First, check out these two black-and-white lip-synced promo clips from two up-and-coming rock groups of 1969:
Now, put aside any preference you might have as a fan, or whatever knowledge of rock history you might have as an impartial listener, and ask yourself – for which of these acts would you have predicted a big future?
I’d never heard of Gun until I stumbled across this on (where else?) YouTube; I was in fact looking for the 1975 movie Race With the Devil, wherein Peter Fonda and Warren Oates are pursued by rural Satanists. Though the Gun tune presented here was later covered by Judas Priest and Girlschool, I hadn’t caught it until very recently. The Zeppelin classic, on the other hand, was introduced to me around 1984, and even this relatively obscure “video” was featured on the band’s 2003 DVD collection. I have the track on LP, cassette, CD (wicked live version on BBC Sessions), and bootleg disc, in addition to the countless times I’ve fumbled through it on my guitars.
Given all that, though, it’s interesting to compare “Race With the Devil” and “Communication Breakdown.” They’re both fast hard rock songs performed by young longhairs of the late 1960s; they both showcase flashy and aggressive instrumental workouts; both filmed documents are typical of the era’s rather primitive pop music cinematography. Of course we know that Led Zeppelin had many more massively successful records ahead of them, whereas Gun faded to also-ran status, but the point is that it would have been hard to foresee such outcomes based solely on these two examples. In retrospect, Zeppelin rules. For a brief moment, however, Gun might have given them a serious challenge.
Granted, Led Zeppelin proved their talent over a long career. They worked hard, put out quality material, and cultivated a mystique matched by few of their contemporaries. Yet some of that mystique, like that of any iconic act, has become self-reinforcing. Famous art and artists tend to become more famous over the decades, partly out of cultural convenience and partly out of an economy of scale, whereby established hits are simply easier to promote or otherwise disseminate across a range of media than lesser-known work. That’s how the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll put it in 1995: “AOR [Album-Oriented Radio] music…is played all the time because it’s popular; it remains popular because it’splayed all the time.” Hindsight isn’t just 20/20 – it gets sharper the further back you look. So it’s no accident that Led Zeppelin are today a legendary rock band. But perhaps it is an accident that Gun aren’t.