Led Zeppelin’s image, dating back to the band’s debauched 1970s heyday, has grown so outsized that it sometimes obscures, well, the music. After all, that was time when — as Rolling Stone’s Stephen Davis famously wrote in a late-period Zep review — you could “give an Englishman 50,000 watts, a chartered jet, a little cocaine and some groupies and he thinks he’s a god.”
Sure. But what, you know, about the records? Your friends over at SomethingElseReviews.com sat down and spun a few, in an effort to reevaluate Led Zeppelin simply as a rock ‘n’ roll act — one that moved from copying their American blues heroes to toward a nimble, versatile new heavy-rocking amalgam … OK, with a whole lotta love along the way. But, still …
“CUSTARD PIE” (PHYSICAL GRAFFITI, 1975): Led Zeppelin was many a white boy’s introduction to the blues since 1969, and when I put on the first platter of my shiny new Physical Graffiti album as a preteen, “Custard Pie” started me down that road to a love affair with the blues. I don’t think I would have cared much for Bukka White or Charley Patton at that time. Then again, I didn’t quite make the connection yet and didn’t care: the thunderous, staccato Bonham beat, Jimmy Page’s extra-crunchy guitar and John Paul Jones’ little clavinet lurking behind created a funk machine that’s every bit as tight and butt-moving as anything Stevie Wonder or Earth Wind and Fire was spitting out with regularity at the time.
The blues part comes primarily from Robert Plant, whose wailing harmonica near the end is nice, but his high-end blues growling — it’s full of the kind sexual references that have abounded in blues records since the ’30s — makes the connection back to the Delta more explicit. Not to mention that Page and Plant stole a lot on this song from Sleepy John Estes, White and Blind Boy Fuller. Heck, Sonny Terry even had a tune called “Custard Pie Blues.” But really, I’m glad that they borrowed heavily from those blues masters and turned it into an irresistible hard rock/funk tune, or else I may have never have even gotten to know about Estes, Fuller, Terry or White in the first place.
Dropping down and chewing on a piece of custard pie never sounded so good. — S. Victor Aaron
“THAT’S THE WAY,” (LED ZEPPELIN III, 1970): Who didn’t rush out to buy the big Led Zeppelin box set in 1990, or got stuck waiting for Christmas? Either way, at some point early on in that decade, seemingly everyone had that album-sized box propped up somewhere in their house, and then practically wore the thing out in the next couple of years. It was the great second coming of Led Zeppelin, if there ever could be such a thing. Did Led Zeppelin ever go away? Whatever the case, it was the closest anyone felt we were going to get to a reunion. The box seemed massive, imposing even. A box set full of big riffs — all the songs we already knew, remastered and rearranged, and a big book. We ate it up anyway and played it loud. A lot.
If you were a high school or early college kid at the time, and you were like me, you chewed through discs one and two, the “heavy” discs. That’s where all the “real” meat of the Zep catalog was: “Black Dog,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Rock And Roll,” etc. And that’s what I did. Chewed it up real good and … then, well, got kind of sick of Zeppelin. I dutifully bought the considerably smaller “Boxset II” to finish everything off, but, well, you know how it goes. The high had worn off and I knew the good stuff was already packed up tight on those first two discs. Right?
But then I started digging through that other stuff, those other songs — everything else beyond the “the heavy stuff.” Call it Zeppelin’s tender side. Slower, quieter songs, some mostly just acoustic, like “That’s The Way.” Delivering a message of tolerance, gently propelled along by strummed acoustic guitar and backed by steel guitar and mandolin, it’s one of those stand out tracks that is easy to overlook if all you want is the big rock bombast you’d grown up hearing. But songs like this is where the quartet shined (even if it’s just a trio in this case – drummer John Bonham sat this one out) even if it wasn’t as showy as most songs everyone can immediately rattle off from Led Zeppelin. It’s a heart-on-sleeves performance, the perfect thing for young ears to hear to know that it’s not alwasy all about volume, or solos, but about transmitting something beyond just music.
Music comes and goes; styles are usurped by each generation and restylized to suit their needs. But the really incredible stuff sticks around because there’s something extra going on, and it begs listeners to pay attention. It can’t be ignored.
I was just a simple high school kid when I found Led Zeppelin, long after they’d broken up, and at the time they were, to me, just another big, loud band that sounded great on the radio. But there’s an experience buried in some music that makes people latch on and not let go, even if it’s just to this song or that song — or everything a band ever done. Even after I’d decided “eh, ‘Black Dog’ again, heard it too many times” something called me back and made me listen to the other stuff. And I did, a lot. And that’s when I came back around on all of it again, the whole catalog. Approached from a totally different angle, Led Zeppelin sounded refreshed and new, and not at all just a band of big riffs. It was something incredible. — Tom Johnson
“WHAT IS AND WHAT SHOULD NEVER BE,” (LED ZEPPELIN II, 1969): One of Zep’s very best songs, and the one I always use to prove they weren’t a heavy metal band — even though the quartet has often been cited as the first of that dubious genre. Their music was often too nuanced, too delicate, and sometimes too melodic to be considered a metal act.
Such is the case with this song, the second track from their mind blowing, wall rattling, and career making LP. Even though by the end of the song Robert Plant’s voice, Jimmy Page’s guitar, and John Bonham’s drums are shredding your ears, this song starts off subtly and gently with Page’s eerie, low-key ax work supporting Plant’s almost whispering vocals. The song gradually builds to a loud and slow blues and as the volume increases so do the musical thrills.
Zeppelin accomplishes this almost too easily. No heavy-metal outfit ever sounded this grounded, this accomplished, or this intelligent. It’s why, despite Page’s pyrotechnics, Plant’s wailing, and the strong foundation created by Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin created their own musical style. — Charlie Ricci, from www.Bloggerhythms.com
“IMMIGRANT SONG,” (LED ZEPPELIN III, 1970): This revelation may come as a bit of a surprise to people who have read my reviews over the years and know my love of most things hard rock and metal, but I’m not a huge Led Zeppelin fan. Never have been. In fact, there was a time when I didn’t like Led Zeppelin at all. It was a time before classic rock radio, a time when you didn’t hear Led Zeppelin three times an hour. I had friends who loved them, and I enjoyed a few of their bigger, harder rocking hits — “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll” — but I didn’t really get most of their stuff at the time.
That began to change one mid-1980s night when I went to see Motley Crue. Before the show, the PA system was blaring music when this galloping, almost thrash riff hit me out of nowhere, followed by a singer wailing away wildly.
I was intrigued. Before they days of SoundHound, I had to look around to my best friend, who was bobbing his head along, and ask him who the band was. He looked at me like I was a moron, and in retrospect, I guess I deserved that look: “Dude, it’s Zeppelin.”
The tune was “Immigrant Song,” and it led me to my first real exploration of Led Zeppelin’s music. These many years later, I’ve developed a healthy respect for the band’s catalog, though I’m still not a hardcore fan, but “Immigrant Song” remains my favorite track. There’s something completely visceral about that opening guitar riff from Jimmy Page, probably the most metallic in his repertoire. Quite appropriately considering the lyrics, it’s the kind of riff that the Viking hordes might have played when they were sailing off to war. And I can guarantee that Robert Plant’s banshee howls that float up over Page’s attack would have scared the pants off of any poor villager who happened to be in their sites. The blend of mystical and sinister in Plant’s vocal delivery on the verse and the imagery of the lyrics spoke to the ancient history and fantasy fan in me, sealing the deal.
It’s certainly not the most complex and intricate of Zeppelin’s works, but it’s the one that hits me in the gut every time. It’s a song that demands to be played loud, and I’m always happy to oblige. — Fred Phillips
“BLACK DOG,” (LED ZEPPELIN IV, 1971): Despite its status as a hit single, “Black Dog” will always be one of the “other songs” on the album that includes what may arguably be rock’s most famous song, “Stairway to Heaven.” I never could figure out my attraction to the track.
The lyrics (hey, hey Mama, dig the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove) are nothing special and the frantic arrangement is almost too simple for its own good. When the song opens, it’s as if Plant can’t sing along with the band. He yells his lines acapella and then the power trio kicks in. After they come to an abrupt halt, Plant solos again. Then, as the band punches its way through a second time, you realize that the whole opening to this 1972 smash is way cool.
The rest of the track doesn’t “make me groove” quite as much but by that time it doesn’t matter. You’re hooked. Some albums open strong, some close strong. Together “Dog” and “Stairway” make a perfect introduction and coda. — Charlie Ricci
“ACHILLES LAST STAND,” (PRESENCE, 1976): It took me a long time to understand the evil genius of Jimmy Page. At first, like a lot of kids back in the ’70s, I dug Led Zep because they were loud. You heard “Whole Lotta Love” on the radio and you turned that thing up as loud as it would go. That snarling guitar riff just couldn’t be beat.
It wasn’t until I got serious about playing the guitar that I came to see that Page had more than just a fine set of chops (and a wall of Marshalls) up his sleeve. If you pay attention to how the songs are constructed, surprising decisions were put in place that ended up enhancing the overall effect. “Black Dog” is a fine example, with the rhythm section playing half-speed underneath Page’s guitar lines … which now seem twice as frantic. Early on, I didn’t get this. I got … “LOUD GUITAR … YEAH!”
This is probably why I was initially confused by both Physical Graffiti and Presence. There was a lot going on in those albums, much of it far too subtle for my young ears. But one day something clicked and I really heard “Achilles Last Stand” for the first time. It’s a freakish mountain of guitar-overdub wizardry. The song begins with just a couple guitars, one holding down a fairly straight rhythm with the other laying out the tune’s main riffs. But by the time we get to the guitar solo, there are six or eight or ten Jimmy Pages plastering up a frightening wall of guitar. LOUD GUITAR…YEAH!!! — Mark Saleski
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