Did you know that every four-and-a-half minutes, a band covers a Led Zeppelin song? I don't have hard scientific facts to back this up, but as soon as I apply for a grant for funding, I'll be conducting a study and I'll get back to you on that. At this point, it's just my theory. And if you doubt me, just check in with Wikipedia every few minutes and time the updates.
So I can't put down Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World's Greatest Rock Band, by Barney Hoskyns, even though it weighs about three pounds. I never saw Zeppelin in their heyday because I was too young, but then along came adolescence and I was ready for them—and how. Zeppelin in the early 70s was like testosterone turned to a million, and all the kids knew it. Especially the kids across America, living in the suburbs and hanging out at the mall because there was nothing else to do. And they took to the full-frontal assault of Zeppelin like hormone-driven ducks to psychedelic, blues-based, whiskey-laced water. Eventually, I moved away from my suburb, landing in San Francisco in 1982, where the only bands that admitted to liking Zeppelin were extremely ironic about it. It was like liking Elvis. You had to do it on the down-low, until a second revival came along.
Unfortunately, the oral history of Led Zeppelin, has me really disturbed. It's such a dark tale of excess and debauchery, skidding down a twisted mountain road, like a good dream gone bad. Literally mountains of cocaine in hotel rooms full of underage girls getting assaulted with mud sharks. It's just super-over-the-top (that's why I can't put it down). You can definitely see why The Ramones and their ilk came along in the late 70s. Everyone had had just about enough of nine-minute guitar solos and musicians assaulting their drums-techs at that point. It was like rock 'n roll class warfare and the guys living in the castles surrounded by moats full of black swans were on the outs.
But look at all their songs—there's so many of them! When you have four musical geniuses in a band, that will happen. The obvious guitar god and satanic master, Jimmy Page. The jazz-rock-funk stylings of impossible-to-fathom how-he-did-it-night-after-night, John Bonham, And secret-weapon John Paul Jones, arranging compositions behind the scenes, never losing his cool, even among the mud sharks (he was probably out at a movie that night). And of course, the lightness and brightness that is wailing, Tolkien-loving Robert Plant. The refrain heard over and over in the oral history is that everyone in Led Zeppelin, as individuals, were "nice" and "decent" guys. It was when the band, their management, the intrepid groupies, and drug cronies got together that hell was unleashed.
Just a potent, stinking brew of too much of everything bad from that time: sexual exploitation and extreme sexism, nasty and damaging drugs, sycophants as far as the eye could see, managers threatening physical violence, a drummer who actually resorted to physical violence on more than one occasion, car accidents, broken homes, and tragically, lives cut short. All the initial good vibes dissipated. At least there's still the music.
Sandie Shaw - "Your Time is Gonna Come." This came out in 1969, making it probably the first and oldest Led Zeppelin cover. The British didn't immediately take to Zeppelin the way Americans did. But among musicians, there was eventually (grudging) respect. This cover shows nothing but respect. Sandie Shaw has got it going on.
Sly & Robbie - "D'Yer Mak'er," from their sadly out-of-print album, "The Rhythm Remains the Same: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin."
Michael Winslow , the man of 10,000 sound effects, covers "Whole Lotta Love" with only acoustic guitar for accompaniment. The rest of the song in its entirety is from HIS VOICE. I don't know what he's doing. I only know he is a magician. The real kind.
Ween reveals their sensitive side while covering "All of my Love."
Lydia Lunch - "In My Time of Dying." Zeppelin brings out the Gothic blues vibe in the usually very urban-underground Lunch.
Here's a treat. Lady Gaga covering "D'yer Mak'er" in a nondescript cafe from down the street, Man, she looks...really different. Generally this is the Zeppelin cover for wimps, but she rocks it.
When the world was ready for a cover of "Dazed and Confused" in Chinese, Bongwater was there to answer the call. This was in 1988, when we were all still coming to terms with our Led Zeppelin fixation, and our fading youth.
A Perfect Circle - "When the Levee Breaks." Perhaps the ultimate in wimpy Zeppelin covers, but very lovely and atmospheric. Obviously, the whole deal is to take one of the hardest rocking songs ever, about the possibility of a horrific natural and man-made disaster about to hit the entire Mississippi delta region, and make it sound like something to listen to while sipping fine cognac on your yacht along the French Riviera. Bravo.
Rasputina - "Rock and Roll." Rasputina is a genuinely weird situation. They're not trying to weird you out. They just will weird you out. I admire and respect that in a band.
You didn't think I'd leave out "Stairway to Heaven," did you? Due to overplay and the constant threat of ear-worming, I would have. But then Heart came along in 2012 with Jason Bonham on drums, and covered it so beautifully at the Kennedy Center Honors show. Everyone was there! The Obamas were there! The Foo Fighters were there! Lenny Kravitz was there! Kid Rock—you better believe he was there! And most importantly, the remaining members of Led Zeppelin showed up.
Robert Plant got teary during this cover, and every time I watch this, I can't help but tear up as well. It builds so beautifully, like great opera, but with rock drumming. There's a full choral group, all wearing derby hats. And as far as I'm concerned, Heart is the ultimate Led Zeppelin tribute band. They seemingly cover Zeppelin ALL THE TIME. They have the technical prowess, along with the true love and gut feeling for the music. So, let us not avoid Stairway to Heaven, if it can indeed still move us to some sort of hormone-induced, mysterious rapture.