What’s the continuing attraction, in 2012, for the long-gone Led Zeppelin? From movie trailers to “American Idol,” these long-haired, often-shirtless heavy-metal rock-gods — disbanded since the turn of the 1980s, mind you — remain front of mind.
Check out the promo reel for “Battlestar Galactica: Blood And Chrome,” and there’s Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” remixed by Trent Reznor and featured vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O. Stop by eBay, and you’ll find a rare first-pressing vinyl edition of Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut — which sold for approximately $1,890 recently.
Meanwhile, Elise Testone can be heard unleashing a faithful rendition of Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love” on “Idol.” There’s new music from Page’s early Led Zeppelin days too, as a previously unreleased soundtrack offered fans the rare opportunity to hear new sounds from his home studio in the early 1970s. Newly minted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Red Hot Chili Peppers invited Page to sit in on the European leg of their ongoing tour, too.
So, we figured, it’s high time for a revisit to this ageless musical force, highlighting both some familiar favorites and a few tasty deep cuts …
SINCE I’VE BEEN LOVING YOU (LED ZEPPELIN III, 1970): The first time I saw Led Zeppelin was on September 1, 1970 at the Seattle Center Coliseum. The concert was memorable on a number of levels, not the least of which was getting a joint passed to me from one of my junior high school teachers (who looked like he was about to fill his pants when he recognized me — like he didn’t expect to run into one of his students at a Zeppelin concert? Get real). But what I also remember was how clear the sound mix was, especially for a band playing that loud in a basketball arena. Plant’s voice was way out in front of the mix as it should be, and the cacophonous thunder of Jimmy Page and John Bonham was right behind him.
But the real wonder that night was John Paul Jones, who has always been Zep’s best kept secret, anyway. Zeppelin were kind of experimenting with folkier acoustic songs on this tour, which the hard rock-hungry crowd mostly just barely tolerated. But they were also expanding from the blues-rock, power trio with vocals format, into other areas, and Jones’ role had considerably expanded to include keyboards, in addition to his signature bass.
The best example both at this show, and on Led Zeppelin III was the epic blues piece “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Here, Jones keyboard accents are a perfect match to Plant’s aching bluesy wails, and Bonham’s inimitable backbeat (nobody does a backbeat like Bonzo). Page’s guitar runs are likewise a wonder as always. But it is Jones’ organ flourishes that give this great song much of its flavor. Fortunately, this is one of the few Zeppelin songs that FM radio didn’t run completely into the ground. It is also probably their single best take on the blues. — Glen Boyd
“THE LEMON SONG” (LED ZEPPELIN II, 1969): Sexual innuendos and some mean-as-hell blues licks spurt out of “The Lemon Song” like some sort of “no-good jive.” The Led Zeppelin II track really is a cobbling-together of stuff from all sorts of blues spirits, from Howlin’ Wolf to Albert King, and it’s kind of a messy, salacious riff on riffs.
With tempo fluctuations, funky bass and those nasty-but-sweet acoustics from Mythic Studios, it’s hard to conceive a more gripping extraction of the dripping Zeppelin mythos. It just had to get “squeezed” in ’69, didn’t it?
John Paul Jones nearly improvised the entire bass line, pulling it out from a variety of blues tunes like “Killing Floor.” Then some of the lyrics, like that scandalous juice line, find their origins in Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues.” (Johnson, though, may have rented the celebrated lemon line from “The Honeydripper” Roosevelt Sykes).
Whatever the roots and wherever the roots came from, this is a dirty ditty that deserves its place on what is Led Zeppelin’s most sexually-charged album. It is a voluptuous and lurid piece of work, one that’ll have you listening with your “second mind.” — Jordan Richardson
“ACHILLES LAST STAND” (PRESENCE, 1976): By this point, Led Zeppelin had moved well beyond its initial period of aping the great American blues masters into a thrilling new synthesis of sound, and that made this longing look back all the more special. In fact, they never sounded bluesier during a late ’70s period defined by debauchery — when, as Rolling Stone’s Stephen Davis famously wrote in his review of this album, you could “give an Englishman 50,000 watts, a chartered jet, a little cocaine and some groupies and he thinks he’s a god.”
Davis is talking about singer Robert Plant, of course. But this album belongs to Plant’s doomed drummer John Bonham, and that gives it a slow-rolling menace very familiar to fans of the band’s earliest work. By 1976, Zeppelin had begun its slow descent, and Plant was recovering from a serious auto accident. Perhaps predictably, they were introspective. But even in what should have been safe nostalgia, Bonham unleashes newfound, and surprisingly subtle, polyrhythms. He now has the ability to quietly improvise on the heaviest of those heavy Led moans — including “blooze” throwbacks like “For Your Life” and “Tea for One.”
But it is here, on “Achilles Last Stand,” where we find Bonham in full flight, working as the lead instrument over roughly the first half of the song. Even Jimmy Page’s patented “army of guitars” sound is no match for Bonham’s charging fills. He begins by powering an absolutely monstrous template, then delves into jazzy asides — deftly coloring the beat. “Achilles” takes an abrupt turn and we ride with Bonham up to Page’s thundering solo like the clack-clack-clack of a roller coaster … you know, you feel, that something big is going to happen.
Does it ever. They circle back around to the tune’s original chugging, marrow-deep groove — and Bonham has forever claimed “Achilles Last Stand” as his own. I was zipping along at 45 in a 30 before I knew it, this morning, thinking: I sure miss this guy. — Nick DeRiso
“DAZED AND CONFUSED” (LED ZEPPELIN I, 1969): During the summer of 1967, when Jimmy Page played guitar for the Yardbirds, the band shared a bill with Jake Holmes. The New York-based artist performed a number called “Dazed and Confused” (included on his The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes album) that impressed Jimmy so much he started adding it to the group’s sets. But he tweaked the arrangement and lyrics a bit, melding it into his own creation.
Well, the Yardbirds broke up, and Led Zeppelin was born. Nearly two years after catching Jake Holmes play “Dazed and Confused,” the tune appeared on the band’s debut album, simply titled Led Zeppelin, listing Jimmy as the songwriter. Although not quite a carbon copy of the original, too close to comfort it proved to be. Jake eventually cried highway robbery, sued Jimmy for copyright infringement, and in 1995 received a renewed copyright registration for the kidnapped baby.
In any case, Led Zeppelin’s take on “Dazed and Confused” is out of this world. Selected as the final track on the first side of an already spellbinding album, the song is perfectly placed. The woman lead singer Robert Plant moans, groans, howls and hollers about is a vicious two-timing tart, and the hostile feelings he projects for the witch who ripped his heart in half, stands as a flawless fit for the dark, depressing and ominous music.
Downright scary, “Dazed and Confused” opens to the tone of what sounds like a death march, and the morbid momentum builds from there. Jimmy’s indelible guitar gymnastics, aided by the spooky timbre of a violin bow, reflects the painful whining and wailing of a banshee, while John Bonham assaults the drum kit with unparalleled power, and John Paul Jones spawns a succession of deep-throated licks. Climaxing into a hard and heavy orgy of grinding jamming, “Dazed and Confused” not only leaves the listener breathless, but also thoroughly dazed and confused. Whew! — Beverly Paterson
“TEN YEARS GONE” (PHYSICAL GRAFFITI, 1975): By the time that Led Zeppelin released their 1975 double album opus Physical Graffiti, they had already been experimenting with a wide variety of sounds on its predecessor Houses Of The Holy. That album featured everything from reggae (“D’yer Maker”), to Zep’s own take on Pink Floydian space-rock (“No Quarter” shares more than a few similarities with Floyd’s “Echoes”). But Physical Graffiti was something else. There is an everything but the kitchen sink quality to it, that makes it something like Zeppelin’s own “White Album.” You’ve got Indian raga rock in “Kashmir,” near funk in “Trampled Underfoot,” and of course, some greezy, bottleneck blues with “In My Time Of Dying.” Naturally, FM rock radio played all of these songs pretty much to death.
Fortunately, they didn’t do that with “Ten Years Gone,” which serves as this album’s baby brother to the equally ambitious “In The Light.” Like the latter track, this is basically an opportunity for Jimmy Page to multi-track so many guitar parts, its almost like listening to a miniature orchestra. This studio trickery works a lot better on “Ten Years Gone,” though. Page’s multiple guitar parts serve more as to augment this song’s already strong melody, rather than to completely overwhelm it — a rare case of musical restraint from Led Zeppelin. Plant also turns in one of Graffiti’s stronger vocals here, keeping it light when necessary, but also turning on the occasional short bursts of power wailing when the song calls for it. But it’s Page’s layers upon layers of guitar that makes this song such a densely leveled delight to listen to. The most amazing thing about it, is that as layered as it is, the recording never swallows up the actual song.
It’s one of Led Zeppelin’s real sleepers — a classic track that has somehow managed to stay just under the radar all these years. — Glen Boyd
“IMMIGRANT SONG” (LED ZEPPELIN III, 1970): Admittedly, I’m a relatively new fan of Led Zeppelin; it took me years to appreciate their artistry, namely their ability to integrate world music and symphonic elements to create epics rather than songs. One perfect example is “Immigrant Song,” the Led Zeppelin III track that combines mystical lyrics, a galloping rhythm, and Robert Plant’s timeless wail to form a still powerful piece of hard rock.
Several stories circulate about the song’s creation. According to Chris Welch’s book “Led Zeppelin,” Plant composed the lyrics during the band’s tour of Iceland, Bath and Germany in mid-1970. The tour’s opening date occurred in Reykjavík, Iceland, which inspired Plant to write lyrics such as “we come from the land of the ice and snow.” Six days after their Iceland performance, Led Zeppelin premiered the song at the Bath Festival on June 28, 1970. Interestingly Melody Maker’s original review stated that the audience did not immediately take to the track: “They kicked off with a new riff from their next album called ‘Immigrant Song’. They actually took some time to warm up the crowd.” Perhaps the track proved too unusual, at first — after all, it lacks a melody and mostly relies on one chord. Yet that galloping rhythm, punctuated by Jimmy Page’s guitar and John Bonham’s pounding drums, chugs to a climax when Plant howls the lines “On we sweep with threshing oar, our only goal will be the western shore.”
A crucial element of this Nordic-themed song, of course, is that Plant shriek before each verse. Lester Bangs’ original 1970 review of III perhaps best summarized that yell: “Bobby Plant’s double-tracked wordless vocal croonings echoing behind the main vocal like some cannibal chorus wailing in the infernal light of a savage fertility rite.” No matter how you characterize it, that scream demonstrates Plant’s incredible vocal prowess as well as the mythological, mysterious imagery that surrounds Led Zeppelin. Quite simply, it is this song that eventually converted me into a fan — indeed, “Immigrant Song” officially established the band’s status as, as one line states, “the hammer of the gods.” — Kit O’Toole
“RAMBLE ON” (LED ZEPPELIN II, 1969): The last time SER paid tribute to Led Zeppelin, I shared the story of how “Immigrant Song” coming out of the loudspeakers before a Motley Crue concert turned this reluctant Zeppelin listener into a fan. Shortly after that, I found more reasons to like the band, and one of those was in the song “Ramble On.”
I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien several years before I really got into Zeppelin, and through junior high, high school and into college, it was my habit to read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” at least once a year. In fact, I still try to read them at least every few years. As I was listening to “Ramble On,” I kind of liked it, then we got to that third verse, where Robert Plant references Mordor and Gollum, and my ears perked up. Instantly, the song went from OK to super cool in my eyes, and it remains so.
For many years, it was like I had an inside joke on most of my other friends who were big Zeppelin fans before I was. While they knew the song a lot longer than I did, most of them didn’t get the references. They weren’t fantasy geeks like me and had no idea who Gollum was nor the significance of the name Mordor. It was my little secret, and I enjoyed the song all the more for it. Now, of course, everyone gets it, but back in those days, one could not simply walk into Blockbuster. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Now it’s out of my system.)
Though the most direct references, those are not the only ones in the song. It’s been speculated that the opening line, “Leaves are falling all around,” is a reference to the first line of Namarie, a poem from “Lord of the Rings.” Though written in Elvish, the line translates to “Ah, like gold fall the leaves in the wind.” It’s not exactly a clear reference, but I like the idea, so I’ll go with it. Ah, but then there’s the song itself, which opens with a subdued piece that puts the focus squarely on bassist John Paul Jones, as Jimmy Page strums acoustic and John Bonham slaps some bongos – or perhaps a miked-up guitar case, as some sources say. Jones’ lines are the most prominent. Though the song rocks things up for the chorus, it’s still Jones that drives it with some nimble work on the bass. And there’s nothing quite like listening to “Ramble On” in headphones when we get to that bit at the end where Plant’s vocals bounce back and forth from speaker to speaker.
So my little bit of inside knowledge on the song is no more (and truth be told there were millions of people who got it back then, just not in my circle) and I kind of feel its loss. For better or worse, I’ve always been one of those people who like to know a little something that most other people don’t – whether it’s useful or not. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter because, yeah, the song’s still pretty cool. — Fred Phillips
“HOW MANY MORE TIMES” (LED ZEPPELIN I, 1969): Long before Bruce Springsteen made his reputation as rock’s “marathon man” in concert, Led Zeppelin were equally famous for their own three hour-plus live extravaganzas. The concerts were played without an opening act, and always billed as “An Evening With Led Zeppelin.” One of the coolest things about these shows, was the way Zep would wildly improvise and reinvent some of their best-known material onstage. The best known example of this is probably “Dazed And Confused,” which often stretched to over twenty minutes in concert, and became the centerpiece of their shows, where Page would whip out the violin bow, and produce all these crazy-ass sounds by drawing it across the strings of his very heavily amplified guitar.
But my favorite of these Zeppelin jam showcase pieces is hands down, “How Many More Times,” from their 1969 debut. On that album, the side two closing track clocks in at 8 minutes, thirty seconds. But live, it went considerably longer, and Zeppelin would change the song up night after night. You literally never got the same version twice, and they’d often throw in bits and pieces of everything from old blues standards, to more modern rock covers during the lengthy mid-section. This is also the period where Plant’s high pitched wail was at its peak, and still a few tours away from the latter day, more weathered model resulting from all those years of pushing his voice to the limits of human endurance. In many ways, the original sound from this period — an earth shattering collision of Plant’s wails, Page’s bludgeoning power riffing, and John Bonham’s monstrous drumming — was never recreated again.
On this amazing 1970 performance from London’s Royal Albert Hall — all twenty minutes worth of it — Zeppelin literally peel the paint from the ceiling, and throw in a few choice bits from Neil Young’s “On The Way Home” and “Down By The River” for good measure. — Glen Boyd