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12/20/2012 10:15 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

2012 Kennedy Center Honors: Why It Took So Long for the Experts to "Get" Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin, one of the most seminal and popular acts in rock history, triumphantly received Kennedy Center Honors earlier this month from President Obama and the nation's elite (the event will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26, 2012, from 9 to 11 p.m. ET).

This leaves us to ponder a puzzle: How could the experts of the late 1960s and 1970s have gotten it so wrong in their assessment of this British band's impact on music?

Go back a generation, to Zeppelin's unprecedented six-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in 1977. A number of those shows became legendary bootleg collector albums that are obsessively traded and studied by old and young musicians and fans today.

Yet here was the reaction of the Los Angeles Times' influential rock critic Robert Hilburn, reviewing the first show of that stand:

"If the show were edited down to two hours, the gap between critics' often cold view of Zeppelin and the fans' adoration would be lessened considerably. Besides the low yield of the solos, the long shows tend to point out the band's limitations as songwriters. The tunes mostly are exercises in style rather than substance. The band has little of the intriguing point of view or commentary of the Stones, The Who, Kinks, or other more fully satisfying, classic English rock outfits from the '60s."

The Kinks were more fully satisfying? Let that slide for a moment. The key point is that Hilburn confessed that the critics could find more to like about Led Zeppelin if only there were less of Led Zeppelin. Yet these alleged excesses of the band merely turned them into the most sought-after concert ticket of the decade (and made them the most sought-after ticket in history at their only full-scale reunion five years ago).

Hilburn was right, in a sense. Zeppelin wasn't about creating and singing catchy McCartney-style ditties that could be sung around campfires. The band's bassist, John Paul Jones, once noted that Zeppelin wasn't a song-oriented band, but rather a "performance-oriented band." It created music that would serve as vehicles to display their individual skill and their unrivaled chemistry -- all while sweeping adventurously across the landscapes of blues, hard rock, English and American folk music, rhythm & blues, Middle Eastern and South-Asian melodies, and even chunks of funk and touches of reggae and Bach during their three-hour marathon concerts.

To return to the Kinks, their frontman Ray Davies himself once observed that "songs" weren't the point for Zeppelin. "I can't call their music songs," he said. "It just exists in its own relentless groove.... They created what didn't exist before. That's always a sign of a band's prominence."

Several factors together explain why the critics never rolled out the welcome mat for Led Zeppelin in the band's lifetime, and why its snide old nemesis Rolling Stone only began giving Zeppelin respect long after its 1980 breakup.

The Virtuoso Factor

Most rock critics of Zeppelin's era had no place for musical virtuosity. Technical prowess often worked against a performer or group, as the critics were able to dismiss a technician for lacking "substance."

Led Zeppelin, at some level, was a jazz trio, fronted by a scatting, jazz-blues banshee. From the astonishing improvisation between Jones, drummer John Bonham, and guitarist/bandleader Page, to Plant vocally accompanying the melody like a crazed version of Erroll Garner, the band was magically addictive on stage to anyone who had ears to hear it. The critics and experts didn't.

The truth is that the music of even Bach was dismissed by the critics of his day as "turgid and bloated," words that one would expect to see in a Rolling Stone review of a 1970s Zeppelin LP release. The critics often are looking for a fashion that the fans of their time or posterity aren't looking for.

The Political Factor

Many critics were convinced that rock was a leftist political movement, a vehicle for revolution. Critics like Hilburn used overblown phrases like "bold sociocultural redirection" to describe the bad poetry of semi-talented musicians who believed they were launching a planet-transforming social struggle.

Led Zeppelin was, politically speaking, an odd bird--avant garde musically, but not necessarily interested in toppling the political establishment. At a moment when critics were looking for more voices to join their political revolution, the band announced its presence in 1969 with the cocky, strutting showboating of drums, bass and guitar on "Good Times, Bad Times" -- more intent on displaying skill and joyful band dynamics than in making statements about Vietnam or income inequality.

The "Little Brother" Factor

A rock critic set ablaze by the liberating energy of Buddy Holly, Elvis, The Beatles and the Stones would be several years older than the generation that would be set ablaze by the hyper-energy of Led Zeppelin. Some writers have noted that Led Zeppelin became the favored band of the rock critics' little brothers, which made them a threatening rival viewed through a lens of dismissive envy. When the punks showed up in the mid-1970s, they were eagerly embraced by mainstream rock critics for the manner in which they represented a defiant break with "boring old farts" and "aging dinosaurs" like a Led Zeppelin that was actually very much in its prime.

The Elvis Costello Factor

Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, at the apex of that band's popularity in the mid 1980s, mused that "the reason most rock critics like Elvis Costello is that most rock critics look like Elvis Costello."

Have truer words ever been spoken? Rock critics could more easily identify with dweebs and geeks than with rock gods. Yet many young dweebs, like myself, looked to Zeppelin as the heroes that we wished we were and hoped we could be. The critics represented the people who resented the existence of such gods at all. For them, Robert Plant and guitarist/bandleader Jimmy Page may have well have been performing in t-shirts that said, "If you had a girlfriend, she'd have left you for me by now."

Long after the fizzling of the punk revolution that rock critic Charles Shaar Murray had championed, he would reflect on the astonishing endurance of a band that he confessed to having a "love-hate relationship" with. "Led Zeppelin's afterlife -- the extent to which their influence continued to dominate the aesthetic of hard-rock and, later, heavy metal -- was as extraordinary as that of any disbanded group other than the Beatles," he noted. "It should not come as a surprise that, even as a defunct band, they seem to become bigger and bigger. And for every tawdry bunch of Zep copyists xeroxing what as undeniably a unique style and sound, they seem -- in retrospect -- better and better, richer and grander. The more they are imitated, the more they grow."

Indeed. The critics of the 1970s wanted less Led Zeppelin. And yet we have more Led Zeppelin today than they could have imagined. The Rolling Stones changed the sound of rock. And The Beatles changed the sound of music. But Led Zeppelin changed the very sound of sound. For that reason, this year's Kennedy Center Honors were long overdue.

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