Stairway to Purgatory: Greta van Fleet in an age where baby boomers still walk the earth

Back in 1971-72 when I was still in my early teens, there was a guy named Bob Hegarty who did an FM freeform-style radio show on a small station in Danvers, Mass. He also wrote about rock music for a weekly arts-and-entertainment paper called North of Boston. I semi-idolized this guy. His radio show was pretty awesome: he was spinning all the great stuff of the era: the Who, the Stones, Cream, Bowie, Hendrix, Tull etc. as well as some blues and jazz. I was probably one of his younger fans and would call in a request almost every week and always be included in his roll call of regular listeners that he would read off at the end of the show: I was the proverbial “Rick from Peabody.” His weekly record reviews in NOB were erudite and free-wheeling. He liked all the stuff that I was getting into at the time with one big exception: to him, Led Zeppelin were a no-go zone.

Of course, as a 13-year-old American male I loved them and already had Led Zeppelin IV on cassette by the time Hegarty’s review of it showed up in NOB. And it was a doozy. Bob did have nice things to say about “Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven” and even paid Jimmy Page a nice back-handed compliment on the latter, saying that the guitar solo on “Stairway” showed that “Page can still play his axe.” Hey, thanks! As for the rest of the LP, to him it was the same old stuff: so loud “that it doesn’t even matter what they’re playing.” In fact, by the time he got halfway thru the closer “When the Levee Breaks” Hegarty was so fed up that he wanted to take the platter off the turntable and smash it to pieces, “until I remembered I just paid FOUR BUCKS for it.” Classic. Despite my LZ fandom, this didn’t make me mad. It made me want to become a writer, too.


The Greta van Fleet of their time? Led Zeppelin raising the roof at Madison Square Garden in 1973. From the film “The Song Remains the Same”

Which brings me to Greta van Fleet. The young Michigan quartet have been the beneficiary of much press in the last year or so, much of it along the lines of them reviving the dormant genre of heavy rock. (Dormant to the hype-spinners, of course). Their guitarist has admitted he taught himself every riff off the first two Zeppelin albums and let’s just say it shows. Those two LZ albums got panned in Rolling Stone by John Mendelsohn, in prose that toggled between dismissive and sarcastic. (This is the same Rolling Stone that recently did a fawning teenybopper-style piece on GVF). Of course, a lot of that was generational (inter-generational, really). The first wave of baby-boomer rock freaks had a chip on their shoulder about Jimmy Page and Co. (a real creation of the 70s), believing the band were bulldozing the cherished blues foundation upon which rock ‘n’ roll was built, all to appeal to their younger siblings with volume and bombast. Sure, some of this is the old generational certitude that your era is better. But there is more to it now, which I will get to in a bit.

Greta van Fleet had been making a bit of a splash for months but it all came to a head when they made their high-profile appearance on Saturday Night Live. Audio-wise, their first number, “Black Smoke Rising,” showed them to be a capable if derivative hard rock act. But there was one big problem: you were looking at them as well. Granted, I’m not the band’s target demographic but I find it hard to think that even today’s teenage girls would be ga-ga over their mismatched patterned cast-offs, sandals and the type of satin jackets that haven’t been in style since Blue Oyster Cult fired their first publicist. But that’s just me, I guess. Singer Josh Kiszka’s self-conscious yelping and arm-waving, not to mention the awkward and vaguely inauthentic stage moves of his two brothers (guitarist Jake and bassist Sam), bordered on self-parody, if that were possible this early in a career. When they returned later for the ballad “You’re the One” (a decent song in search of a credible singer), Josh spent most of the song posing like an eight-armed Bodhisattva with six of them missing.


GVF singer Josh Kiszka. Even the Rock & Roll Fashion Police were left speechless on viewing this.

With a band like this, acting dorky almost on purpose while riding the sonic coattails of a beloved classic-rock icon like Zeppelin, the social media backlash was as fun as one could hope for. I was too happy to pile on, dubbing them “Greta van WTF-R-U-Wearing” and clicking on the Ha-Ha icon when someone declared “Every generation gets the Led Zeppelin they deserve” or asked “Why is the singer dressed like Greg Brady’s bedroom door?” But there was also the backlash to the backlash, with people getting dubbed “haters” (does that mean nothing is open to criticism?) or just boring old farts. Apparently, some people in my age group have convinced themselves they like GVF and that’s their prerogative.


“Highway Tune,” a sort of learner’s-permit variation on Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” was one of the songs on their Grammy-winning Best Rock Album. Or as the voters probably thought of it, Only Rock Album.

But what is ignored (or,frankly, not even realized) is that standards were simply a lot higher then and many boomers have stuck to them. Fans and reviewers alike were a lot more discerning and that was for the better. Despite their exaggerations, Hegarty and Mendelsohn were not that off base in their anti-Zep attitudes. Parts of Led Zeppelin II in particular sound grating nowadays and they were taking songwriting credits that should have (and in some cases eventually did) go to the blues greats they were emulating. But they grew by leaps and bounds over the next few albums. Some people suggest using similar patience with GVF but I’m not holding my breath. We may joke about “Stairway to Heaven” (remember the guitar-shop scene in Wayne’s World?)but if they ever wrote anything with 10% of the eloquence of Robert Plant’s lyrics to that song, I would probably drop dead on the spot.

No, it doesn’t seem to be in the DNA anymore. Today, “we walk on down the road/our shadows taller than our souls” for real. In the one issue of North of Boston that I still have there is one of those State-of-the-Rock articles that were popular once. The writer, one Mike Howell, begins by stating, “The question of whether or not rock has lost its vitality is very much in the air today. Huh? This was 1972, the same year of Exile on Main St./Ziggy Stardust/The Harder They Come/Eat a Peach/Close to the Edge/Transformer etc. So now is the time to keep your own to your own. I’m not upset that Greta van Fleet won the Grammy for best album instead of what would have been my choice: Merrie Land, the stirring post-Brexit concept album by The Good, The Bad and the Queen, the group led by Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon. Why would I be, they don’t even reside on the same plane of existence. So if you’re looking for something young and new in rock & roll, dig a little deeper (I would suggest someone like Nashville’s All Them Witches). But the important thing is to keep thinking for yourself: in other words, to be a rock and not to roll over for the kind of bargain-basement hype that is Greta van Fleet.

4 comments

  1. You are right on the money my friend. These guys simply don’t have the songs and their lazy comparison to the mighty Zep is just silly. Plus, they really annoy me. I’ve got everything they’ve put out so far and I’ve yet to hear a memorable song in any of it. There’s not even a hint of what they could grow into, they’re so derivative.

    1. Thanks, Stan. About any artistic growth from GVF, I could be wrong but there is no inkling of it. At the very least, they could start by not allowing Granny Kiszka pick out their stage clothes anymore. Baby steps.

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