“I mean, Led Zeppelin didn’t write tunes everybody liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”
They inspired every rock band formed since the 70’s as well as plenty of high speed freeway driving. They toured the globe in jumbo jets and threw TV’s out of penthouse windows. They recorded in castles. They sold out stadiums. They sold more albums* than god. Their bell bottoms were tighter and lower. Their hair was longer. Their drums were bigger and their amps were louder. Much louder. They defended the very idea of what it means to be a Rock Star. There were no Rock Stars before Led Zeppelin.
But before we get to Global Rock Stardom of Led Zeppelin, we need to look at pop music in the twilight of the 1960′s. The Beatles were only making studio records by then, and hadn’t played live since 1966 (at Candlestick Park, btw…) Because of internal tensions created by Yoko Ono the intervals between records was also getting longer until they eventually broke up in 1970. The Rolling Stones were also wrestling with personnel issues in the form of Brian Jones–who would be found face down in his pool in 1969–and were hiding out in France to avoid a huge tax bill back in England. Jimi Hendrix was dealing with his own band/managment issues and would only release one more album as Band Of Gypsies before he was found dead in a London hotel room in 1970. And The Doors were busy keeping the band from getting derailed by Jim Morrison’s best friend, alcoholism. No one really cares about The Who.
By the end of the 60′s, just about every song on the radio or Hi Fi was some heavy, sociopolitical, overwrought, socially conscious, civil rights affirming, anti war anthem. Led Zeppelin launched across the American rock & roll landscape like a jet fueled sexual bacchanal. They injected sex back into rock & roll. And by this time, the cultural conservatives didn’t even bother to complain about their blatant sexuality. The genie had been out of the bottle for years and there was no need to insist upon televising them from the waist up only. In the age of Led Zeppelin, they made feature length films about their crotches.
Led Zeppelin 4 is far and way their best album. and not just cuz “Stairway…” is on this one. Everyone favorite Zeppelin song is on Zeppelin 4. It’s one of those albums you have to listen to all the thru from start to finish because every track fits together perfectly with it’s tube amplified swamp boogie stomp and multiple references to J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s a perfect rhythm and release to the track selections as well as between side one and side two, similar to the way a concept album works only more esoteric and less didactic. Along with the anthem rock bangers you also get some mandolin infused mellowness for you to ease back and settle into another round of bong hits before the epic anchoring track. “Stairway to Heaven” being one but I hold a special place in my soul for “When The Levee Breaks.”
Physical Graffiti is a personal favorite. It’s their longest–a double album–which makes it somewhat inaccessible to the casual listener but it is well worth it. “In My Time of Dying” “Kashmir” “In The Light” and “Custard Pie” take on almost an operatic feel with their movements and change ups in timing and feel, and the way they introduce and re-intrduce melodies. And anyone who doesn’t tear up every so slightly while listening to “Bron-Yr-Aur” has no heart. Most of the tracks clock in north of the 5 minute mark which makes this body of music very well suited for continuous listening (read: listen to this while driving to El Lay…) Double albums were kind of trend in this era of Rock music. With their later releases, Zeppelin got very create with their cover art (we call it packaging now) and this one is certainly their most intricate. more to the point, it gave something for their fans to ponder over with a head full of acid. Look, this was before the days of music videos; gimmicks like this was revolutionary.
Led Zeppelin 1 & 2 are their mission statement albums. Their most rippingest tracks you most hear on automated classic rock radio station all appear on these records. “Whole Lotta Love” “Communication Breakdown” “Heartbreaker” and “Dazed & Confused” has got to one of the best bong hit songs ever. Both of these were recorded and released within months of each other and most of these tracks were staples of their live shows so both albums maintain a similar sound. Plus, how great was John Bonham as a rock drummer? Really fucking great. They also have a fair amount of blues standards that get cranked up thru their Marshall amps and this right here is the central essence of Led Zeppelin.
Houses of the Holy was their biggest selling album, but not necessarily their best work. It’s very heavy with pop hits (“The Song Remains The Same” & “Dancing Days”) which made it an uneven record, in terms of flow. But it does have “No Quarter” on it which is their best song to take bong hits to. They begin to explore other genres (Funk and Reggae) with “The Chunge” and D’yer Mak’er” but unfortunately they smack of cashing in on current trends rather than actual honest attempts at expanding their sound.
Led Zeppelin 3 was never one of my favorite albums cuz I always found it to be uneven and the songs are just odd. (I mean”Hats Off To Roy Harper”? wtf?) but I’ve recently been inspired to give it a re-listen and it’s become one of my favorites. it’s certainly one of their more mature records. “Tangerine” is just so fucking romantic while “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is one of the greatest break up songs EVER!
Presence is the album that only true Led Zeppelin fans like, much in the same way that true Bowie fans like Tin Machine. Its very experimental. They started using Moogs and Oberhiem analog synths. Presence fits into their catalog much like “The Soft Parade” was to the Doors catalog, only slightly more accessible.
In Through the Out Door was their last album before Bonham died, and while it is still part of their “experimental” phase (read: there’s lots of keyboards) it makes more sense than Presence. Some Rock historians have said this was the direction Led Zeppelin would have gone had Bonzo not aspirated, which is a polite way of saying “choked on his own vomit.”
Coda was just a collection of outtakes from previous recording sessions and a couple of live tracks and it sounds like an after thought. Basically, they had to produce one more album to fulfill a contractual obligation. If you absolutely must own a live Led Zeppelin album get “The Song Remains The Same” soundtrack. Does anybody remember laughter?
I once had a friend who held a very interesting perspective on Led Zeppelin. “If you’re gonna ban marijuana, you’re gonna have to ban Led Zeppelin right along with it.” He would postulate. “If you smoke weed, at some point you’re gonna wanna listen to some Zeppelin. And if you’re a music nerd who first discovers Zeppelin, sooner or later you’re gonna wonder how much more enhanced the listening experience could be if you burned a jay first. One inevitably leads to the other and no matter which one you start with, each road invariably leads to the other.” As future generations continue to discover this band, this will be the enduring legacy of Led Zeppelin.
**Back in the days before highly compressed, low sound quality 192kbps mp3 files–and ease with which such tiny files can be freely traded around the interweb–ruined the major record labels business model, album sales was how the music industry judged the quality of a given body of popular music. Think of album sales similar to the numbers of downloads only with dollar signs in front of them.