Friday, August 15, 2008

Review: Led Zeppelin "Four Symbols" Thirty three and a third books

Photobucket, 33 1/3 Erik Davis Continuum books 2007.

This tiny book (177 two-thirds height pages) is a treasure trove. I enjoyed it immensely and I'd like to recommend it to you.


My opinion may be biased, of course. I liked it because almost everything I read there I wished I had said myself, and in a few cases, I actually have. It's an examination of the fourth Led Zeppelin album. (Davis can't bring himself to call it "Led Zeppelin's Fourth Album" or "Led Zeppelin IV" and definitely can't bring himself to call it Zoso. He settles for using the four symbols themselves as the title, which is possible in print as the characters were sent out in lead type to likely reviewers when the album came out. Since they don't exist in Unicode (by which I suppose I mean I can't find them) it makes it rather harder to title this commentary.)

A long time fan, introduced to the study of magic by the silent and "ominously puffy" example of Jimmy Page, Davis calls himself an "occulture critic". His task is to try to "articulate the mythic imagination at work in Zeppelin's music by submitting in a half remembered way, to their daemonic intensity". (p10) (He is careful to explain the difference between 'daemonic' and 'demonic'.)

His long-term interest in the band gives him a perfect perspective. For instance, I've often wondered why critics in the Seventies declared John Bonham to be a powerful but swing-free and ham-handed drummer, whereas nowadays he is officially recognized as weakly godlike and Most Amazing. Davis writes:

Zeppelin was not pure. This love of mixture and slop gave their music and beats an almost prophetic force. In the 1970s, Zeppelin's rhythms sounded, well, rather leaden. But as Robert Palmer noted in 1990, after years of hip hop and crunchy rhythms, "the lurching beats and staggered rhythms sound a lot different: they swung like mad." (p84)

His mention that, in California, "by 1971 the bloom was off the counterculture rose" opened up a new perspective for me. I had not thought of the early Seventies California singer-songwriters as sitting among the debris of a Summer of Love that had collapsed like a stoner-built geodesic dome, nor had I really thought of Going to California as capturing that 'autumnal' (as he says) melancholy vibe.

And face it, you have to admire a writer who can craft a sentence like:

But Plant's pedal doesn't really hit the metal until
where his wanderings become
a bona fide quest, like The Odyssey or The Hobbit or Bill
and Ted's Excellent Adventure
. (p75)

His insights are many. Discussing the creation of The Battle of Evermore, he contrasts Robert Plant's assertion that he had just read a book on the Scottish border wars with the mythological groundwork of the song and says, "sparks don't really fly unless myth is forged against the unyielding anvil of actual events." His theory about Stairway to Heaven – that it is a song about buying the song Stairway to Heaven – sounds wacky until you remember that, yeah, actually the song does say that, explicitly, in so many words. And who else would casually mention that "Percy…winds down the phonograph road"? Of course – the winding road is the groove itself! Why didn't I think of that?

Like most insanely detailed fanterpretations, the book tells us more about its writer than it does about Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. But in constructing such a work, Davis has performed a kind of active Sonar ping; although the communication is entirely his creation, the detail of the wavefront as it bounces off our own preconceptions tells us much about the shape and location of the record as it appears in our own minds. His trip down the winding road of the album – from the eager panting of the Black Dog before the first track starts, to the drowning, drain-circling maelstrom of engulfment that ends When the Levee Breaks, is an eye-opening journey.

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