Led Zeppelin is a rock band from London, England. Founded in 1968, Led Zeppelin evolved from the disintegration of The Yardbirds, a blues band whose alumni includes guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. After several band members dropped out, Page recruited singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham from Band Of Joy to satisfy concert obligations in Scandinavia. When bassist Chris Dreja also left to become a photographer, Page replaced him with arranger and studio musician John Paul Jones. After the new quartet was ordered to cease using the Yardbirds name, they decided upon the name Led Zeppelin, after The Who drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwhistle suggested their music would “go over like a lead balloon”.¹
Jimmy Page (b. 1944), guitars
Robert Plant (b. 1948), vocals
John Paul Jones (b. 1946), bass guitar, keyboards, multi-instrumentalist
John Bonham (1948-1980), drums
Peter Grant (1935-1995), band manager
Peter Grant is noteworthy for his stewardship of Led Zeppelin. He negotiated their recording contract with Atlantic Records, which granted them a large advance on their first album, the power to decide what to record and when to tour, plus a far greater percentage for songwriting royalties than typically given. The band disdained the concept of hit singles, believing their music was better presented as conceptual albums. They produced two albums in 1969. Led Zeppelin was a surprise top 10 hit in both the U.S. and the U.K. The second album, Led Zeppelin II, featured “Whole Lotta Love”, a top ten hit song that gave them mainstream exposure on AM radio. Over the next dozen or so years, the band enjoyed immense popularity as a live musical act. Their first album, which debuted to modest critical acclaim, is now considered a seminal document in the development of “hard rock” or “heavy metal” music. Over their career Led Zeppelin has sold over 200 million albums, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1995.
I first heard Led Zeppelin when I was in seventh grade. “Whole Lotta Love” was harsh sounding, unusual. It was a fertile time in pop music, with many rock musicians at or near their peak, and local radio stations featuring good soul and country music, too. Maybe the older high school kids took an immediate interest, but it seems to me Zeppelin was more a curiosity in my town until “Stairway To Heaven” became famous. Before I graduated high school, my family owned a copy of Houses Of The Holy.
My interest in Led Zeppelin died after Houses Of The Holy. In high school, I had a large circle of friends interested in music, and it seemed no band received more attention than others. By freshman year in college, my musical preferences had moved away from guitar based rock groups. I was never a big fan of Led Zeppelin; they were part of the musical landscape of my youth, but not a dominant presence. Over the years I acquired copies of the first four albums, plus the excellent BBC Recordings compilation.
Revisiting Led Zeppelin
The iTunes player tallies how many times each song is played. Compared to other artists profiled in this countdown of favorite bands, Led Zeppelin songs have few plays, with no individual song played over ten times. But I’ve met quite a few guys that think Led Zeppelin is the greatest band of all time. They are very influential, the template band for a whole musical genre that took off in their wake. But the band’s hyper-dramatic take on the blues, and their acoustic forays into fantasy worlds, don’t quite resonate with me. However, devoting the last ten days or so to Led Zeppelin’s music has been enjoyable; the band’s skill is undeniable. Four of their first five albums are strong enough to play all the way through without being tempted to skip a song, perhaps the highest praise possible. The powerful beat established by Bonham and Jones gets the big muscles in the body moving; even if Zeppelin’s music is not dance music, the big beat punctuated by Plant’s and Page’s bursts of jagged sound is kinetic, in a violent sort of way. My interest in heavy metal music is tepid at best, but Led Zeppelin is the original, and the standard by which other bands of this genre are measured. Nevertheless, as I’ve aged I prefer swinging, danceable music as a rule, and after this profile, Led Zeppelin will likely return to its typical dormant status in the collection.
Two Thoughts, Both Wrong
Over the years creating my iPod collection (eight years and counting), I’ve had two recurring thoughts about Led Zeppelin’s music. First, Led Zeppelin is a band with no great (★★★★★) songs, but many excellent (★★★★) songs. No fives, but lots of fours. It didn’t work out that way. I’m a tougher grader than I used to be, a subject for a blog post of its own. I downgraded some Led Zeppelin songs because the lyrics carried little weight. Robert Plant has a fantastic singing voice, one of the all-time greats, but the words do not transport me anywhere, and rarely evoke emotion. Even when he uses age old blues phrases, they lose power by the method he delivers them.
The great “Stairway To Heaven” is an exception, with its cryptic yet coherent lyrics, and music that gently escalates in intensity, setting the table for one of Jimmy Page’s most famous solos, which he nails on the first take.
My second hypothesis was “There is no song after Houses Of The Holy worth including”. Overall, Led Zeppelin released nine studio albums, including one (Coda in 1982) after John Bonham’s untimely death in 1980. Band members think the sixth album, Physical Grafitti, is one of the band’s best. It received critical acclaim and significant FM radio airplay, especially the eight minute long “Kashmir”. I added “Kashmir”, based on its unusual chord progression and instrumentation, but generally I think it’s monotonous.
“Kashmir” is one example of Led Zeppelin’s creativity. They also experimented with guitar tunings (“That’s The Way”, “When The Levee Breaks”), time signatures (“Four Sticks”, “Black Dog”) and musical modes (“Dancing Days” – Lydian, “Ramble On” – Dorian).
I also added the bluesy “Tea For One” from Presence. I can’t listen to every song, so I try to make educated choices. No Zeppelin songs played on the radio after Houses Of The Holy ever piqued my interest. Other than these two songs, I just have songs from the first five albums, plus live performances from BBC Sessions and How The West Was Won.
Live Music and Video Choices
Led Zeppelin earned a reputation as a great band to see in concert. I never saw the band, but based on the available YouTube videos, I have some reservations about that characterization. Some of their songs translate well to the stage, but others sound inferior to the studio versions. Some songs, like “Four Sticks”, were too complex to execute on stage. Jimmy Page overdubbed guitar parts, sometimes more than once, on some of the band’s best and most famous songs to complete the sound. The inability to recreate that sound is a weakness; live versions of songs like “Stairway To Heaven” and “Over The Hills And Far Away” are inferior. They needed a Jimmy Page clone to take second lead during performances. Also, some of their songs have long instrumental passages of modest interest at best, a trait of late sixties and seventies rock music.
Songs from the first album are well suited to performance, when the band concentrated on developing a following. The selected videos reflect what works well.
As a rule, I focus on the positive attributes of musicians featured in this blog. I have been uncharacteristically critical of Led Zeppelin. The horror stories of the band’s exploits on the road are unavoidable. I’m not as offended by tales of property destruction as I am by those of personal violence, especially by the late drummer John Bonham, by many accounts a belligerent drunk who behaved like a common thug as his alcoholism progressed. Though he was the worst offender, and Robert Plant is cited as being a decent man, the band and crew used their position as the “greatest rock and roll band in the world” and pretty much did whatever they wanted, regardless of the collateral damage. That’s not to say they’re the only ones who traveled to your town and wreaked havoc, but they may be the most notorious.
What I find most offensive was the band’s failure to legally attribute musical ideas that were introduced by others before them. On the first two albums, there are many lyrical phrases and riffs taken, without giving proper songwriting credit until legal action was required by the damaged parties. An example is “Dazed And Confused”, the quintessential Led Zeppelin song, is written by Jake Holmes, who opened for the Yardbirds a few times in 1967. Jimmy Page is listed as the author in the song credits. The opening and closing passages of “Bring It On Home” are identical to Willie Dixon’s song, even Sonny Boy Williamson’s singing style, but no credit is given. Even when attribution is given, as when Willie Dixon is credited for “You Shook Me”, there are feelings of betrayal when Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page’s longtime friend, is furious, since he recorded a similar version of the song just months before. There are several other breaches of copyright infringement on the first two albums, before the band started using its own ideas more extensively. Granted, Robert Plant, who often made up lyrics on the spot, while the band jammed and worked out the music, was following an folk-lyric tradition of using past fragments of songs (discussed briefly in the Arthel “Doc” Watson profile). But nowadays song ideas are very lucrative, and the band and its management appear to have resisted giving credit if they could. Led Zeppelin may be the last famous band to engage in this practice.
My disappointment in the band’s behavior and business practices does little to reduce the song rankings. In a few cases, I leaned towards a lower rating if they didn’t write the song, but that’s always true. Let’s return to the power of positive thinking, and appreciate this fine, innovative band.
“In The Evening”, by Chuck Klosterman (Grantland.com)
Led Zeppelin: The Real Monsters Of Rock
“Trampled Under Foot”, from The Guardian, September 2012
“The Untethered Decadence of Led Zeppelin, December 2012
“Zeppelin Took My Blues Away”, Willard’s Wormholes
Led Zeppelin Song Notes:
1. “Going To California (Live)” and “Black Dog (Live)” are found on How The West Was Won. All other songs designated “(Live)” are found on BBC Sessions.
2. “Hey Hey What Can I Do” is found on The Complete Led Zeppelin. In fact, the rest of the songs can be found on this compilation, though I prefer to add from the original albums.
3. The most famous songs missing here are “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Lemon Song”.
Led Zeppelin Songs:
Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin ★★★★★
Black Dog, Led Zeppelin ★★★★
Whole Lotta Love, Led Zeppelin ★★★★
Going To California (Live), Led Zeppelin ★★★★
Good Times Bad Times, Led Zeppelin ★★★
Dazed And Confused, Led Zeppelin ★★★
What Is And What Should Never Be, Led Zeppelin ★★★
Heartbreaker, Led Zeppelin ★★★
Ramble On, Led Zeppelin ★★★
Rock & Roll, Led Zeppelin ★★★
Going To California, Led Zeppelin ★★★
When The Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin ★★★
Over The Hills And Far Away, Led Zeppelin ★★★
The Ocean, Led Zeppelin ★★★
Hey Hey What Can I Do, Led Zeppelin ★★★
Communication Breakdown, Led Zeppelin ★★
I Can’t Quit You Baby, Led Zeppelin ★★
How Many More Times, Led Zeppelin ★★
Thank You, Led Zeppelin ★★
Moby Dick, Led Zeppelin ★★
Bring It On Home, Led Zeppelin ★★
Since I’ve Been Loving You, Led Zeppelin ★★
That’s The Way, Led Zeppelin ★★
The Battle Of Evermore, Led Zeppelin ★★
Four Sticks, Led Zeppelin ★★
The Rain Song, Led Zeppelin ★★
The Crunge, Led Zeppelin ★★
D’Yer Maker, Led Zeppelin ★★
Black Dog (Live), Led Zeppelin ★★
Since I’ve Been Loving You (Live), Led Zeppelin ★★
That’s The Way (Live), Led Zeppelin ★★
Thank You (Live), Led Zeppelin ★★
Dazed And Confused (Live), Led Zeppelin ★★
What Is And What Should Never Be (Live), Led Zeppelin ★★
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, Led Zeppelin ★
You Shook Me, Led Zeppelin ★
Your Time Is Gonna Come, Led Zeppelin ★
Kashmir, Led Zeppelin ★
Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman), Led Zeppelin ★
Gallows Pole, Led Zeppelin ★
Tangerine, Led Zeppelin ★
The Song Remains The Same, Led Zeppelin ★
Dancing Days, Led Zeppelin ★
No Quarter, Led Zeppelin ★
Tea For One, Led Zeppelin ★
Travelling Riverside Blues (Live), Led Zeppelin ★
Communication Breakdown (Live), Led Zeppelin ★
Black Mountain Side, Led Zeppelin ★
Angel Dance, Robert Plant ★
Ship Of Fools, Robert Plant ★
Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On), Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ★★
Rich Woman (Live), Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ★★
I Can’t Quit You Baby, Otis Rush ★★
I Can’t Quit You Baby (Alt), Otis Rush ★
How Many More Years (also known as “You Gonna Wreck My Life”), Howlin’ Wolf ★★★★
How Many More Years (Original), Howlin’ Wolf ★
Bring It On Home, Sonny Boy Williamson II ★★★
You Shook Me, Muddy Waters ★★★
Killing Floor, Howlin’ Wolf ★★★
Killing Floor (Live), Jimi Hendrix Experience ★
The Hunter, Albert King ★
Jimmy Page appears as a studio musician on the following:
You Really Got Me, The Kinks ★★★★
All Day And All Of The Night, The Kinks ★★★
I Can’t Explain, The Who ★★★
It’s Not Unusual, Tom Jones ★★★★
Gloria, Them ★★★★★
Baby Please Don’t Go, Them ★★★★
Here Comes The Night, Them ★★
Tobacco Road, The Nashville Teens ★★★
With A Little Help From My Friends, Joe Cocker ★★★★
Bye Bye Blackbird, Joe Cocker ★★
Sunshine Superman, Donovan ★★
Hurdy Gurdy Man, Donovan ★★★
Beck’s Bolero, Jeff Beck ★★
Goldfinger, Shirley Bassey ★★
John Paul Jones performs or helps arrange the following songs:
She’s A Rainbow, The Rolling Stones ★
No Milk Today, Herman’s Hermits ★★★
There’s A Kind Of Hush, Herman’s Hermits ★★★
Dandy, Herman’s Hermits ★
Mellow Yellow, Donovan ★★★
Morning Dew, Lulu ★★★
¹ From Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music 1968–1980, by Keith Shadwick (2005)