Tired of “Stairway to Heaven”? Try These Led Zeppelin Songs Instead

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Forget the reunion so many had hoped for when the surviving members of Led Zeppelin held a news conference recently. Turns out it was only to promote a new concert film. But, wait, there’s more: Jimmy Page has apparently remastered the group’s entire catalog.

History tells us, despite the abundance of earlier reissues, that this is big. Really big.

After all, Led Zeppelin’s Facebook likes reportedly jumped by 75 percent — to nearly 7 million — in the run up to the announcement of their Celebration Day movie. Many will remember, too, that some 20 million people signed up for a lottery drawing when 18,000 tickets were released for the 2007 reunion performance featured in the film.

Of course, Page previously oversaw a round of reissues in 1990, highlighted by the two-disc Led Zeppelin Remasters set. Boxed Set 2 followed in 1993. So, the speculation has been that this new update will follow the all-encompassing template set by the recent Pink Floyd “immersion” series, which filled a multi-disc set with an avalanche of rare demos, alternate takes and live remakes.

Maybe we’ll buy it all over again. Maybe, we won’t. OK, sure we’ll buy it. We’re suckers.

But, either way, the news certainly had us thinking about some of the band’s signature moments — and some of its coolest deep cuts. Forget “Black Dog,” “All of My Love” and (of course) “Stairway to Heaven”; we were looking for things a little more off the beaten path.

That led us to favorites from Led Zeppelin’s 1969 sophomore release, 1970’s III, 1975’s Physical Graffiti, and 1976’s Presence that are sure to be a little lesser-known highlights when the next round of reissues arrive …

“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

“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

“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 the 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

“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

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