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Led Zeppelin: Coda

Before I was exposed to a lick of their music, Led Zeppelin's reputation preceded them by about a mile. Before the Internet - before MTV, even - their fans spat out extra-musical information like fog from a dry ice machine, all of it either deviant, creepy or both. How was I expected to wrap my junior high brain around those weird symbols that formed the "title" of their fourth album? Was one of those basically pot?

Then there were the rumors of backstage shenanigans with a baby shark (or a snapper, depending on who you asked). Not to mention the spooky backwards messages "hidden" on their records, professing allegiance to Almighty Satan. Or how about the cast of characters I'd see emblazoned on their T-shirts between every class, each one reeking of sneaked cigarettes? There was the "winged hippie," the old hooded dude with the lantern and those naked, possessed kids from the Houses of the Holy artwork . . . Couldn't these guys just show their faces on their album covers? Like Hall and Oates? Or Tears for Fears?

zep_coda.jpgHow I learned to stop worrying and love the Led is a long story. It ended happily, with all the failed attempts to tap my toe along with "The Crunge" as you'd expect. But what if I'd taken the same path as my brother Scott? As he puts it, "I went directly from being afraid of Led Zeppelin to dismissing them, without ever hearing them." Like him, in the middle of high school I was a true blue "alternative rock" snob, revolving around the holy trinity of The Smiths, The Cure and R.E.M. Fortunately, I caught a dose of Led poisoning in the nick of time, but again, what if I hadn't? Is there one disc in the Zeppelin catalogue that could have turned me around?

In real life, it was Houses of the Holy, whose downright poppy "Dancing Days" and "D'yer Mak'er" softened the blows of its heavier "No Quarter" and its seriously wussed-out "The Rain Song." Over repeated listens, the album's immediate pleasures lured me into the more acquired, freakier bits. But we ain't got time for repeated listens. It's 1988, and our potential Led devotee is easily distracted by his recent discovery that there are FM stations south of 92. Plus, he's trying to work up the nerve to go out in public with his Bono-style ponytail. We need to get in and get out with a no-fat sampler, something quick, on message and high energy - and no trolls or Druids or any of that mess.

I hereby nominate for the job that chicken-wing of an odds'n'sods collection stuck at the end of the Zeppelin discography known as Coda. Having steered clear of this rumored rush-job for years, this summer I found a copy in the bargain bin, and I was taken by its pleasing compactness, and how it shone a light on that underexposed, under-appreciated aspect of Zeppelin: Fun. Almost straightaway, I began forming an image of this single disc cutting through the thick Zeppelin myth, arcing like a frisbee through the fairy dust, the eerie green light, the overall Halloween vibe Led Zeppelin cast before them.

So hey there, whipper-snapper! You say you're not exactly cool with slow blues noodling, but you're willing to accept it in moderation as part of the Whole Zeppelin Thing? "I Can't Quit You Baby" is just the ticket, four minutes and 16 seconds telling you all you need to know about similar, more "lingering" numbers in the Zep canon. Or maybe you also understand that Jimmy Page is prone to some beautiful acoustic picking, but you've already identified Cowboy Junkies as your make-out (or imagined make-out) band of choice? "Poor Tom" echoes as nicely as "Tangerine," only they've brought in a galloping beat to keep things moving along.

The middle of Coda grounds us momentarily in Zeppelin's role as "godfathers of metal" (or whatever). "Walter's Walk" moves like "Rock and Roll," and "Ozone Baby" also conforms to the layman's take on Zeppelin, with a beat practically designed for head-banging. Next up, we've got the goofy-sexy "Darlene," its stops and starts creating pockets for piano fills and generous "oohs" from Our Man Robert. Then "Bonzo's Montreaux" showcases Bonham's drumming as well as any live version of "Moby Dick," only without any non-percussive instruments getting in the way, and clocking in at under five minutes. In fact, everything on Coda falls under five minutes - except, ironically, "Wearing and Tearing," the set-closer which was said to be their response to punk.

Still, here's a CD that begins with the warning/promise of "We're Gonna Groove," and ends with a breakneck punk song, making a case for Led Zeppelin as an accessible, even joyous band in just over half an hour. For whatever it's worth, I like to think Coda would get my alternate-universe, Zeppelin-hating teenage self to put down the clove cigarettes, close the Sassy magazine and give the Pixies a friggin' rest for a minute. Maybe that's a left-handed endorsement, insofar as it's completely hypothetical, but I do mean it with all my heart.

And I haven't worn a ponytail in a very long time.

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See what else is in the Beachwood Bins. Bin Dive explores rock's secret history through the bargain bins and your old stack of records. Comments - and submissions - welcome. You must include a real name to be considered for publication.



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Posted on November 12, 2007


MUSIC - The Week In Chicago Rock.
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