The story of Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin formed in 1968, the year I was born, and disbanded in 1980, when I was twelve.

I was therefore too young to become a Led Zeppelin fan while the band was still a going concern. But Led Zeppelin was still enormously popular when I discovered rock music as a teenager in the early to mid-1980s. Lead singer Robert Plant, moreover, was then launching a solo career, and making use of the new medium of MTV.

Most of my musical interests lie in the past. I admittedly lack the patience to sort through the chaotic indie music scene on the Internet, and I shake my head disdainfully at the overhyped mediocrity of Taylor Swift. When I listen to music, I listen to the old stuff: Rush, Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin, and a handful of others.

Led Zeppelin is very close to the top of my list. I listen to Led Zeppelin differently than I did in the old days, though. The lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven” sound less profound to me at 55 than they did when I was 15. I now appreciate Led Zeppelin when they’re doing what they did best: raucous, bluesy rock-n-roll that had only a hint of deeper meaning: “Black Dog”, “Whole Lotta Love”, “Kashmir”, etc.

And of course, reading remains my first passion. I’m still waiting for an in-depth, definitive biography of Canadian rock band Rush. (I suspect that someone, somewhere is working on that, following the 2020 passing of Rush’s chief lyricist and drummer, Neil Peart.) But a well-researched and highly readable biography of Led Zeppelin already exists: Bob Spitz’s Led Zeppelin: The Biography.

At 688 pages and approximately 238,000 words, this is no biography for the casual reader. But if you really want to understand Led Zeppelin, its music, and the band’s cultural impact, you simply can’t beat this volume. I highly recommend it for the serious fan.


View Led Zeppelin: The Biography at Amazon

Kansas and the perils of creative indecision

Kansas was one of my favorite bands while growing up. But this was always something of a minority viewpoint. Sadly, Kansas is a band that never reached its full potential.

Kansas, like the Canadian rock trio Rush, always had an intellectual, progressive streak. Kansas always wanted to make rock music “something more”.

Here’s an example: the band’s debut, self-titled album contains a song called “Journey from Mariabronn.”

What the heck is Mariabronn, you ask? That’s a reference to German-Swiss author Herman Hesse’s 1930 novel, Narcissus and Goldmund.

Highbrow, yes. But a little too highbrow for popular music. Even in the artistically indulgent 1970s. How many 16-year-olds—either then or now—are conversant in mid-twentieth-century German classic literature?

Kansas basically had two commercially successful albums: Leftoverture (1976) and Point of Know Return (1977).

Leftoverture contains the spiritual rock anthem “Carry On Wayward Son”. This song brought the band mainstream success. This is also the Kansas song that non-devotees are most likely to recognize.

On Point of Know Return you’ll find “Dust in the Wind”, another Kansas song that still gets a fair amount of airplay.

That was about it, as far as commercial success went for Kansas. Although the band soldiered on for years (a version of Kansas continues as a going concern today), the group never became another Journey or Foreigner.

Kansas’s songs are well-thought-out, often to the point of being abstruse. In short, most of the group’s music isn’t immediately accessible to the casual listener. And that’s a fatal flaw in rock music, where the competition is fierce, and audience attention spans are notoriously short.

Kansas was also riven by an internal philosophical dispute. Founding member and chief songwriter Kerry Livegren became a born-again Christian in 1979. He often infused Kansas’s lyrics with quasi-Christian themes.

The other members of the band weren’t on board with this new direction. Many of Kansas’s albums during the 1980s (Drastic Measures (1983), comes to mind here) contain songs that aren’t really enough of one thing or another. This isn’t explicitly Christian music, but it wasn’t mainstream rock—or even progressive rock—either.

The last Kansas album I bought was Power (1986). Kerry Livegren had left the band by this time, and the remaining members cobbled together an album that was imitative of the commercial rock music that was popular at that time.

Power contained a few worthwhile songs. But by this time Kansas had simply become too unpredictable as a musical entity—even for fans like myself.


Feeling in the mood for some old music? Shop for Kansas vinyl albums and CDs on Amazon


Hollywood on strike, and the economics of streaming

I hope you weren’t waiting on the edge of your seat for the next season of whatever to drop on Netflix or Paramount+. In case you missed it, both the actors guild and the writers guild are now on strike. This brings the production of any scripted movies or television shows to a screeching halt for the duration.

Does the blame lie with greedy studio execs? Snowflake screenwriters and actors? Or perhaps something more complicated…

Remember what happened to the music industry once it went full Internet. In my (pre-Internet) 1980s youth, MTV played music videos, because record companies funded them. Music videos were free advertising for albums, after all. Millions of teens (myself included, in those days) watched those MTV videos, and then we rushed off to Camelot Music or Peaches Records & Tapes to buy the latest Def Leppard or Michael Jackson album.

Then people stopped buying albums. They haven’t bought albums for decades. Music is now delivered almost exclusively through streaming services.

This is why there is no 21st-century equivalent to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Def Leppard, etc. The economics required to invest in new, groundbreaking rock acts simply isn’t there anymore.

This is also, by the way, why MTV no longer plays music videos. The album-driven economics that funded the 80s-era music videos no longer exists.

Def Leppard, “Photograph” (1983)

So all we have nowadays is way more Taylor Swift than most of us can handle without gagging, and lots of struggling indie bands that may never get the capital necessary to take off. They’ll scrape by on the pittance of streaming fees, and a few tee-shirt sales. You’ll never hear of most of them.

That was what Full Internet did to the music industry. The economics of movies and television were slower to shift. In the 2000s, while the music industry was being decimated by online piracy and the beginnings of the streaming industry, people were still watching television in the pre-Internet ways, and they were still flocking to cinemas.

Then we all became addicted to streaming.

I’m not pointing any fingers here. I have a subscription to Netflix myself. For about $20 per month, Netflix delivers unlimited, high-end scripted content. No more movie tickets to buy, no more pay-per-view for the latest movies.

Oh, and no pesky commercials, either!

That’s a pretty sweet deal for the consumer, but it’s a lot harder to make money (and fund content) that way. Most of the streaming services are losing money at present.

The writers, actors, and studio execs haven’t yet adjusted to the reality of streaming economics, as the entire music industry was forced to do about two decades ago.

So what happens next? The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA), the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the studio heads will eventually come to a settlement. They are all in this together, whether they like it or not, and these are, by and large, people who want to keep doing what they’re already doing. Jennifer Lawrence is not going to “learn how to code”.

But if the history of the music industry’s decline is a reliable guide, the current strikes will have consequences. And you won’t like them.

The Golden Age of Streaming has likely crested. Some of the most interesting shows of recent years—Stranger Things, The Last Kingdom, even Yellowstone—will be replaced by cheaper-to-make, more repetitive fare.

Are you sick of superhero movies yet? How about superhero streaming series, too? Sick of Taylor Swift? How about a Taylor Swift streaming biopic?

(I don’t even want to think about that, but I may have no choice.)

This summer will likely mark the beginning of the streaming decline. There will still be streaming content, but it will be less innovative, less engaging, and not nearly as good as it was during its golden age.

After all, that’s what happened to the music industry once it was struck by the economics of streaming. That’s how we got nonstop Taylor Swift, who would have been regarded as a moderately competent lounge singer in the more musically diverse 1980s.

The bygone, venerable 8-track

Members of my generation lived to see plenty of changes in the ways popular music is consumed. We were born in the golden age of the vinyl album. As adults, many of us are learning to cope with streaming music services.

Throughout most of the 1980s, the audio cassette tape was the most popular means of buying music and listening to it. When I see nostalgic Facebook posts about physical music media from the 1980s, the cassette tape is most often the subject.

But there was another musical format that was already dying out as the 1980s began, but which was actually quite good, by the standards of the time. I’m talking about the venerable 8-track tape. Continue reading “The bygone, venerable 8-track”

Gordon Lightfoot (1938 – 2023), his music, and me

When I was a kid in the mid-1970s, my dad used to sing this song from the radio. The refrain went:

“Sundown, you’d better take care

If I find you’ve been creepin’ round my back stair.”

This was Gordon Lightfoot’s hit song, “Sundown”, of course. In the year the song climbed the charts, 1974, I was but six years old. I therefore didn’t grasp its meaning. But the song still brings back memories of that time.

And now that I’m old enough to understand “Sundown”, I find it an unusual take on the familiar romantic love triangle: that of the cuckolded male.

Fast-forward to 1986. My high school English teacher, wanting to demonstrate how stories could be told in poems and song lyrics, played “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for us on one of the AV department’s record players. Yet another of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs.

I immediately connected with this song, even though I was unaware of the historical reference behind it. My teacher told our class about the November 1975 shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. That gave the song even more weight. It was a work of imagination and art…but also something real.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was released in 1976, to commemorate the shipwreck of the previous year. It remains one of my favorite songs from a musical era that I was too young to appreciate as it was taking place.

Last November marked the 47th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. This got me thinking about the song, and about Gordon Lightfoot. According to Google, Lightfoot was still touring in his eighties.

But all tours, and all lives, must come to an end. Gordon Lightfoot passed away on May 1, of natural causes.

While Lightfoot and his music were a little before my time, I always appreciated his work. There are few songs quite as haunting and memorable as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. And whenever I hear “Sundown”, I always hear my dad singing along with the radio in the mid-1970s.

A brilliant musician, and an artistic life well-lived. Gordon Lightfoot, 84, RIP.


The Beatles, grief, and a mother’s love

I am at that age when many people have lost their mothers. This is a painful blow at any stage of life. I feel blessed, though, to have had a kind and loving mother. Not everyone is so fortunate.

But still, we miss our moms. So does Paul McCartney, whose mother died of cancer in 1956, when the future Beatle (who turned eighty last year) was only fourteen years old.

McCartney wrote the lyrics to the 1970 song, “Let It Be”. If you listen to the lyrics, they are somewhat ambiguous. 

“When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me 

Speaking words of wisdom

Let it be

And in my hour of darkness 

She is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom

Let it be”

Having been raised Roman Catholic, I had always assumed that the song’s “Mother Mary” was a reference to the Mary of the New Testament. Mary has a prominent role in Catholic worship and theology, after all. Paul McCartney, as it turns out, was also baptized in the Catholic faith.

“Let It Be”, though, is really a song about Mary McCartney, Paul McCartney’s late mother. He wrote the song after having an intense—and emotionally reassuring dream—about his mother in 1968. In the dream, McCartney felt his mother’s presence.

Was McCartney’s mother really with him, in some sense? Or was that his subconscious at work? Questions like that are above this writer’s pay grade. I’ll leave the answer up to the reader.

Likewise, McCartney has told interviewers that listeners who prefer to interpret “Let It Be” in a religious sense are free to do so.

The Beatles in Hamburg, and ‘The Cairo Deception’

As many of you will know, I recently wrapped up The Cairo Deception, my 5-book World War II series.

One of the final chapters of the book depicts the Beatles performing in Hamburg, West Germany in December 1962. (I won’t go into more story detail than that, so as to avoid spoilers.)

This is actually true. When I discovered this lesser known piece of rock music history, I just couldn’t resist putting it in the book, as an Easter egg for Beatles fans.

The Beatles both resided and performed in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962. The Beatles’ Hamburg residence took place shortly before they became a global phenomenon. The band also performed at a music venue in Hamburg called The Star-Club, as described in Postwar: Book 5 of The Cairo Deception. 

The Beatles of the Hamburg period involved a slightly different lineup of the band: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. After the group returned to England at the end of 1962, Sutcliffe and Best left the band, and Ringo Starr was hired on as the new drummer.

Click here to view THE CAIRO DECEPTION series on Amazon

“Bang Your Head”: Monday night mood music

This song, the title track of Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, was huge in 1983.

And yes, I’m old enough to remember. I was smack in the middle of high school in 1983.

There is no deeper meaning to his song, nothing to tease out from the lyrics. This is escapist heavy metal at its best, as only the 1980s could do that sort of thing. This is a great song to listen to in the gym, and a great song to get playing in your head (via your mental iPod) when going for a run.

Watch the above MTV video. No doubt “problematic” by 2022 standards, and therefore, fun. You can see here a classic example of some of the strange, random imagery and hijinks that turned up in MTV rock videos, when the adults weren’t watching. Continue reading ““Bang Your Head”: Monday night mood music”

Rock aus Deutschland: ‘Sledgehammer’

Music is one art form for which I am content to remain in the audience. And I love nothing so much as 1980s rock.

About a year ago, I began following Sina Doering, a young German drummer, on YouTube. Sina came to my attention because she specializes in 80s-era rock. 

Sina started out making drum covers. But as her channel has grown, she has expanded into full-band productions, like the performance you see above. Continue reading “Rock aus Deutschland: ‘Sledgehammer’”

Sunday night music: ‘Purple Haze’

Jimi Hendrix released “Purple Haze”, his signature song, in 1967. Hendrix died in 1970 at the age of 27. 

“Purple Haze” predates this 54-year-old. This song was “classic rock” even when I was growing up in the 1980s. 

Interesting, then, that these kids at School of Rock have chosen it to perform, and that they perform it so well.

The guitar players do a fine job of playing this difficult piece; but the young lady who is the sole vocalist faced a special challenge. 

She is singing a male vocal part, of a somewhat quirky song from her grandparents’ era. And while she obviously isn’t going to convince anyone that she’s Jimi Hendrix, her interpretation manages to be faithful to the original, while adding something new, as well.

‘Dark Places’, and the heavy metal controversies of the 1980s

I’m a fan of Gillian Flynn’s novels, and I enjoyed the film adaptation of Gone Girl (2014). So I thought: why not give Dark Places (2015) a try? Although I had read the 2009 novel, enough years had passed that much of the plot had seeped out of my mind. (That happens more and more often, the older I get.)

First, the acting. The two female leads in this movie (Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz) were perfect choices. Charlize Theron has proven herself willing to downplay her physical beauty for the sake of a dramatically challenging antihero role. (See her performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003).) And the lead role of Libby Day, the tragic but unlikable protagonist of Dark Places, forced her to make the most of these skills.

Chloë Grace Moretz, meanwhile, played the teenage femme fatale, Diondra Wertzner, in the backstory scenes (which comprise a significant portion of the movie). Moretz provided just the right blend of sex appeal and darkness that this character required, more or less what I imagined while reading the novel. 

I’ve been following Moretz’s career since her breakout role as a child vampire in Let Me In (2010). Now in her twenties, Moretz seems almost typecast as a dark/horror movie actress; but she always manages to pull off the perfect creepy female character. (Note: Be sure to watch Let Me In if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Dark Places kept me glued to the screen. As I was watching the film, the plot of the book came back to me. Dark Places remained faithful to its literary source material, but in a way that moved the plot along more smoothly than the novel did. (This might be one of those rare cases in which the movie is actually a little better than the novel, which—despite being good—drags in places.)

As alluded to above, Dark Places is primarily set in the twenty-first century, with a significant portion concerning flashback events of 1985, when the adult characters were children or teenagers. 

I was 17 in 1985, and I remember that era well. Much of this part of the story revolves around rumors of teenage “devil worship”, and the influence of “satanic” heavy metal: Dio, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne. This is an old controversy that I hadn’t thought about much in decades. Dark Places brought some of those long-ago debates back to me.

I listened to plenty of heavy metal back in the 1980s. (I still do). The heavy metal of Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden does not encourage satanism, any more than films like The Exorcist encourage satanism. But like The Exorcist, some ‘80s heavy metal does dwell excessively on dark themes. And here is where the source of the confusion lies.

I never had the urge to draw a pentagram on my bedroom wall or sacrifice goats while listening to Blizzard of Oz or Piece of Mind. Nor did I detect any dark exhortations in the lyrics, whether overt or subliminal. 

Since the 1980s, Ozzy Osbourne has become a reality TV star. Iron Maiden’s lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, has emerged as a polymath who writes books and flies commercial airliners when not on tour.

Ozzy strikes me as one of the most gentle people you might ever meet. Dickinson, meanwhile, is a conservative (in the British context of that political label) and a eurosceptic. Neither man fits the profile of the devil-worshipping maniac. 

I will admit, though, that some 80s metal music became a bit cumbersome to listen to on a regular basis. I eventually moved on to more light-hearted, commercial rock like Def Leppard. I still listen to a lot more Def Leppard than Ozzy Osbourne or Iron Maiden. But I digress.

Not satanic, but not exactly easy listening, either

The 1980s fear-mongering over heavy metal turned out to be just that: fear-mongering. Although I’m sure there were isolated real-life horror stories, I didn’t know a single kid in the 1980s who was into satanism. The teenage satanists of the 1980s existed almost entirely within the fevered imaginations of a few evangelical preachers and their followers.

Back to Dark Places. The problem (with both the book and the movie) is that it is a fundamentally depressing story, without any characters that the reader/viewer can wholeheartedly root for. While there is a reasonable conclusion, there is nothing approaching a happy ending, or even a satisfying ending. That is a central flaw that no acting or directing talent can rectify. 

This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t worth watching. It is. But make sure you schedule a feel-good comedy film shortly thereafter. You’ll need it. And don’t watch Dark Places if you’re already feeling gloomy or depressed.

Loretta Lynn and the American dream

I won’t lie: I barely know Tim McGraw from Buck Owens. Country music has never been my cup of tea. 

But who can’t relate to the song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”? 

Whatever your musical tastes, it’s inspiring to think that a girl born in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky at the height of the Great Depression could grow up to become instantly recognizable, even to those of us who don’t listen to much country music. 

She also brought joy to millions of people with her music for more than six decades. You might not be a rabid Loretta Lynn fan, but you probably know someone who is. Here in southern Ohio, I know plenty of them.

Loretta Lynn, 90, RIP.

For 1983, a different kind of torch song

Thirty-nine years ago today, on September 15, 1983, Huey Lewis & the News released their 3rd studio album, Sports. 

I can’t listen to any songs on this album without being catapulted back to the mid-1980s (which was, on the whole, a nice place to be). 

Sports was the group’s breakout album, with four top-ten hits. The song below, however, is the best of the bunch…or at least the most unique. 

It’s a different kind of torch song. Whereas most songs about unrequited love are sappy and rather pathetic, this one is more down-to-earth. 

“If this is it, please let me know…” isn’t a perfect comeback to unreturned affection, of course. (If you have to ask, you already know the answer.) But it’s better than most.

Old music with new voices: Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”

It brings my Gen X heart joy to see the music of my 1980s youth given new life by talented young musicians. And there is a lot of young talent on YouTube nowadays.

Andreea Munteanu is the lead singer of a Romanian band called Iron Cross. She also has a solo YouTube channel.

Iron Cross and Andreea Munteanu both specialize in 80s metal. But after last month’s death of Olivia Newton-John, Ms. Munteanu performed “Physical”, ONJ’s 1981 pop chart topper. 

I was in the 8th grade when the original version of this song (below) came out. It was everywhere: on FM radio, and the new medium of MTV. “Physical” occupied the number one slot on the US Billboard Top 100 for 10 weeks. That set a record for the 1980s. 

Because of the tongue-in-cheek, suggestive lyrics, “Physical” was mildly controversial in 1981. Yes, really. At least one major radio station (in Salt Lake City, I believe), refused to play it. Moralistic killjoys, alas, have always been with us. 

I like Andreea Munteanu’s version of the song, and her reimagining of the original MTV video. Munteanu is, yes, very easy on the eyes. We need not be coy about that. But she’s also a very talented singer with a strong stage presence. 

The other members of Iron Cross (all male), are excellent musicians, as well. Check out their YouTube channel. If you like heavy metal, you’ll probably like their stuff.