Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
Joni Mitchell, speaking to her audience on the rudely entitled live album Miles of Aisles, combined pretension and bad manners in equal measure when she compared her fans to poor art historians: "No one ever said to van Gogh, 'Hey, man, can you paint Starry Night again?'" Or words to that effect. It gets a laugh. But then, our Vincent was not charging large sums of money to stand at an easel in front of thousands of people in a baseball stadium. Rocker-artists Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (who will no doubt be doing the equivalent very shortly) at least have the decency to pay tribute to past classics, even as they insist that their music moves ever onward. Their MTV-derived attempt to de-Led themselves is rather like a decaffeinated, low-fat latte, which you consume only for the caffeine and the fat, but without the associated guilt.
That Led Zep played so-called "world music" was pointed out some years ago by the critic Robert Palmer (in his excellent notes to the band's four-CD boxed set). On No Quarter "Friends" has Indian strings on it and sounds like a candidate for the "world beat" rack; but then so it did on the original recording, way back in 1970. Count this track alongside the album's more predictable pleasures: like "Kashmir" (Led Zep's quintessential piece), sounding magnificent right down to the "Black Dog" refrain during the coda, and the spaced-out, dublike rendering of the terrifying title track.
The real revelation here is not the trendy world-music association (developed further still on three quite satisfactory new pieces), but Robert Plant's voice. How many times have you attempted to play Led Zep to a skeptic, only to find Plant's juvenile wailing an obstacle of such proportions that you barely even believe yourself as you point to the exquisitely funky drumming (remarkably reproduced here by Michael Lee), the rich textures, the ever-inventive riffs? The first time I heard Plant's voice, on "Immigrant Song," I thought he was an electronic synthesizer. On No Quarter he inhabits lower registers, wrenching a maturity from the old songs that we all knew to be there, but couldn't always hear. Take "Gallows Pole." This isn't quite "Murder Was the Case"--but it might be now that the overwrought singing has been toned down and the lyrics are words again, rather than hormone vehicles. Likewise "Nobody's Fault But Mine," which sounded like a Queen outtake on the 1975 album Presence; here it opens the set as a blues mutation that might have been ripped off from one of Zeppelin's insufficiently acknowledged inspirations of color. On "Since I've Been Loving You," our Robert sounds as if he finally knows what it means to do a hard day's work. I listened to the words for the first time ever.
Led Zep always were modernists. They were never bluespersons (not cartoonists like the Stones, nor archivists like Eric Clapton), nor even heavy metallurgists; they were always art rockers at heart, commited to a project of musical "progress." (It's no surprise that the parallel post-Zeppelin release right now is John Paul Jones collaborating with avant-diva Diamanda Galas.) No Quarter demonstrates why Led Zep matter. You can be fashionably postmodern about the idea of progress, but still you must explain how they found some new musical mileage down the lonesome road of bluster. My answer? First, they composed music that the Who and the Stones could never have imagined (remember "Continental Drift," Mick and Keef's awful stab at world music?). Second, they have done what prog rockers like Yes and Genesis and the Floyd couldn't do--they forgot their Englishness.
The critics hated Led Zep because they were pretentious and stole black music without pretending to be authentic. Then sometime around Public Image Limited's postpunk Zeppelinism, Album, critics decided they were Cool because of their pretentiousness and lack of authenticity. The truth be more conservative, as Robert and James demonstrate on No Quarter: the compositional skills on display here are simply beyond what any rock band has ever managed--prepunk, during it, or since.