Monday, December 4, 2006

Good times, bad times

To contrast the sad story the date of this newsletter represented, the edition opened in a rather unorthodox manner, first presenting a happier story from the author's recent experience.

Just a few hours ago, I attended a concert with comedic rock band Tenacious D. The group makes no secret of its appreciation for Led Zeppelin and other revered influences from the pantheon of gut-busting rock. What else is to be expected from a band with actor Jack Black, who successfully begged the surviving members of Led Zeppelin to let him include a song of theirs in a movie? (See here for a clip of what that's all about.)

During Tenacious D's live act, a melodic allusion to "Stairway to Heaven" took place at the end of the set-closing song, "Tribute," which relates the grandiose story of a chance confrontation with a demon that challenges Tenacious D to "play the best song in the world, or I'll eat your souls." The concert also included a brief medley of two abridged songs from the Who's Tommy, played as an encore. The first full cover of the night, though, was Zep's "Good Times Bad Times."

Today marks 26 years since one of the bad times in the history of Led Zeppelin.

On this day in 1980, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin announced their decision to retire the group.

This first public statement of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones after the death of John Bonham on Sept. 25 clarified their position on calls to carry on without him: No way, the three said. Case closed.

In less than 50 words, the trio had this to say:
"We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were."
With that, each member of Led Zeppelin went his own way, retreating for a time from the public eye. For Page, the mere sight of a guitar saddened him at first, causing him to refrain from playing music for several months. Plant similarly shied away from singing for a similar period. He briefly considered going into teaching but eventually formed a solo band in England. Jones spent his first year without Led Zeppelin setting up a 24-track electronic music studio in his home in Devon, England, and in 1982 led an electronic composition course at the Dartington College of Arts, also in Devon.

Manager Peter Grant was saddened for about four years, a period he later had enough hindsight to call "a period of darkness." During this time, he grew to dread answering his telephone for fear that the caller would be another drummer with an unsolicited offer to take Bonham's place in a reunited Led Zeppelin. Such calls were said to be painful for Grant, and he shielded them from Page, Plant and Jones.

Swan Song, the record company Led Zeppelin had founded in 1974, operated for three years past Bonham's death. Since the label's inception, it was clear that Zep wasn't the only band on the roster; other releases were coming from acts like Bad Company, the Pretty Things, Roy Harper and others. But in the post-Zeppelin era, the label became less active, partly because there was little motivation to sign new acts. Amid sparse activity in 1981, the label released records from Dave Edmunds and a new Maggie Bell project called Midnight Flyer.

By the end of that year, Page had found himself able to take solace at Sol Studios in Cookham, Berkshire, England. Elton John's producer, Gus Dudgeon, had just built the place, and Page bought it. Having fallen in love with Roland's new guitar synthesizers, Page recorded the soundtrack for the film Death Wish 2. For a drummer, he used Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention. The album also featured some of Page's first recorded moments leading an orchestra.

Plant was also recording his first solo album in 1981. For drummers, he used Barriemore Barlow, formerly of Jethro Tull, and Phil Collins, the Genesis singer who was also embarking on his own solo career that year. Plant's band gladly played music that purposely did not sound like the hard rock of Led Zeppelin. Working with a new band started off as challenging for the singer, "but it turned out to be a lot easier than I had envisioned," as he now proclaims in the liner notes of his newly remastered solo debut, part of the box set Nine Lives released last month. "I found I wanted to pour out my soul once the door was open," says Plant.

Both Page's Death Wish 2 soundtrack and Plant's Pictures at Eleven were released in 1982. They acounted for half of Swan Song's albums issued that year, along with Coda, the first posthumous Led Zeppelin album, and Rough Diamonds, the last of the six studio albums from Bad Company's original lineup.

After Bad Company's drummer, Simon Kirke, left the group, he joined Wildlife, whose self-titled sophomore LP and "Somewhere in the Night" single, both in 1983, became the two final Swan Song releases.

One month after that single's September release, a meeting was called to discuss dissolving the label. However, an agreement couldn't be reached at the meeting, and Plant reportedly complained to a friend, "It's still the same. They still can't make up their minds."

The one thing that remained constant through all that time was that decision, announced on this day in 1980, to retire Led Zeppelin once and for all. Without John Bonham, they could not continue as they were. Unlike just about every other band from the era, they never did.

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