Blodwyn Pig

It seems like while my generation has remembered a lot of music of the 1960s and 70s, the largest genre that has not retained too great a base of young fans is prog rock. You see teenagers with Pink Floyd shirts and Who posters all the time, but when’s the last time you saw one with a King Crimson shirt and a Yes poster on the wall, passionately air-fluting to Jethro Tull?

Well, you probably haven’t. Or at least, I haven’t. Although I manage to associate with a whole bunch of old rock nerds of approximately my age, very few of them have the patience or the stomach for prog rock. I’m not saying I do– not entirely, anyway. But in the right mood, I can really enjoy good prog, especially some of the more obscure (and in my opinion, less pretentious) stuff, especially from the late 60s and very early 70s, before the genre had largely departed from its roots in blues and psychedelic rock.

Jethro Tull’s debut album, This Was, with guitarist Mick Abrahams.

So what exactly is prog rock? For a start, the name is abbreviated from “progressive,” which was supposedly the idea. By fusing the vast majority of possible musical genres, and incorporating jazz, world, and classical influences, it seems that prog rockers hoped to further the very notion of popular (or unpopular) music itself with legendary technical proficiency and infamously long songs. Prog rock was about vision– more specifically, achieving musical vision. It can be interpreted as rock’s most introverted, fanciful side. Even lyrics often dealt with whimsical, fantastical themes, and intricate, dense instrumental passages separated prog even further from mainstream music.

Blodwyn Pig in 1969

Ironically, it is not precisely a prog idol I give you today, but instead, a prog  castaway. Blodwyn Pig came to be when Mick Abrahams departed Jethro Tull in 1968 after playing lead guitar on their debut album, This Was. Apparently, the split was due to both personal and musical differences. Although according to rumor (propagated by Circus Magazine), Abrahams’ split from the group was due to his refusal to work seven days a week, it appears to have been more as result of vocalist/flutist Ian Anderson’s increasing control over the musical direction of the band.

So, after his departure from Tull, Abrahams founded Blodwyn Pig. Jack Lancaster, who often played two woodwind instruments at once, but was officially the band’s saxophonist and an additional vocalist, would also become incredibly influential in terms of the band’s creative and musical development. Andy Pyle, who would later play with Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, and The Kinks, was on bass; Ron Berg, who would end up in an incarnation of Juicy Lucy played drums. Famous for their live shows, Blodwyn Pig were in the long run more of a cult success than a mainstream one, and while the two albums they made before breaking up in 1970 charted in the US and UK, the band has unfortunately fallen through the cracks for young fans in recent years despite several reunions through the 90s, and a body of excellent material.

These two songs, “See My Way” and “Dear Jill” might be the two best-known Blodwyn Pig songs. You might recognize “Dear Jill” from where it is used as background music in Almost Famous— a movie I have no doubt I will soon post about.

However, my favorite Blodwyn Pig songs (at least so far) are lesser-known. “Same Old Story” is a great, energetic track  more psychedelically influenced than a lot of their stuff. Then “Up and Coming” shows their bluesier side balanced with the technical mastery and complexity that distinguished them as prog rockers, whether they liked it or not.

In short, no matter your opinion (or lack thereof) of prog rock, you will not regret checking out Blodwyn Pig. A great band with a very interesting history, and some fantastic material that shows outstanding range, especially considering their extremely limited output. Three cheers for prog rockers– the ultimate nerds of classic rock. Whenever you can find the patience, you should make their lifetime’s worth of practicing scales count– you won’t regret giving them a listen.

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Led Zeppelin II

I’m incredibly fickle towards Led Zeppelin. I would be lying if I said that some of their songs don’t absolutely kill me, or that their musicianship as a whole isn’t some of the best rock n’ roll has ever seen, but in all honesty, I generally fall more on the side of Zeppelin listener than Zeppelin fan. This morning though, I realized that my rather complex opinion of the group can be summed up quite nicely just looking at their 1969 LP, Led Zeppelin II.

One plus: Led Zeppelin mastered a certain kind of rock song that was tricky and simple, balancing the riffy and virtuosic. Some of the best songs on this album, like “Ramble On” get much of their power from their turns– the flawless transitions from a mellow section into a percussive, riffy chorus that don’t break the motion of the song as a whole, staying cohesive while presenting a unique and nuanced song form. “What Is and What Should Never Be” is another great example of this. Out of a floaty verse with shimmering slide guitar and sublimely phased vocals rises a heavier, pumping chorus. In some ways, I suspect this is what I enjoy most about Zeppelin– something that truly did set them apart from other bands of the era, or since.

But then there are the blues songs. Between the so-called “Lemon Song,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Bring It On Home,” we can see some of the most egregious instances of Zeppelin stealing from the bluesmen they claimed to admire. We’ve heard all the stories about their nasty habit of lifting entire songs, nearly word for word– and we’re not talking about something as simple as the Smokestack Lightening riff– on this album alone, we’re talking about the backbones of songs– “I should’ve quit you, baby, long time ago,” and “I’m gonna bring it on home, bring it on home to you.” Even the first lines of “Whole Lotta Love” are paraphrased from Willie Dixon.

Now I haven’t tested this myself, but I would imagine that if you put a sample of people in a room, and played them a little bit of any of these songs, and proceeded to ask who wrote them, they would come up with the names Robert Plant and Jimmy Page a lot sooner than they would come up with Sonny Boy Williamson, Wille Dixon, or Howlin’ Wolf. Zeppelin were (and are) massive stars– their names are more recognizable, especially to the generation they were writing for, and the generations who followed them. But if they claim to be so influenced by these terrific musicians that have become somewhat obscured through the years, why not at least credit them for their own work? I’ve heard Plant and Page cite the tracks I’m talking about as “homage.” That word implies respect and reverence, and frankly, I don’t know if I see either of those in utter plagiarism. At least they got sued.

A third point– Zeppelin’s solos, which in my opinion can be used for good, or for excess in equal capacities. I will begin by saying that I have a large amount of patience for solos. I really do enjoy a solo that adds to a song instead of detracting from it. In my opinion, it is not as much about notes per second as it is about the way the solo fits into and enriches the song. Furthermore, I can say with some confidence that the solo break in “Heartbreaker” is an excellent example of how to make fragmented and sloppy solo stop a powerful driving rhythm dead in its tracks. The incredible momentum built in the song’s first half completely disperses with this forty-second guitar solo, which would not be nearly as annoying if it contained any fraction of the energy present in the rest of the song.

However, it is not as if I believe Zeppelin’s solos are all bad. For instance, “Moby Dick,” which does leave the structure of the song behind during its extensive Bonham drum solo, however, the solo in question does more to retain the song’s energy than Page’s does earlier in the album. Instead of relying on the residual build of the song, Bonham’s solo provides its own build. When the riff comes back at the end, we are led to it– it is not left to the listeners to find the song’s drive again on our own.

Probably my favorite element of Led Zeppelin II is the range of dynamics present within its forty-one minute running time. From the aggressive leadoff of “Whole Lotta Love” to the melty, euphoric “Thank You” (aided in part by bassist John Paul Jones’ delicate Hammond organ),  to the rhythmic intensity of “Moby Dick,” it is not an album that treads lightly, attacking not one, but many genres with vigor. Voted near the top of many a greatest album poll, Led Zeppelin II is clearly a worthwhile listen– not a perfect album, but nothing really is.