If There's a Bustle in Your Hedgerow, Don't Be Alarmed Now
My dentist is a fellow boomer who, like me, is into rock music--his office wall is decorated with a poster of "44th Street NYC 1980," famed rock 'n' roll photographer Bob Gruen's portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and instead of Muzak, he plays a classic rock station on the stereo. The other day, he was replacing a filling in one of my bicuspids--a filling that had finally given out after nearly 40 years--and over the whine of his drill, I heard an even higher-pitched wail. I instantly identified it as Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant, rising toward the climactic moment of the band's 1971 opus "Stairway to Heaven."
By coincidence, "Stairway" is about the same age as my dental work, though it's held up considerably better. Led Zep long resisted releasing the eight minute-long song as a single, which compelled fans to buy $500 million worth of copies of Led Zeppelin IV and the other three albums on which it appears. It perennially ranks at or near the top of greatest-rock-song-of-all-time lists compiled by VH1 and others. Google "Stairway to Heaven + Led Zeppelin" and you'll get 1.1 million hits, including a fan-authored Wikipedia article that's probably lengthier than the ones on some obscure 19th century U.S. presidents, and definitely more worshipful.
Nevertheless, hearing the rock anthem gave me a vague sense of unease. And it's not because I don't like Led Zep's trademark fusion of blues, folk and mysticism, or because I buy the dubious conspiracy theory that Led Zep secretly encoded a message for Satan worshipers that's revealed only when "Stairway" is played backwards. It's not because Mike Myers famously poked fun at our addiction to "Stairway" in the guitar-shop scene from his 1992 comedy Wayne's World. Or even because autistic savant-animal scientist Temple Grandin, who is a big fan of the song, appropriated its title as the name for a ramp in slaughterhouses upon which cattle walk to their demise.
No, I think the reason is that I've heard it so many times. We all have. As of 2008, according to an article in the business publication Portfolio, the rock anthem had been played by radio stations an estimated 2,985,000 times, which works out to the equivalent of 45 years and three months straight. At this point, "the piper's calling you to join him" and "to be a rock and not to roll" are etched into my frontal lobes as indelibly as the Lord's Prayer, the National Anthem and the theme song to Gilligan's Island. (As it happens, in the late 1970s a band called Little Roger and the Goosebumps recorded this bizarre Gilligan-Stairway mashup, which Robert Plant, who at one point in the 1980s became so tired of Stairway that he tried to stop performing it live, once revealed was his favorite cover of the song.) As the rock historian Erik Davis writes in his book Led Zeppelin IV:
"`Stairway to Heaven' isn't the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it, everyone--from Dolly Parton to Frank Zappa to Pat Boone to Jimmy Castor--has covered it, and everyone with a guitar knows how to play those notorious opening bars...Somewhere, a Clear Channel robot is probably broadcasting it as you read these words..."
Indeed, we probably don't even need to hear "Stairway to Heaven" ever again. Just like the old joke about the comedians' convention, we could just assign it a code number--for example, "11-71," after the month and year that Led Zeppelin IV was released--and then just start playing air guitar whenever we hear that sequence of digits. So here's my proposal. Just as LeBron James has proposed that the NBA permanently retire Michael Jordan's number 23, radio stations should consider retiring Stairway and devoting some of those 10,756 hours and 45 minutes of airplay to some of the other great music from the early 1970s that hasn't yet been appropriated for car commercials.
Think about it. When's the last time you heard the British psychedelic-jazz-folk fusion band Traffic's hauntingly beautiful "Many a Mile to Freedom," Alvin Lee's soaring guitar solo in Ten Years After's "I'd Love to Change The World," or glitter-rock god Marc Bolan and T-Rex's "Get It On (Bang a Gong)"? (Here's a YouTube video of T-Rex performing an astonishingly raw, raucous, equipment-smashing live version of "Get It On" on The Midnight Special in 1973.) Or how about the Who's "The Real Me" from their edgy-intense 1973 rock psychodrama Quadrophenia?
And here's an incredible song from that era you may never have ever heard--the 1972 cut "Ask, Brother Ask," by Ramatam, a British rock group that featured April Lawton, the trailblazing female guitarist whose virtuosity drew comparisons to Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.
Give some of these songs a listen and let me know what you think. Or better yet, post your own suggestions about what early 1970s rock songs that you'd like to hear again on the radio.
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