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Zepplin. Led Zepplin.

Flying home from California, I’m inspired to listen to Led Zepplin through ZOSO in chronological order. Sure, me and about a million other people since the iPod was invented 14 years ago, but bear with me. The inspiration behind this was an exceptional podcast I listened to this morning, where Merlin Mann* was on “The Incomarable” podcast going through REM’s early discography (“Murmur” through roughly “Out of Time”)

One of the things that Mr. Mann and the podcast host kept coming back to was the growth that the band and the members had to go through to get to the mega-band they became somewhere around Monster. Lots of music theory, since the hosts knew all of that crap. I like listening to it, even though I couldn’t tell a fretted 7th from a microstep.

There was a side discussion about “Stairway to Heaven” that got me thinking – the throwaway comment was that Merlin would listen to it once a year, and that that was about the right frequency. BUT, he also had a bit where he talked about the Zeppelin’s evolution, and I wanted to go through and see if I could hear it.

So I did it.

Volume

My ears are bleeding, because, if nothing else, Led Zeppelin is one of those bands that cannot be appreciated at moderate volumes. These albums are from the pinnacle of analog musical production. Gated drums, full use of stereo, spatial separation, dynamic range – this stuff doesn’t happen much any more. I don’t know if the need for volume is inherent to the music, or is necessary to bring out the nuance in the tunes…

Tight

From the first power chords of “Good Times, Bad Times”, Zeppelin seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus, like Athena, strong, beautiful, and brilliant.

In contrast to REM, Zeppelin knew what they were doing from the start. Jimmy Page had been in the Yardbirds, Plant and Bonham had been playing together for a couple of years, and John Paul Jones is the first documented cyborg, a mix of human, metronome, and sampler.

Versitile

Take “Ramble On”. Starts with acoustic steel string and what sounds like handslaps on a desktop. Plant comes in with what could be a great ballad, soft and tender, and then the baseline starts – meandering, not really following the same melody as the vocals, but as heavy on the One as anything the James Brown band ever kicked out. Not funky, per say – there’s a little swing, but still completely and totally On the One.

On one hand, almost every Zeppelin song is instantly recognizable as a Zeppelin song. But it’s kind of in the air if that’s due to production values, style, Plant’s unmistakable voice, or what.

The Lost Artform of the Album

Led Zeppelin made albums to be listened to as albums. Not as background music, not as singles, but as albums. THIS WAS ENTERTAINMENT, a way to fill evenings with friends. The music demanded to be listened to, and concentrated on.

And Zeppelin were the masters of crafting an album side. Start strong, finish strong. Group sounds. Side 1 of ZOSO (or IV, or “the album with Stairway on it”) may be one of the most powerful sides put together – “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, “The Battle of Evermore”, and finishing with “Stairway to Heaven” – if you haven’t destroyed a pair of speakers, or had a neighbor complain about noise during this side, you might not have lived.

Any other band would have taken those 4 songs, spread them out over a single album, and added 4 weak songs to fill it out. Not Led Zeppelin. Catch your breath after that, flip over the platter, and let “Misty Mountain Hop” wash over you, and take you to “When the Levee Breaks” – 7 minutes of dread, forboding, and sheer exultation and pounding on the tom.

Pshew.

Led Zeppelin

It’s tough to find fault with this album. It’s earnest, tight, and coherent. WE’ve already doted on “Good Times, Bad Times”, so we’ve got to talk about “Dazed and Confused” – it’s up there with anything that the Thirteenth Floor Elevators oozed out of their psychadelic haze. Gotta sit on the couch for a couple of minutes before getting up to flip this one over.

The second side doesn’t dissappoint – “Your Time is Going to Come” fades into “Black Mountain Side” – a brief instrumental relief, followed up by “Communication Breakdown”, which inspired a thousand thrash metal bands to follow. It ends on “How Many More Times”, a mismash of free jazz and rock and/or roll that keeps rolling with enough variation to make you disappointed when if ends after almost 9 minutes.

Led Zeppelin II

The thing that amazes me is that II takes everything that was good with “Led Zeppelin” and turns it up to 11. The first side is another four perfect songs, alternating power and grace, with “The Lemon Song” in there to shake things up a little bit – stutter step on the rhythm, and a little bit of frantic catchup in the middle – echoes of Buddy Holly, the King, and the Killer.

Flip the album, and, for me, it gets better – “Heartbreaker”, “Living Loving Maid”, “Ramble On” – Solid, solid, solid. No way not to break the speakers here.

Led Zeppelin III

OK, so this is the one where the band “grows”. It wasn’t immediately in my Google search, but I remember a great article a couple of years ago which credited III as saying “OK, the 60’s and peace and love were great and all, but this is the 70’s, and we’re going to get messed up”. There had been earlier hints of crazy – the Tolkien references, the free jazz inspired jams, but III kicks off with “Immigrant Song” – driving, driving, crazy Vikings.

But after that, the first side is hard to love. The album is clearly a statement from the band that they don’t just want to be the blues knockoff band that you could accuse them of from the previous two albums. But there’s just not a whole lot to love.

The second side is a different story though. Dylan went electric; Zeppelin went acoustic. There had been a mix of amps, effects, and acoustics prior to this – side 2 strips down and lays bare the band. But even without racks of amps and effects, there’s a fullness to the group. Plant’s vocals stand up to Page’s racks of amplifiers, and there’s a continual swap between JPJ and Bonham over who’s driving the rhythm. I kind of wonder if maybe they were thinking about separating after this album – there’s a melancholy here that’s not present in the other three albums, and it’s not resolved when Mr. Harper’s song is done.

Led Zeppelin IV, or ZOSO, or “The one with Stairway”

Damn. Once a year may be enough after you’re 20, but damn. Other folks might write fantasy-themed songs, but there’s no-one with the stones to do something like “Evermore” and then follow it with “Stairway”. Two 5+ minute songs with wacky imagery back to back. I think it works because the first two songs on the side, “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” are packed with more rock and roll per measure than almost anything else ever written (I could possibly make a case for “Wild Flower” and “Peace Dog” off The Cult’s Electric, but the rest of that album kind of sucks.)

There are few moments in music that should reliably give you chills. But, if you don’t start tapping your toe the moment the snare kicks in at “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now”, head bobbing at the cymbal crash at “your head is humming”, and playing air guitar after the key change before “As we wind on down the road” … Well, you might be a replicant with no real soul.

Like I said earlier, the 4 songs on side 1 could fill out an album for a mortal band; this is Zeppelin, though. Side 2, though, could likewise stand on its own. “Misty Mountain Hop” picks up on “Immigrant Song”‘s, “f* it, it’s the 70’s” – “I really don’t know” … “I really don’t care if they’re coming, I know it’s all a state of mind”… But, it’s still tight and ends when it needs to. “Four Sticks” does a little bit of musical exploration, “Going to California” breathes for a bit.

But when you think it’s done, the levee breaks. I’m amazed that drums that sound this big could be recorded, mixed and reproduced. The harmonica screams, and the Plant manages to make the guitar drone. That this is one of the most sampled drum loops ever is instantly believable – when I’m king, the minions that travel with me to let the people know I’m coming will be banging this out and screaming the line with trumpets.

Crying Won’t Help You

Somehow, Zeppelin manages to pull off 4 amazing albums in 4 years, and move from a sound largely based in others efforts to something clearly their own. I wish I could keep going, but frankly, I don’t really like later Led Zeppelin that much.

It may be another year until I spin these disks, but if you haven’t in a while, give it a go.

* There are few people of whom I’m greatly jealous and whom I’d really like to meet, but Merlin Mann has got to be high up on the list. He’s internet famous

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