By Andrew Goodwin
Well we can’t count from where you stopped because your vocals might be different. Your voice might go on half a beat and we‘re gonna be fucked.
— John Bonham to Robert Plant
Progressive rock was famous for its traffic-light stops and starts, but Led Zeppelin generally eschewed that approach, deploying shifts of time-signature and tempo, along with a movement of the placement of rhythmic emphasis (pulses) and varying degrees of syncopation within the same song without drawing too much attention to these elements, none of which is easy to pull off, not when there are four of you and you are mostly recording live and in real time. And “Black Dog” exemplifies Zeppelin at their peak in this regard.
In fact, the beginning of the end of the musical logics that propelled Zeppelin were foreshadowed by an unfortunate development: “Stairway To Heaven” with its daft lyrics and its blatant signalling of unmotived timefucks that neither meld successfully (as in “Gallows Pole”) nor create a delightful sudden change of gear (as in “Heartbreaker”). One gets the feeling, I do anyway, that this is the first track in their career when they are in fact killing time.
But generally, they were innovators, albeit with a strong desire to imitate, learn from, compete ambitiously with the best. Zeppelin were also of course nostalgically (nostalgia: an illness that Led Zep combined with modernism, never more so than on “Black Dog”) drawn back to places and times that preceded their births – the blues. But anyone who thinks that this is merely standardized routine 12/32-bar repetition has rather missed the dropped beats, the odd meters, the changes in tempo, the vocal/guitar inflection, cadences and intonations that can make subtle or shocking transformations of feel: those elastic moveable pulses.
So notice how on “Black Dog” the gaps between the end of the last vocal line in each verse gets shorter each time, before the band crashes the silence, as the song progresses. And this is progressive rock, if that term means anything. Recorded by Genesis or Gentle Giant, no one would even consider to doubt the fact. It is progressive for three reasons: (i) it aggressively refuses the norm of the pop/rock song by obsessive messing with one’s sense of time; (ii) this means you have to listen to it (i.e. regressive listening is not an option); (iii) the song itself progresses, getting more complex and also more emotional as it takes flight and then – of course – crashes.
So if we now look at “Black Dog”, composed and recorded (mostly live – the overdubs are largely Page’s synthetic-sounding hyper-treated guitar parts) when Zep were at the height of their powers, we hear a group that can perform a track with 98 times changes, absent sheet music or a conductor. Not only that but amongst these strict changes in time signature (including the tense and extremely funky simultaneous use of two different ones) the song hides syncopation on a grand scale. Listen to the “oh baby pretty baby” sections and focus on the pick-up on the snare drum before the main backbeat, and how Bonham is always following Page – not Jones, his bassist, which would be the norm – Jones had to watch Bonzo’s kick drum, to keep up, or rather to keep just behind.
“Black Dog,” so brilliantly analyzed by Erik Davis, changes time-signatures, tempo, syncopation and pulsing, throughout the song: from the verse/vocal part stolen from Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” to the twisting riff. But of course the most striking surprise, surely one of the most shocking moments in rock history, occurs when Page and Jones go into a riff in 5:4 time and Bonham play across them in 4:4 time. Thus reaching a point of connection every 20 beats.
The story goes that originally John Bonham tried playing 8th notes, in keeping with the 5:4 time, but that he either lacked the technical ability to do this or that the effect sounded too much like The Mahavishnu Orchestra! In any case they toyed, they experimented, they played (that’s what musicians do – we are children) and they were willing to play this game: ignore la langue (the rules of rock) and make a new utterance (parole) – 4s over 5s until it resolves, then repeat the joke.
For this accidental joke, one of the funkiest musical japes I have heard, did apparently reduce the four of them to laughter, the first time they played it, in rehearsal. But these kid’s giggles, you can hear them stifling the raucous laughter that is to follow, is surely not ironic or pomo or a poking of fun at the audience: it was that of highly skilled musicians who just pulled off a new trick, barely having the time to think of the intention behind it (if such there was), collective or otherwise.
The thing is, they kept playing, through the tension of the 5/4 toe-curling and the mind-scrunching concentration it takes at first to play the drums and not listen to the guitars too much, and the same goes of course for the bass/guitar. And then someone, or all of them, saw the brilliance of what they had done (progressive rock in all but name but it sounds like a straight blues rock throwaway) and they did this intentionally. They intended to play with the mistake and then they intended to keep it.
Because it was good.
1. Quoted in Dave Lewis, Led Zeppelin: The “Tight But Loose” Files, Celebration II (London: Omnibus, 2003).
2. Page has said that the one failing of the previous record (Led Zeppelin III) was that it lacked a long track. (He was wrong – “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is that epic track.) “Stairway” was pieced together over years with a view to writing something epic (too much intentionality and therefore a surplus of self-awareness?) and in doing so it inevitably established a new Zeppelin’s star-text. They went from macho blues Brit dudes to spaced-out mystics from the dark side in one awful cinematic fiasco (The Song Remains The Same) and this development was based in part (watch the movie closely) on the dual discourses of the stairway to heaven and the stairway to rockgodom (which the lyrics cannot of course resolve). See my article, “Stairway To Stardom.”
3. Erik Davis, Led Zeppelin IV (Continuum, 2006)
4. Written by John-Paul Jones, who claims he stole it from Muddy Water’s LP Electric Mud but I can only hear the (hardly new) idea of twisting riffs that cross bar structures, no actual nick of a tune.
5. John-Paul Jones tells this story on the soundtrack (I do not presently recall its original source) on the DVD/booklet Led Zeppelin: Up Close And Personal (self-author: Matters Furniss; Edgehill/Komet 1998); I think the same story may also be present somewhere on/in the Alan Clayson DVD/book Led Zeppelin: Origins Of The (sic) Species (Sexy Intellectual Productions, 2006).