Re-discovering Led Zeppelin in 2015
Living in the suburban sprawl that was Long Island in the late 70's, the name Led Zeppelin was held in reverence. It was the band all the cool older kids listened to. Their songs came out of car windows on summer nights and was heard at backyard and basement parties. The album covers weren't quite as eye catching as those of Pink Floyd or Yes, but they had a certain mystical quality about them.
Time goes on. Tragedy stikes. Band breaks up. Imitators are spawned, become successful and derided in the same breath and fade. Remaining members try to live with and escape the spectre of their legacy. Allegations of plundering the blues artists that inspired them surface.
Still, Classic Rock Radio makes them a mainstay in the decades following their demise, keeping them as popular as ever while simultaneously making some of the best known and best loved songs overplayed to the point where ardent fans cant stand to hear them any longer.
So, how does one go back in time to re-discover the catalog of, with all due respect to the Beatles, the greatest rock band of all time. In my humble opinion, you bypass the songs that radio (both terrestrial and satellite) has beaten into the ground and go deeper. The treasures that await will make you forget that you have heard "Rock And Roll" to the point of nausea.
Here is where to start:
Achilles Last Stand (1976)
From the under-rated Presence album, this is one of the longest and most epic of Zeppelin compositions. The gallop of the song is an eerie precursor to the galloping bass of future UK metal gods Iron Maiden. The song is held together with the propulsive drumming of John Bonham down low and the powerful, yet restrained, vocals of Robert Plant. A tale of the mountains and deserts of North Africa this one marches with a building momentum from beginning to end.
Ten Years Gone (1975)
A thoughtful and slightly folky offering from the Physical Graffitti double album, this song's trademark multi-tracked guitars create an evocative musical bed over which the pensive lyrics are sung by a wistful Plant. Another trademark Zeppelin song not built around a traditional verse chorus structure, rather it builds verse to verse with Jimmy Page adding additional layers as it moves forward. A lyrical retort to a woman from his past who asked him to choose between the music or her. For all our sakes, he chose the former.
In My Time Of Dying (1975)
The longest studio recording in the Zeppelin catalog, another offering from the legendary Physical Graffitti album. Page's slide guitar and Plant's anguished vocals take center stage on this one as this one bounces from slow blues to a jagged shuffle and back again over the course of eleven attention grabbing minutes. John Paul Jones really anchors this one on the fretless bass. This extended song developed out the bands trademark jamming and while based on a gospel song from the 20's was originally credited to four members of the band.
No Quarter (1973)
From Houses of the Holy, Jones carries the day on this one with some distinctive organ and electric piano. Lyrically rooted in a Viking conqueror vibe, Plants distorted vocal brings the words to life to the point where you can feel the cold winds of Thor through the speakers. Using a very understated guitar figure to carry the body of the song along, Page takes a more is less approach here to great effect. Another workman like beat provided Bonham fits in well
When The Levee Breaks (1971)
Opening with the distinctive compressed echo drum fills of Bonham, this track from the uber-popular IV album, bubbles with intensity. This is one of those songs that never quite gets to a full boil, but comes so close that the satisfaction of getting so close to the flame without being burned is undeniable. Psychedelic harmonica fills punctuate a sitar like guitar throughout and another great vocal by Plant. This one was another bone of contention with the blues crowd as again it is based on a blues gospel song from the 20's
Gallows Pole (1970)
Adapted from an old English Folk song, this is another Zeppelin song that delights in the reserved beginning that transforms as it races to a frenetic conclusion. Included on the III album, this one starts with simple acoustic guitar, with mandolin, electric bass and banjo being added for good measure as the momentum builds. Plant's vocal starts with a low key pleading to a would-be executioner and builds in desperation and intensity as offers of treasure and carnal delights are subsequently turned down. Another great example of the ability of Jimmy Page to arrange so many elements into a cohesive statement. There is even a bit of irony here as the tone of the song seems to more celebratory as it reaches its zenith, though the lyrics would appear to indicate no mercy by the hangman.
Next time you are listening to the radio and you feel the frustration that comes from hearing Ramble On, Whole Lotta Love or D'yer M'Ker for the umpteenth time, take a breath and dive into the album tracks. The majesty that has and always will define Led Zeppelin will be there to greet and inspire you for years to come.
Thanks to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones for providing the greatest of gifts, a soundtrack to the life lived.