News has just been released that the official DVD film of Led Zeppelin’s performance at the O2 Arena in December 2007 is to be available from mid-November. There will be cinema screenings of the two-hour film all over the world in mid-October. The release has been keenly anticipated by the Zeppelin fraternity for a number of years, and there have been periods when it has seemed that it might not appear. This was not of course Led Zeppelin mark 1, since mark 1 finished on the death of drummer John Bonham in September 1980. Mark 2 did however have another Bonham on the drum stool – namely, John’s son Jason – who acquitted himself extremely well.
Over the years the surviving members of Led Zeppelin have reunited on a handful of occasions, and the results have been often underwhelming – notably at Live Aid in 1985 and the Atlantic Records 40th Birthday concert in 1988. The O2 gig, properly planned and rehearsed, was leagues ahead of those earlier efforts. It was also the most over-subscribed concert in musical history with millions of people trying to get one of 18,000 tickets (nope, I didn’t get one either).
There was some hope that the O2 gig would be a curtain-raiser to a bit more activity by the band, but this petered out in 2008 when attempts to find a replacement singer for Robert Plant failed. Plant had made it clear he did not want to do anymore. For him, singing songs from 30 years or more ago was a tall order. About one-third of the songs performed were actually played in keys one tone below their original pitch.
It raises an interesting question about what a re-united Led Zeppelin mark 2 might have achieved. Could they have produced new material? Could they have brought the band’s undoubted power to bear on lyric subjects suitable for an ageing audience and 3 out of 4 members in their 60s? I found myself thinking of Dylan Thomas’ poem about death ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ with its refrain ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’. If ever there was a band that had the power to potentially rage against the dying of the light it was Zeppelin. Though much of their 70s output is a Dionysian celebration of the joys of the flesh, tracks like ‘When The Levee Breaks’, ‘Achilles Last Stand’ and ‘Kashmir’ ventured into more serious lyric territory. On that territory the age of the band would not matter. Sadly, it looks like we will never know.
I shall be writing some pieces about the O2 gig for a Tight But Loose special (Dave Lewis’ renowned Led Zep magazine) coming out at the end of the year. I’ve also recently written a couple of short pieces for guitarcoach, the downloadable guitar magazine for the iPad. Last week I taught my Beatles course once more at Rewley House in Oxford.
Part two of my long feature on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is published in Dave Lewis’ long-running Zeppelin magazine Tight But Loose. You can order it from the tbl website. Dave has recently published a very detailed colour account of the band’s final tour in Europe in 1980 as the book Feather In The Wind. He is currently planning a revised second edition of his book Then As It Was on the band’s two gigs at Knebworth in August 1979. If you’re interested in Zeppelin’s music and career his books are essential.
The first part of my 10,000 article about Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is now available in the Zep magazine Tight But Loose. Editor and writer Dave Lewis continues to do sterling work in chronicling the band’s history and the careers of its individual members. Here’s a link: http://www.tightbutloose.co.uk
Recently I’ve been listening for the first time to 5.1 surround sound mixes as featured on SACD. As has been said, the effect is more immersive than stereo. On classical SACD recordings the two rear speakers are used to add subtle ambient sound, so if you’re sitting roughly in the central position it feels as though the sound from the front three speakers is being pulled behind you. It’s three-dimensional. On the couple of rock SACDs I’ve heard individual instruments are positioned in those rear speakers, allowing more access to the texture of the music.
It is a tragedy that SACD never became a mass-market success when it was launched about 12 years ago. It offers much better sound quality than standard CDs, let alone mp3 files (I’ve read one account which said that mp3 files contain only 10% (!) of the information contained on the equivalent CD track.) There are some blu-ray players that will also play SACDs, so that’s hopeful, and classical labels are still issuing them. Other high-resolution formats such as so-called ‘studio master’ downloads also promise better quality music reproduction.
The essay on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ I mentioned in the previous blog is now done. It turned into something of an epic. I had anticipated writing 3-4,000 words, and it is over 10,000. I’ll post details of where it will be published when I have them. For many years I thought I would write a book on Led Zeppelin but the time for that has gone now. So I’m pleased at least to share some thoughts on what makes this legendary song exert its particular magic. This year would be a fitting moment to see Led Zeppelin’s fourth album released as an SACD.
I shall end with a brief note for readers who play guitar, which is to recommend the solo guitar works of the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, which I’ve re-visited over the past six months. They can be found on a single Naxos label CD (among others). His Preludes and Etudes are recognized cornerstones of the classical guitar repertoire. They are a delightful mix of rhythm, lyricism and dissonance.
A belated Happy New Year to everyone.
I’ve been busy so far this year with two new ‘classical’ compositions: one lasting 9 minutes for a chamber orchestra, the other for a piano quartet (piano, violin, viola, cello) of about 15 minutes divided into four or five shorter movements.
On the listening front I’ve been impressed by the Kings of Leon song ‘Pyro’. There’s a good clip on youtube of the band performing this on the BBC TV Jools Holland show. ‘Pyro’ is a good example of a band making the most of a simple chord sequence through a subtle arrangement (the way the two guitars work together, the bass sometimes not playing root notes under the chords, etc) along with an expressive melody.
Toward the end of last year I started listening to all eleven symphonies of English composer Edmund Rubbra in sequence. Listening chronologically reveals various ways in which a composer develops his or her musical style and language. Rubbra is a subtle and metaphysical composer whose music takes patience to get to know. At present I think the best of the symphonies is no.7 but 5, 6 and 11 also seem to hold the promise of great things once they are familiar.
A symphony of about 30-40 minutes contains a vast amount of musical information and I find it usually takes about six listens (and I mean listening, not having the music as background) before its underlying shape emerges from the intial fog of the unfamiliar. The challenge is heightened because there is far less repetition in ‘classical’ music than in popular songs and repetition increases the speed with which we assimilate music. With more listens more detail emerges and eventually you can reach a point where you know what is coming on a bar by bar basis.
I attended a fine performance of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5 conducted by Andre Previn in London a few weeks ago. If you have never heard this work I urge you to do so – it is one of the greatest of C20th symphonies. Try Vernon Handley’s recording which is a budget price CD or Sir John Barbirolli’s 1963 performance for a slightly more romantic version.
Last Monday the death of the film composer John Barry was announced. He had a remarkable career and has a claim to be considered one of the greatest British film composers post-1960. I have always had a soft spot for the first six Bond soundtracks. Barry’s music was among the first I heard which made me feel how expressive, sensual, mysterious and potent certain types of dissonance could be. The Bond films have for me long ago lost the glamour and excitement they exuded when I was a child, but in Barry’s music the spell remains unbroken. The chord sequence for ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ is a brilliant invention, as are those in ‘Thunderball’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, and I also liked the ‘Theme From The Persuaders’. Barry’s feel was quite influential on much left-field popular music in the 1990s.
When I was writing for UK’s Making Music magazine in the 1990s I interviewed session guitarist Vic Flick who played on the Bond films in the 1960s, including the famous Bond theme. He had the actual guitar with him that he used on that 1962 session and was kind enough to show me the fingering he used for the last chord (a clanging Em9/maj7 – 0-10-9-8-7-x on the guitar). A great chord – but almost impossible to use anywhere else because it is so distinctive.
I’m currently writing an extended article about Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’. It will be 40 years this April since the band unveiled their new song on an In Concert BBC radio show and 40 years in November that it was released as track 4, side 1 of the untitled album most of us refer to as Led Zeppelin IV. More about this article on ‘Stairway’ anon.