Since my last adventure a few days ago in search of the ultimate in musical Cheese Dogs, me and my head-banging hound Tank, have been having an interesting time together. For those long time WMMCM readers you already know that Tank’s taste in music is, shall we say, a bit more out there than me and Bridey’s?
So, in order to keep the peace I made a promise to get a bit more metal, and Tank promised to not get so emotional about it. (I have my doubts about that.) In any event, it is now time for some real metal here on WMMCM – while still sticking to our Cheese Dog theme.
When you talk metal, there is one band name that always comes up. They didn’t start it and they certainly didn’t finish it but, for more than a few years during the 1970′s, they certainly defined it.
From 1969 until the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, Led Zeppelin were one of those bands that truly seemed to be larger than life. Jimmy Page’s guitars were louder than anyone else, John Paul Jones’ bass was bigger than anyone else and Robert Plant’s vocals – still – are so different from the rest of the bands of the day that it became easy to dismiss many of his contemporaries as knock offs. (Plant was different from the rest, but saying that every heavy metal singer of the day was copying Plant is absurd. A few of them were doing their thing before the rise of Zeppelin. Everyone has their influences.)
What really gets me with “Black Dog” has always been the drums.
In 1971 when “Black Dog” was released on the simply named, Led Zeppelin IV, there had been an ongoing battle of drums between The Who’s Keith Moon and the new upstart, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Each time Bonham would turn up at a concert with a new set of tom-toms, adding to his already massive set, Moon would hear about it and add a few more himself.
Moon, inadvertently, had started the whole competition thing long before Bonham came up through the ranks with Zep. Moon loved cymbals. Moon also loved to have lots of drums surrounding him. A major difference between the two was that on Moon’s largest sets, there were several drums sized exactly the same so he would have more surface area to bash about on while also adding an increasingly ridiculous – for the time – number of cymbals. As Bonham added more and more to his sets, they were always scaled in different sizes from small to large in the conventional manner.
That in turn, made Bonham different. While Moon was the brilliant undisciplined madman behind the drum set, Bonham was the powerful technician playing the truly strange time signature of “Black Dog.”
The funny part about Bonham’s playing on “Black Dog” is that while John Paul Jones had intentionally written the song to make sure that no one “could groove to it,” it was Bonham’s inspiration to figure out that if you play it straight through during the guitar runs without trying to do too much, you could flow right into the chorus while still keeping with the 5/4 time signature.
Listen to the first verse.
“Hey hey mama said the way you move,
Gonna’ make you sweat, gonna’ make you groove.”
Bonham follows on the break with a six count of snare hits and then goes right into the beat with the sixth beat becoming the first beat of a bit more conventional drum passage. Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-(dat-cymbal) and off into the regular pattern.
This is not easy stuff here.
Back in my garage band days in the late 70′s it took me quite a long time to figure this all out. It’s really easy to over think and to try and do too much at this point in the song.
Where it really gets fun - and quite complicated – is the chorus, such as it is.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah, ah, ah, ahh.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, ah, ah, ahh.”
At this point Bonham is going crazy on the off beats while time keeping on the cymbal. The snare and kick are regular he picks up the additional beats on his tom-toms. A 5/4 time signature will do that to you. (If you’re good enough to play it in the first place.)
Notably, in concert Led Zeppelin usually backed off from the 5/4 time and played it in 4/4. With the monitor technology of the day – which was usually, none - it was just to difficult to hear everyone well enough to keep it all together.
What Led Zeppelin accomplished with “Black Dog” was magical. Plant performs a vocal for the ages while Page, Jones and Bonham pull off a bit of music that only the best players have a chance of getting through without sounding like a train wreck.
“Was hören sie auch?” Alright, Tank just wandered in and asked what I’m listening to. I tell him it’s “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant and all that. “Der Song ist über mich.” Tank thinks they wrote it about him. No, I tell him. “Black Dog” was written forty years ago and it’s about a bad relationship of sorts with a not terribly honest woman.
Tank is not convinced. “Wie haben sie über mich wissen?” How did they know about him? This is gonna take a while…