Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Trout Mask Replica”

Album cover for Trout Mask Replica

This week, I’ve been listening to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s double-LP “Trout Mask Replica” from 1969. This album challenges the listener’s sensibilities and understanding of musical conventions. From the start of the first track, “Frownland,” the first-time listener will question the judgement of those who consider this to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My first encounter with this album came from a girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. It was awful and offensive. Either I was an idiot or she was putting one over one me. I gave it a couple more tries and gave up. So here I am, two decades later, devoting time to it because it is a great album. Do I love it now? No, but I do appreciate it and even enjoy parts of it in doses.

The verb “experiment” means to try something for the purpose of discovery. This generally implies doing something in some way different from what one normally does. The outcome is unknown. A question beginning with “What would happen if…” prompts an experiment. Then depending on the outcome, you might alter the act for future experiments. As the outcome becomes less unknown, the act becomes less of an experiment and more of a practice. This album is the result of experiments with breaking the conventions of rock music. Living together in California, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) ruthlessly led his band of musicians like a cult leader. His methods challenged the established rules of rock as well the ethics of management. That’s another topic though.

Dachau Blues

The third track “Dachau Blues” grabbed my interest first. Yes, the song does follow some blues structure, but it’d be a stretch to call it a blues song. Beefheart’s vocals stand out in front, with the band mixed relatively low. The guitars and dry drums create a near chaotic background for the anti-war lyrics. They choose the location of Nazi concentration camp from World War II to tell how frightened children look up to the adults to not repeat the horrors of war.

The song demonstrates little relationship between accompaniment and vocals. Even though the guitars start with a jagged rhythm for the first chorus, they seem to dissolve into apparently improvised melodic riffs. The percussion and guitars fall in and out of rhythm with each other. Then a saxophone screams in competition with the spoken lyrics. There’s a mixture of intention and accident throughout the album. These glimpses into the process remind us of the importance of the process. I’m also reminded of the Beatnik notion that the unedited thought is more pure and loses something through revision. Yet, we know that Captain Beefheart and his magic band practiced and practiced these songs. The loose chaos didn’t come easy.

Pachuco Cadaver

Before the music starts, the Captain shares some nonsensical wisdom: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” There’s some underlying logical to the nonsense written by Captain Beefheart, perhaps. He has a great taste for the vocabulary of unusual, using these words to paint a surreal story world. Elements of this world are returned to throughout the album, feeling more like consistency than repetition. The lyrics of “Pachuco Cadaver” present the vignette of an attractive Latina-American woman, like a bizarre version of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.

“Pachuco Cadaver” stands out on the album as being one of the few songs with a stand-out guitar riff that repeats in different parts of the song. The accompaniment even builds up to it as it evolves out of a primordial groove. At times, it is hinted at, muted, then devolves into arhythmic strumming. Then it appears, nearly rocking, as the Captains says, “her lovin’ makes me so happy…”

When she walks, flowers surround her
Let their nectar come in to the air around her
She loves her love sticks out like stars
Her lovin’ stick out like stars

Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin (I)”

Cover of Led Zeppelin's debut album

This week, I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut LP from 1969 that introduced the world to their unique blend of hard blues rock. While I’ve known their fourth album my whole life and a few of their other albums since I was a teenager, I somehow missed most of their first. Most of my punk-rock friends shrugged off Zeppelin as the hippie-rock of their parents. Yet, my parents didn’t listen to them beyond a few songs on Led Zeppelin IV like “Stairway to Heaven.” The punk rejection is kind of funny considering how album’s “Communication Breakdown” influenced much of the Ramones. Still, punk rejected what they saw as excessive moments of showy musicianship that Zeppelin were already demonstrating on this first album.

Jimmy Page formed the band after years of impressive work as a session musician and a short period with the Yardbirds. He pulled together singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, who previously worked together in the short-lived Band of Joy. Fellow session-musician John Paul Jones joined the Page’s Led Zeppelin to play bass and organ. At first named The New Yardbirds, they changed their name to Led Zeppelin after Keith Moon’s joke that they would go over like a lead balloon.

Good Times Bad Times

The album opens with “Good Times Bad Times,” which was also their first single. From the first 15 seconds of full-band double-stabs, it’s clear that Led Zeppelin intends to be big and loud. Then with the first line of vocals, the drums begin pounding, explosive and rolling. John Bonham dances all over the drums keeping a constant rocking texture going throughout. Considering his heroes included star jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, it’s no surprise that Bonham would use so many fills. This is no simple 4/4 drum pattern and, like Keith Moon, he’s not afraid to hit the cymbals. Page continues the double-stab pattern, but fills the space between with grooving blues riffs.

Page and Zeppelin build most of their songs around riffs. So, we hear usually hear a 1 or 2 bar rocking guitar riff that gets repeated throughout a verse, and then a different riff in the same family for the chorus. He frequently livens up these repetitions with variation through adding or switching a note, as well as bending notes. The bass either plays in unison or a separate riff that provides counter-balance rhythmically and tonally. Rarely is anybody in the band playing something simple. There’s lot of movement and action throughout these recordings.

Of course, I love the lead guitar that was played through a Leslie speaker. I love a rotating speaker when used on guitar, organ, or really anything else. It brings a great life to Page’s solo, that honestly it didn’t need, but help bring it forward. This is likely also accomplished through combination of the hi-mid frequency boost of the horn speaker as well as perhaps a boost pedal, which had just come out the same year.

Your Time Is Gonna Come

John Paul Jones begins “Your Time is Gonna Come” with gospel-blues-rock sounding organ. Then, Bonham kicks in the drum with a crash leading into one of his simpler drum patterns. During the coda, he kicks it up with fills every other bar and ultimately leads into pulsing patterns on the kick and toms. Page plays picked arpeggios on an acoustic guitar. Plant sings folk-blues inspired verse, leading into a soulful chorus of “Your time is gonna come.” In this song, it’s not a good time, but rather he’s warning a woman that has broken his heart that she will some day experience the same. There’s not a lot of rhyming here; they don’t shy from it, but they don’t enforce any sort of pattern.

Made up my mind to break you this time
Won’t be so fine, it’s my turn to cry
Do what you want, I won’t take the brunt
It’s fading away, can’t feel you anymore
Don’t care what you say cause I’m going away to stay
Going to make you pay for that great big hole in my heart
People talking all around
Watch out woman, no longer is the joke gonna be on my heart
You been bad to me woman, but it’s coming back home to you

How Many More Times

The longest and most epic complex song of the album, “How Many More Times” closes the second side. Throughout its 8½ minutes, the band takes us through several rounds of twists and turns. There are times it begins to feel like a freeform jam, but they know what they are doing and where they are going. The band brought together several unused song ideas that Page had written from previous years into a coherent whole. The transitions from section to section work perfectly, especially by the occasional reintroduction of the opening blues-rock riff that reminds the listener where we came from.

Page makes frequent use of a wah pedal on much of the lead guitar. Sometimes he uses it in the “half-cocked” position which causes the pedal to act as a high-frequency boost. He also creates otherworldly effects by playing the guitar with a large bow. This song, in addition to musically interesting interplay of bands as well as unison stabs.. provides a fascinating set of examples of early effects on electric guitar.

There’s a lot that I love about this album, even if the focus on blues-inspired hard rock is not necessarily my favorite. I like when they get more into psychedelic territory like Led Zeppelin III or Physical Graffiti. However, what I really love about this album is the sound of it. Rotating speakers, a variety of expert guitar sounds, the big complex drums, the rolling bass, and the occasional use of organ.

Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain”

Prince Purple Rain album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Prince and the Revolution’s album “Purple Rain” from 1984. As a listener, I know few albums more than this one. I was seven years old when it came out; My teenage aunt was a big fan and I really got into Prince through her. About this time, I told her that I wanted to grow up to be a rock star like Prince or Michael Jackson. that I wanted My mom bought the record and I recall I was NOT allowed to listen to “Darling Nikki.” That’s the song that pushed Tipper Gore to start the PMRC, which lead to the Parental Advisory stickers on albums.

About five months ago, I spent time with “Sign O’ The Times” and I was not particularly impressed. Many authoritative voices praise “Sign O’ The Times” higher than “Purple Rain” and I absolutely disagree. “Purple Rain” is a wholly conceived and beautifully performed and recorded funk pop-rock album. Even though this album has been endless played and has influenced so much that came after, it still maintains a fresh sense of risky inventiveness and stellar musicianship across the board. 

I like to choose three songs from each album to look at specifically; this was not an easy task for “Purple Rain,” but ‘et’s get to it.

The seventh track “I would Die 4 U” opens with a high note, presumably on bass guitar. This leads to a pulsating synth line that plays the rhythmic role often assumed by the hi-hat, giving the song a 16th note disco feel. I believe this is also doubled by a hi-hat sound (likely from Prince’s favorite drum machine, the LM-1). This keeps a gentle sense of urgency throughout the song, only broken for a few seconds before the coda. The lines of “I would Die 4 U” become a chant towards the end, especially during live performances.

As good as the music is, the lyrics are daring and unusual. On one hand, the song comes across as a love song, with a chorus repeating, “I would die for you, Darling, if you want me to.” However, this idea of being so devoted to a lover that you would sacrifice your own life is paralleled with images of Jesus Christ. He opens the song with the memorable, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.” An fitting line from a man whose androgynous personality was amplified for the stage, making many 80s parents uncomfortable. 

Then later, he explains that’s not “your lover” or “your friend,” but rather “your messiah and you’re the reason why.” It’s difficult to say if Prince is proclaiming himself to be a messiah, saying that his sense of devotion in love is like that of a messiah, or speaking from the perspective of a love-god concept. This ambiguity leaves the song open to multiple interesting interpretations, but the subject matter begs interpretation. I don’t think he means this in a martyr sort of why, but rather the speaker is the listener’s messiah, because the listener is worthy of a messiah. Or as he says later on, “All I really need is to know that you believe.”

The hit song “When Doves Cry” remained in the number 1 spot for 5 weeks becoming the top-selling single of the year. This song, too, is full of unusual lyrics for a pop song; again with a thread of ambiguity. The verses dream of idyllic love between the speaker and the listener; in contrast, the chorus speak of how they fight. But look at how they conflicts are addressed: the speaker assumes responsibility and looks for answers in their upbringing:

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding.
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold.
Maybe you’re just like my mother:
She’s never satisfied.
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry.

The album closes with its title track “Purple Rain.”  The song combines stylistic elements of rock, gospel, soul, and blues. It carries the audience along at a slow tempo: just under one beat per second. To simplify it, the chord progression is a I-vi-V-IV (coincidentally the first four chords of a circle-of-fifths progression). From what I’ve found online, it’s a little more like a I9-vi7-V-IV (or more precisely Iadd9-vi7add11-V-IV)

As we also know, the song bears a resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” which had an earlier release date. I do not know if it is certain if Prince drew inspiration from “Faithfully” or it was a coincidence; apparently Prince was a fan of Journey guitarist Neil Schon and called Journey to get their OK due to the similarity.  The songs share the I-vi-V-IV chord and similar endings.

In my twenties, I also did a lot of home recordings using a Tascam portastudio. I frequently found my way of thinking about starting and ending albums resembled the construction of this album. The song “Purple Rain” launches into a heartbreakingly affirming solo full of atmosphere and then drifts off into lingering strings. And this closes the album. I’ve always felt that was so perfectly beautiful and effective.

The Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet”

Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones album “Beggars Banquet” from 1968. This is the third of their albums I’ve had for my weekly albums. “Exile on Main Street” and “Let It Bleed” each had their turn earlier this year. As I mentioned before, I chose the Beatles over the Stones when I was young. However, I feel for “Exile on Main Street” pretty hard when I was about 30 years old. There’s some tremendous cuts on “Beggars Banquet” as well. I’ve heard several of them over the  years, especially “Sympathy for the Devil.” But now some of the whole album has grown on me and some of these songs are now great favorites.

The famously controversial cover image of a bathroom wall, includes some graffiti that says, among other things “Bob Dylans Dream” with an arrow pointing to the toilet handle. I wonder if this is a joke on Dylan’s line “the pump don’t work, because the vandals took the handle” that closes his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Either way, the mention of Dylan is importantly telling; These Rolling Stones songs frequently offer snapshots of contemporary society and culture in a rather Dylan way. Also, musically the way they strum the acoustic guitar in some of these songs shows that they’ve been listening to some of this recordings.

“Jigsaw Puzzle” provides a more obvious example of Dylan’s influence on the Stones. Acoustic guitar strums repeats a V-IV-II-I chord progression four times for the verse, and then plays I-II-IV-V-V-IV-IV-V for each chorus. A bright slide-guitar manically slides up the neck mimicking the slide guitar in Dylan’s song “Highway 61 Revisited.

I enjoy how they play these verses. All instruments except drums and bass rest during the first line, and then each guitar comes back in as the verse progresses to the chorus. This gives the feeling of rising intensity. In this way, also, they treat the chorus more as a refrain in the balladry tradition than as a rock n roll chorus. Though the lines incorporate some rhyme, they don’t follow a strict rhyme scheme as Dylan would; They frequently abandon rhyme altogether.

The lyrics paint short vignettes of characters walking about in the world of the song, as often seen in Dylan songs, especially “Desolation Row.”  There’s the story of so many things going on in the world: issues, conflicts, corruptions, etc.  These are vague passing references to the sociopolitical climate, like skimming newspaper headlines when you just want to read the comics. The speaker is cut-off from these other characters and their interactions with each other. He’s just “trying to do [his] jigsaw puzzle.” However, though they incorporate some rhyme, 

There’s a tramp sitting on my doorstep
Trying to waste his time
With his methylated sandwich
He’s a walking clothesline
And here comes the bishop’s daughter
On the other side
She looks a trifle jealous
She’s been an outcast all her life
Me, I’m waiting so patiently
Lying on the floor
I’m just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle
Before it rains anymore

The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” remains one of the most undeniable recordings of the 1960s. In addition to the amazing music and performance, the song features great lyrics about the evil running through history and culture. This week, I also watch the not-so-good documentary by Godard, “Sympathy for the Devil” which follows the band through the development of the song. I can’t recommend the movie, but it was neat to see them recording early versions of the song before they knew how they were going to play it.

The verses follow I-II-IV-I chord progression. The choruses rises up to V-I-V-I.  For the first verse, the piano plays chords on the first beat of each measure, along with the bass playing the root note. With the second verse, the bass picks up more of a driving shuffling rhythm, still mostly on the root note of each chord. With each verse, the piano gets more active with great rhythm-and-blues rhythms. This is all accompanied by layers of Latin rhythms played with a variety of hand percussion. 

After the second chorus, vocals repeating a “hoo-hoo” chant continue through the rest of the song. These backing vocals sing the tonic chord I throughout the verses. They change only for the chorus, rising up to the V chord along with the rest of the accompaniment. I’m not really sure why, but this chant contributes to the driving feel of the song.

A menacingly sharp electric guitar solo plays during after the third chorus. This overdubbed guitar sits right in front, fuzzed and bright. While it’s definitely a blues-inspired solo, it mixes held notes with staccato stops. With the lack of reverb or delay, the rests are hard and just as cutting as when the guitar plays notes. 

“Street Fighting Man” may be the song I played the most this week. It makes uses of the typical three rock chords, though the order is sort of flipped for the verses. Normally we’d see a I-IV progression, but instead these verses have IV-IV-IV-I, even though the intro gives us I-IV. The chorus changes key to the V of the original key for a I-I-I-V chord progression in the new key. These leads to a post-chorus that rather-floats on the II chord (V of the new key) of the original key to drop back to the original key.

The song opens with Keith banging out the chords on an acoustic guitar in one channel. He famously acquired the sound by recording the guitar on a portable tape cassette recorder.  The guitar was too loud for the little machine, overloading the mic input, the tape, or probably both. This serendipitously created a warmly distorted acoustic guitar. This is joined by a more cleanly recorded acoustic guitar in the left channel. There’s later some great subtle play back and forth between these two guitars.

The drums play a strong simple beat, emphasizing the 2nd and 4th beat like a march to accompany lines like the opening “Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet, boy.” The verse and choruses are rocking, hard, and driving. They create this force with double-tracked acoustic guitars, hard-driving drums, rolling piano, and a simple-yet-effective bass guitar line. The post-chorus adds contrast with sitar and syncopated melodic piano creating a floating feeling, as the song finds its way back to the tonic.

Well now, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man, no.

EDIT: Updated the embedded videos, as ABKCO records just posted some great lyric videos on youtube.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland”

This week, I’ve been listening to the 1968 album “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. About six months ago, I spent time with their first album “Are you Experienced?” That album was released just 17 months before this, their third and final album.

They certainly evolved over this short period of time. While I truly enjoyed their debut album, I absolutely loved this one. The first album was more of a psychedelic blues rock. This album takes that sound and launches into the stratosphere, pushing the experimental psychedelic elements. They’ve also folded in some ingredient of soul and funk.

The album opens with intro track  “And the Gods Made Love” which is some slowed down stuff. It’s kind of neat the first couple times and then I found it annoying. I wanted to talk here about the first real song 
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” but I like to include a video link of the songs here and it’s not available on YouTube. Anyway, it is a great track and from the first thirty seconds, I knew I was going to love the album. It’s opens as a rather soulful funk-aware R&B song. Strange things are happening with the rhythms as the song seems to swirl upon itself. Experimental yet immediately accessible.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded a fantastic cover of Bob Dylan‘s song “All Along the Watchtower” for this album. From what I’ve read, Hendrix got ahold of Dylan recording pretty early and liked this song immediately. The Experience worked on their cover for a few months and it was released within a year of Dylan’s original.  As great as Dylan’s lyrics are, the incredible soundscape of Hendrix’s version towers above the words. I know many of the words, but don’t really know what the song is about because what’s happening musically is so amazing. The verses serve more as passing narrative between the real action: Jimi’s lead guitar. 

A twelve-string acoustic guitar strums the chords throughout the song simply.  The lead guitar gives the track much of its psychedelic blues rock flavor. Jimi’s plays his stratocaster through a chorus and fuzz, with expressive filter modulation provided by a wah pedal. This sound of this combination of guitar and effects is all over the album. To see how the wah pedal is used to create these sounds, check out this excellent video by fuzzfaceexp. Some additional use of delay provides depth to the leads as well.

Another great song is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” towards the end of the album. Again, the track mostly provides a space for Jimi’s chorus-fuzz-wah lead guitar to soar into wildly expressive explorations of sound. This starts with the opening measures, one of the Hendrix’s most famous riffs. One that I, unfortunately must admit, first hear in middle school as sampled in a 2 Live Crew song. The Hendrix track has a marvelously live jam quality to it; Even though it features use of overdubbing additional tracks, it was initially created as a jam.

I continue my complaint about the Jimi Hendrix Experience and overuse of stereo panning as an effect. Sometimes it adds something to a song, but mostly I find it annoying and distracting. Better, I feel to use panning of a delay effect, but that may not have been as readily an option as it is today.

Overall, I loved the album “Electric Ladyland.” There’s more playful experimentation than found on “Are You Experienced?” as well as a greater sense of skill and experience with their direction and recording.  Great album.

Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”

Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Each Bob Dylan album so far has been monstrously impressive from a songwriting perspective. His skill to employ metaphor within narrative songs that utilize rhyme is astounding. For me, this album is right up there with “Blonde on Blonde” and I can’t get enough of it now that I’ve spent a week with it.

Finger-picked blues guitar drives the track “Meet Me in the Morning.” At first, I didn’t care for this song due to its repetitive nature. A twelve bar blues progression (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I) provides foundation upon which Dylan sings lyrics that follow the twelve-bar blues blues format of one line repeated twice, then a line in response. Like much of the album, the lyrics deal with a struggling relationship.

The first verse opens with the title “Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha. Honey, we could be in Kansas by the time the snow begins to thaw.” I’m not sure why they are meeting to travel, except perhaps as a change of scenery or escape. The next verse tells how some say it’s darkest before the dawn, but the singer is always dark. But, when the morning rooster crows in the third verse, the singer feels mistreated by his lover. He feels persecuted and trapped, and wonders if the love was a curse. “Look at the sun sinking like a ship. Ain’t that just like my heart, babe, When you kissed my lips?”

I loved this catchy song by the end of the week. I like the layers of multiple guitars.  In the right channel , a bright acoustic guitar plays rhythm-lead lines. A fuzzy slide guitar soaked in reverb provides some atmosphere in the background. Another acoustic guitar quietly strums the chords. And yet clean electric guitar joins later to pick some lead lines and also gets in conversation with the fuzz guitar during the outro.

Also, I find it impossible to not sing along to the mellow grooving bassline.

On “Shelter From the Storm,” Dylan sings tenderly of a love lost. The jangly acoustic guitar dances nervously between the bass and vocals. We hear the sound of the pick and/or guitar strap ticking and rattling against the guitar. These additional sounds of guitar-playing unintentionally provide the only percussion. This type of natural imperfections lends a sense of authenticity to the recording. The chord progression throughout is a basic I-V-IV-I, with the melody providing a sense of variation through the verses.

These are some tremendous lyrics. The song is about confusion, loss, frustrations and heartache, but he’s telling it through the sweetness and tenderness. That’s how the song manages to be so powerful.  Rather than talking so much about pain and loss, he talk about promises and what was lost. However, it’s the middle verse that puts everything in perspective.

Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

Of course, there’s layers of ambiguity here as other themes become part of the picture. Images of Christ come into play, which could embarrassingly make a martyr out of the speaker, but I prefer to avoid that interpretation.  It’s too mighty a structure of self-pity, and also would be too self-righteous in contrast to other statements in the song.

The brilliant “Tangled Up in Blue” opens the album and remained my favorite song the full week. I rather feel it’s too great of a song to be the first. The opening chords of A and Asus4 play in my head all day. The verses are in a I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I twice, followed by V-vi-I-IV twice and ends with VIIb-IV-I for the refrain of “Tangled up in blue.”

The first half of each verse is sung in a restrained back-and-forth melody, with the pitch rising for the second half. The percussion and other instruments likewise pick up in energy. This is balanced by the lower-pitched chords of E and F#m. The the refrain anchors the verse back to the tonic on “blue.” It’s interesting the use of chords for this key. The chords are more likely those of a song in the key of G, while the melody is actually in key of A.

As with the whole album, the layering and interplay of instruments is fantastic. Multiple strummed and picked acoustic guitars provide a full atmosphere of sound. Still they are mixed in a way that manages to keep things feeling stripped down.

The lyrics are the most amazing part of the song. A week definitely provides too little time to fully appreciate all he has going on here. At the very basic level, I appreciate the narrative quality of the song. Songs that tell stories, especially about characters and their relationships, get my interest. I especially appreciate tales of that touched on and lost and over-arching tales that narrow in on details. This is especially made poignant by going back to a place while accentuating the distance.

So now I’m going back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

Led Zeppelin’s IV

Led Zepplin 4 album coverI’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album from 1971. Each week I devote to an acclaimed album to learn as a songwriting musician. As with “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, I grew up hearing this Led Zeppelin album often. I imagine many of us born in the 70s did. Even with all of that exposure, it’s still a great album with surprises.

The fourth track “Stairway to Heaven” pulls together the greatest qualities of the album into one song. As an unfortunate side effect of being one of the greatest songs ever, it has become amazingly overplayed. I sigh with lack of interest when the song starts. My favorite portion of the song starts at after five and a half minutes. First, the guitars signal a transition through a dramatic series of chords sounding like horns. Jimmy Page then provides a fantastic soulful guitar solo. I like that the they did not distort the rhythm guitar to get a rocking sound. They gave it a sense of being big by double-tracking with some strong spring reverb. There, I talked about “Stairway to Heaven” mostly because I’d feel foolish not mentioning it. Seriously, I skipped it many times this week.

Four Sticks” got my attention this time around. I hadn’t given it much attention in the past, so it still had a little sense of novelty. Also, the unusual rhythm of the song intrigued me. Some research revealed that most of the song is in a very unusual 5/8 time, withe some parts in a more common 6/8. I read that the rhythm of the song was so difficult that they almost gave up on recording the song. I hear a few times on the recording that they do slip up as a result. There’s a vaguely middle-eastern feel to the music. This comes from the combination of odd time signature, droning ascending scales, driving percussion, and energetically strummed acoustics. I sometimes find that songs in odd signatures will feel like they drift or ramble, but the 6/8 sections of this song give a sense of journey.

The seventh track “Going to California” is comparable to “Stairway to Heaven” while being much better. I like the collection of acoustic guitars and mandolin creating musical textures through arpeggios. They are panned mostly hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the bass and vocals. The lyrics are more relatable than the Tolkeinesque-Rumi vagueness that happens on some of the other tracks like “Stairway.” The first verse is a pair of beautifully written narrative couplets. They get the listeners attention immediately through emotional story-telling:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.

Speaking of Tolkein, my other favorite track is “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s also something unique about the rhythm of this song. The main riff of the song, which is played on both guitar and electric piano, actually starts an 8th note before the first beat of each measure and least for a full quarter. This song provides an a great example of what I first think of as the Led Zeppelin sound. There’s big loud drums, a heavy bass bottom, a blues-inspired hard grooving guitar riff, and Plant’s high-pitched vocals. The narrative lyrics describe a situation, a certain place and time, written with an ear to both blues and high fantasy balladry.

So I’ve learned a bit about the possibilities of mixing time signatures in a song. Their use of mysticism and fantasy elements is most enjoyable for me for telling real-world narrative. In addition, the way that they double-up on instruments to strengthen a riff is very effective. And you can’t deny the power of big drums.