In short, I'm not going to go long winded on the importance of Led Zeppelin. But back in the old daze, Led Zeppelin wasn't heard much on AM Radio outside of Whole Lotta Love, an edited version that took out the John Bonham cymbal taps and weird Jimmy Page excursions, but credit George Chkiantz for the tape echo delay and Immigrant Song. Led Zeppelin benefited from tough guy Peter Grant's strongarmed ways and keeping all these songs in full glory on 45s.
They are the stuff of legends, the screams of Robert Plant, the lead guitars of Jimmy Page and of course the heavy beats of John Henry Bonham, one of rock's all time most admired and often copied but never duplicated drummers. John Paul Jones, also had his stake into the songs and like Page, was one of the UK's most sought after arrangers of the day. Hard to believe JP Jones was behind some of Mickey Most's bands (Herman Hermits, Lulu, many others). Page also played on many of the UK bands and figured into Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man, which Bonham plays the cascading drum rolls on that song while Page played wild lead. The band was actually The New Yardbirds, a rethink of the original band Yardbirds. A band that had Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck before Jimmy Page signed up and eventually replaced Beck but the band was falling apart. Jim McCarty and Keith Relf up and leaving for a new venture called Renaissance, a band more into folk rock rather than the old R and B rock and roll The Yardbirds were famous for. In the end Page remained and then he drafted Robert Plant who bought along Bonham and Jones filled out the band. The last Yardbirds album Little Games remains however their most pop sounding, blame Mickey Most for that but hints of the heavier sound would be here in the song Think About It. The New Yardbirds were finishing up old Yardbirds dates and then a new beginning would happen, thanks to a off the wall funny delivered by Keith Moon, that the new band will go over like a Lead Zeppelin.
With Peter Grant as manager, Zeppelin got signed to Atlantic, which the band made it clear they were to be on Atlantic and not ATCO, the guys were keen to know that Atlantic was home to many of the influential musicians that had hits years before (The Clovers, Drifters, Wilson Pickett, etc), not that Atlantic was off limits to rockers, Bobby Darin returned to record for Atlantic after his tenure at Capitol was done for a couple. With Jimmy Page producing, Led Zeppelin made their S/T album and when I first heard it, I was floored. The stop start beat of Good Times Bad Times, a failed single foretold that things were going to be quite heavy. After the 2:43 single, you get three 6 minute plus whoppers, a acoustically Babe I'm Gonna Leave You including the improving jam that Chicago would use for 25 or 6 to 4, a slow plodding You Shook Me and Dazed And Confused based upon a old Jake Holmes song, why Holmes waited 30 years after the fact to mention something about it, nobody knows why ($$$). John Paul Jones' ominous organ beginning of Your Time Is Gonna Come showed he knew something about arranging songs. Black Mountain Slide was part of an old Yardbirds instrumental number White Summer condensed. Communication Breakdown was a 2 minute rock romp before things ended on a obscure Otis Rush number I Can't Quit You Baby and Page reworking How Many More Times from a Howling Wolf song. Which turned out to be how Page would do things. For the first four albums, he would go into the Chess Records catalog and redo old blues numbers. Usually Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters were the ones that Page would take things from.
Led Zeppelin 2 continues the hijinx, Whole Lotta Love, with inspiration from You Need Love from Muddy was the 5 and half minute 45 hit single, The Lemon Song, (Killing Floor-Howlin Wolf) and Bring It On Home (Sonny Boy Williamson/Rice Miller) the blues turned rock but a bit more originality shows up, Ramble On, mellow soft rock before Bonham comes rocking in, What Is And What Should Never Be another mellow start an ends up rocking number but perhaps the most heaviest song they ever did was Heartbreaker. It's easy to see why people think this record is the best of the first four, it rocks hard, and it's also easy. John Paul Jones was by no means the least important member, contrary to that, he added things to counter the heavy rock, the almost eternal Thank You and it becomes a beautiful love song. The calm before Heartbreaker (on record you have to turn it over since Thank You ends side 1).
Led Zep 3 originally was a bomb. Despite Immigrant Song and a plodding Since I've Been Loving You, the record is almost acoustic. This time out Page decided to drive into British folk rock, citing the Fairport Convention albums as influence but he also looked deep into blues again, this time borrowing Leadbelly's Gallows Pole and Bukka White Shake em on down, to the confusing Hats Off To Roy Harper. Led Zep could balance easy and heavy, while you rarely hear Out On The Tiles on radio, it's probably a throwaway track but John Bonham's drums and Andy Johns' stereo panning does make the song much better that what it is. Side 2's all acoustic side is worth the price of admission up till That's The Way. Critics call LZ 3 a step back, not me, it's a step forward.
But the first three albums lead up to LZ 4 or the ZOSO album The hard rock is there (Black Dog, Rock And Roll, which is a variation of Little Richard's Keep a Knockin, Bonham interpretation of Earl Palmer's introduction) and then The Battle Of Evermore and Going To California which is what they did from the 3rd album. The heavy blues of When The Levee Breaks (To which they do credit Memphis Minnie) which might be even more heavier than Heartbreaker. While people believe Stairway To Heaven might be the best Led Zeppelin song ever recorded (I don't) the gentle acoustic beginning, then leading up to the building up to the all rock out finale of the song. I think overall When The Levee Breaks is what Led Zep did the best. Hard core blues with a heavy beat. And nobody could lay a heavy beat like John Henry B.
Looking at the rest of their output there would be a dropoff although not by much. Houses Of The Holy starts out rocking with The Song Remains The Same but I could never get into The Rain Song, it goes on forever. Over The Hills And Far Away is acoustic rock once again but I love that song anyway. Bonham does a drunken Cylde Stubblefield on The Cringe and Dancing Days could have made a nice single (it was the B to Over The Hills....) D'yer Maker hasn't aged very well but No Quarter is a showcase for John Paul Jones and his keyboard mastery. And The Ocean is Rock And Roll Part Too.
Perhaps the masterpiece album is the odds and sods Physical Graffiti a 2 record set that put together a few odds and ends from previous albums but added some new songs as well. Side one of Custard Pie and In My Time Of Dying plus The Rover are top notch and I suppose the 11 minutes of Time Of Dyin isn't for everybody but Bonham is playing drum solos within the songs. There are great songs, Houses Of The Holy works better here than it would on the original album, Ten Years Gone is one of the best songs L.Z. ever done, even more than the overrated Kashmir, which classic rock radio has turned into a 9 minute headache. It's a good song but to me there's much better and less played. Down By The Seaside is another nice softer rocking song, In The Light another John Paul Jones showcase and I tend to like side 4 the best, Night Flight to The Wanton Song to Boogie With Stu (with a few Richie Valens lyrics thrown in) and Sick Again, a throwaway I'm sure but in the same way with Out On The Tiles a fun song. Let's us not forget Trampled Underfoot. My favorite 2 album set of all time.
Presence and In Through The Out Door are perhaps the weakest albums, still highlights are a plenty. Achilles' Last Stand is another 10 minute epic and they once again raid the blues with Blind Willie Johnson Nobody's Fault But Mine (or maybe Josh White). Candy Store Rock was the single and I like it more than you do. But the record is buoyed down by For Your Life and the side 2 closer Tea For One, which never gets out of it's wondering 9 minute funk and boy does it meander. In Through The Out Door turns out to be the the album that is more into John Paul Jones and the keyboards are all over this album. Not a lot of hard rock, In The Evening is perhaps the hardest rocking of the songs here. Fool In The Rain turned out to be a sizable hit and dare I say Hot Dog is damn near the most country they ever sounded? That said the 11 minute Carouselabama (What ever you call it) has rubbed a lot of Zep fans the wrong way, maybe there's too much John Paul Jones in this but I can live with this a lot better than say, Tea For One or For Your Life. In the end I liked I'm Gonna Crawl a lot more than All My Love. Alas this would be the end of the line, John Bonham drank himself out of this life and the band became history. Coda in 1982 scrapes together outtakes but it would be another 30 years before an expanded edition of Coda that Jimmy Page finally relented and tacked on Hey Hey What Can I Do, the B side to Immigrant Song that somehow missed being on Led Zeppelin 3. And believe me that song would have worked even more wonders for that album.
With Bonham's death, the band was gone. Jimmy Page lived off the royalties and made a couple albums, the Soundtrack to Death Wish 2 and the 1988 Outrider, the only album so far which made him a solo artist. Robert Plant kept busy with his solo career and continued to push the boundaries of music. And John Paul Jones would go into production and once in a while ventured out to do solo projects and oddball bands (Them Crooked Vultures), In 1988 Robert Plant sang on one song on Page's Outrider and Page played guitar on two tracks from Plant's Now And Zen. In the mid 90s, Page and Plant got together to do a tour together and a couple albums, Walking Into Clarksdale a 1998 new effort with Steve Albini recording. The record is overlong, Albini's mix more muddier than usual and the songs were exactly memorable although there are some highlights (Please Read The Letter, Shining In The Light, Most High). Perhaps John Paul Jones should have been included but then again I don't think they wanted a full blown part Zeppelin reunion, they did use Charlie Jones, Plant's bass player at that time but he was no John Paul. In 2007, the unthinkable did happen. Led Zeppelin did reunite at the O2 Arena, with Jason Bonham playing drums in place of Dad. Basically a farewell to Armund Ertugen who passed away a year ago, this turned out the only time that Robert Plant signed off on the deal. While the rest of the guys really wanted to do a reunion tour and make oodles of money, Plant shot that down. He just didn't really want to revisit that time ever again. But Celebration Day the album ends the Zeppelin legacy on a high note. The songs are done in a slower and different key and even Dazed And Confused is now at a much presentable 11 minutes rather than the 26 minute marathon was was on The Song Remains The Same Soundtrack. A few curveballs are thrown in (For Your Life-hmmmm) but Celebration Day is an album of a band having fun, with nothing to left to prove. Jason Bonham is no stranger to Led Zeppelin tribute albums (he did one In The Name Of My Father, a live in the studio recording released on....Michael Jackson's label MJJ/550 Music in 1998) and yes if anybody can do John Henry Bonham, it's Jason and he hold his own. And when it was over, Robert Plant went back to doing he was doing and Jimmy Page went back to the archives and remastered the albums all over again.
Each time Page remasters the albums, something new always comes out. The first generation Atlantic masters were muddy and not well defined, however I kept my first generation copy of Led Zeppelin simply of the fact that the tape hiss that was evident on the 8 tracks I used to have still shows in the mastering. In 1990 Page came out with the first box set of Zeppelin masters, and it was 4 CDs of cherry picking songs, to further get people to buy it, he did include a couple of BBC recordings (Traveling Riverside Blues) and what wasn't on that boxed set came out on Masters volume 2. In 1994, with the late George Marino helping, Page remastered the albums again and the clarity is much more there. With the original Atlantic label logo on the CD it felt more legit. Page raided the vaults to put out THE BBC Sessions, one CD of live BBC 1969 in the studio recordings and the second disc a Paris concert in 1971. It's interesting to compare how they were revamping Dazed And Confused from 6 and half minutes to 18 when they hit Paris in 1971. Then you have three different run throughs of Communication Breakdown. How The West Is Won are two 1972 shows, one in L.A the other in Long Beach that Jimmy Page discovered in the vaults and issued them in 2003. Basically this Led Zeppelin at the top of their game, the performances are top notch but you might drift off to sleep on the 19 minute Bonham drum solo known as Moby Dick. I think it's the best of official released live documents. The Song That Remains The Same, the original 2 LP set from a 1976 Madison Square Garden show, the original album was ho hum. Not one of their better shows. In 2007 Page decided to add six more songs to the collection and the record is much better for it. Still those Plant screamings of Push Push really haven't aged all that well. It's a period piece and you had to be there.
In 2014 Page decided to add bonus cuts and remixed to the whole albums and the one two albums worth hearing are the the first which includes a live show for a second disc and the three CD Coda CD which brings the debut of Hey Hey What Can I Do, Traveling Riverside Blues and Baby Come On Home, which was heard on rock radio when the L.Z. Box 1 and 2 came out . In essence, Page should have included Hey Hey What Can I Do on the first Coda album and the outtake of Sugar Mama. I wouldn't put it past Page to see him make another remaster attempt before all is said and done.
In the beginning, Led Zeppelin was my era of The Beatles, though I was still too young to see them play live but I did buy anything that came out on 45 and LP and 8 track. Unfortunately, my cassette copy of Physical Graffiti didn't last too long, even with the 12 dollar price, the cassette was poorly made. And the 8 track of the first album became spaghetti when the thing fell apart in the tape player. But I bought them because they were the band that mattered most to me. Sure as time flew by and classic rock radio ran them into the ground; the worst was when some radio stations did switch to a 24 hour a day Led Zeppelin playlist and hearing Stairway To Heaven 5 times a day was getting tiresome. Still, it's much different when you play on your own, that the song can still speak to you like it did 45 years ago. Many a rock band started when the less talented tried to do songs such as Rock And Roll or Whole Lotta Love, it turns out that John Henry Bonham's drumming wasn't so simple after all and I found that out the hard way. But in the stale AM of pop radio and bubble gum, Led Zeppelin was that forbidden band with the heavy sound on the FM side of things. And those who played Zep back then were ultra cool stations before the arrival of Clear Channel (I Heart) and the same 30 songs that now choke the life out of radio. While Robert Plant is out making new kinds of music and not interested of rehashing the past nor band reunions, there remains a few Zeppelin tribute bands that do a fine job of sounding like Zeppelin. For entertainment only though, they remain no match for the real thing. But the real band is gone, older, and John Bonham is in the great beyond toasting of the good old days with Peter Grant in tow. Page continues to insist there will be new album from him but he's been saying since who knows when. I'm sure Atlantic will continue to rehash best ofs if and when the time is right and I'm sure by 2019 when the 50th anniversary of Zeppelin comes around something will be there. Best of like Mother Ship or Early or Later Days or the original boxset are basically mixtapes on CD of the greatest hits, not exactly needed if you have the original albums. By now, there's nothing left to scrape from the archives, the next step is to reissue bootleg copies and make them official (Live At Blueberry Hill for example). But if you really to discover rock history, purchase the first album and go from there.
Or listen to your local classic rock or modern rock radio station.
Led Zeppelin (Atlantic 1969) A-
Led Zeppelin 2 (Atlantic 1969) A
Led Zeppelin 3 (Atlantic 1970) A-
Led Zeppelin 4 (Atlantic 1971) A
Houses Of The Holy (Atlantic 1973) B+
Physical Graffiti (Swan Song 1975) A+
Presence (Swan Song 1976) B
The Song Remains The Same Soundtrack (Swan Song 1977) B-
In Through The Out Door (Swan Song 1979) B+
Coda (Swan Song 1982) B+
The BBC Sessions (Atlantic 1997) B+
How The West Was Won (Atlantic 2003) B+
Celebration Day (Swan Song/Rhino 2012) A-