Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti, Xylophones, the Creative Ethic of a Rock Band

Can we talk about this video making the rounds of social media lately?

It’s an extracurricular group of students (7 to 12 years old) in the Louisville, Kentucky, area who are called the Louisville Leopard Percussionists. It is pure joy to watch a diverse group of kids engaged in a collective effort, particularly one that comes off so marvelously. They have captured the essence of Zeppelin, the driving force of the band, and while the students have probably been told to keep a respectful composure during the performance, there are wonderful moments when their bodies betray them: the girl in the white sweater whose right leg is perpetually flexing to the beat; the upright drummer in the back right corner walloping her drums to make John Bonham smile from beyond the veil. I love, too, the girl on the crash cymbal in the background, the kids on keys in the background waving their arms to “The Ocean.” I can’t help but smile to see their smiles at the medley’s conclusion; it’s obvious the amount of dedication these kids have put into pulling this performance off. No wonder that Jimmy Page himself is the one who got the video moving around the internet this week when he promoted it on his Facebook page.

Some of these kids, of course, are at the age (or nearing it) of the universal “Led Zeppelin” phase. Didn’t we all discover Robert Plant and the boys somewhere around seventh grade? I recall returning in the team van from away baseball games and passing Zeppelin tapes back and forth. I’d hand II off to Caleb and in return I’d get In Through the Out Door, popping it into my Walkman. There wasn’t much talking on those rides; just a lot of staring out the window at the passing trees, nodding heads at a certain groove, pressing rewind to hear a lyric or guitar riff again. But I think I can speak for many when I admit that when I first discovered Led Zeppelin, it wasn’t because of some deep artistic merit I found in their music. It was, simply, that the music rocked. It pulled no punches. It was raunchy in a way that my dad’s Motown never was; it was sloppy in a way that the Beatles never were. I took the music as a whole because of some overarching un-nameable thing those songs did for me, not because of some intricate melodic structure or unique production: I wasn’t parsing those details; probably, cognitively, at that age, I wasn’t even capable of such deep analysis.

Which brings me back to this video. What struck me about “Kashmir,” “The Ocean,” and “Immigrant Song” played by these kids – what went beyond their putting a smile on my face – was what Led Zeppelin on xylophone revealed to me about the intricacies of their music. Listen to the layers of notes and tempo in the descending riff on “Kashmir,” or the various moving parts in the bridge for “The Ocean.” Listen to that remarkable dissonance in the middle of the “Immigrant Song” riff. It’s complex music (rendered clearer for me through different instrumentation), a statement that probably is obvious to many people, but certainly wasn’t to my seventh-grade ears. It’s also easy to overlook, this far removed from the early 70s, just how groundbreaking the music was. After all, with “Immigrant Song” in 1970, we’re only 3 years removed from this. Even to my twenty-something ears, when I began to build my vinyl collection and would put on Physical Graffiti on a breezy summer day, it wasn’t because John Paul Jones’ electric piano work on “Down by the Seaside” is incredibly detailed but because that electric piano and that bowed run up the neck created an aura I was looking for. I will always be enamored of Led Zeppelin’s music because of that transcendent quality in many of their songs: who isn’t whisked away to some dry desert land by “Kashmir?” But this xylophone troupe from Kentucky has deconstructed the music for me, giving me a deeper appreciation of the craft behind Led Zeppelin’s songs.

Simultaneous to Page posting this video to his Facebook (the performance was actually recorded last fall) is the reissue of Physical Graffiti on the fortieth anniversary of its original release. Jimmy Page is in the process of remastering each Zeppelin album, and each reissue is accompanied by a companion disc featuring demos, outtakes, and works in progress. It’s a rare glimpse into the craft of writing music. As Page mentions in a recent interview with Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen at NPRMusic, there was an incredible dedication to craft among the Zeppelin four, and many wanna-be rockers these days are probably naïve to the amount of work necessary to create something truly lasting. (This brings to mind two standout albums from the past two years: Lost in the Dream, which the War on Drugs labored over for an additional year after finishing the recordings of the initial tracks; and The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, released four years after Neko Case’s previous album and the creation of which NPR documented.) Page and the boys have in the past guarded the Zeppelin vaults tightly, so this gush of behind-the-scenes takes is welcomed for a few reasons: it’s ostensibly new Zeppelin music, but it’s also a fuller document of the evolution of arguably one of the five most important bands in rock history. My sense is that similar to the Beatles’ Anthology, these companion discs will not serve so much as a new listening experience but as a textbook. I can envision a music professor using the early takes of what would become “In the Light” to demonstrate the craft of making music, much in the way that early drafts of Blood Meridian, for example, reveal much about Cormac McCarthy’s process and the novel’s evolution.

I must say, as well, that I appreciate the way in which Page is going about this process. It feels more organic and more artistically creative than the way the Beatles rolled out their Anthology. Look, for example, at Page’s recently-published photographic autobiography, so compelling and original in its format. With these releases, I have found a new appreciation for Jimmy Page. I was always a John Paul Jones fan; something in me wanted to rebel against the over-popularity of Page and Plant – their ostentation (c.f. Plant’s Zoso versus Jones’ un-ostentatious symbol); I liked the guy moving the levers in the shadows of the others, truly keeping the whole (air)ship afloat. With the preponderance of electric piano, organ, mellotron and other keys on the tracks, I always thought of Physical Graffiti as Jones’s record: a statement to his importance in the band. Page’s reissues, though, as well as his interviews surrounding Physical Graffiti’s anniversary, remind me, though, that Led Zeppelin was a foursome, each personal integral to not only the legend of the band but the artistic craft as well. Given what these companion discs reveal, it’s no wonder that on John Bonham’s unfortunate death, the band decided it couldn’t go on. They couldn’t plug someone new into the role; all four were intimately involved in the creative process, working diligently to not only rock (to my seventh-grade brain) but to craft something monumental as well. The Louisville Leopard Percussionists’ performance coupled with the reissue of Physical Grafitti is a reminder that art is hard work, and when that work bears fruit, the results can be truly transcendent.