30-Day Song Challenge, Day 5: A Song That Needs to Be Played Loud
“Rock and Roll.” Led Zeppelin. ‘Nuff said.
Oh, okay, fine, you know me better than that. I’ve almost always got more to say…
“Rock and Roll” comes from Zeppelin’s fourth studio album, commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV or ZoSo (owing to one of the arcane symbols on the record’s label; it’s a long story), although the LP was technically untitled. That’s the album with “Stairway to Heaven,” the one most likely to be owned by people who kinda-sorta like Zeppelin but haven’t gone into full-blown fandom. The song is a tribute to the early days of the rock genre: It opens with a speeded-up version of the drumline from the Little Richard oldie “Keep A-Knockin'” (fans of the movie Christine ought to know that one!) followed by a guitar riff that was supposedly an homage to Chuck Berry, and then nostalgic lyrics that speak of (among other things) “The Stroll,” a 1958 dance tune, and “Book of Love,” a hit record for The Monotones, also from 1958. While it was never formally released as a single for consumer sales, the song was distributed in the US as a promotional single, meaning it was was sent to radio stations for airplay, and it quickly became a staple in that venue. (I remember a local Salt Lake station, Rock 99, used the opening of the song for its television commercials; I was familiar with that ferocious drumbeat long before I ever heard the complete tune, or for that matter, had even heard of the band!)
The song was also a favorite during live performances starting from around the time of IV‘s release in 1971 until the band’s breakup in 1980. Having become one of Zeppelin’s signature tunes, it was naturally part of their brief reunion set at Live Aid in 1985 and again at the reunion shows at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. The video clip I’m posting here is from their performance at Madison Square Garden in 1973, when the band was at the peak of its powers. (It appears in the concert film The Song Remains the Same.)
Personally, I tend to run hot and cold on Zeppelin. I really love some of their stuff, and I’m really put off (and sometimes even bored) by other things. But from my early teens, this has been a song I truly love. Its energy is undeniable — I can’t resist shaking my head to it even nowadays when serious headbanging gives me a headache — and I love its reverence toward the genre’s childhood, even as it twists and warps the sound into something Little Richard probably never could have imagined. Come to think of it, though, that was Zeppelin’s whole thing, really… they were essentially playing the blues, just really loud and distorted blues.
One final thought before the video: The song has been covered many times by artists ranging from Heart (their version is intense… Ann Wilson is possibly the only woman in rock whose voice matches the soaring power of Zeppelin’s Robert Plant) to Great White, Van Halen, John Waite, Stevie Nicks, the Foo Fighters, and, most improbably, Alvin and the Chipmunks. I’m really trying to wrap my head around that one.
And now… turn it to 11, kids!