17. Led Zeppelin - Rock and Roll

Okay, let's get right to the controversy that's sure to be out there about my Led Zeppelin song choice -  "Stairway to Heaven" vs. "Rock and Roll."  For many rock critics, "Stairway" is the Citizen Kane or Godfather of rock & roll.  It's the best rock song ever, period.  The haters, though, say that "Stairway" is a bloated, pretentious excercise in fancy-schmancy songwriting.  "Stairway to Heaven" has been polarizing song for decades.  Since it's considered by many to be the best rock song ever, there's a fair amount of backlash of people who never want to hear it again. 

My feelings are somewhere in the middle.  Although I can grant that "Stairway" is most likely is the most overplayed song in the history of rock radio, it's also an almost perfectly crafted song that shows the amazing breadth of styles that rock songs can contain (it's a ballad, it's a rocker, it's a greatest hits song all in one!).  But for me, it just doesn't do much for me, and I can't quite explain why.  I'm the same way with Casablanca, keeping with the movie analogies.  They're both good, but not nearly as good as everybody is telling me they are.  So that's why I went with "Rock and Roll," because, purely and simply, it's a kick-ass rock song that I've never tired of hearing.
The criticisms of "Rock and Roll" are there as well, though.  Since it's based on the classic blues 12 bar blues progression and that drummer John Bonham's intro is basically a lift of the beginning of Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin," people claim that it's derivative and unoriginal.  Legions of people would say it's at best the third best song on Led Zeppelin IV.  But I just counter with, "Yeah, but it kicks ass."  That's all that matters to me.  A perfectly cooked steak can be a perfect meal with just three ingredients (steak, salt, pepper).  Same with a song.  Just because it's simple, doesn't mean it can't be perfectly done.  If anything, that makes it even more impressive.  And that's what "Rock and Roll" is.  It may be the most pure rock and roll song ever written.  No pretension - just an unadulterated tribute to the history of the music that they (and we) love.

It all kicks off with that thundering drum intro by John Bonham.  And while it's true that the riff is almost identical to the one that starts "Keep a Knockin," Bonham adds a power and passion that's lacking from the original.  So like they do throughout the entire song, the members of Led Zeppelin take inspirations from the past and make them their own.  Jimmy Page's guitar may be with the blues progression, but it's cranked up, fuzzed out, and utterly his own - and fully rock and roll.  John Paul Jones' bass is what it was back in the songs they're paying tribute to, a strong rhythm that holds the song together, except Jones add quite a bit more thump in his low end.

And then there are Robert Plant's vocals.  One of the reason I prefer this song to "Stairway" is Plant's vocals.
Robert Plant has arguably the best rock and roll voice ever.  In "Stairway" he doesn't get to unleash it the way he does in "Rock and Roll."  He lets loose from the first word and never takes his foot off his vocal accelerator.  Every word he sings has force behind it.  He knows that if you're going to have the balls to call your song "Rock and Roll," you better put your voice behind that statement.  And boy does he.

The lyrics are simple and without a deep storyline, like so many early rock classics.  For the original acts, the lyrics were pure escapism - hanging out with friends, having fun, and (hopefully) having sex.

It's been a long time since I rock-and-rolled
It's been a long time since I did the Stroll
Let me get it back, let me get it back, let me get it back
Baby, where I come from
It's been a long time, been a long time

When I heard this song for the first time when I was ten, I thought that this guy really liked music and missed it.  Then one day it hit me.  He's talking about sex!  It was scandalous to a thirteen year-old.  It was like the floodgates opened for me and all the other songs that I'd been listening to over the years.  "Love Gun" by Kiss?  Not about firearms, it's sex!  "I Want Candy" by Bow Wow Wow - sex!  "She Bop" by Cyndi Lauper - masturbation!  Well at lest "YMCA" by the Village People is a wholesome song about young men finding a decent place to stay and have a good meal. What?  It's about what?!  Um, anyway, moving on...

While the mature me finds it hard to believe that Robert Plant ever had any trouble finding someone to have sex with him, the teenage me really felt bad for the guy.  He's basically begging.

It's been so long since we walked in the moonlight
Making vows that just can't work right
Open your arms, open your arms, open your arms
Baby let my love come running in

Going back to the music, there are tons of other standout moments.  There's that awesome stuttering, start-and-stop Jimmy Page solo, as if he's trying to figure out if he really wants to unleash a kick-ass solo or not.  Yep, he does.  Beyond the lyrics, there's that trademark Robert Plant wail.  John Paul Jones' bass has that cadence of a heart that's about to explode.  Near the end of the song, there's that clinking piano that again pays tribute to the oldies.  And for those who criticize Bonham's lifting of the "Knockin" riff, he finally gets to let loose with some of this own tricks at the very end of the song, and it's worth the wait.

Start to finish, "Rock and Roll" is not even four minutes long, but every band member tears through every single second.  Nothing is wasted.  While it's a simple arrangement for a rock song, it's also a perfect rock song.  And like that perfectly cooked steak, you're soon jonesing for another one.  So while "Stairway to Heaven" may be sautéed duck breast and foie gras with a cherry shallot reduction, "Rock and Roll" is that perfectly seared ribeye steak.  And between the two, I'll take the steak.  Be honest with yourself.  You would too.

0 Responses