The Songs Remain the Same*
WBLM’s Zep Set rambles on
By Carl Davulis
Pretty much every weeknight of seventh grade I fell asleep listening to WBLM’s Zep Set on my clock radio, absorbing songs like “In the Light” and “Royal Orleans” in a flux of hypnagogic hallucination. Led Zeppelin promised access to mysteries of sexuality, drugs, and ancient times when gods still walked with men; WBLM’s nightly broadcast was an oracle of this occult knowledge. Since its inception in 1986, the Zep Set has been part of the Bildung of countless other Mainers, too, and the soundtrack to evenings spent cruising the strip, gazing at the stars, or drinking beer from cans at quarries, sandpits, and trestles across the station’s broadcast range. The formula is simple — four in a row from Led Zeppelin, every weeknight at ten o’clock — but each curated suite of songs presents a unique thesis on What Zeppelin Is. I recently made a pilgrimage to WBLM’s studio at One City Center, where I met with Dominic Lavoie, the current steward of the Zep Set. To my delight, The Guru, the Blimp’s inveterate afternoon DJ, was there too, wrapping up his shift. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
The Bollard: So this is WBLM? I guess I was expecting the control room of, I don’t know, a fantastical airship.
Guru: That’s the whole theater of the mind thing, the picture you put together in your imagination.
Dom: The theater of the mind — like Orson Wells.
You guys sound totally different in person, compared to the way you sound on the radio.
Dom: Yeah, that mic’s awesome. It kinda kicks the low end up a bit. Then there’s a bunch of compressors down the chain that you can hear when you put the headphones on, which is cool, ’cause then you’re hearing the thing.
Guru: It gives you the radio voice.
I was talking to the nice woman who runs Tic-Tac-O in the food court downstairs. She said that every spring, when you do the WBLM “A to Z” thing, people come into One City Center looking for the Blimp Archives, but apparently these are sort of a fiction?
Dom: It’s one of those things, like when we talk about the Big Red Love Van.
But you really do play vinyl sometimes?
Dom: Oh yeah.
Guru: Oh yeah!
Dom: Throughout the day. There’s always something on there, for the most part, right?
Guru: Mmm, I played a CD today. I didn’t play any vinyl.
Dom: Some of the Zeppelin stuff that’s been remastered sounds way better now than it did on the vinyl. It hits harder. If I’m driving around on my way in, and Gu’s playing something, I can sometimes tell if it’s an MP3 off the computer, or vinyl, or a CD. It hits differently. Some of those CDs were bought when the technology was brand new, and the compression on them is horrible. You’re better off playing something off Spotify. But the stuff in the system is pretty decent quality.
Do you choose what songs you play on the Zep Set?
Dom: Yeah. I like to change it up. Sometimes you can do a whole live one, or all from the BBC Sessions. There’s a computer program that makes sure you’re not overplaying a tune. It’ll suggest tunes through the whole night, and make sure the song wasn’t played the night before, or the last couple nights.
Guru: One thing’s for sure, there’s no Zep song that’s excluded. Every Zep song is eligible.
Dom: For the most part, you’re not gonna hear “The Girl I Love Has Brown Wavy Hair” [sic] in rotation during the day.
Guru: During the day, you gotta play the hits. People don’t know what they like, they like what they know. They wanna hear “Black Dog” every couple of days, they wanna hear “Kashmir.” Guess what, I don’t mind hearing it — [whispering ethereally] it’s Zeppelin.
Can you tell me how the Zep Set started?
Dom: Gu might have a little more insight on when it started. I’ve been doing it for about seven years.
Guru: I started here in ’87, and I was doing it then. I think the Captain started it. The intro was “Whole Lotta Love” done by this orchestra. It was dissonant, it was all outta tune and crazy. I called it Birdseye Speedwell and the Blimp Orchestra, and it was like [sings cascading atonal riff]. We used to do different themes, like the “love” Zep Set or the “food” Zep Set — like “Hot Dog,” “Custard Pie.”
Dom: “Lemon Song.”
“Candy Store Rock.” Say I’m thinking of a song all day, then it’s on the Zep Set that night. How does that happen?
Guru: Ah, you made a psychic request!
Dom: Can we just, um, I hate to interrupt, but we gotta do our thing [i.e., record the introductory banter for the evening’s Bon Jovi Mini-Concert]. I know you gotta get to your class.
Guru: I can’t miss yoga, or I’ll be sore for God knows how long. I mean, do I want to be sore from yoga, or sore from not doing yoga? That’s the question.
Dom, did you grow up listening to the Blimp?
Dom: I didn’t, because I grew up in Madawaska, way up north. I came downstate for some ski tournament in high school, and me and my friends caught ’BLM on the bus, and we were really pumped about it. Then I came down here for school and listened to it in the dorms in Gorham.
Are there some Zep tunes that are so epic you don’t play them casually?
Dom: “Achilles Last Stand” is one of those tunes, and “Carouselambra.” And not just because they’re both really long. “Carouselambra” is relentless, a relentless tune. It’s like ten-plus minutes long. It never stops. It’s always like [whooshing sound].
You play “Southbound Saurez” a lot. What’s that song about?
Dom: “Southbound Saurez”? I have no idea. There’s a couple tunes where I don’t know what the hell [Plant’s] talking about. It’s like, random. I played a live Zeppelin concert on the Mini-Concert last week, a bootleg from St. Louis, and he’s wicked high and saying the most random shit. At the beginning of “Trampled Underfoot,” he goes, “This is about the golden age of the automobile.”
Do you have a favorite Robert Plant performance?
Dom: I really like Page and Plant Unledded, that thing from ’94 that came out on MTV. That’s when I really first started getting into Zeppelin. The stations up in Northern Maine never played Led Zeppelin, ever, or any classic rock. The station I listened to all the time as a kid was called Channel X. Their format is so random. It could be Celine Dion into Elvis into some Top 40 song. My friend Tim — his parents had old vinyl — he was always like, “Check out Led Zeppelin. You gotta listen to Rush. You gotta listen to Pink Floyd!” So that’s what got me into this music. But yeah, the Unledded stuff is awesome. They’re still pushing it. It’s like, where have they been? Why haven’t they been doing this throughout the whole ’80s? They just come out of nowhere, and they’re still killin’ it.
A favorite John Bonham track?
Dom: I like “Bonzo’s Montreux.” You ever heard that? With all that steel drum stuff? That stuff’s badass.
Are there any Zep tunes you really can’t stand?
Dom: The “Dazed and Confused” jam from The Song Remains the Same. I mean, the song is 25 minutes long, and 20 minutes of it are violin screech theremin noises. It’s just not entertaining to listen to. It’s definitely self-indulgent. But when they go back into [sings riff, perfectly], it makes that part that much sicker, ’cause of how friggin’ bored you were.
I guess the extended Jimmy Page solo would give the other guys a chance to take a break.
Dom: They’re probably off stage rippin’ butts and mixin’ drinks and who the hell knows what else? Shackin’ up. Listen, you wanna pick that Zep Set? Might as well. There’s a ton in here. [Scrolls through list on computer.] I usually like to just go in here first before dealing with CDs and stuff. “Achilles Last Stand” down through … “Whole Lotta Love” (live). You wanna do a whole live one or something?
Yeah! Maybe. I mean, I guess I’m more interested in what you’d pick. Why don’t you just do it once I’m gone?
Dom: Yeah. [Visibly relieved.]
So I fell asleep listening to the Zep Set a couple weeks ago, and I dreamed I was sitting in the sidecar of this futuristic motorcycle driving through the desert. The driver is an alien — the ’90s alien with pale green skin and almond-shaped eyes, but friendly — and he looks down at me like, “Watch this,” and we take off into hyperspace, right as the guitar solo is starting. What song was that?
Dom: “Celebration Day.” I don’t know, “The Rover”? That’s got a cool guitar solo.
When NASA sent Voyager into space in the 1970s, they included a gold record with all these Earth sounds, in case some intelligent being came across it: bird song, a crying baby, Chuck Berry —
Dom: People saying hello in a million languages.
Right! So if you could pick one Zeppelin record to send on a mission to space, for aliens to hear, what would it be?
Dom: Dude. I really like Led Zeppelin III, but I don’t know if that’s the one I would send. I’d probably have to send Zep IV.
 One of my adolescent haunts, a dam whose waters once powered a sandpaper mill, still bears graffiti reading “107.5,” the Blimp’s pre-1989 frequency.
 In fact, the Zep Set can start as early as 9:45. To tune in punctually and catch only the final refrain of “Living Loving Maid” can be a major bummer.
 Lavoie is also an actual rock star, at least on a local level. Readers of The Bollard may know him from Dominic and the Lucid, or his latest project, ShaShaSha, whose mindbending eponymous album is up at bandcamp.com. Check out the hypnotic outro to “Appellation: Alpha Wolf,” where Dom seems to be channeling a demonic Robert Plant.
 WBLM’s on-air studio, the “Cockpit of Love,” is a smallish corner office overlooking Monument Square.
 Mainers, especially manual laborers who listen to the radio while they work, are obsessed with “A to Z,” when WBLM plays its entire collection, or a great deal of it, in alphabetical order. This language game results in weeks of deep cuts, forgotten one-hit wonders, and progressive rock odysseys.
 Driving home after the interview, I saw a maroon Ford Econoline van with tinted windows and decorative striping parked by the loading dock of One City Center. Which makes me wonder whether Dom was kind of putting me on the whole time.
 I can personally vouch for the existence of a turntable in the studio. And true to Blimp legend, it does have pennies taped to the tonearm.
 “Captain” Herb Ivy, WBLM’s program director and longtime morning show personality: “I could run the station from this. [Holds up tablet device.] It’s crazy. WBLM is a big iPod hooked up to a 100,000 watt radio transmitter.”
 This software has not prevented the overplaying of “Darlene.”
 As I understand it, the computer program generates a default playlist that the DJ can choose to override. If the DJ is substituting songs into the sequence, the program can suggest songs of a certain length, in order to conform to the schedule of commercial breaks. According to the Captain, the break at 10:20 is more or less set in stone. This means you rarely get more than one wicked long jam in any given Zep Set.
 “Stairway to Heaven” does seem to be excluded.
 In fact, WBLM’s daytime programming seems weirder and more varied than ever. The Captain: “That’s certainly by design. Competitively, there’s a lot of classic music on the radio. And the concept of variety has changed with the Internet. People have more songs on their iPod than a lot of radio stations in their market have on their playlist. So I think there’s this permission to, ‘Yeah, give me a wider definition of what classic rock is.’”
 The Captain confirms this: “Like all great ideas, the Zep Set occurred kind of organically. There wasn’t any strategy behind it. I was doing the night show in 1986, The Night Flight, and around the tail end of my shift, I would play blocks of different artists. More often than not, I’d go to Zeppelin. They were stylistically the most varied: hard rock stuff, acoustic stuff, bluesy stuff. We weren’t aware of any following right away, but if I skipped a night, people’d go ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! Where’s the block of Zeppelin?’ That’s when we formalized it.”
 It was sort of shocking to hear Dom and The Guru transform into their on-air selves as they improvised their Bon Jovi repartee. Don’t be fooled by their earlier remarks about the fancy microphone and signal processing — the radio voice comes from them.
 The TV special Unledded and its resultant album, No Quarter, document Page and Plant’s 1994 reunion concerts, which feature Zep classics arranged for orchestra and assorted Middle Eastern instruments.
 The Captain narrates his own conversion experience: “I remember being six years old, in 1969, and my brother was playing ‘Your Time is Gonna Come’ in his room, and I’m almost like levitating into his room, going, ‘What… is… that?’ For me, that was the equivalent of seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.”
 “The ONLY radio network covering ALL of Aroostook County and Western New Brunswick!”
 I am unsure whether Dom was (a.) indulging in hipster irony, (b.) throwing me a red herring to protect occult mysteries from journalistic scrutiny, or (c.) expressing an earnest but unorthodox opinion. It seems possible that playing upwards of 1,000 Zeppelin tunes a year could cause one to seek psychic refuge in the least obvious parts of their catalog.
 It made me feel weird and empty to see all the song titles arranged alphabetically on the computer screen, where they had zero aura. Theater of the mind–wise, I was clearly on the wrong side of the proscenium arch.
 I’m 98% sure this is right.
* Or, Trampled Under Footnotes. –Ed.