According to legend, Led Zeppelin was named, inadvertently, by drummer Keith Moon of the Who. This was in the fall of 1968, when guitarist Jimmy Page was trying to regroup after the demise of the Yardbirds. Hearing of Page's plans to build a band around session arranger John Paul Jones and a couple of unknowns from the Midlands, singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, Moon laughed that the project would go over, not like a lead balloon, but worse -- like a lead zeppelin.
Prophecy was not one of Moon's strong suits.
Led Zeppelin was anything but a flop. Its audience was one of the largest and most loyal in popular music, its tours the biggest and best-attended, its songs the most-played on album rock radio. Between Page's thundering guitar and Plant's banshee wail, the band invoked a menacing glory previously unheard in rock and roll, and by the time Led Zep disbanded, after Bonham's death in 1980, it had left a legacy that would define the sound of hard rock for years to come.
Even more impressive has been the way Led Zeppelin's influence has endured. There have been plenty of tributes on the hard rock side, from faithful remakes like Heart's cover of "Rock and Roll" to outright imitations like Kingdom Come's 1988 hit, "Get It On."
But the shadow Led Zeppelin cast stretched even to funk, punk and rap circles. Chic drummer Tony Thompson confessed that he grew up playing along with Led Zeppelin albums, while Led Zep riffs have been sampled onto albums by rappers Schoolly D and the Beastie Boys. Even Nirvana owned up, including a tune called "Aero Zeppelin" on its current album, "Incesticide."
No wonder, then, that Zep-alike projects have been a hot ticket for most of the last decade. But none has inspired quite as much excitement and anticipation as Coverdale/Page, the new group fronted by Page and former Whitesnake singer David Coverdale. That the fans expect this group to sound a lot like Led Zeppelin goes without saying; after all, Whitesnake owed its greatest success to the Robert Plant impression Coverdale offered on 1987's "Heat of the Night," and we all know Page's claim to fame.
And "Coverdale/Page" (Geffen 24487, in stores Tuesday) more than lives up to those expectations. It isn't totally Zeppelinesque -- "Take a Look at Yourself" is cut from the same cloth as Whitesnake ballads like "Here I Go Again," while "Feeling Hot" sounds more like bad-imitation Foreigner -- but most of the songs capture the Led Zep sound quite handily, from Coverdale's hormonal holler in "Waiting on You" to the ear-crushing riffs Page spins into "Whisper a Prayer for the Dying."
What exactly do we mean, though, by calling this music Zeppelinesque? Most bands that have traded on a Zep-style sound have done so by evoking specific memories -- as with Kingdom Come's play on the hypnotic pulse of "Kashmir" in "Get It On," say, or the way "Heat of the Night" recalled the stop-time stomp of "Black Dog."
But the songs on "Coverdale/Page" are seldom so obvious. Nor is it simply a matter of dropping Page-ian guitar licks onto a
heavy rock rhythm track; were that the case, both Page's last band, the Firm, and his 1988 solo album, "Outrider," would doubtless have been far more successful than either was.
No, what makes "Coverdale/Page" so convincing is that it plays off the same vocabulary and dynamic that drove the original Led Zeppelin. And what that boils down to has less to do with specific licks than with a generalized approach, one that blends seemingly disparate styles into an unexpectedly potent whole.
Start with "Shake My Tree," the song that opens "Coverdale/Page." Although the basic feel is blues-based, with a pleasant tension between the country-blues groove of the acoustic guitar parts and the heavy metal crunch of the electric, what gives the song its flavor is the way Page's opening riff
seems to add a Middle-Eastern flavor to the music, as if he were arriving at the Mississippi Delta by way of Cairo.
Then there's the Page-ian studio polish -- touches like the slow flange that turns Coverdale's rasp into something as dark and chewy as caramel. Add in the way Denny Carmassi's drums kick the beat along with just enough hesitation to make the groove truly sleazy, and "Shake My Tree" has become the sort of blues rocker that touches on all the style's strengths while resolutely avoiding its worst cliches.
Likewise, it's easy to hear how the 12-string strum at the beginning of "Pride and Joy" filters the bouncy cadences of old-timey blues through the folkie sensibility of pickers like Bert Jansch before cutting loose with the thunderous attack of the full band. It's a classic Led Zep move, and seems all the more familiar thanks to the push-and-pull of Carmassi's drumming. By the time Coverdale says "So I can see where I'm going, baby" in a perfect, Plant-ian deadpan as Page and Carmassi lock into an acoustic guitar and kickdrum stomp, most listeners will already be deep into deja vu -- or would that be deja ecoute?
And on it goes, drawing us ever deeper into Zeppelin-isms, from the slow, spooky, mellotron moan of "Over Now" (shades of "Kashmir"!) to the eerie atmospherics that preface "Absolution Blues" (echoes of "In the Evening"!). All told, this stuff is perfect insta-Zep, ready-made for classic rock radio programmers.
But is being Zeppelinesque the same thing as being another Led Zeppelin? Not really. And in an odd way, the most unconvincing aspect of Coverdale/Page's sound is that it's so ersatz -- that the group is aiming for something specific, rather than following its instincts.
That's what Led Zeppelin did, and that's why those original records remain so resonant and distinctive. Led Zep didn't imitate anyone, remember; even its most blatant blues cops transformed the material, taking it to another level entirely.
And as such, no matter how enjoyable the band's albums might be, it's hard to imagine Coverdale/Page ever becoming as vital and exciting as Led Zeppelin was. Because the original Led Zep was always ahead of the curve, and there's no room for safety or nostalgia out there.