It’s become fashionable to like Led Zeppelin again, after the release of their 2007 partial reunion concert. Luckily, Celebration Day, which debuted in the Billboard Top 10 last fall, doesn’t include any of these duds.
Looking back, it seems for every “Black Dog,” Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and the late John Bonham (replaced by son Jason in the newly issued project) would unleash a “Hot Dog.” For every “Ramble On,” there was, alas, a “Bring It On Home.” For every “Whole Lotta Love,” you had an “All My Love.”
For the newly initiated, figuring how what to avoid may be the hardest part of all. That’s where Something Else! Reviews comes in handy. We’ve sorted through each of the nine Led Zeppelin albums, looking for the times when we simply weren’t feeling the love, when it was nobody’s fault but theirs …
“BOOGIE WITH STU,” PHYSICAL GRAFFITI (1975): Originally, and perhaps more precisely titled, “Sloppy Drunk,” this was included — at the height of Led Zeppelin’s initial do-anything-and-they’ll-buy-it fame — as part of a double album stuffed with throwaways. There is perhaps none more worthy of tossing in the trash than “Boogie with Stu.” While using the Rolling Stones’ fabled mobile studio, Zeppelin was joined by Stones pianist Ian Stewart — who ended up banging away on an untuned piano. The story was that Plant is actually on guitar. Somehow, and this could only happen at this particular outsized moment in time, the resulting “jam” was included on Physical Graffiti. In the end, it borrowed so heavily (more on that in a moment) from Ritchie Valens’ “Ooh, My Head” that Led Zeppelin was forced to give him co-writing credit.
“ALL MY LOVE,” IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR (1979): Everything had changed since Zeppelin’s most recent studio album, the more blues-focused Presence, and this is the sound of a group playing catch up. That means smoothing out the edges, and adding synthesizers. And so you have moments like “Fool in the Rain,” with its teeth-splintering samba segment. But at least that tune boasted a twinge of Zeppelin-esque brawn in its basic rhythm, not to mention in its ever-so-brief guitar solo. “All My Love,” on the other hand, sounds like another band entirely, and a not-very-good one at that. From its carmelized, panderingly pop-styled chorus to Jones’ crude, half-drawn scrawl of a keyboard solo — his newfound interest in the instrument would be taken to its zenith on “Carouselambra,” a weirdly transfixing detour — “All My Love” is the sound of a band with no sense of cohesion anymore. It’s clear that Page and Bonzo (who simply could not sound more low key, disinterested, even groggy) simply mailed in their parts between benders.
“BRING IT ON HOME,” LED ZEPPELIN II (1969): It’s not just that they blatantly cribbed the gritty blues sound of the American Deep South, they robbed those old guys blind. Led Zeppelin actually got popped in a 1972 court case for nicking the intro section here from an old Willie Dixon tune (as performed by Sonny Boy Williamson II), though they said at the time that it should have been considered as an homage. The problem was, Led Zeppelin just kept committing homage after homage. They were the original music pirates, decades before the advent of the Internet. “The Lemon Song” was based on a Howlin’ Wolf song, as was a section of “How Many More Times.” The lyrics to “Whole Lotta Love” largely mirrored Dixon’s “You Need Love.” “Moby Dick” grew out of an earlier recording by Sleepy John Estes called “The Girl I Love.” Hell, even the chord progression from “Stairway to Heaven” bears a striking resemblance to a song by the Chocolate Watch Band, who just happened to have toured with Page’s pre-Zeppelin band the Yardbirds. There’s something about Plant’s mumbling, black-face presentation early on during “Bring It On Home,” however, that makes it feel the worst of all — like insult to injury.
“BLACK COUNTRY WOMAN,” PHYSICAL GRAFFITI (1975): This bloated monstrosity of an album is the gift that keeps on giving, with another piffle that’s somehow — and this is saying something — more annoying than the last. It’s said that “Black Country Woman” was recorded in Mick Jagger’s garden, around the time of “D’yer Mak’er,” and it has the feel of a very early demo — right down to a recording engineer intoning, as the tune begins: “Shall we roll it, Jimmy?” A plane flies overhead, the kind of thing that might have, you know, halted a take — or moved someone to leave this particular one on the cutting room floor. Instead, in a galling example of the contempt Led Zeppelin seemed to have had for the poor saps shelling out the cash for this two-disc set, Plant says: “Nah, leave it.” Our sentiments, exactly.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Return with us now to ‘Houses of the Holy,’ the often-overlooked successor to ‘Led Zeppelin IV.’ Even all these years later, though, we still can’t decide where it ranks.]
“HOT DOG,” IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR (1979): That this tossed-off rockabilly number is the only tune co-written by Page and Plant on what would become Led Zeppelin’s final proper studio effort says a lot about how low the band had been brought — as Page transformed into a shadowy junkie, and Bonham continued his race toward an early death at the bottom of a brown bottle. It’s funny, we tended to love it when Zeppelin stretched out on Houses of the Holy. (Yes, even the James Brown thing. Yes, even the doo-wop thing.) There was something charming, and in the moment about those experiments. Fast forward a few years, however, and it turns out that a heavy metal square dance is something best left to the imagination. In particular, when the participants couldn’t sound less interested. Meant, obviously, to be tongue-in-cheek, instead “Hot Dog” — a shambolic goofball pastiche — just sounds sad.