riff and the lead break just wouldn’t be the same without Bonzo’s beat.
14. We’re Gonna Groove (Coda – outtake from LZ II sessions) – Zep opened many 1970 shows with this Ben E. King tune.
15. Walter’s Walk (Coda – from the Houses of the Holy sessions)
16. Kashmir (Physical Graffiti)
17. D’yer Mak’er (Houses of the Holy) – Reggae meets ’50’s doo-wop with Bonzo’s crisp pounding holding it all together.
18. Bring It On Home (LZ II) – For the fast part of the song.
19. The Rover (Physical Graffiti)
20. Four Sticks (LZ IV) – Legend has it Bonzo struggled with the drum track on this tune until he angrily grabbed two drum sticks in each hand and banged it out: Hence the title.
21. Royal Orleans (Presence)
22. Hots on For Nowhere (Presence) – The drums mirror the guitar in a unique and fanciful dance.
23. Candy Store Rock (Presence)
24. Out on the Tiles (LZ III)
25. Dazed and Confused (LZ I)
26. Down by the Seaside (Physical Graffiti)
27. Sick Again (Physical Graffiti)
28. Tea for One (Presence) – Even on an understated slow blues, Bonzo played just what was needed, no more. He didn’t need more than a cymbal and a snare.
29. Moby Dick (LZ II) – Not the bloated 25 minute live version, but the succinct studio version, especially for the fills around the opening and closing guitar riff.
30. Bonzo’s Montreaux (Coda – between album studio experimentation) – Yes, it’s a drum solo, too, but the harmonizer’s effects on the steel drums give it some melody. When released years later it almost sounded like new wave art rock!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Whole of the Moon

September must be a Waterboys kind of month! ... This would’ve been more apropos yesterday, I suppose (then again, there’s still a crescent, right?). Either way, this is a vintage, big-band performance of their biggest pre-Fisherman’s Blues hit, “The Whole of the Moon” from 1985’s This Is the Sea LP. It’s interesting, not only for the presence of newly-arrived fiddler Steve Wickham and keyboardist Karl Wallinger (the brief-tenured Waterboy and future World Party leader), but also for the prominent female backing vocalist and trumpet player. Later live renditions of this song, after Wallinger’s departure, were much more barebones, featuring a nearly solo Mike Scott playing keyboards rather than guitar.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Plant Yields Various Joys

With his new release, Band of Joy, Robert Plant continues to avoid the obvious and the temptation to resurrect the Golden Godness of his Zeppelin days. Instead, he again explores more esoteric and, ultimately, satisfying music far from the well-worn path of the tired old nostalgia trip.

Early in the decade, he made some wonderful music with The Strange Sensation, bringing West African and Arabic nuances to rock riffs and vocals coupled with the occasional heartfelt homage to some of the folk songs that inspired him long before he and his mighty Zep bandmates trod the globe like wanton Vikings. He followed that with his Grammy-gobbling collaboration with Alison Krauss and T-Bone Burnett. This year’s Band of Joy release, borrowing its name (though no songs or members from one of Plant’s pre-Zep outfits), doesn’t quite measure up to the alchemical wonder of 2007’s Raising Sand collaboration, but it’s pretty darn close and is, in many ways, a step further in Plant’s always interesting, if often musically meandering, sojourn.

Band of Joy, Plant’s 10th solo LP (depending on how you count ’em) does visit some of the same places as Raising Sand (i.e., strong female vocal accompaniment, this time by Patty Griffin – in more of a supportive role than the outright duets featuring Krauss, but noteworthy nonetheless) and lots of haunting reverb and minor key chords and melodies. But it also strays into quite different areas. There’s the occasional hint of North African memories in the rhythms, and once or twice it even sounds like the band is flashing back to Page & Plant’s under-rated 1998 Walking Into Clarksdale release.

Great drums paired with masterful guitar work from respected Nashville session man and Raising Sand tour veteran Buddy Miller color the whole affair and ably bolster Plant’s mostly restrained vocal performance. There’s nothing too flamboyant in the guitar playing, but there are killer atmospherics that create moods perfectly in synch with the singer’s distinctive voice.

Like Raising Sand, this is another album that even people who don’t like Robert Plant’s singing may well like. It’s full of good, often catchy songs (mostly well-chosen covers of somewhat unfamiliar songs by the likes of Low, Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt and others) that vary in pace and tone, yet fit together remarkably well. Despite the diverse composer credits, with superb musicianship and production (spare, open, airy) throughout, the album still seems “of a piece.” Dare I say it, it should have wide crossover appeal.

The range and quality of music on this album is exemplified by the fact that my three favorite songs (at least at this early date) are radically different from one another in style and tone. The opening track, Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance,” is a jaunty, upbeat drum and mandolin-driven song that marries Arabic rhythms and country folk melodies with urgent vocals and pulsating electric guitar. While “The Only Sound That Matters” is a mellower, plaintively romantic tune carried by Plant’s vocal and Darrell Scott’s impeccable pedal steel guitar playing. And, finally, my favorite track of all, “Monkey” is a darkly haunting tune with guitars evoking the more recent sound of The Church (that is, the under-appreciated Aussie band, not the crew from Rome). It’s one of two compositions on the album by the Minnesota slowcore band Low, and one on which both Griffin and Miller really shine.

Griffin, while no Alison Krauss on many levels, nevertheless adds to the haunting undercurrent that runs through much of this album. She manifests a faint, wispy, ghost-like presence on some songs that gets amplified to full-frontal haunt on other tracks. Krauss comes across as a naive innocent compared Griffin’s sultry earthiness.

While Band of Joy expands upon the unique fusion of country, folk, rock, blues and bluegrass that was mined and polished in the Krauss collaboration, the heavier country emphasis of that release is not wholly abandoned here. A few touches of the Nashville recording environs seep through: In the banjo meets field-holler blues of “Central Two-O-Nine” (the album’s only original composition); and the subtly humorous “Cindy, I’ll Mary You Someday,” on which Miller’s clean, reverbed electric guitar lurks eerily behind the banjo licks before ramping up to a rollicking end reminiscent of Zep’s “Gallows Pole.” Then there’s Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way,” the most Raising Sand-reminiscent song on the record, with Griffin and Plant sharing the catchy “Oh me, Oh my, who’s gonna mark my time?” refrain.

Other notable cuts among the album’s dozen tracks include the dreamy “Silver Rider,” with understated, gradually building guitars reminiscent of some of the mellower latter-day U2 material. (Interestingly, the same might be said of the conclusion of “Harm’s Swift Way,” too.) Less surprisingly, there’s also the near-rockabilly of “You Can’t Buy My Love” and the quasi-doo-wop of “Falling in Love Again,” which finds Plant crooning like he hasn’t since his nostalgic turn with The Honeydrippers in the early ’80s.

Beyond the satisfying collection of songs itself, bonus points to Plant for designing the colorful and intriguing cover art himself. That’s a first for him, I believe. Further evidence that even at 62, he’s still very into exploring new avenues of creativity.

Plant and his current joyous band did a brief tour previewing the new album, mostly through the South, this past summer. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to see a much-anticipated, but yet-to-be announced, second leg tour stop in New England.

POSTSCRIPT: I was thinking about posting the official video to “Angel Dance” along wit this review, but it’s a mediocre video (despite the thematic nod to composers Los Lobos’ Latino heritage). Moreover, the sonically muted sound of YouTube really doesn’t do justice to the dynamic sound of the song as heard on CD. I hold out hope that, if commercially successful enough, maybe they’ll do a better video for “Monkey,” but I'll still listen to the CD for the sound.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What Care I ... ?

Despite the TV announcer’s misspoken intro. (this is not evidence of The Waterboys’ “big music,” which predates their subsequent Celtic folk dabblings), this video from the 2007 Cambridge Folk Festival brings back fond memories of seeing Mike Scott and his raggle, taggle band of cohorts do a boisterous version of this old folk tune at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston in 1989.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bear in the Way ...

Today, being the first day of the new school year in these parts, I did my fatherly duty and advised both my girls about the always handy “bear in the way” strategy.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Smoking ‘Shelter From the Storm’

This is a burning – and perhaps timely, given the weather forecast – version of “Shelter From the Storm” from Bob Dylan’s second Rolling Thunder Revue Tour (this one in 1976, from which the Hard Rain LP was derived).

It’s not too often that you see Zimmy playing slide guitar! He played slide on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” on Blonde on Blonde according the liner notes, but I don’t recall ever seeing him play slide live before – either on video or during the dozen-plus times I’ve seen him in concert.

And is that an old Airline guitar Dylan’s playing? It looks quite similar to the model more recently re-popularized by Jack White – in red, of course.

Nice headgear, too.

(A tip of the hat to my pal Jim McGaw for the heads up on this video.)