Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs
by Martin Popoff
This survey of the legendary rock band’s studio albums falls short of getting to the heart of drummer John Bonham’s gifts, so let’s take the opportunity to paint a more complete picture.
I’m a little anal about reading the introductions and prefaces of books before I even flip through the rest of the pages. Their purpose is to set a tone, establish the credibility and character of the writer, and encapsulate the importance of the book’s subject matter, and I want to know all that stuff before being wooed by the pretty pictures. On all of these counts, the intro to Martin Popoff’s Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs drops some warning signs that should be heeded.
In one bizarre passage, Popoff supports his expertise on the book’s subject in part by claiming that he’s written more record reviews than any other writer in history, and that he’s in fact going for the Guinness record in that regard. (Ew, and who really cares?) Two paragraphs later, he gripes about an abundance of existing journalism covering Zeppelin as a live act with this comment: “Zzz.” (Boo, and…huh?) Before all that, though, in a meaningless aside, he trashes the Beatles. (Ooh, and them’s fightin’ words!)
Popoff’s wrong-headedness on these issues might have been forgivable if he followed through on his promise to “help a bunch of non-drummers” appreciate John Bonham—since, as he states, he’s a drummer himself. Unfortunately, while the author sprinkles his prose with lines like “All manner of drummers would later try to decipher how…Bonham played the fast bass drum triplets on ‘Good Times Bad Times’…and whether in fact it could be done on anything fewer than two bass drums,” he generally glosses over the paramount qualities that made Bonham arguably the greatest rock drummer of all time. It’s not his supposed superhuman skills that truly set Bonham apart—though, my Lord what skills he had—but rather how unusual and effective his musical choices were, how idiosyncratically he applied them, and how much swagger he consistently played them with.
While Popoff certainly attempts to give Bonham his due, far too often he settles for superficial descriptions of his contributions, and sometimes simply misses the point. Take, for instance, this description of the approach to “Communication Breakdown”: “Bonham does nothing much more than goad the riff.” To miss the drummer’s decision to move the first backbeat in the second bar back to the 1, leaving a dramatic gap in the groove, is to miss a vital clue to his thinking. Bonham understood that what you don’t play is as important as the fancy licks that you do play. It’s at the core of the heaviness of beats like those on “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Ocean,” and it informs his approach to tension and release, exemplified by the dramatic fills on tunes like “Kashmir” and “When the Levee Breaks.” Bonham’s constant awareness of what a listener expects to hear at any given moment, and the innumerable ways he toys with those expectations, is what makes us bow down to him all these years later. There will always be drummers who can mimic John’s parts; there will never be another one who thinks like him.
Other examples of lost opportunities to elucidate us include the hi-hat on “Heartbreaker,” which Popoff describes as “a simple beat and slightly odd hi-hat signature.” Drummers still debate what’s going on there, some insisting that it’s ghosted snare notes creating the slightly swung 16ths we’re hearing, others suggesting it’s a reverb effect causing the illusion of 16ths. Interestingly, the YouTube clips of Bonham’s soloed drum track feature a very dry mix, and you don’t hear the hi-hat “shuffle,” which seems to support the reverb argument. In any event, Bonham’s performance is much more than simple—it’s totally badass! His bass drum work alone is extraordinary.
Another example: Popoff describes the drumbeat in the chorus of “Ramble On” as simple, and leaves it at that. Well, perhaps it is to the author, but it’s a rite of drumming passage to get that gleefully unique alternating hi-hat/bass drum figure to feel great. Perhaps most disappointing, in his description of “Rock and Roll” in the chapter on Zeppelin IV, the author misleadingly describes the song’s opening as featuring Bonham’s “trick drumming.” It doesn’t; he’s just coming in on the “&” of 3, which the listener is certainly tricked by, but only because the band doesn’t provide the benefit of a count-in.
To be fair, Popoff seems to have done some homework in terms of the antecedents of the Zeppelin oeuvre and the circumstances surrounding the various recordings. There’s ample discussion of songwriting and production techniques, supported by a decent number of quotes from band members and other associates—though we’re rarely provided with the source of those quotes, either within the text or in a separate notes section. And in that otherwise problematic introduction, Popoff does offer the fact that there are two previous authors who have covered Zeppelin top to bottom: Chris Welch (Led Zeppelin: The Ultimate Collection) and Dave Lewis (From a Whisper to a Scream: Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin). Unfortunately you’ll have to look to those very books, and the bevy of other publications dedicated to this most unusual, exciting, and inspiring of rock bands—and the one-in-a-million drummer who powered it—to get the full story. (Voyageur Press, $30) Adam Budofsky
Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy
Pictures at an Exhibition: A Tribute To Keith Emerson
A bittersweet nod to not one but two giants of progressive rock, from the man who bore witness.
With the 2016 passing of both of his ELP bandmates, bassist/vocalist Greg Lake and keyboardist extraordinaire Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer is the sole survivor of the groundbreaking progressive trio that creatively merged rock and classical music with a dazzling stage show in the ’70s. Filmed in Miami on June 24, 2016 (prior to Lake’s passing), this video features a show performed in front of a packed house of prog-rock fans witnessing Palmer’s heartfelt tribute to Emerson, who planned to join Palmer on this tour, which was originally designed to celebrate the drummer’s fifty-year career.
Along with special guests Steve Hackett (Genesis), Mark Stein (Vanilla Fudge), and David Frangioni (drummer/audio engineer/entrepreneur), Palmer’s ELP Legacy guitar/bass/drums trio performs impressive interpretations of ELP classics, including “Karn Evil 9,” “The Barbarian,” “Knife-Edge,” “Hoedown,” and the epic “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Palmer, age sixty-seven, seems a bit sluggish out of the gate, opening with the rock dirge “Peter Gunn,” but quickly gains momentum as the challenging ELP catalog progresses. “Nutrocker” features double drumming with Palmer and concert organizer Frangioni trading licks. By the drum-solo finale, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Palmer is firing on all cylinders, demonstrating his trademark jazz-laced, Buddy Rich–style soloing technique, filled with stick tricks and the blazing hand speed that earned him superstar status in the first place. (carlpalmer.com, $24.95) Mike Haid
The Drummer’s Lifeline
by Peter Erskine and Dave Black
Quick tips culled from two lifetimes of pro experience.
The paperback-size Lifeline is a decidedly casual, often humorous, and informative mini-volume. Stuff it in your back pocket, crack the spine anywhere, and bounce around between the brief entries. Authors Peter Erskine and Dave Black refer to their “bite-sized bits” as “additional information that didn’t seem to fit into the standard drum book.” You’ll get suggestions on choosing equipment, maintenance, on-the-spot fixes, proper head tuning, and muffling options. In addition, there’s advice on session work, business etiquette, career guidance, mic choices, ergonomics, chart reading, health, warm-up exercises, and plenty of plain ol’ hard-earned wisdom. (Along the way are some quick Q&As. A personal favorite: Question: Should I twirl my sticks? Answer: No.) The book is most beneficial for beginners and intermediate drummers, but there are goodies for all. Here’s one: If your floor tom is resonating too long, invert one leg (metal end to the floor), and this will constrain it. Cool! Can’t wait to try that. (alfred.com, $12.99) Jeff Potter
Neil Zaza Live at the Kent Stage
The longtime Styx skinsman brings arena-size goods to the small stage.
TODD SUCHERMAN has been creating drama from atop the drum riser for two decades with Styx, and there’s more of the same crushing rock power and detailed support on a one-off instrumental fusion live date from guitarist Neil Zaza presented here. Need some fills to start your day? Check out the flurry of toms all over “Magnus 212” or inside the guitar breaks on “Fargo.” But Sucherman brings his subtlety game as well, taking the volume way down with some tasty cymbal-pulse comping under the bass solo in “Lost in Your Dream” before opening up with bell offbeats, never drawing too much attention to himself. This is material the drummer can perform in his sleep, and though the melodic compositions are simply a vehicle to showcase Zaza’s epic guitar-rock glory, everyone benefits from the guy in the back throwing down perfect time, beautiful dynamics, and just enough sauce to keep things interesting. (Melodik) Ilya Stemkovsky
Antibalas Where the Gods Are in Peace
On their fifth full-length and first release in five years, the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat revivalists take a curious turn amid the current political climate and make an intergalactic Western.
Antibalas updates Afrobeat on its own terms, and this outing features three extended pieces of muscular but hypnotic dance music. MILES ARNTZEN is behind the kit for this set, replaced in the current touring lineup by KEVIN RACZKA, who appears on percussion here, as does singer DUKE AMAYO, who also doubles on vibraphone. The nearly eleven-minute opener, “Gold Rush,” features Arntzen urgently driving a syncopated pattern around a crunched quarter-note hi-hat pulse that opens up for full horn section passages. “Hook & Crook” comes perhaps the closest to a textbook Tony Allen groove—he being the drummer who famously played with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti—but the horn break and percussion hits at the midpoint create a grand left turn that shows there’s plenty of room for new ideas in Afrobeat. “Tombstown” is a slow-burning 6/8 suite in three parts, propelled at first by only shekere and congas but swelling to display the gritty might of a twelve-piece band tracked live with Daptone production. Guest vocals from Zap Mama are the icing on a dense, grooving cake. (Daptone) Stephen Bidwell
Under One Sun Under One Sun
Three rhythm masters transport an adventurous octet.
Under One Sun’s stunning debut is spearheaded by saxophonist/multi-reedist Billy Drewes and master percussionist JAMEY HADDAD. Drewes’ compositions are gorgeous world music/jazz celebrations that unfold in unexpected and arresting ways. Haddad is best known for his global hand drumming/percussion, so it’s a treat hearing him here in his role as kit player. Not surprisingly, he delivers effortless feel, precision, dynamics, and an uncanny skill for coloration and orchestration. But the paramount rhythmic wonder here is Haddad’s union with tabla player SALAR NADER and conga/timbale player LUISITO QUINTERO. There is never rhythmic clutter or sonic/textural conflict—only inter-complementing of the highest order. The sophisticated arrangements exploit the beauty of unusual instrumentation that also includes bass, piano, ganun (a horizontal stringed instrument), and the specially designed “hyper accordion.” Eight musicians from five countries, under one sun, creating a singular, transfixing voice. (Oberlin Music) Jeff Potter