Start your week off right.
It was the Led Zeppelin album that almost did not happen. When it did, it was too long for a single album. Surprisingly, many of its classic moments come from outtakes from Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin VI, and Houses of the Holy, including that album’s discarded title track.
Yet it is the quintessential Led Zeppelin album. Everything you want to know about Led Zep is on that album, from the opening tune, “Custard Pie,” through the epic “Kashmir” all the way to the quirky final three songs. While it’s essentially cobbled together from four previous albums, it sounds like a coherent whole, as though Zeppelin were simply trying to do something on each disk and each side.
The album’s signature piece is “Kashmir,” the epic 8 1/2 minute song that barges into progressive rock territory, reeks seven kinds of havoc, and leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. The chord progression was something Jimmy Page had been working on since the Zeppelin III sessions. When he finally got it down, he and John Bonham played around with the riff to find the right beats to put behind it. Robert Plant added lyrics he wrote after a visit to the Sahara Desert in 1973. When it came together, John Paul Jones put together the classic arrangement that later for the basis of the 1994 Page/Plant live version. Plant later said that, coupled with a phasing effect Bonham was experimenting with, what Bonham didn’t do on the drums had as much to do with making that song work as what he did do. This is the difference between Bonham and Keith Moon, who are often mentioned in the same breath. Moon was all style and showmanship, not much of a timekeeper, but, as Pete Townshend put it, The Who’s real keyboardist. Bonham was more integrated into Zeppelin, sharing the rhythm section with Jones, probably the most talented player in Zeppelin, but always planning and reworking with Page.
The other songs on the first disc are a mix of original material and outtakes, but somehow, they flow naturally, one into the other. “Custard Pie,” appropriately one of Plant’s hypersexed offerings, and “Trampled Under Foot” combined with “Kashmir” to make this album too long for a single disc. That was why the band took “The Rover,” “In My Time of Dying,” and “Houses of the Holy” off the shelf, reworked them, and made them part of a single first album.
On Disc 2, you can hear that Zeppelin is already moving on from their second phase, which including III, IV, and Houses of the Holy. “In the Light” is more experimental, but hardly psychedelic. “Down by the Seaside” sounds like something Plant might have done solo if he had left Zeppelin five years earlier. It was actually recorded in 1971. “Bron Y Aur” comes from the same sessions, but “Ten Years Gone” was one of those new songs for the Physical Graffiti sessions that sounds like an older, wiser band, particularly Plant. The last three songs are an odd combination of tunes, featuring two outtakes from III and IV and what was originally supposed to be the last song on side 2 when the album was going to be just one disc. “Boogie with Stu,” recorded with unofficial Rolling Stone Ian Stewart is considered a classic Zeppelin song that still gets airplay occasionally when a DJ wants to tell Clear Channel where to stick it. “Black Country Woman” might have been lifted off an old Robert Johnson album. Both of these are wooden, acoustic, though Plant’s vocals are heavily distorted on “Boogie.” Then there is “Sick Again,” a song that would not be out of place on their final effort, In Through the Out Door and might have made Presence something better than one of those albums that grows on people over time. With “Sick,” “The Wanton Song,” and “Night Flight,” you get hints of the Zeppelin to come. The rest of the album is Zeppelin at its peak showing what its learned.
Missing, though, is the bombast and sexual bravado of Led Zeppelin I & II. There’s no “Communication Breakdown,” “Dazed & Confused,” or “Whole Lotta Love.” Aside from “Custard Pie” and a few lines here and there, Plant is lyrically keeping it in his pants, though, it must be said, not hiding a damn thing in the process. Robert Plant in the 1970’s was the heterosexual yin to Freddie Mercury’s gay yang.
It’s surprising many people don’t cite this album more. It is probably the one album that crystallizes the band’s entire history more than any other. Dave Grohl did point to it as his model for the Foo Fighters’ In Your Honor, but the Foos have become more Zeppelin-like in their approach in the seven years since while Zeppelin itself was already drifting apart when they released Presence. Seven years after Physical Graffiti, Bonham was dead, Jones was producing, Page had a new band, and Plant was solo. Yet if Zeppelin had stopped at Physical Graffiti, their catalog would have been complete. As it is, you can consider the rest of what they’ve done as a bonus.
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.
Is it because I have everything I own that’s not still trapped on tape on a little device that fits in my pocket?
Well, that is cool and why I bought my original MP3 player, but no.
Is it because it’s Apple?
Please. I may like their products, but I refuse to join the cult.
Is it because I can download pretty much anything from classic rock to jazz to eighties pop and nineties alt?
Well, that does give me a jamgasm, but no.
I love my iPod because, knowing that, whenever the president is on the air any given night, I can slip on my headphones the next day, crank Led Zeppelin up to ear-splitting volumes without disturbing the water-cooler pundits around me as they yack away stupidly about new world orders and the Federal Reserve being a Cylon plot to end humanity and any number of things that don’t really require all three IQ digits (or sometimes even 2 of them) to form an opinion.
And that, my friends, is why I love my iPod.
Now if you’ll excuse me…
Waaaaaaay doooooowwwwn inside! Woman! Youuuuuuuuuu neeeeeeeeeed…
As we close in on the final year of the decade, one burning question remains.
No, not how much longer before we’re rid of George Bush.
Who is the band of this decade. What band defined the decade more than any other?
After the jump, we take a look at what bands came before, starting with the dawn of rock and roll.