In the Led Zeppelin universe John Paul Jones is the band’s least-famous, and most-normal band member.
Unlike Jimmy Page, Jones never bought a castle once owned by notorious cultist Aleister Crowley. He didn’t die in the most-cliched rock star way by drinking himself to death like John Bonham. And if he ever played pick-up soccer games, you can be certain he didn’t do like Robert Plant and play in a nut-hugging Speedo. (Although, in Plant’s defense, it was the late 70s, so bad decisions in clothing and style were the norm. Also likely involved: Cocaine.)
No, Jonesey just hung out in the back, so to speak, like many classic bass players.
But, Jones didn’t just hold down the Mighty Zep’s bottom end. While Page was blasting out monster guitar riffs, Bonham was murdering drumkits like a rampaging Teutonic warrior, and Plant strutted and wailed like he was channeling the spirit of every Norse god ever, Jones was the Zep member who got on the mellotron, the dobro or the studio control board to fill in the sounds and textures that really made Led Zep more than just a mashup of Foghat and Kansas. When Page was subsiding on little more than heroin and Jack Daniel’s, it was Jones that took control and created what is arguably the weirdest (and my most-favorite) Zeppelin album, “In Through The Out Door.” Every Led Zeppelin album might say “Produced By Jimmy Page,” but anyone who knows anything knows that John Paul Jones was the band’s real secret weapon.
I remember an article in Esquire magazine years ago that said the best outfits always have “an extra 10%” to them—Something that is small on the surface, but which pulls what the person is wearing all together. That same principle applies to what Jones brought to Led Zeppelin. His “extra 10%” is what made so many Zeppelin songs classics. And it is because of that extra 10% that John Paul Jones helped create my favorite R.E.M. song, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.”
I have never been a huge R.E.M. fan. Michael Stipe’s vocals are problematic and Peter Buck still doesn’t know how to spell “guitar solo”. I felt they were decent enough and had a few good songs, but I never bought into their whole “College Rock” schtick. It always seemed like if you went to college in the late 80s and early 90s (like me) you were supposed to think of R.E.M. as an Important Band mostly because Rolling Stone did—The magazine even went so far as to declare R.E.M.’s debut, “Murmur”, the best album of 1983 even though pretty much no one alive that year had heard the record, or had heard of R.E.M. at the time.
But, Rolling Stone loved, loved, LOVED R.E.M. And I specifically remember the magazine giving R.E.M.’s “Automatic For The People” the Bruce Springsteen treatment with a five-star “Classic” review and calling the record “One for the ages” when it came out in 1992. RS never held back on the hyperbole with its musical darlings. And I normally don’t dig it when musicians make such pronouncements with their album titles like R.E.M. did with “Automatic”. (“Music For The Masses”, by Depeche Mode; “Songs of Innocence” by U2, just for a couple of examples). Like I said, I have never been a huge R.E.M. fan, but, I have to admit that there was something about that title that got my attention when I read that review while I was living in Hirakata, Japan.
The reason I was living in Japan was because I had gotten myself a job teaching English at one of the “Conversation Schools” that were booming all over the country back then. Japanese learn English in school, but it’s the kind that isn’t really practical in everyday situations. They learn how to read “Hamlet”, but not how to order a Big Mac from McDonald’s. That’s where I came in. My students ran the gamut: Businesspeople who wanted to speak better English for work; housewives who came to class twice a week as a social event, and high school students who needed to get their English up to snuff before taking their university entrance exams.
In my spare time, I met dozens of other “gaijin senseis” (the Japanese term for “foreign person teacher”) discovered beer vending machines, partied through many nights in Osaka, met a Canadian girl who would be part of my life for the following five years, and subscribed to Rolling Stone as a means of keeping up with what was going on in music and pop culture in the States. Remember, this was before the Internet became the Internet and you could get instantaneous digital access to anything and everything.
And it was in 1992 that along with two of my co-workers, I went to Bangkok.
This was something I would never have thought of doing back at home in the States. But, when you live in Asia, traveling to other parts of Asia becomes more realistic, even if the flight is still about 8 hours long. Plus, I had only really just gotten to Japan, and after five-and-a-half months in country, I hadn’t been away from home long enough to feel the need to head back to America for the holidays. Which is how I ended up spending two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s of 1992 engaged in hilariously hedonistic debauchery all over Thailand.
For $100, I got a tailored, silk, double-breasted suit in Bangkok. (I know. Double-breasted suits aren’t the thing now. Remember, it was 1992). I ate massive plates of shrimp fried rice and guzzled bottles of Singha beer for $1 on the beach on Koh Samet, where we celebrated Christmas with a United Nations amount of fellow travelers. I rode an elephant and slept one night in an opium den in Chiang Mai, up near Myanmar (it was still called Burma back then). I rode a three-wheeled Tuk-Tuk through the madness of Bangkok and I spent New Year’s Eve doing Rolling Stones and Creedence covers with some band at a joint called the Magic Castle. It was nuts.
While in Bangkok, I did some shopping of another kind. Have you ever owned a Rolex watch? Well, in Bangkok, I found the finest “Rolex” you could buy for just $20. And I also bought a couple of music cassettes that I am certain were in no way counterfeit in the slightest. One was Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Some Gave All”, which included his massive monster hit “Achy Breaky Heart”. And don’t even try to tell me you didn’t get on board the Billy Ray Bandwagon at least for a while back in 1992
The other cassette was R.E.M.’s “Automatic For The People”, which includes “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”.
I know “Sidewinder” isn’t the most well-known R.E.M. song, or even the most popular one on “Automatic”. But, it is the best song on the album. It edges past “Man On The Moon”, and it buries the other two hits off the record, “Drive” and the overwrought, too-on-the-nose “Everybody Hurts”. And the reason why is because of a secret weapon that sends “Sidewinder” over the top: The strings.
“Sidewinder” is a decent enough pop song on its own. Stipe’s lyrics don’t make much sense (Among the topics he mentions are the Cat in the Hat, someone calling a still-often-used-in-1992 pay phone, and Nescafé on ice.), but dumb words have never kept a song from becoming a hit. The rhythm is pretty basic; Peter Buck leaves the mandolin at home in exchange for his Rickenbacker guitar, Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums) push things along like they always do. In every sense of the word, the song is “fine”.
But…On the second chorus of “Sidewinder”, the strings come in and are that extra 10% that transforms the song from something “fine” to something that’s astounding. And who arranged those strings? None other than John Paul Jones. Yes, THAT John Paul Jones. Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
Jones was mainly a session player before he hooked up with the rest of his Zeppelin bandmates, and was well-schooled in knowing how to best serve a song. He brought his skills and experience to Led Zeppelin and as such, was the guy behind the scenes who, while he didn’t get nearly as much credit as he should have, turned so many Zeppelin songs into classics. After Led Zep broke up, while Jimmy Page wandered around in a smack and booze haze and Robert Plant went out of his way to distance himself from his Zeppelin pedigree, Jones put his skills to work back in the studio and became a highly sought, and well-respected producer and arranger. He wasn’t there to make himself a star, but to serve someone else’s songs in the best way possible.
Which is what Jones did with the strings that he arranged on “Sidewinder”. That he knew to hold back until the second verse of the song before bringing the strings into play was a masterstroke of both his production skills and in restraint. Coming in when they did, those strings sent the song into an emotional level that you couldn’t have expected. And to this day, whenever I hear “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, I am sent back 30 years to when a much younger version of myself wouldn’t think twice about taking off to Bangkok and doing my level best to wreak some havoc in a foreign city and without concern for almost any and all consequences that could result. In 1992, Jones knew that extra 10% would matter. And it still matters today.