There's a scene early on in Vinyl, HBO's revisionist dad-punk navelgaziography,in which Bobby Cannavale's toot-frenzied exec Richie Finestra schleps around backstage at Madison Square Garden trying to negotiate a record contract for Led Zeppelin. Since their manager Peter Grant is preoccupied—and, judging by his less-than-gargantuan size, possibly not even Peter Grant at all—Richie tries to schmooze up a Robert Plant-ish homunculus who greedily bristles at not getting enough of a high-dollar cut in the bargain. The deal to secure the future of his (fictional) record company all but dead, Richie watches from the wings, Iron Eyes Cody tears streaming down his face, as Zep take the stage and do flashy heavy metal damage to Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else." The message, insofar as one can be inferred from this slapdash, Walk Hard-ified flail at portrayal of Rock in the Seventies, is this: the pure 1950s soul of good old rock 'n' roll has been irreparably corrupted by greed and spectacle, and it is up to anachronistic proto-Pistols and disillusioned bluesmen to save it.
That's been the argument of the anti-Zep crowd for ages. Lester Bangs, who was his own kind of revivalist conservative, wished as far back as Led Zeppelin II for the Stooges to bum-rush them off the stage and save us from the 1970s before they could even happen. Classic rock rehab notwithstanding, that attitude lingers in the alt-culture margins, where a righteous generation of R.E.M. fans still can't hear an extended guitar solo without trying to figure out what masturbation metaphor is best to dismiss it all this time. But we're long past any legitimate possibility that guitar-rock bands could be private-jet lucrative and unashamedly ridiculous all at once. What we're left with—well, besides the Foo Fighters—is a half-remembered collective jumble of impressions, clashing histories, feuding tastes, and a vaguely monocultural notion of itself.
Mick and Marty can rest easy that Zeebeedee Row's flouncing-douchebag Kinda Robert Plant in the Vinyl pilot isn't the least accurate portrayal of Led Zeppelin ever, though, or even the most damning portrayal of what the classic rock canon has been reduced to. Because in 1991 John McEnroe covered "Rock and Roll."
Usually the connection between wielding a tennis racket and gettin' the Led out involves using the former as an air-guitar prop for the latter, ideally in an unkempt teenage bedroom. But the man they called Superbrat in his last years on the tour decided to save his Dunlop for its intended purpose and play some sick wailin' riffs for real.
Before we get to the incomprehensible reality of John Fucking McEnroe as ersatz Jimmy Page, though, let's jump back to 1986. McEnroe was in the midst of an extended sabbatical, having notably lost to Ivan Lendl in the '85 US Open, his last Grand Slam finals appearance as a singles player. McEnroe took advantage of his burnout-cooldown hiatus to a) get married to Tatum O'Neal, and b) cut a novelty 7" single with a bunch of other tennis pros.
The supergroup called itself Highly Strung and featured McEnroe, notable doubles players Craig Wittus, Mel Purcell, and Peter Rennert, and Rock 'n' Roll High School cast member/'81 Seiko World Super Tennis tournament winner Vincent Van Patten. Their single, "Don't Let It End" (not a Styx cover), backed with B-side track "The Flame's Lit," was only released in Germany and the Netherlands, or at least those are the only countries that admitted to harboring copies for retail purposes. In any case, evidence of this particular recording is unsurprisingly hard to come by. News items of the time portray it as frontman Wittus's operation, with McEnroe as featured attraction, and brush the whole thing off with deadpan skepticism. "We can only say that both the album and the group are appropriately named" is a representative reaction. A video was threatened, and possibly filmed, but whether it ever hit the 3 AM slot on VH1 is anybody's guess.
Five years later, however, the idea of John McEnroe as a notorious tennis pro turned bad-boy rock 'n' roll hobbyist looked a bit less weird. This was the beginning of the Image Is Everything Agassi '90s, at which point McEnroe's reputation as a petulant ref-haranguer had become a goofball cliché and his years as a pro looked numbered as he approached his 33rd birthday. What else is a waning giant supposed to do but pick up a guitar and stave off the sunset in some not-so-physically-taxing way?
And so McEnroe set out to recapture a jolt of pure rock energy that first hit the airwaves when he was 12 years old—not coincidentally the perfect Led Zep indoctrination age—for Rock Aid Armenia, the charity organization that had previously produced an all-star version of "Smoke on the Water."
Throughout his recording career, McEnroe was never the only tennis pro in the band, and for his hack at "Rock and Roll"—punctuation in this case denoting both song title and scare quotes—he brought in Pat Cash, the Australian Wimbledon winner of '87 with guitar chops of his own. (He played with a post-Michael Hutchence, pre-J.D. Fortune INXS during his 2003 induction into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame, an event that could only be more Australian if you heard it retold in this clip with comedian Ryan Shelton.)
If you're going to make your play off a couple tennis pros being the featured names, you might as well try and go serious with the rest of the group, even if they're going under the first-draft name The Full Metal Rackets. Just get some of the guys from Iron Maiden in there, then call up Roger Daltrey to see what he's doing, because isn't Roger Daltrey singing Led Zeppelin the sort of thing you'd at least be interested in hearing?
Yet the front sleeve doesn't even mention Daltrey, and instead puts the tennis pros on the cover, replete with McEnroe's appearance of Jeb!-like bewilderment. It is the absolute picture of hey-ain't-we-nutty mugging. It's the apex of rock being taken as an unserious goof by two guys who had to put all their seriousness into their increasingly tenuous fame-making primary vocations.
Rock Aid Armenia also cut a "Rock and Roll" video, a somewhat-better-than-bar-band-quality version of Really Loud Chuck Berry that has everybody gurning like total goofwads and cavorting in the studio and of course pretending to play tennis rackets like guitars. At one point during the solo, Daltrey actually rolls his eyes—ironically, probably, in keeping with all the Morning Zoo Hits the TGIFriday's shenanigans the video dictates. If Roger beat you to that eye roll, congratulations.
As it happens, that was not the last of McEnroe's musical career. Today, his most notable connection with the rock world is being married to Scandal's Patty Smyth for nearly twenty years, though recently he had a cameo appearance playing guitar on Chrissie Hynde's 2014 solo album Stockholm, a guest-spot honor that was also afforded to Neil Young. There was more, however—a solid hour more, in the case of this YouTube video, breathlessly titled JOHN MCENROE GUITAR ROCK SPECIAL, in which a Metallica-beshirted Johnny Mac does his best Guitar Face while becoming one of the least obnoxious famous people ever to play KISS's "Rock and Roll All Nite." I'll cut to the chase: yes, they cover "Takin' Care of Business"—skip to about 17:30 for that bleak inevitability.
I'll leave it to you to decide which additional prospect is weirder: McEnroe joining a tambourine-throttling Rob Thomas onstage at New York's Beacon Theater for a rendition of "Purple Haze"; Patti Smyth and an ultra-smirky Sting joining him to close out the last episode of his flatlined CNBC talk show with "Goodbye to You"; or whatever on Earth this is:
There is no wrong answer. There isn't a right one, either.