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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Social Commentators Can Be Such Blow-Hards

Michael Walker is probably a really smart guy; he's got more books published than I have so far, so I'll give him that. The problem with social commentating is that it's basically an opinion game. And to be honest, I'd never heard of Mr. Walker before his interview on the NPR program All Things Considered this afternoon.

Walker's latest work, laboriously entitled, "What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born" teases us with the tagline: An epic joyride through three history-making tours in 1973 that defined rock and roll superstardom—the money, the access, the excess—forevermore. The title alone nearly makes a good paragraph. I'll grapple with the idea of whether a book's tagline should be shorter than the title later.

Led Zeppelin on tour in 1973 because the jacket cover can't be on this blog (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I know I'm skating on thin ice with this blog subject. I'm a born-again Christian who may be committing at least a minor sin by confessing I still listen to the occasional Zeppelin or Who song - although I will also admit the playlist has been trimmed back a little from the bad old days due to some of their lyrical excesses.

Ordinarily, this subject is unlikely to even appear on the Stream of Consciousness radar. But as I listened to the interview between Walker and All Things Considered host Audie Cornish, one statement made me sit up and take notice. When asked why he chose this particular year and these particular bands, Walker explains, "But there's a very specific reason I did choose them: because 1973, unbeknownst to any of them, was going to be their peak year."


Okay, I'll grant you Alice Cooper, whose 1973 Billion Dollar Babies was among my first introductions to serious rock and roll. Cooper always seemed like a bit of a fringe act anyway. He's much cooler now as a semi-retired rocker playing in charity celebrity golf tournaments with Michael Douglas and Kenny G.

Alice has gone from weird songs about babies to helping real kids succeed in life

But Zeppelin? The Who? On the downhill slide as early as 1973?

I started high school in 1973. Let's take a look at what these guys produced after the seminal album tour markers that Walker lays down:

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy
The Who: Quadrophenia

What came next?

Led Zeppelin
  • Physical Graffiti - 1975
  • The Song Remains the Same - 1976
    • I know, this was a live album with no original material, but any album with a 26:53 version of Dazed and Confused that takes up a whole album side has got to merit some consideration based solely on Jimmy Page's guitar work
The Who
  • By the Numbers - 1975
  • Who are You - 1978 (Would CSI ad nauseum even be popular without The Who?)
  • It's Hard - 1981
Led Zeppelin sadly suffered the loss of their iconic drummer John Bonham in 1980. Who knows where the 80's would've taken Zeppelin? 

Walker's book is no doubt chock full of record sales statistics, key insights regarding the difference in audiences between the 60's and 70's, and, as the NPR interview highlights, a general flaunting of wealth by these vanguard acts (and those that followed) vs. the 1960's ethos of the squeaky-clean public images with perhaps just a hint of bad boy lurking behind the curtain. I'm assuming he means with the exception of Elvis, who by the 70's was getting a tad ostentatious.

Elvis Presley circa 1973

Maybe Elvis had caught the conspicuous excess bug by 1973. Or maybe he was just trying to hang on to the unheard of adoration that he almost single-handedly kicked off, and that was whisked away by those mop-topped lads from Liverpool in the 60's? I don't think anyone who lived through the transition from the 1960's to the 1970's would argue that there wasn't a sea change. Walker points out that the world was moving from peace and love to, "The Alice Cooper band, from the beginning, they were all about trying to explode the hippie myth. You know, we were into switchblades and girls and limousines and guns and we didn't apologize for it; we liked it."

It's true that Mr. Walker focuses on the 1973 tours of the three acts he highlights in the book. Maybe they did set the tone for the rest of the decade as well as sound the call as he supposes for Zeppelin and the others - to paraphrase Tolkien - to go quietly into the West. For me, there was still a lot of life in the old dogs yet - I don't think I'm alone in believing that Physical Graffiti was every bit as powerful as anything Led Zeppelin had released previously.

It may be theologically shaky, but the sentiment is there. 

Oh, Lord, deliver me
All the wrong I've done
You can deliver me, Lord

In My Time of Dying - 1975 - see Psalm 41:3-4

I'm not sure Plant, Page and company bought into the sentiment; maybe they knew - as Walker opines - that there path was all downhill from here...

"Great X; so what's your point?"

I don't know. Maybe I've been on the downhill slide since 1973, too. But I don't think so. And I don't think that the bands Mr. Walker uses as his protagonists were either. But like any other social commentator, good or bad, that's just my opinion.

What do you think?


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