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Well hello fellow D.. um, I mean, New Led-Zeppelin Mailing Lister's! What began as a joke has turned into something serious and we thought we would share it with you all. One evening Mr. Bill O'Neil and I were kidding around about the possible dangers of combining his Studio Tricks series and my song of the day and how it would fry the system at wherever the new list would be calling home, since we both post rather lengthy discussions on the topic of Led-Zeppelin's wonderful music. Then, next thing I know Bill approaches me seriously about it and I thought it sounded like fun, so here we are. I thought of creating a new name for this, but somehow the "Trick Of The Day" seemed a bit risky, as the FBI would surely assume we were selling prostitution over the internet and close us down. So, rather fittingly, you are stuck with a lenghty name. Of course the post will be lengthy too, so don't say we didn't warn you. This is something we will probably only do once a month or so, and we are hoping it proves fun and informative reading for all Zeppelin fans. It is with great pleasure that we give you this song from the Coda album, track two, clocking in at 3:03, "Poor Tom."
Mr. John Bonham kicks this one off with a cool shuffle. Always steady and yet always so creative in his playing, it is the broad scope of Zeppelin's music that brings out all the subtle differences in the abilities that John possessed. Never content to play it safe, he was always throwing in some neat fill, an awesome off beat lick, or a truly awe inspiring groove that no other drummer has come close to matching since his demise. To say that Bonham was largely responsible for the sound that was Led Zeppelin would be a major understatement. Here he plays a very repetitive shuffle but it never sounds repetitive. Everything he played kept the listeners attention and always kept pushing the song and the band forward.
Robert enters with the vocals about "Tom", a guy who couldn't seem to catch a break. The lyrics sound like an old tale and perhaps they were inspired by something Robert had read or heard. "Tom" spends his life working just to get to the point to where he can relax and enjoy all the fruits of his efforts, but ends up losing it all when he shoots his unfaithful wife. A sad story to say the least, but that isn't really reflected in the groove of the music, which is actually upbeat.
The guitar part here is sparse and cool. Jimmy plays some very pretty acoustic lines, however this is not a Jimmy Page original! Any Zeppelin fan knows the stories about "Dazed and Confused", "Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp", and "Black Mountain Side", the latter two of which are direct lifts from Bert Jansch tunes. But I don't recall ever hearing anyone singling out "Poor Tom." About five or six years ago a friend played me a CD by an English guitarist named Tony Rice that featured, as the lead track, the same identical music as "Poor Tom." There were no lyrics, it was purely an instrumental, and it was titled something different, but it was "Poor Tom" note for note. The CD listed the recording as being from the sixties, so it wasn't merely Tony Rice covering a Zeppelin song.
One note of interest is that this song, both by Jimmy and Tony Rice, are in the "C6" tuning that Jimmy employs on "Bron-Y-Aur", the gorgeous instrumental from the "Physical Graffiti" album, as well as "Friends" from the third album. The tuning is, from low to high, C-A-C-G-C-E.
"Poor Tom" was never performed live by Led Zeppelin though I feel it would have been a great addition to the 1977 acoustic set. This was also one of the numbers that emerged from Jimmy and Robert's visit to the Welsh cottage Bron-Y-Aur, which preceded the recording of the third album. A fun song, a good song to drive down the highway to, just don't get too caught up in the dreariness of the lyrics.
Led Zeppelin were capable of producing such a wide variety of moods and emotions, and their fondness for acoustic based songs is reflected throughout their collective work. It was this appreciation for, and knowing how to best utilize, the acoustic instrument that set them apart from any of their contemporaries.
Page and the engineers he hired to work on Zeppelin's recordings were very adept at capturing acoustic instruments. Here, on "Poor Tom," we have acoustic drums, acoustic guitars, acoustic voices, acoustic harmonicas... hardly an electric instrument in sight. JPJ's spare (and very cool) bass line is played on an electric, but we can cut him some slack, right?
Scrutinizing this song for "tricks," I was somewhat surprised to realize that there is but one guitar track throughout. It sounds so huge! Page is playing a 12-string, which adds some nice sparkle to the sound, and it seems that he's applied some reverse reverb to make the guitar shimmer. A 12-string, for those who don't know, has three additional strings tuned an octave higher (for the lowest three strings) and three additional strings tuned unison (for the three highest strings). You can see how a 12-String is put together in the TSRS video, during TSRS, TRS, or STH. These "secondary" strings are never exactly in tune, so they lend a shimmery sound to the guitar similar to the shimmer produced by an electronic effect called "chorus." It's difficult to tell how the guitar was recorded, but notice how the notes seem to "bounce"? Page was likely in a fairly "live" room, perhaps one with a wooden floor and little sound absorption on the walls. At least two microphones were employed, one (or more) placed close to Page to capture articulation and one (or more) close to the walls or floor to capture ambiance.
Towards the end of the song, we are treated to two tracks of harmonica. One, which comes from the left channel, drones as would a bagpipe, and is rather clean; it was probably recorded directly into a mike. The other harmonica track, which comes from the center of the stereo field, plays higher-pitched jabs and whistles which are comparatively drenched in reverb. This second track sounds as though it was recorded through a mildy overdriven guitar amp. Notice how the two tracks come together during the last four bars to double one another. At this point, the reverb disappears. This technique of using variable amounts of reverb on different tracks of the same instrument is a Page hallmark.
"Poor Tom" was recorded in 1970. Something that has always struck me about this song is its remarkably "clean" sound relative to that of the other acoustic songs recorded during the Zep III sessions. Notice how Bonham's drums are both fatter and more crystaline? Notice how the guitars shimmer more, and the vocals cut better? The acoustic tracks that appeared on Zep III were mixed in 1970, whereas "Poor Tom" was mixed 12 years later at Page's Sol Studios. In 1982, Page had at his disposal more sophisticated EQ and a better understanding of how to use it. Additionally, "Poor Tom" was mastered along with the other tracks included on Coda. "Mastering" is a final process applied to finished stereo mixes in which the overall EQ, compression, fades and so on are adjusted so each track sounds like it belongs with the others. Coda is a great example of what mastering is; these eight songs were recorded in at least five different sessions, yet they all sound as though they belong together.
Till next time...
Bill and Jeff
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