Growing up in a religious household, I was taught to fear Led Zeppelin as a child. They worshiped the Devil. They sacrificed virgins in their concerts. And of course, there’s that old chestnut about backwards messages in “Stairway to Heaven.”
And then I grew up, and my picture of Jesus looked more like Tom Waits than Jerry Falwell. As my love of hard rock grew, I grew into Led Zeppelin. The hook, of course, is that opening salvo of self-titled albums, Led Zeppelins I-IV, the last also known as Zoso for the cryptic figure representing Jimmy Page.
Zeppelin grew out of the the Yardbirds in their declining days. Jimmy Page joined when Paul Samwell-Smith quit the band and played bass until rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja could rehearse on the instrument. Over time, Page began to eclipse Jeff Beck, mainly by not having tantrums and showing up for gigs. But Page wasn’t interested in being the central figure in The Yardbirds. He used the band to experiment with early versions of songs that would, in a few years, become heavy metal classics. If you can find one of the last Yardbirds albums, you’ll hear an interesting early version of “Dazed and Confused,” complete with bowed guitar.
But when one-by-one the Yardbirds quit, Page executed his master plan. Session player and song arranger John Paul Jones became the bass player. The duo then recruited a Northland screamer named Robert Plant to sing lead (turning down Rod Stewart and a blues belter named Terry Reid). Plant, in turn, introduced a mad drummer to the group, John Bonham. Bonham is the answer to the question, “Who could get so wasted that Keith Moon has to finish his set?” Frightening to ponder, but in a good way.
The first two Zeppelin albums are raw, sexual thunder. “Dazed and Confused,” “Communication Breakdown,” and “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” turned rock’s volume up to eleven. And higher. Then came Led Zeppelin II, which cranked it even higher. “Whole Lotta Love” is pure animal bravado, and I’m pretty sure Robert Plant was in a position to back it up.
Page and Plant, the main songwriters, were smart, though. With III, they went acoustic and started messing with the chord changes. Just when fans got used to the mellower Zeppelin, they brought out the untitled IV (Led Zeppelin IV, Stairway to Heaven, and Zoso are all unofficial titles. The album actually has none, kind of like Peter Gabriel’s first three or four albums.)
And it’s of IV‘s best known song, “Stairway to Heaven,” where my attitude toward the band was liberated. As a kid, I was told tales of back masking, a dubious process where by unsuspecting Christian teens were duped into worshiping Satan by the backwards messages baked into the lyrics. It just so happened I got my vinyl copy of IV about the same time I bought a DC turntable. To make this cheap piece of crap work, I had to buy an AC adapter and splice the wires to the DC plug that was supposed to work with a receiver I didn’t feel like wasting money on. I discovered that, if you reverse the wires, you could play records backwards. Guess what the backwards messages say in “Stairway.”
If you answered anything but “What messages?”, you’re an idiot. And don’t tell me I played them at the wrong speed or didn’t listen right. It’s all bullshit. My mother was not happy when I confronted her with this truth, since she considered the preacher touting this load of crap a hero. I told her he was either a liar or a moron or both.
If you want the quintessential Led Zeppelin, though, look no further than the monster double album Physical Grafitti. “Custard Pie,” “The Rover,” and “In My Time of Dying” are a troika of songs that sum up Zeppelin from beginning to end, especially when coupled with the epic “Kashmir.”
Zeppelin showed signs of fatigue by 1980. Their final studio album, In Through the Out Door, sounds more like Robert Plant’s solo work than a Led Zeppelin album. Had John Bonham lived, the band would have been well-served by taking a break and recharging their batteries for a few years. When Bonham died, however, they made the wise decision to breakup. There were a few attempts to regroup with Chic’s Tony Thompson (a remarkably Bonham-like drummer with a disco pedigree) and Bonham’s son Jason. A Page/Plant collaboration in the 1990’s yielded some interesting music, but Zeppelin, unlike the Rolling Stones, U2, or the Foo Fighters, are best left with their canon intact. Like The Beatles, they wisely stepped aside at the top of their game.