By Manuel Gemperli
Anybody who has ever heard Led Zeppelin – speak anybody who has functioning ears – will immediately be reminded of them upon hearing Greta Van Fleet. They might even think it is Led Zeppelin at first. There is no denying where Greta Van Fleet got their sound from. The songwriting styles, the tone of their instruments, the high pitched voice. Greta Van Fleet singer Josh Kiszka even throws in some pretty impressive “Ooh Mama’s” – just like Robert Plant used to do. No, this isn’t another article debating whether they are a Led Zep-rip-off, there’s no question about that. It isn't even about whether they're good at what they're doing or not (I personally enjoy their music). The more interesting question is whether they will be able to introduce a new generation to rock music, because they do what not many new rock bands do these days. They are filling arenas and they’re filling them with fans of all ages, many of whom only know Led Zeppelin from their parents’ (or let’s be honest and this might hurt some: possibly grandparents’) record collections or from articles and videos explaining where they got their sound and look from.
No, music can’t be measured, but the Billboard charts do reveal a lot about what music is actually truly popular at any given time. And a look at the year-end album charts of 2021 is very telling to those who wonder if rock music is still widely popular. There is one rock band formed after 1980: Metallica - barely squeezing in at the 99th spot with their “Black Album” which turned 30 in 2021. The handful other rock albums that made it on the list are by bands like Fleetwood Mac or Queen with music that is over 40 years old. The popular music landscape is dominated by hip hop and hip hop-adjacent pop music. The fact that some really old rock albums can still make it to year-end sales charts can be interpreted favorably (somewhat) or unfavorably (completely) for rock music. It can be viewed as a testament of the timelessness of the music that it is still being listened to and rediscovered so many years later. Those purchases or streams don’t only come from people clinging on to the music of their youth. There are also people who weren’t even born the last time rock was truly culturally relevant who are drawn to those classic records. It could be interpreted as a longing for the quality and artistic brilliance of those bands, a sign that people indeed still care about rock. But it could also be seen as proof that rock can’t capture the zeitgeist anymore, that it lost its ability to soundtrack the present and is now demoted to providing comfortable nostalgia. It isn’t surprising that one of the few new rock bands that enjoys a certain level of mainstream success is essentially an old band, too.
It seems unavoidable that progressive thoughts, ideas or art turn conservative over time. What is once new and cutting edge becomes old and backward-looking. It’s simple logic and it brings us to an aspect that Greta couldn’t copy from Led Zeppelin no matter how hard they tried. They can replicate their sound, they can sift through second-hand stores to find the same type of clothes, they can even copy their stage movements, but there will be one big fundemental difference. Led Zeppelin were a progressive band (in the true sense of the word, not saying they’re a Progressive Rock band in the sense of a subgenre description), Greta Van Fleet are essentially conservative. Not politically, but from the standpoint of their artistic approach. I do realize that Led Zeppelin were accused of ripping off other artists, mainly old and to the mainstream audience rather obscure, blues artists. But that wasn’t all that they did. Nobody would have ever mistaken “Led Zeppelin I” for a forgotten Mississippi Delta Blues record from the 1930’s. They did sometimes copy whole parts (and were sued for it numerous times), but they updated the sound, they made it their own (to use a cringe-worthy, vastly overused expression, but it is actually true in this instance). Taking cues from music that’s been there before, being inspired by it, is not only common, it is the only way music is being pushed forward. No art exists in a vacuum, but what innovative artists do is to expand on what has already been created. They mix known ingredients together to create new flavors. You can’t create anything new if you only use the same ingredients somebody else had already used. Led Zeppelin were leaders of a whole new musical movement making rock the dominant music style of their decade. They added a certain heaviness to their sound not heard before them. Some even credit them as one of the inventors of heavy metal even though they always hated to be lumped into that. This is a fairly common reaction though. Most bands don’t like to be labeled, but their influence on rock in general and bands that would later embrace the term heavy metal is undeniable.
Led Zeppelin were never a political band. Their music was mainly about sex (and sometimes fantasy stuff). But what a band stands for and its place in the cultural environment it inhabits can have political meaning in itself. Most of their active career fell into the 70’s, shortly after the Summer of Love and the sexual revolution that deeply changed society, amplified to a significant degree by music. The sexual excess they became known for can alternatively be viewed as an example of free love and a breaking of the shackles of a deeply conservative society or a mindless exploration of masculine power. What can’t be denied is that they appealed almost solely to young people at the time, a generation actively seeking to separate themselves to the generation that preceded them. Parents hated Led Zeppelin. Today’s parents are much more likely to dig Greta Van Fleet. They probably sound very familiar. The lyrical content Led Zeppelin preferred wouldn’t be interpreted as rebellion against old shackles anymore. Having fun isn’t new anymore. Now, this is not a criticism. You can’t help the circumstances and era you’re born in and Greta never claimed to want to change the world, but it makes it impossible for them to have the type of cultural impact rock bands of the 70’s had. They might have very similar lyrical topics, but they aren’t a product of newfound societal freedoms, rather they are a throwback to a long-gone era. And they do it in a very safe way. Most of their lyrics are extremely vague and non-threatening. It is a band for the whole family. The rebellious aspect of rock is completely lost.
When The Strokes ‘ debut album “Is This It” started making waves in 2001 many media outlets likened its impact to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” ten years prior. This was for the most part wishful thinking, because hype is great for music media outlets and new superstars essential to their existence. The Strokes didn’t end up being the new Nirvana, but along with bands like The White Stripes or The Hives, they were responsible for a garage rock revival that might have not had quite the cultural impact of Grunge, but in retrospect it was the last time to date that there was a true wave of new emerging rock bands that were what rock always needed to be to justify its existence: cool. The video to “Last Nite” looked like it was footage from the Ed Sullivan Show or similar type of shows popular 40, 50 years prior to its release. The sound was stripped down, old equipment was used, everything screamed retro. Plus, they made leather jackets cool again (possibly their most important achievement. Nothing beats leather jackets). The big difference to Greta Van Fleet was that it was an unspecified version of retro. It wasn’t a singular band that they referenced but a whole era. The success of The Strokes spurred a label signing frenzy of similar garage-y bands, almost all using the definite article: the “The” bands. As with most hypes it produced many bands time forgot quickly, but some like The White Stripes or The Black Keys (who really hit it big in the late 00’s and early 10’s) managed to have huge careers. Even The Strokes are still around over 20 years after they were the most hyped band in the world for a moment in time. They had a considerable influence on the music business and the fashion world alike. Besides the leather jackets it was an era when slim-fit suits became trendy again. Retro chic. Greta Van Fleet models their looks mainly on – you guessed it – Led Zeppelin. Singer Josh Kiszka loves one-piece jumpsuits just like Robert Plant did. In Zep’s heyday, rock bands certainly had a big impact on fashion as well, but on the streets it would usually result in a stripped down version of the big rock star’s extra-flamboyant stage clothes. You pretty much have to be on stage to wear a lot of that stuff without looking ridiculous.
The success of a new band often results in similar bands being discovered by those newfound fans. This is how most big waves in rock music’s history have worked. In order for a new sound to truly break into the mainstream, at least one gateway band is needed. Greta Van Fleet do have an avid following and all the talk about how they’re nothing more than a tribute act might actually help the bond between them and their fans who might be inclined to defend them. It can’t be denied that they are talented. They’re great at their instruments and they write memorable songs. You might even argue that some of those songs would have been received really well had they actually been new Led Zeppelin songs. Maybe “Black Smoke Rising” would have become a modern Led Zep classic. While I personally dismissed them as a Led Zeppelin copy at first as well, I went back to listen closer after a while and ended up really liking their music. After all, it has been decades since we heard new music of Led Zeppelin, so they certainly serve as a welcome methadone to help with the Led Zep withdrawal signs. But it looks like they may be a phenomenon on their own rather than the leaders of a rock revival. While there are certainly some other newer bands that are inspired by classic rock, none of them have gotten close to the exposure that Greta Van Fleet is enjoying. The tendency of young people discovering and liking them is to be steered into the past instead of other new bands. If you like Greta Van Fleet, you will likely want to check out Led Zeppelin and from there you might start discovering other 70’s rock bands. While they lack the originality and charisma to spearhead a new era of rock, there is a chance that they will inspire kids and teenagers to pick up an instrument and form bands with their friends. Whenever rock came back from the dead with a new incarnation, it started in the underground by then-teenagers (and was then swallowed and ultimately killed by the mainstream, but that's a different topic). This takes time though. Besides introducing a whole new generation to Led Zeppelin, maybe getting somebody (who would have otherwise tried rapping) to sign up for guitar lessons will be Greta Van Fleet’s more important contribution to rock music. I would absolutely love for that to happen.