Album Reviews

Issue 2022-007

William Allen — On Track... Radiohead: Every Album, Every Song

William Allen - On Track... Radiohead: Every Album, Every Song
Andy Read

How time flies! It has now been more than three years since we reviewed the first book in the On Track series, where writers have given complete run-throughs of the recording histories of many of prog's great artists. Starting with an edition dedicated to Queen, we have now reviewed almost 50 titles, with many others in the series covering artists from other genres.

Up to now those reviewing the books have often themselves been fans of the artist under the On Track microscope; or at least familiar with a few of their albums.

That in itself has highlighted the many benefits of this series. These books often act as a friendly guide down memory lane, as the reader revisits beloved albums from favoured artists. At the same time those memories are enhanced by the author's additional insights and background to the recordings. The "every song" element is also an invaluable resource for those seeking to complete their collections with previously unknown tracks or releases.

But how do these books work for a reader who knows absolutely nothing about a particular band?

Many progressive artists would benefit from the equivalent of a tour guide for newcomers to their discographies; even more so when some albums are being exposed to their third generation of listeners. What one often needs in such cases is someone to take you to the more interesting places, with a gentle commentary as to what one has been missing. But are the On Track books too geeky for the average musical voyager?

To put this way of using an On Track book to the test, I am prepared to admit that I have never taken the slightest bit of interest in Radiohead. I knew they were popular (but not how much). I knew they have released a few albums (but not how many). I know they come from England (but not much else). I could honestly not name a single song of theirs.

DPRP has been more on-the-ball than me, having covered most of their nine studio and four live albums. I have often read of Radiohead's considerable influence on many modern prog bands, and the calls for their 'progressive' status to be better recognised, especially for their role in redefining what could be created within the boundaries of guitar-based rock and electronica.

I have in recent years felt that I should investigate Radiohead in more detail, to see what (if anything) I have been missing. Alas, other, newer bands keep getting in the way!

But finally the combination of another business lock-down and this new On Track book offered the perfect excuse to become better acquainted with the sonic output of this famous five-some from Oxfordshire.

My guide to the Radiohead story is one William Allen. A musician and guitar teacher from Whaley Bridge, he has been a fan of the band from almost the beginning, and confesses to believing Radiohead to be "the most important band of the last quarter of a century."

The focus is very much on the music, with each 'chapter' covering an album, prefaced by a brief description of the circumstances around its creation and (even more briefly) its public and critical reception. The analysis here offers less personal critique than I have seen in other books in the series. What we have instead, is a detailed compositional breakdown of each song. William has a masters in composition for film and tv and clearly knows his stuff.

Songs or versions added at a later date via special editions, reissues, B-sides, live versions and even songs that were only ever played live, are included with the relevant album from that time period, which keeps things in order. There are extra sections at the end for solo albums, live DVDs and videos and rare recordings. It has all been impressively researched.

As a newcomer to the band, such a balanced insight was essential in helping me at least appreciate what the band was trying to create with each song/album and where they sit in the development of "rock", "pop" and progressive music.

Using Williams' descriptions to guide my track-by-track listening of all nine Radiohead studio albums was a big help, but my end conclusion is that this is most definitely not a band for me. The first three are in a style of indie guitar rock that I simply do not enjoy. The book's storyline did prepare me for the sudden change of style towards the electronic, guitar-less textures on Kid A. I enjoyed a bit more this and the five increasingly-mellow-yet-endlessly-varied albums that followed, yet none of this is really my thing. At least I have tried.

So to answer my own question: yes these On Track books do work very well as a gentle guide into new musical territories. Maybe this year, pick a random edition covering an artist/band you do not know very well and see where it takes you?

Radiohead on

Steve Pilkington — On Track... Led Zeppelin: Every Album, Every Song

Steve Pilkington - On Track... Led Zeppelin: Every Album, Every Song
Jan Buddenberg

Ask anyone with an average knowledge in music to name one song by Led Zeppelin and with 99.99% certainty he/she will reply with Stairway To Heaven. Especially in Holland, when during winter-time Dutch radio listeners can get their vote in for their favourite songs to be aired in a annual Top 2000. As far as I can remember, dating back to approximately 1982 when it still used to be a top 100, that particular song has always been towards the top 'competing' with other iconic tracks such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Child In Time, and a song about a Californian hotel.

It obviously isn't the only song that's iconic in Led Zeppelin's repertoire, and over the years other tracks have indeed found their way into this famous listing. I haven't counted the exact number but a short list of Kashmir, Rock 'n Roll and Dazed And Confused have received a Whole Lotta Love in recent editions. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, for sprinkled across their legacy are extraordinary deep cuts worthy of attention and recognition.

Now to revive them for a new audience is Steve Pilkington: musical journalist, broadcaster and former editor for the Classic Rock Society magazine, nowadays associated with rock website Velvet Thunder.

Pilkington is no stranger to DPRP with several of his books (Iron Maiden, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple) all having received outstanding reviews in the past few years. This time around, with the previous bands signalling a pattern towards his musical preference, he takes it upon himself to share his authority on this legendary band, turning every rock upside down from their twelve-year existence, that suddenly came crashing down with the untimely death of their drummer John "Powerhouse" Bonham.

There are moments of pure progressive delight to be found all over Led Zeppelin's career, and in a chain of facts and tales Pilkington captures (almost) every single one of these highlights. For this he uses an engaging, delightful and easy-to-read style with some imaginative writing. The back cover mentions that Pilkington uses "a small dose of humour here and there", which can be considered as an understatement of sorts. On a fairly regular basis smiles formed on my face as he formulates his figurative words, while for the first time within the series actual tears of laughter befell upon me while reading some of his brilliant metaphors and opinionated expressions. The image of Robert Plant singing to his rubber duck in a bathtub will probably stay with me for decades to come.

This sense of humour proves to be the perfect way to question and comment on some of the band's artistic navigations, especially in the years after Physical Graffiti when the Zeppelin was punctured by a series of serious misfortunes and severe tragedies (all accounted for in the book). Slowly deflating, it almost uncontrollably steered onwards as they tried their unsuccessful best at incorporating rockabilly, reggae and samba (of all things!) into their music. Quite the difference to the exciting, steamy and energetic blues-orientated rock of merely a decade before, that influenced and inspired so many after the band's demise.

Upon their formation they took their inspiration from many blues legends to formulate their own style. It was a surprising read, although fully aware of the plagiarism claim of Randy California's estate towards the similarities of Stairway To Heaven's intro to Spirit's composition Taurus (thankfully denied), to find out that the band was actually confronted several times by legal issues. Especially in the early years, this happened quite a lot and many writing credits had to be corrected in later releases. All the more cruel that when the band did show their best intentions later on in their career by trying to help out the Ritchie Valens estate in adding a warm and friendly crediting gesture, this totally backfired on them!

This is only one of the "fun" facts out of a vast amount of information to be found in Pilkington's very entertaining view of Led Zeppelin. A band that on occasion delivered some great, proggy, rock moments to their roll. This roughly starts in 1968 with Dazed And Confused and a brilliant Jimmy Page on Theremin and a bow to play his guitar like a violin. Whole Lotta Love (from II) is equally alluring with its renowned riff and sublime vocal performance by Robert Plant. And let's not forget to mention excellent tracks like No Quarter, The Rain Song and Achilles Last Stand.

During their short twelve-year flight, Led Zeppelin recorded 'only' nine studio albums. Given the format of the book, 160 pages and an obligatory photo section, this means ample room to cover the albums extensively. Within these paragraphs Pilkington's analytical research and shared knowledge turns out to be formidable and the anecdotes adjacent to the individual albums and its songs are lushly filled with details, ranging from the Tolkien inspired lyrics onto the technical breakdowns, musical highlights and all in between.

Out of the nine albums, II, IV, Houses Of The Holy, and Physical Graffiti are blessed by the most appraisal, which stands to reason seeing the milestones they are. The underwhelming III is awarded equal length, yet here it isn't just the music that gets an honest and expertly evaluation, but also its ground-breaking artwork. The way Pilkington describes this original artwork is meticulously precise and it makes me sadly aware of the loss of vinyl. The smallness of CDs has made it simply impossible to recreate such covers, so a trip to the second hand vinyl store will be in order to fully grasp the genius behind this design.

Pilkington addresses all album covers at length on their beauty, inventiveness and controversy (Houses Of The Holy), apart from the "spectacularly dull" design of Coda. This isn't the only time he puts a question mark to some accomplishments and decisions of the band, as other "what were they thinking?" moments pass by; although for the most part these are in the minority. Mostly Pilkington doesn't hide his appreciation and love for the band and passionately gives praise to the albums, songs and the members, and rightly so.

Fabulous examples of this are his enthusiastic declarations described in the paragraph for Physical Graffiti. It's an album I'm not completely familiar with, but phrases like "bass play to anchor the Titanic" and stating that John Bonham's operating level is "tighter than an atomic clock" and "wins it in a metronome-staring contest" sells it for me. This chapter alone gives a fair impression of Pilkington's admiration for the individual players and the unity they formed. This success however took its toll, and the band never fully recovered from it from an artistic point of view, although sparks of ingenuity are shared by Pilkington that show the band still had lots to say in the few years they were given after.

After their final (disappointing) album Coda, he turns his undivided attention to the live albums, videos and reunion appearances, adding some lovely personal touches to the 1976 film The Song Remains The Same. He also addresses their poor 1985 Live Aid reunion and mentions a rare 1988 performance, both not officially available, before he ends up in 2007 as one of the unlucky few to not have secured a ticket for the band's official reunion show at the O2 Arena (along with 979.999 others!). Showcasing their immense popularity all those years later, it is thankfully immortalised, with 20,000 extremely lucky fans, on Celebration Day, a title which doesn't refer to Pilkington's state of mind at the time I presume.

In the final chapters a few negligible unmentioned facts occur, one that sees Pilkington fly by on the Page & Plant offering No Quarter, although strictly speaking this isn't to be a Led Zeppelin reunion as John Paul Jones isn't informed and fully absent from the recordings. It would however have been a very welcomed closure to have read Pilkington's take on these un-led-ed renditions of several Led Zeppelin compositions. Also in light of its status as the only other official album to include reworked Zep material, that involved the original members.

Well almost, for why ignore Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Puffy/Diddy (or whatever else his name is) some recognition in aiding the Zeppelin crusade when he contributed Come With Me to the 1998 Godzilla movie, which leans heavily on Kashmir's brilliance and denotes the participation of Jimmy Page? Come on Steve, show the man some love for re-introducing Led Zeppelin to a major audience, the one time he actually achieved something worth writing about; although being engaged to Jennifer Lopez must be a close second! There, I said it.

All jokes aside, Pilkington's view and wordsmithing on Led Zeppelin is a marvellous read. Their run might have been relatively short, yet is has been fruitfully amazing and still leaves a big impact on today's musical scene. A very relevant legacy that Pilkington has been able to translate into an excellent addition of the On Track series, that keeps their spirit well and truly alive. Highly recommended to fans and music devotees of all ages.

Be warned though! For following his advice I dug out the (indeed) essential Led Zeppelin DVD again which was handed down to me by fellow DPRP-er Jerry (thanks!), while the gravitational pull of Pilkington's words accompanying Physical Graffity is slowly turning into a black hole out of which there is no escape other than securing a copy. If you read this book, this might happen to you too!

Steve Pilkington on

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