The cover for the issue of Rolling Stone magazine on news stands now, has on it Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (the 1970’s versions) with the headline reading “LED ZEPPELIN: The Ultimate Guide to Their Music & Legend.” I didn’t buy it for a couple of reasons, (1) I have been long trying to reduce clutter in my life (still a work in progress). (2) I am already a bit of a Led Zeppelin aficionado; though not as good (or bad, depending on your take) as I used to be. And (3) as a bit of a Led Zeppelin aficionado, I know that Rolling Stone magazine panned Led Zeppelin on a regular and almost religious basis, back when that band was still actively recording and touring. So, as a fan, and a bit of an aficionado, I feel I already know Led Zeppelin well enough to not need some sort of primer, and I find the magazine that went out of their way to knock that band now offering some sort of tribute, kind of hypocritical; but maybe that’s just me.
While I am not old enough to remember any of the slights that Rolling Stone gave Led Zeppelin, nor am I old enough to have ever seen that band perform live, I – like many – did eventually “discover” Led Zeppelin when I was in high school in the 1980’s, about 5 years after the death of their drummer, John “Bonzo” Bonham, which ultimately lead to Zeppelin’s break-up.
I still remember the first song I heard on the local classic rock station, the song that launched me into wanting to hear and know more about this band called Led Zeppelin; that song was “Whole Lotta Love.” As soon as I could I immediately went to the record store (remember those places?) and bought the cassette of Led Zeppelin II and I damn near wore it out. Soon after I bought Led Zeppelin I, then III, then what is called either “IV,” or “Signs,” and so on down the list of their discography I went. Along the way, I bought “Hammer of the Gods,” which is the quintessential biography of Led Zeppelin, written by Stephen Davis; it is a very good read by the way, even if you are not a fan or a nut for Led Zeppelin.
That book painted a new picture for me of each of Led Zeppelin’s albums. After learning what was going on in the band’s personal lives before and during the recording of each record I began to really get a sense of why the tone of the records began to change from the raucous, youthful, happier sounds of young men, to the more tempered, and melancholy sounds that show up in their later albums, like “Physical Graffiti,” “Presence,” and “In Through the Out Door.” Plus that book showed how Led Zeppelin was probably the band that stamped sex and drugs indelibly into Rock and Roll. Sure, those two things have always been associated with music, not just Rock and Roll, but Led Zeppelin’s early tours are the stuff of legend, just Google “Led Zeppelin and shark incident,” and you will most certainly be stunned, probably appalled, and maybe even lament that rock stars nowadays are pretty damn lame in comparison.
I will wholly concede to the critics of Led Zeppelin that they were not nearly as “artistic” as say the Beetles, or even some of their contemporaries, especially in the lyrics department; but that should not take away from their talent. My brother, and one of my best friends, both of whom are drummers, has nothing but praise for John Bonham’s talents. It can be argued that Jimmy Page put the god in “guitar god.” Few people then, or now could replicate Robert Plant’s vocals, and the quiet man of the group, the one who never really faced tragedy in his life during the Zeppelin years, bassist John Paul Jones was a very accomplished studio musician prior to joining the band.
While I truly do like the vast majority of Led Zeppelin’s recordings, even the posthumously, and not their best, released “Coda,” my favorites are when they cover old blues songs, and in fact, if you follow this link, many of their songs were covers; that being said though, it is one of their original blues songs that I can almost listen to repeatedly, called “I’m Gonna Crawl,” off the “In Through the Out Door” album which I think is masterful in the conveyance of the emotion that a great blues song should have, through the tone and tenor, the sound of the guitar, meshed with the vocals. After reading the book, and knowing what all has happened to the band through the years, as well as what would happen in the following year (John Bonham’s death) that song’s tone (not the lyrics, but the tone) almost even serves as a bit of foreshadowing too.
That is my favorite song, but it isn’t my favorite album. Most people will probably say Led Zeppelin IV is their favorite, and it is understandable, it is their most commercially successful album, and is even referenced (though not flatteringly) in the movie, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Others will probably say Led Zeppelin II is their favorite, then there’s Led Zeppelin I, Houses of the Holy, and Physical Graffiti. All of those are very, VERY good Led Zeppelin albums, and have many hits that still get air play; but they aren’t my favorite. My favorite is Led Zeppelin III. That album hooked me with the opening track, “Immigrant Song,” and “Tangerine” is another one of my all-time favorite Led Zeppelin songs. It is also one of their least commercially successful albums; probably because the band deliberately strayed away from the formula that led to their success; it was kind of their “experimental” album, though to me Houses of the Holy seems a bit more of a deviation, or “experiment” in sound in my opinion; but whatever.
One of the things I find most interesting about Led Zeppelin is how the name came about, it is a bit of an homage to a conversation Jimmy Page had with Keith Moon (drummer of The Who), Jeff Beck (Page and Beck played together in the Yardbirds), John Entwistle (bassist for The Who) and Steve Winwood about forming a super group, to which Keith Moon replied something to the effect, that they should call themselves the “Lead (the malleable metal) Balloons,” because that is how well such a group would go over. So the “super group” never formed, however upon the formation of the band Jimmy Page remembered that comment, and simply changed the balloon to zeppelin, and opted for using the three letter “led” instead of the four letter word “lead,” because he was concerned that people would confuse that word for “lead,” as in leader, and he didn’t want it associated with a German invasion; so Led Zeppelin it became; that band’s name also lead to the coining of the term, “heavy metal” music.
So, no, I don’t need an “Ultimate Guide to Their Music & Legend,” I have already been there, done that. To anyone who might want such a guide, then perhaps Rolling Stone’s article is a good source, however I think the best thing to do with almost anything that you might find interest in is to immerse yourself in it. If that something is Led Zeppelin, then I do highly recommend reading “Hammer of the Gods,” by Stephen Davis, I can assure you that you will not be sorry.
Below are links to the songs I referenced in this post:
Whole Lotta Love:
I’m Gonna Crawl:
And one more for good measure:
Since I’ve Been Loving You: