Led Zeppelin is to re-release its first three albums, with bonus tracks.
While I was growing up, the Zeppelin canon was fixed and immutable. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III, with the rotating cut out cover, the fourth one with no name, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, The Song Remains The Same, Presence, In Through the Out Door. After a while, we got Coda. Then it all went quiet, until the age of CD, when live recordings, BBC sessions, and others started to emerge.
This isn’t just nostalgia. The rise of unreleased tracks and MP3s marks as definitively as anything the end of the Age of Rock.
Why do I think this? It’s a personal view, of course, but hear me out.
Unlike pop, which proceeded through the singles and top-ten charts, rock proceeded through vinyl LP releases with gorgeous album covers and legendary live performances. Many of them really were legendary: total numbers of people claiming to have attended significant gigs far exceeded the capacity of many of the halls they were played in.
Rock was reaching the end of its golden age as I was starting to gig. Progressive musicians were interested in synthesisers. Pop videos had taken over the visual space from album covers. Classic rock bands were doing their sixth final-ever world tour, or fourth reform, with none of the original members. There was a sense that, whatever rock was, it belonged to the generation just before punk exploded in the UK. When the rock sound returned to mainstream radio, it was part of a wide spectrum of the many fragmented kinds of music. There was no more just ‘rock’ or ‘pop’.
Crucially, rock’s great hallmark, the album, was gone. CD had been part of that, because there was no A and B side and you could simply select any track you wanted, and the tiny covers never did the same justice to the artwork that vinyl did. MP3 and shuffle play on the iPod ended it completely. Today’s teenagers don’t expect to listen to an album all the way through, and may never physically have hold the album cover.
This isn’t a shout out for nostalgia. Today has its own exciting music. Teenagers are creating sounds in their bedrooms which couldn’t have been created in Abbey Road twenty years ago. But it does mean that we can start to pin down what the really great bands were of the rock golden age.
So what is rock, anyway? My definition: it’s guitar-based band music that explores themes beyond the love-and-kittens of pop, outside the constrictions of the 3:20 single, and has a common creative direction from inside the band. Classic rock instrumentation is guitar + bass + drums + vocals + maybe keyboards. A rock band has to weld the virtuosity of its players into an organic whole which is more than the sum of its parts.
So, here is my list. It’s not a list of my favourite bands. Greatness has to do with influence, longevity, musicianship, originality and creating an unforgettable sound.
#10 Dire Straits
Deeply unfashionable now, Dire Straits mastered the vinyl LP with Love Over Gold which was probably the best expression of the entirely new vocabulary that Mark Knopfler brought to lead guitar. If you’re a guitarist, and you want to be a great guitarist, you need to listen to Knopfler’s playing and learn the licks, even if you never admit to anyone where you got them from.
#9 The Bee Gees
Not a rock band, you say? The Bee Gees may be best known for Saturday Night Fever, and they mastered funk like no other British band, but they started out as a rock band and remained one, deep down, throughout their collective career. If in doubt, watch some YouTube clips of them playing, and see the way they related to each other on stage.
#8 Status Quo
Status Quo were the butt of most of the rock band jokes during the 70s. They were steady as a rock, tight, and delivered a sound which every guitarist of that era has tried to emulate at some point.
#7 The Police
Strangely, The Police have remained bright while Dire Straits has gone out of fashion. Some would call them pop, largely because they made it in the top ten charts, but you don’t have to listen very hard to Stuart Copeland’s rhythmic sophistication and Andy Summers’s highly experimental guitar work — he was one of the UK pioneers of Roland guitar synths — to hear that this was a true rock band, creating original music with consummate musicianship. And, crucially, the album title and cover of Ghost in the Machine was intellectually and visually absolutely in the main stream of rock.
#6 Fleetwood Mac
Yes, they were a UK band, even if they eventually found their way to California. You can’t listen to Rumours without still hearing and feeling the raw anger and musical genius. The BBC wisely returned to the Chain when they reacquired the rights to broadcast Formula 1.
#5 The Rolling Stones
Some would put them higher, but the Stones never really did it for me. They epitomise the rock and roll lifestyle in every possible way, and continue to inspire the next generation.
Queen. Well, quite. They more or less invented pop video with Bohemian Rhapsody, combined unforgettable song writing and deep musical sophistication with lyrics which were beyond challenging in their day. And they even made it onto the O-level music syllabus.
#3 Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd had everything, but they couldn’t hang on to all of it at any one time, at least, not personnel-wise. Nonetheless, they continued to turn out completely conceived albums, with amazing cover art, from the beginning of the golden age of rock till well into its twilight.
#2 The Who
If you watch CSI, you’ve heard The Who. Somehow, when everything else has gone in and out of fashion, The Who still sound raw, angry, and fit to inspire new musicians.
#1 Led Zeppelin.
Quite probably the world’s greatest rock band, unless you consider #0 to be rock rather than pop. There is something unrepeatably raw about every Zeppelin album up to and including Physical Graffiti. Presence then took us into another world of after-midnight blues (and it had a really terrible album cover), and In Through The Outdoor was entirely its own thing, with one of the best album covers (in three parts) ever.
#0 The Beatles
The 0th place is the Beatles. No list of the best bands could fail to include them. Were they a rock band? Or a pop band? Or were they the beginning of the golden age of rock, before the distinction ever existed. They were never on my radar as far as rock is concerned. Some people say that Sgt. Pepper’s was the definitive rock album, but, for me, it didn’t have the musical virtuosity that Pink Floyd, the Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix had marked on the map by 1967 when the album was released. Of course, I was only 1 years old at the time, so what do I know?
Not on the list, because…
Well, because he was American. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was nominally a UK band, but everyone knows he was American. Just look at the outfits.
The Yardbirds and their offspring: Jeff Beck, Cream, Eric Clapton
The Yardbirds and Cream were tremendously influential in their time, but somehow didn’t cross over into the consciousness of the next generation. Ask a teenager today, and they are very well informed if they’ve heard of them at all.
Great bands, just not as great as the ones on the list. Black Sabbath were mainly known for their outrageousness, including Ozzy (allegedly) biting the heads off chickens and (even more allegedly) getting rabies from one of them (unlikely). Deep Purple was treading in waters already parted by Zeppelin. Uriah Heep were too organ based and lacked a distinctive lead guitar. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Motorhead — all still treading in Zeppelin territory.