I've been researching and analyzing Led Zeppelin for the past few months, reading every book I can get my hands on and regularly listening to all of their albums.
One book I encountered was Experiencing Led Zeppelin: A Listener's Companion by Gregg Akkerman. What intrigued me was that Gregg has a background as a musician - he earned a Doctor of Arts in Music Theory & Composition from the University of Norther Colorado (coincidentally, the same degree program I'll start this fall at Ball State University). Most Zeppelin authors I've read are music journalists - not necessarily musicians themselves, much less music theorists. And it shows. But Gregg's extensive musical education, knowledge, and experience as a practicing musician yield an entertaining and enlightening read.
I managed to find Gregg on Facebook, and we started an email dialog. I asked him if he'd be interested in an interview for my blog, to which he accepted. Our conversation is below.
Led Zeppelin is often called "the greatest rock band in history". Why, in your opinion?
I don’t think they are the greatest in history because other bands lasted longer and prevailed through several changes in popular music. I do think they were the greatest rock band of their time period for several reasons. Besides the fact that they looked great on stage and fully embraced the concept of “rock stars,” they were simply man-for-man better musicians and songwriters than other bands of the time. Singers like David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes are roughly as good as Plant, but none of them ever came up with melodies and lyrics as strong as “Kashmir,” “In the Light,” “Ten Years Gone,” etc. Page is not only a great guitarist but an absolute brilliant producer. He’s the main reason every Zeppelin album still sounds good today. Jones is the perfect triple threat as a bassist, keyboardist, and arranger. And Bonham has proven to be gold standard for all rock drummers since the first Zeppelin album. Throw in the tough-guy management style of Peter Grant and there’s the recipe for an absolutely great band.
How do you respond to those who take the opposite approach and claim Zeppelin is a charlatan - that they're all marketing with no substance?
I would recall the facts of the time period the band got up and rolling. They didn’t do much of what we call promotion other than print ads and playing great shows. They almost never appeared on TV either performing or being interviewed. They didn’t sail inflatable pigs over England. They didn’t qualify as a super group because Plant and Bonham had almost no popularity before Zeppelin. They didn’t even release singles to to increase radio airplay in their home country. They are certainly guilty of not crediting the source of several blues numbers from their early days but most the groups of the time did the same thing. It was wrong, but hardly unusual. They just got too famous and wealthy for it to be ignored.
Along similar lines, many people have cited "Stairway to Heaven" as the greatest single rock song of all time. Do you agree?
“Greatest” is always problematic, but “Stairway” is certainly a great song. It was the culmination of Page’s unique songwriting style striving to combine soft and hard, light and dark. He had touched on those attributes with things like “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” but it all came together on “Stairway.” Again, I say look at other groups of the time and there was simply no one else putting out songs like that: a long form of multiple sections that drives wonderfully towards the conclusion, great musicianship on all parts, interesting lyrics, a stunning guitar solo, inspired singing, and no reliance on an actual chorus.
What's your personal background and education?
Eight years of piano lessons as a kid, years of banging it out in garage bands, 15 years of actually making a living as a keyboardist in San Diego, 12 years as a college educator (doctorate of Music Theory and Composition from University of Northern Colorado), written a couple books, and now back to performing again.
How did you come to Led Zeppelin?
As a kid in the 1970s I was always intrigued by the LP records my older brothers had laying around and Zeppelin, along with Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer all stood out. I can still remember when In Through the Outdoor was released and you didn’t know which photo was on the album cover until you bought it and removed the brown paper wrapper. That was a big moment for a Zep fan back then.
And how did you end up writing a book about them?
I got connected with the acquisitions editor at the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group and they were looking for someone to supervise a new series of books called the Listerner’s Companion designed to explain to non-musicians how and why the music of various composers or bands has stood the test of time. So besides recruiting authors and overseeing their writing, I wrote Experiencing Led Zeppelin as a book of my own in the series. It was a dream come true that all those hours listening to Zeppelin as a kid had laid the foundation for me to write about their music as an adult.
So much has been said and written about Led Zeppelin already. Is it even possible to say anything new?
It certainly seems so. We’re now at the 50th anniversary of their first album and the fascination with the band is still palpable. It’s amazing, considering their complete studio output was only 9 albums.
What's your favorite Zeppelin album and song? Why?
The first album just never gets old to me. It’s exceptionally rare for a band to have a first album so fully formed. Page had such a clear concept of what he was going for that once he found the right personnel, it just launched. Bands like Van Halen, Kiss, and Aerosmith kicked around a long time trying to get traction, but Zeppelin just exploded from the few months between their first-ever rehearsal to the release of the debut album. In addition, Physical Graffiti is an excellent album because of the variety of material, and I still give Presence the nod for being a no-nonsense rocker. As for single songs, I don’t have an absolute favorite but I’ve probably listened to “Since I’ve Been Loving You” more than any other. It’s got everything in it that I love about the band.
You've also written a book titled The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story. Tell me about that book.
I played a lot of jazz and blues in my 20s and became fascinated with the recording of “Lush Life” from Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane. Then, in my 40s I was a college professor writing a journal article about Coltrane and wanted some quick biographical information on Hartman, only to find that there wasn’t much out there and most of it disagreed on basic facts like his age and birthplace. Writers are always on the lookout for that kind of daylight: an interesting subject that hasn’t already been heavily or accurately covered. I wrote up a sample chapter and got a publisher interested. The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story came out in 2012 and was nominated for Jazz Book of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association which I’m proud of because those folks are hard to impress. Several of the artists I interviewed have passed away since then so I’m grateful for chance to communicate when we did.
I understand you now work as a professional pianist on cruise ships. Does your knowledge and understanding of Zeppelin and Hartman inform your playing at all?
I work on cruise ships 6 months a year playing about 4 hours a night, 6 nights a week and I play and sing music of every conceivable genre to keep a crowd engaged. I do get the occasional request for “Lush Life” and Zeppelin and I definitely think I’ve got added layers of insight because of my studying the music so deeply. It’s stuff the general audience has no clue about, but I know precisely what phrasing, chords and riffs are played here and there and that provides a private moment of self satisfaction.
What's next for you? Any more books (about Zeppelin or otherwise) in the works?
There’s always several concepts bouncing around my head. I do have an idea for a Zeppelin-related book but I’m having too much fun getting paid to cruise the Caribbean.
Aaron Krerowicz, pop music scholar
An informal but highly analytic study of the music of Led Zeppelin.