As a person who makes his living by typing out opinions about pop culture and posting them on the internet, I’m accustomed to awkward conversations about my job. To most people, what I do isn’t even a job, but rather an incomprehensible hustle in which I con shadowy corporations thousands of miles from my home into giving me money for nothing. What can I say? Those people are not wrong.
On occasion, however, when it comes up that I am a professional rock critic, someone will want to talk to me about a band. And these conversations, during a particular period of time, always seem to be about the same band. For instance, in the early 2010s, every music conversation I had with “regular,” non-internet-based life forms was about Mumford And Sons. For a few years, my small-talk situations were dominated by those suspenders-wearing wannabe blacksmiths. Did you see them on the Grammys? Did you catch them on SNL? Aren’t they the best?
For the sake of social graces, I had to pretend to be nicer to Mumford And Sons in conversation than I ever was in print. But I didn’t need to consult SoundScan numbers to know that band was huge — the anecdotal evidence was already overwhelming.
Lately, I’ve noticed a new band creeping regularly into my idle chitchat with everyday music fans: Greta Van Fleet. In the past few weeks, in emails and on Twitter and even IRL, people have been asking me about this baby-faced Michigan quartet that sounds like Led Zeppelin. This fall, Greta Van Fleet’s debut single, “Highway Tune,” topped the Mainstream Rock and Active Rock charts for five weeks. And they’re already a hot club attraction, with an upcoming tour launching at the end of the month that’s already mostly sold-out, including multi-night stands at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom and Nashville’s Mercy Lounge.
Let me be clear: Greta Van Fleet sounds exactly like Led Zeppelin. Take “Safari Song,” the first track from the new From The Fires, which repackages songs from the Black Smoke Rising EP (which came out just six months ago) with four new songs. Guitarist Jake Kiszka conjures some mystic blooze and quotes “Black Dog” in the solo, singer Josh Kiszka (Jake’s twin brother) unleashes a hysterical viking wail and about a dozen “ooo mama’s,” drummer Danny Wagner throws down the hammer of the gods like he’s about to embark on a 20-minute “Moby Dick,” and bassist Sam Kiszka (the youngest brother), I presume, affects a dignified, John Paul Jones-esque posture in the background. The level of sonic mimicry is uncanny and totally unabashed. If Zeppelin stole their act from Willie Dixon, Greta Van Fleet is determined to steal it right back.
So: Do I like them? Do I think they’ll be huge? Are they charmingly retro (i.e. derivative in a good way) or merely a rip-off (i.e. the bad kind of derivative)?
It’s possible that I keep walking into these conversations because I’m a 40-year-old man who still likes to get the led out. Appealing to members of my demographic appears to be part of Greta Van Fleet’s business plan. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Greta Van Fleet could forge a path to world domination by appealing to “classic-rock dads who tune into rock radio shows and attend classic-rock concerts” as well as “younger male fans curious about 1960s and 1970s rock, soul and funk; and young women who, in the past, have helped mainstream rock bands become pop stars.” That’s the plan, anyway, for some surprisingly well-heeled music-industry insiders (including industry executives that have shepherded the careers of Adele, Kendrick Lamar, and Lorde) who are betting on Greta Van Fleet becoming a genuine breakout band.
It’s also possible that I’m a magnet for “rock is dead” conversations, given that I’ve publicly expressed my disdain for this decades-old critical cliché in the past. Nearly everything that’s been written about Greta Van Fleet, including that Wall Street Journal piece, has positioned them as a possible savior for a genre that has all but retreated from pop music in the past decade.
If only the people who are so concerned about rock’s health had better short-term memories — perhaps then they would remember the existence of other young bands with loads of bluesy swagger that are already popular but aren’t currently in the midst of album cycles, like Arctic Monkeys and Alabama Shakes, both of whom do robust business on the road while also selling loads of $30 vinyl records and racking up tens of millions of spins on Spotify. (Arctic Monkeys’ “Do I Wanna Know,” the breakout song from the band’s most recent album, 2013’s A.M., presently has more than 406 million plays on Spotify, which puts it in the same ballpark as Lorde’s “Royals.”)
But without “rock is dead,” there wouldn’t also be the complementary music-writing cliché, “rock is back.” If Greta Van Fleet weren’t so reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, they would more immediately evoke the likes of Jet, The Darkness, and Wolfmother, all of whom emerged about a decade ago with the backing of major labels looking to cash in on an audience hungry for bands who propagated the most thunderously obvious “rock” signifiers, like AC/DC or Deep Purple with training wheels.
For many people, a “real” rock band can only resemble a hard-rock throwback from 1973, even if a slightly more ecumenical definition of rock music would accommodate everyone from Chris Stapleton to St. Vincent to Harry Styles, as well as scores of other artists who draw on rock traditions without strictly adhering to the genre’s iconography or unwritten codes of conduct. Because the reality is that rock never dies, it only changes, sometimes by evolving with the times in ways that more conservative listeners can’t quite understand or appreciate. Other times it changes by returning to a discarded style and reviving it, which more trend-obsessed listeners can’t quite understand or appreciate. Either instinct can make rock appear “dead,” prompting familiar charges over a lack of “relevance” at one extreme or “innovation” at the other. But the pendulum inevitably swings the other way eventually, signaling the potential, glorious “return” of something that’s actually remained constant for decades.
Just as the “rock is dead” narrative dates back to the early days of curmudgeonly rock criticism in the ’60s, “rock is back”-style bands have long been entrenched in contemporary music culture. To name one example: The excellent blues-rock group the Black Crowes appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in light of the multi-platinum sales of the band’s debut, Shake Your Money Maker, a record that was likened to the Rolling Stones as much as Greta Van Fleet has been compared to Zeppelin.
In his story, David Fricke notes the “obvious public hunger for electric grit ‘n’ grind” given the success of Black Crowes singles like “Hard To Handle” and “She Talks To Angels,” which came “after a year when no rock bands hit No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart and a moribund season of subsequent Is-rock-dead? essays.”
That was 26 years ago. These kinds of bands, apparently, are no more derivative than many of the people who write about them.
Getting back to the original question: Do I like Greta Van Fleet? The short answer is: Not at first. But now, in spite of myself, yes.
My relationship with “rock is back” bands is complicated. My initial reaction is always skepticism. It’s healthy to be skeptical when you know, on some level, that you’re being pandered to. But if the tunes are there, it’s awfully hard to resist over the long haul. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” is a good song. “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” is a good song. The first Wolfmother LP, at the very least, had an amazing cover. These bands are inarguably unoriginal, but they (mostly) make up for it with craft and execution.
Greta Van Fleet has another thing in their favor: They are extremely young (between the ages of 18 and 21) and completely guileless. Whatever else you want to say about From The Fires, it doesn’t seem cynical. Rather, it’s the realization of a fantasy for anyone who has ever had an adolescent Zeppelin phase — these dudes found a way to be Page & Plant & Bonzo & Jonesy for 30 minutes. When Greta Van Fleet melds “Your Time Is Gonna Come” with “Ramble On” in the form of the brilliantly dippy “Flower Power,” the transfiguration of millennial boys into Led Zeppelin III is actually sort of sweet.
Maybe I’m sucker for being happy that young guys still, in the year of our Lorde 2017, aspire to be like Zeppelin. And perhaps I’m an enormous sap for hoping that Greta Van Fleet can produce a Physical Graffiti seven years from now. But I can’t be mad at kids who were born around the time that Walking Into Clarksdale came out for being this good at creating a feisty bustle in your hedgerow. It would be like kicking a puppy for learning “Smoke On The Water.” Instead, I must salute, for now, these youthful lemon-squeezing prodigies.