Saturday, 2 October 2010

Hammer Of The Gods

Last weekend saw the 30th Anniversary of the death of John Bonham, the hard-drinking, life-loving, legendary drummer from Led Zeppelin. Inevitably thinking of the man took me back to the music, and I listened to selected tracks from the Zep catalogue - Kashmir, When The Levee Breaks, Rock And Roll etc. - and reminded myself once again why I consider them to be one of the greatest bands to have ever existed. Over the same weekend I also found myself watching The X-Factor. I have a love-hate relationship with the show; on the one hand I hate the corporate, sanitised, manipulative creation of pop music that Cowell and the rest of his satanic crew feed to the teenage masses, but on the other I love the freakshow, voyeuristic beauty of the proceedings. It’s the car accident syndrome - horrible and disgusting to look at, but I just can’t force myself to turn away.

For me X-Factor can only be watched to make fun of. It’s not about the music, because to me this isn’t music. It’s bullshit, but it’s bullshit because of the people that are producing it. I don’t want my rock and pop stars manufactured, the ingredients fed into the machine and minced out the other end like the Scarfe cartoons on the Another Brick In The Wall video. I don’t want to see these fucking idiots clean cut, hair styled, smelling good and offering bleached smiles below vacant, soulless eyes. I want my rock stars to be legendary figures, to be quite literally Gods amongst mortals. I want to see and hear brilliant, untouchable heroes. Remember when Wayne and Garth dropped to their knees before Alice Cooper and kissed the earth? That was the truest moment in the movie. We are not worthy.

Zeppelin embody exactly what I’m talking about. Here are four individuals who came together to create some of the loudest, most beautiful noise ever pumped into human ears. Bonham, dressed in a boiler suit behind a mountain of drums, working over the skins like a one-man army, beating out rhythms in a frenzy of bloodied attack, occasionally dropping the sticks altogether and attacking his kit with bare hands, battering the beat with his own body. John Paul Jones, like most bass players the quiet, introspective one of the group, but picking out intricate lines and staring into the crowd with an evil shine in his wide eyes that suggest rape and murder are soon to follow. Jimmy Page, resplendent with legs apart and a sweat stained Les Paul hanging from his frame, string bending to heaven with licks stolen directly from the Devils own playbook, the only man in history who could make a black suit with an embroided dragon circling around it look cool. And up front, bare chested, hair flying and the mic lead wrapped around his arms is Robert Plant, jeans so tight you can see the veins in his dick, screaming and wailing for lost love, for breaking hearts and for dogs so black. For a decade this quartet were the greatest musical movement on planet Earth, across a series of astonishingly good albums that, at least for the first four, were so iconic they didn’t even have to be named.

Zeppelin, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bon Scott, Dylan, John Lennon, Bowie. Some of them lived and some of them didn’t. The ones that are still with us, that made it through the shitstorm of heavy drinking and bad drugs, have slowed down somewhat, perhaps even revealing that they are just men after all. Of course they are; Keith Richards barely looks alive these days. But here’s the truth, and it may not be the most popular statement I’ve ever made, and it may not be politically correct in a modern world where we are taught everyone is equal, but it is this: THESE PEOPLE ARE BETTER THAN US. They are heroes, they are villains, they are Vikings and Gods. We would love to be them, to have what they had, regardless even of the short lifespan encountered by some of the names above. We will never be them. They won’t speak to us, sign our programs, make friends with us. They have more stories surrounding them than tales in the bible, the difference being that ninety percent of them are probably true. Myths and legends surround them to create the beauty of rock and roll. The first real rock star, the first bad boy of music, Robert Johnson, went down to a crossroads in Mississippi sometime in the early 30’s, met the Devil, and sold his soul for the ability to play with lightning in his hands. Sometime later he walked back into Clarksdale and blew everyone away with his talent, drank a bottle of bourbon a night, and ended up sleeping with a white plantation owners wife. Johnson died at 27, screaming in agony on the floor of a juke joint while howling like a dog at the moon.

It doesn’t matter if Johnson made a deal, or if the truth is he went away for a year, practiced and practiced until his fingers bled, and then returned to town a better player. The story is a good one, is part of the appeal of the blues, and is the reason Johnson is the legend he is today. Blues players were on every corner in the south at that time, and some of them (Son House, Leadbelly) were more prolific and made infinitely superior music to the twenty-nine known recordings of Johnson. But only one of them met the Devil, and that is the making of a hero.

The great, untouchable figures of music have always had exaggerated tales surrounding them. Keith Richards allegedly flew to Switzerland every couple of years to have his blood drained, washed and returned. Johnny Cash crawled into a network of caves with the intention of dying and heard God telling him to live. Keith Moon got lost on the set of Tommy and returned three days later covered in blood, naked, and walked up to the catering truck and demanded brandy. The mystery surrounding these figures is almost as important as the music itself. Maybe that’s the problem; in this modern day world of internet, multiple music channels and ten thousand streams of live media covering every aspect of celebrity society it’s pretty much impossible to keep the mystery going. Thirty years ago the world of information was much smaller and quieter place, and as our thirst for knowledge has increased, our acceptance of mystery has diminished. Jack White knew the power of legend in the making of a band - when he put together The White Stripes back in the late nineties we were told it was his sister Meg on the drums. The band dressed only in red, white and black, said they were obsessed with the number 3, lived together in a house with no TV and only played vinyl recordings by candlelight. No one really believed any of it, but it didn’t matter, because the stories were cool and fun and turned The White Stripes from a simple little garage band from Detroit into a global phenomenon. And then someone ruined it and uploaded their wedding certificate to the web, and it turned out Jack and Meg were briefly married then divorced. Following that Jack dated Renee Zellweger, married a supermodel and obviously decided that if no-one else was going to play along with the fantasy then why should he? Shame, because for a while White could have been standing alongside the giants. The problem was the truth let him down.

The last great, truly legendary rock star we had was Kurt Cobain. The man was wild, sensitive, insane and depressed. Combine those elements with brilliant song writing, a split personality and a heavy reliance on hard drugs and you had a hero for a youth generation that had come through the excess of the eighties and landed hard into teenage years in the dismal, depressed nineties. There was nothing for these kids to look forward to and Cobain was their spokesperson, his attitude and music perfectly capturing the dissolution and anger of modern life. Kurt was never comfortable with his celebrity status, although he was clever enough to understand the power of the media in getting his views heard. For all his MTV appearances, the videos and the rock star wife he remained an enigma, occasionally frustrating but never, ever boring. I was lucky enough to be at the Reading Festival in 1992 and watched him bought on stage in a wheelchair, wearing a hospital gown, (a couple of weeks earlier he’d be admitted for yet another drug episode). It had been touch and go if Nirvana would make the festival, and word was that he was weak through therapy and would need to be seated for any performance. And then, after a nervous moment Cobain leaped from the chair into Breed, amps pounding the opening riff and sending the crowd into frenzy. It was probably the best two hours of live music I’ve ever witnessed, and one of Nirvana’s finest moments. The day Cobain put a shotgun beneath his chin and squeezed the trigger no-one could really say they were surprised, but his death left a hole in music that has yet to be replaced. Not to say there haven’t been fine rock and roll musicians since, but as yet no-one has risen to the status of legend. And it’s got nothing to do with the fact that Cobain and many others checked out early, died before their time. Sure, death often puts a seal on an iconic status, and who is to say what middle-age would have done to Cobain or Hendrix, but it’s not how they died that made these people legends. It’s how they lived.

In the end though, when all the drugs and dust have settled, it comes down to the music. The Doors, The Who, Zeppelin, The Stones, Bowie, Cash, Nirvana - all bands and artists with a fantastic catalogue of great songs. But also bands and artists with the charisma, attitude, talent and fuck-you attitude that can’t be learnt and certainly can’t be manufactured on a reality pop television show. Which brings us back to John Bonham. Here is a man who, through the power of rock and roll music and astonishing talent, not to mention a ferocious lust for life, was safe in the knowledge that he could walk into any room, any bar in the world and quite literally screw any woman in the place. You could be sitting with your wife having a quiet pleasant dinner in some high-class establishment somewhere, and within five minutes of Bonham walking through the door the kitchen would be on fire, the waiter would be bleeding, you’d have lost your shirt and be doing lines of cocaine from a knife and Bonham would have your wife’s dress up around her waist while bending her over the table and banging into her from behind. While you watched. And here’s the kicker… you’d let him, because When The Levee Breaks is that fucking good. Truly my friends, we are not worthy.


lemmyxx said...

Great article Rich,followed the link from 8 tracks :)