10

Feb 12

Led Zeppelin/James Brown: “The Crunge/Sex Machine”

Led Zeppelin -- Houses of the Holy

They just don't make album covers like they used to . . .

Today I’m continuing the theme from last Friday of songs in which bands pay direct tribute to their influences, so consider this another Tribute Friday. And it’s a seemingly unlikely pairing: Led Zeppelin and James Brown. Despite their basic identity as a blues-rooted rock/heavy metal band, Led Zeppelin was infused with an array of other influences. There was the often-obvious English folk (e.g., “Battle of Evermore”), but less obviously there’s the funk of James Brown in there as well. The multitalented Jimmy Page, former session musician that he was, was well-versed in numerous styles of music and could play just about anything, and with a rhythm section as awe-inspiring as John Bonham and John Paul Jones, funk was no problem. So on 1973’s Houses of the Holy, they paid homage to Brown with “The Crunge,” a riff inspired directly by Brown’s 1970 hit, the mighty “Sex Machine.”

Over a heavy funk bottom, Page plays a funk riff in mimicry of the great Phelps “Catfish” Collins, guitarist in Brown’s backing band, The J.B.’s, and older brother of bassist Bootsy Collins (also in the J.B.’s at the time). There’s a riff that Phelps plays in the bridge of “Sex Machine” that is the basic foundation for what Page does throughout “The Crunge.” Meanwhile, Robert Plant sings what can only be described as a free-association lyric — I suspect he was winging it the entire way, maybe trying to sound a bit James Brown-like, but not really conjuring Brown up that well if he was. Not to say it’s not entertaining; it’s just sort of him doing his own thing, throwing in a few J.B. references along the way (as well as at least a couple of Otis Redding references: “Ain’t gonna call me Mr. Pitiful, no!/I don’t need no respect from nobody!”). His style of singing here certainly makes one think that Jack White was a big fan of the song as well — White sings like this on a large number of White Stripes songs.

The most famous James Brown reference in Plant’s ramblings in “The Crunge” comes at the very end, when he pokes good-natured fun at Brown asking to be taken to the song’s bridge in “Sex Machine.” About 2 minutes into “Sex Machine,” Brown asks sideman vocalist Bobby Byrd (he of the “Get on up!”):

Bobby! Should I take ’em to the bridge? (Go ahead!)
Take ’em on to the bridge? (Take ’em to the bridge!)
Can I take ’em to the bridge? (Yeah!)
Take ’em to the bridge? (Oh yeah!)
Hit me now!”

(This is followed by the riff mentioned above that “The Crunge” is based on.)

Plant’s hilarious take on this comes at the end of “The Crunge”:

Take it on, take it, take it, take it
Ahh, excuse me…Will you excuse me?
I’m just trying to find the bridge
Has anybody seen the bridge? Please!
[Spoken]: Have you seen the bridge?
I ain’t seen the bridge!
[Spoken]: Where is that confounded bridge?

It’s a Monty Python-esque moment, and given that the entire song is based on Brown’s bridge, it’s especially humorous. The way the song then essentially drops off the cliff when it can’t find the bridge is the perfect ending. Anything more would have been a bridge too far.

2 Comments

  1. Mark w. says:

    Bravo, Bravo. you’ve made my evening. My 33 year old son has become a Led Zeppelin fan recently, as well as a collector of LP Albums. Bringing my self proclaimed expertise on the subject of Led Zeppelin to a discussion of the songs on “Houses of the Holy”,, my son asked me: “what up with the “Crunge?” Making an educated guess, based on the beat, Page’s guitar and Plant’s deep pool of influences, I told him: “its a tribute to James Brown. Listen to that guitar, and Plant’s vocal phrasing”.
    I wasn’t sure I was right, but now I am justified. Your explaination of the “Bridge” is fantastic and has to be spot on. I never picked up on that – even though I love “Sex Machine” and have heard both songs many times. Thanks for the education.
    P.S, – What doyou think about “Royal Orleans” from “Presence””? Any James Brown influence there?
    Thanks
    Mark

    1. Mark, thanks for writing — it’s always great to hear that something from the blog has been useful to someone! They’re both great songs in their own right, and a lot of fun to hear side by side. As for “Royal Orleans,” there’s definitely a funk influence there, and where there’s funk, there’s James Brown. But I wouldn’t say there’s anything quite so directly attributable to Brown’s influence as in “The Crunge,” of course…

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