If one were to apply the Freudian schema of id, ego, and superego to the rock spectrum of the late 60s and 70s, Led Zeppelin would be an obvious candidate for the id. From the ominous chord progressions of Kashmir to the haunting Robert Plant vocals, Zeppelin’s sonic universe expresses in every nuance the power of the dark drives that animate the human psyche. By contrast, the Beatles symbolize the superego, crystallizing in song after song the ideals and aspirations of their generation. If one had to pick an exemplar of the ego in this schema, offering tales of everyday grit and grind where the rubber meets the road, Bob Dylan would cast fine in that role.
Led Zeppelin lacks both the street cynicism of Dylan and the idealism of the Beatles, but that vacuum is more than filled with the powerful rhythms of the id. Even when Zeppelin ventures into the zone of idealism, the zone of the superego, it is engulfed by the dominant passion of the id. “Going to California,” for example, presumably a paean to that icon of hippie ideals and author of the song “Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell, starts out with Jimmy Page’s gentle guitar notes, with Plant’s contemplative tone and lyrical “aching” for the ideal. But Plant cannot survive in these waters, and the vocals pitch from pensive to agonizing quite abruptly in the second stanza, like some irresistible return of the repressed. Plant is self-possessed enough to know he has crafted a song that takes him out of his element, and he cries out to anyone who can hear: “I think I might be sinking … throw me a line.” Zeppelin knows that if they wander too far from the land of the id into the land of sentiment, they will drown. And from that knowledge comes their musical power.
An even more pointed example of the resilience of the id as Zeppelin’s home key is the tortured love song, “Babe I’m Going to Leave You,” from their 1969 debut album. In the sonic universe of some other band, “I’m never, never, never gonna leave you” would be a sweet and soothing line, a meme of unconditional love. In “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” it launches perhaps the most chilling scream in Plant’s ample canon of chilling screams. If this is love, it is love manifest as a tormented addiction. The song ends with a vision of the two lovers walking in the park, but this park seems landscaped and maintained by the Recreation Department of Hell itself. Even Zeppelin’s less conflicted “Whole Lotta Love” remains impossibly distant from the tender love of Lennon/McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere.”
The Beatles, in fact, work the opposite way, starting with a vast array of songs that partly capture and partly create the hippie zeitgeist, with “All You Need Is Love” and “Revolution” as perhaps twin pillars of this thematic layer. When they venture into the subject matter of the id, say via the amoral meaningless violence of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the sonic universe keeps us in the idealized realm. Despite the lyrics, it remains playful, bouncy, rich in sheer aesthetic pleasure. We’re as upbeat about Maxwell’s murderous rampage as we are terrified by Led Zeppelin’s love song. The Beatles weave every dark thread into the visionary tapestry of the superego, and Zeppelin pulls everything back to the id.
A final conclusion of this schema is that the Beatles are the only real “hippie” band of the three. Bob Dylan is pure Beat Generation, as epitomized by the cynical, street-bound, gritty realism of “Tangled Up in Blue.” I suspect he was a little distrustful of hippie idealism, and would be more at home among the black-leathered coffee shop poets of North Beach. Donovan might take the same folk meters and acoustic-harmonica instrumentation as Dylan and transmute it into something like “Catch the Wind,” a beautiful, dreamy soundtrack for the motley-colored flower children of Golden Gate Park. (And Donovan brings a Jungian dimension to our schema, with songs like “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis” rummaging through the collective unconscious for Messianic forces to usher in the Age of Aquarius.) One can even picture solid Beat icons like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg roaming freely among those bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. But not Dylan. He remains a creature of the ego. “When the Levee Breaks” for Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, all hell breaks loose from the depths of the id. “In the Evening,” one of the last songs before John Bonham’s death, echoes the hypnotic quality of Kashmir, dragging the listener into the rhythm of the band’s own compulsions, as the main riff continues to pound in the mind after the song is over. Even in the famous excesses of their touring lifestyle, Led Zeppelin was always something other than hippie, other than Beat, something dark and primal, something to which, for better or for worse, we can all relate.
Joni Mitchell, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young