The Brief Life and Long Legacy of Led Zeppelin, in Eleven Songs
The English band synthesized the sounds of the first wave of British Invasion bands into an intricate and massively loud new subgenre. Then they began to fall apart.
Boomers have much ballyhooed the end of the “album era,” because the youths today prefer individual songs and artists don’t necessarily record full albums in the first place. But most of the classic albums from the ’60s and ’70s still have filler. The 8-track player is a cultural joke today, but when it came out it represented a new way to skip to the song you really wanted to hear. The cassette tape reverted to continuous play, but my cassette player, at least, could skip tracks by sensing lulls on the magnetic tape or something. What’s really changed is that you can seek out and pay for just the songs you want.
By the late 1960s, when Led Zeppelin began recording, hundreds of bands had released album after album of rock and pop rock. The Beatles are often called pure pop. Pink Floyd is relegated to prog rock, “progressive” in the pompous sense of trying to make rock music more arty and respectable. The Rolling Stones flexed the full width of their category as a rock band. Early rock began in the blues but continued to roll up other genres like a late-level katamari: studded with folk, psychedelia, surf, country, soul, acid rock, and more, plus the full-on pastiche when bands brought in gospel choirs or string orchestras as special guests. And the hybridization and mutual enrichment didn’t stop with the music. Every genre has thematic tropes, from country crying in its beer to surf music about, you know, surfing.
Into that mix, Led Zeppelin brought full-on genre fiction, from mythology to modern fantasy. This wasn’t a new idea, not even remotely — see my competing column, “Over 2,500 Years of Western Musical Tradition, in 11 Shape-Singing Opera Bard Chanting Lieder Symphony Fantasias,” and only that limited because my music history classes were western. But ancient mythology and literary fantasy were having a heyday in the mid 20th century. In the U.K., where Led Zeppelin began and usually stayed, Greek and Roman mythologies mixed with the Matter of Britain (King Arthur and friends) and other lore from the islands before being manhandled and replaced by Christianity. Norse and Germanic myths were introduced as cultural artifacts with later invasions.
At some point, stories about magic and the supernatural were separated from religion and allowed to stand alone. Beowulf is the most famous early western epic, but even Shakespeare retold myths in his work — King Lear dates back to the same source material as King Arthur. In the 1930s, J.R.R. Tolkien synthesized a number of ideas from European mythology and storytelling into his burgeoning world of Middle Earth and propelled so-called “high fantasy” into the mainstream at a time when other genre fiction was struggling to be taken seriously. Our modern archetype of western fantasy is almost pure Tolkien, and works that diverge from this type must still reckon with it in their worldbuilding. Led Zeppelin walks this same post-Tolkien fantasy path.
Here’s a secret I didn’t tell you during my Pink Floyd primer: I avoided songs that were, in their case, anywhere from 8 to 29 minutes long. I’ve done the same thing here. We’ve all heard “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s fine.
Your Time Is Gonna Come (1969)
Strange but true: the Eagles and Led Zeppelin have one major thing in common. Both groups formed from the gifted and talented swirling morass of their chaotic respective scenes. It’s like the wave of divorces and second marriages among people in their 30s: all the guys had been in other bands and found varying levels of success, and all had a clearer idea of what they wanted for their next project.
They recorded their eponymous debut in 1968 and released it in 1969. With at least the first four Zeppelin albums, it’s hard to find any songs that don’t feel . . . if not necessarily played out, then not already familiar, at least. In a way, breaking up long ago and staying that way except for rare live gigs has kept Zeppelin’s reputation intact in a way few other bands from this time have managed. “Your Time Is Gonna Come” is a straightforward blues-rock ballad with a very special organ solo opening. It reminds me of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which came out just prior in 1968.
A Brief Aside About Musical Licensing
Led Zeppelin kept the rights to all their songs tightly under wraps for decades, until a 2003 Cadillac ad campaign overhauled and relaunched Cadillac’s image and, honestly, seeded a massive wave of classic rock licensing deals for similar commercials. It’s not a coincidence that this playful, cinematic ad followed the revival and reinvention of Top Gear in 2002, from a stodgy and literal show about cars to an anthology of charismatic reviews, challenges, and cinematic slow-motion shots of drifting supercars. The cultural impact of documentarians like Bruce and Dana Brown and the ’90s skate-video movement had linked popular music with aspirational reality in a new way.
What Is and What Should Never Be (1969)
Since the band recorded much of their debut in 1968 and included a handful of covers, it wasn’t much of a crunch to crank out Led Zeppelin II within the same year. Guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant formed the creative core of Led Zeppelin, and Page is credited on all the songs on Led Zeppelin II. But, at least to me, the superstar of “What Is and What Should Never Be” is John Paul Jones, whose playful and engaging bassline weaves in and out even in the song’s quietest moments.
I grew up playing bass clarinet, often pacing out repetitive quarter notes while the rest of the band played melodies. For a rock song to have an identifiable bass melody that runs its entire length—that just really appeals to me both as a listener and a one-time frustrated bass section member. And Jones’s funky (sorry, I mean that literally!) bassline is decorated with shimmery, distorted vocals and Page’s stereo-bouncing guitar. When kids say something “slaps,” it always makes me think of upright double bass players literally slap-playing, and this song slaps.
Out on the Tiles (1970)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every member of Led Zeppelin was basically a genius. I might say this about the Rolling Stones, but it doesn’t feel as 100% true as it does about Led Zeppelin. Not only did the band take more musical chances, from challenging-to-listen-to rhythms to discordance and arrangements. Everyone helped with songwriting, and everyone contributed virtuosic solos and riffs, no matter their instrument.
If “What Is” was a bass player’s showcase, “Out on the Tiles,” from 1970’s Led Zeppelin III, is a drummer’s chance to show off. Between bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham, the rhythm section of Led Zeppelin continued moving toward the forefront and future of the band’s sound. It’s sometimes hard for me to always pin down why one band sounds a certain way and another sounds a different way — similar bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Both bands use heterogeneous sounds made of intricate, interlocking instrumental and vocal parts. I can say that the Stones hewed closer to the blues-rock song they loved. Mick Jagger’s vocals are lower, his songwriting relies more on clearly hearing lyrics that tell stories, and Keith Richards’s guitar is more melodic and less wall-of-soundy.
Led Zeppelin found their niche somewhere between the complete soundscape orientation of Pink Floyd and the blues-rock hits of the Stones. Page’s guitar parts are lower, louder, and more brooding. On top of that, the band’s astonishing rhythm section added heavy, pounding intensity to their songs during a time when bands like Zeppelin and Deep Purple were carving out a new niche for so-called heavy metal. Jimmy Page leaned into the strong rhythm section, and Robert Plant’s vocals, higher and more piercing than Mick Jagger’s, help to really set off the heavy lower end. I love the Stones so much, but switching from a Stones classic to a Zeppelin classic can feel like switching mono into stereo. The two bands seem so similar but couldn’t be more different close up.
So no one told you life was gonna be this way . . . Just kidding.
But speaking of different vibes close up, “Friends,” also from Led Zeppelin III, is an orchestrated, vaguely ethnic-sounding, acoustic ballad-ish. The guitar tuning, melody, and string arrangement all add up to a disquieting or even unsatisfying sound. It reminds me of “Fearless,” my favorite Pink Floyd song and favorite song period. In fact, the lyrics make “Fearless” sound like the practical steps listed in a WikiHow article.
Bright light, almost blinding
Black night, still there shining
I can’t stop, keep on climbing
Looking for what I knew
The song has a sense of sweep and drama. It’s the soundtrack to itself.
Misty Mountain Hop (1971)
So far, I’ve chosen kind of esoteric Led Zeppelin songs. By 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV, the band were picking arbitrary names out of fantasy books. This album has some of the band’s most straightforward rock songs — classics by any measure, including “Rock and Roll,” whose title has always seemed like, I don’t know, wearing a band’s t-shirt to their own concert. It also has their most famous story-songs: “Stairway to Heaven” and “When the Levee Breaks.” And there are a couple on here that I think are stinkers.
The lyrics of “Misty Mountain Hop” are kind of trite and boring. The song’s arrangement is straightforward to a point that it’s almost repetitive or droning. There’s no string section or particularly interesting bassline or anything. Later in the song, the guitars get a little out of pocket, including a tiny splash of Allmans-like twinned guitarmony. And that makes sense — the Allman Brothers Band formed in 1969.
Over the Hills and Far Away (1973)
Jimmy Page makes the shortest final cut for almost every list of best rock guitarists, and—can I be honest?—I’d bump some widely accepted canonical bests to move him even further up these lists. But I accept that it depends on what you’re measuring when you say someone is the greatest at something. Eric Clapton is who I picture when I think of lists of greatest guitarists. Without a doubt, he’s a virtuosically talented man. Clapton could sit down and lay out one intricate guitar melody after another, from blues to rock to borderline folk: not in a showy way but just a staggeringly impressive one, like listening to someone play Mozart’s piano works.
Jimmy Page, then, might be more like the version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for solo piano. Different genres, expressive choices, and the nature of piano itself are all up for grabs. Jimmy Page combined his hands-on guitar genius with escalatingly complex choices about style, sound texture, and his place within the arrangements of his band. Within “Over the Hills and Far Away,” Page matches Robert Plant note for note with half a dozen big style changes. The song builds to a crescendo, but within that structure, Page still shakes his style up over and over without ever sounding like a showoff or anything other than an integrated part of the sound. He even layers his own parts to form a sort of guitar section within the arrangement.
The Ocean (1973)
This is one of my absolute favorite Led Zeppelin songs. It’s simple, it has an odd time signature that keeps you on your toes, and it still shreds after 46 years of relatively less overplay than the greatest hits. All four band members wrote it together, and Robert Plant claimed the titular “ocean” was the crowds the band played for. But the song bears a strong resemblance to “When the Levee Breaks” and I like thinking of them as flipsides. “The Ocean” is like if you turned “When the Levee Breaks” into a pop song, or at least as much as Zeppelin could make a pop song.
The arrangement is simple and almost stark, with repeating guitar and rhythm motifs and one of my favorite vocal moments in the band’s catalog: a brief call and response where Robert Plant layers his own tracks to build a playful little harmony. And then with a minute left, the song changes to another pure Allman-cum-Zeppelin pastiche that critics either loved or hated.
The Rover (1975)
Physical Graffiti is a double album, which I almost always think could be tightened up to one LP. “The Rover” was written years before but didn’t make it onto an album before this. And that might make it sound like an also-ran track on the second LP, but this is the second track on the very first side.
Something that interests me about Zeppelin is how deeply, almost comically-at-times British their stuff is—cottages in Wales, Tolkien references, even Physical Graffiti’s lead track named “Custard Pie”—and then that crashes into strangely specific American stuff. Concurrently with Led Zeppelin (in fact, “The Rover” has the line “She is lying on the dark side of the globe”), Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters sang in a strong British accent. Before that, I don’t think a lot of American fans knew that was possible, or that what they usually heard was a put-on. This guy calls the singing accent “trans-Atlantic,” the same as the bizarre almost-British accent that mid-century Hollywood movies love for some reason. A lot of actors attempting American accents still sound kind of trans-Atlantic. I’m not mad! Accents are hard!
A Longer Aside About Accents
Idris Elba recently appeared on Hot Ones and talked about the growing number of British rappers who keep their own accents. Scroobius Pip, who isn’t even so much a rapper as a spoken-word musician, sounds like if you Xeroxed Sage Francis but switched off the regionalization—his major 2011 album is even called Introdiction. It seems like most British singers still put on American accents in 2019, and I’ve felt really stupid for a long time that I didn’t know before how intentional this is.
“Doesn’t singing just lend itself to that?” I thought, like a large adult asshole who hasn’t reasoned it out. Sure, we pronounce nearly every single word differently, use different idioms and sentence structure, and fortify our separate dictionaries as symbols of how much our accents aren’t alike. But singing that way for decades must have just been natural, right? That’s why Roger Waters went out of his way to have a Scottish dinner worker yell, in accent, at a chorus of audibly local children about their “pudding.”
Most recognizably British accents in song are brutally exaggerated, regional and “working class” in a way that would have created a different kind of ripple in a country whose relationship with its dozens of regional dialects has made the news for a century plus. Sure, the debate today over vocal fry is brutal, but 80 years ago listeners genuinely didn’t believe the news unless the announcer sounded like Henry Higgins. Today, BBC presenters all use their own accents, and there are entire stations in the Welsh and Gaelic languages.
(Special thanks to my friend Charles Wheeler for talking this through.)
Royal Orleans (1976)
It’s easy to pinpoint big trends in hindsight, in this case to suggest that Led Zeppelin began to lose steam after Physical Graffiti. This might be true, but the events around it were cruel and random and out of the band’s control. Robert Plant was in a car crash that broke his ankle and nearly killed his wife. Like President Jed Bartlet, the boys had to get real about how much touring they could do, which was none, and how much recording they could do, which was very little. They knocked out 1976's Presence in relatively tiny time, with the simplest arrangements in the band’s history and almost all songwriting handled between Robert Plant and Jimmy Page only. The simplicity and rushed pace show in the songs, which are still okay but not my (or really anyone’s!) favorites.
Hot Dog (1979)
If latter-day Led Zeppelin experienced an overall pullback from noodly complexity into simpler blues-rock, “Hot Dog” is the reductio ad absurdum. Decades before Lonely Island, this is basically a Saturday Night Live parody of the Americana of Elvis Presley. It’s funny, but I can’t tell if that’s on purpose, and I don’t know how on earth this bizarre song ended up on the last studio album of the biggest rock band in the world at the time. What an entire mystery. Compare with Queen’s 1979 hit “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” but only if you want to feel even more bad about “Hot Dog.” Rockabilly had never really gone away—remember that the ’50s-parody Sha Na Na blew the roof off the Woodstock festival so hard that they had to become a real band after. By 1979, the soup of a full-blown rockabilly revival was coming to a boil as Brian Setzer formed the Stray Cats in America.
I’m Gonna Crawl (1979)
Robert Plant and his wife had survived their major car crash in 1975 only to lose their very young son in 1977. Under the circumstances, Plant could have shown up to recording sessions stinking drunk and singing only Anne Murray covers and I’d understand. And on top of the extreme personal loss, the band also had more blessedly workaday problems as a group, so as with Presence, they recorded 1979’s In Through the Out Door very fast. And for what turned out to be the only time ever, nearly every song on the album lists John Paul Jones as a writer. (“Hot Dog” was the only track Jones didn’t help write, giving him an air of dignity I respect.)
“I’m Gonna Crawl” is, due to circumstances, the final studio track from Led Zeppelin. It’s honestly perfect. It’s a slow, calm blues song that builds to a massive crescendo, with the surprising chord changes and arrangement surprises of golden age Led Zeppelin. With a dominant synth part throughout, this is a glimpse of what the coming ’80s could mean for Led Zeppelin. And this song reminds me so much of Queen — again, only in hindsight, but this is Zeppelin’s “Who Wants to Live Forever?” The band’s members didn’t even really like this album themselves.
They planned a tour, but John Bonham died by misadventure in 1980, after at least several years of turmoil caused by drug use, recovery, separation from his family, depression, and drinking. The band immediately broke up and the remaining three members have never reunited for more than live performances of their catalog. There have been solo or even pair projects over the decades, but to crash from being the most successful (and grandiose, and often self-important) band in the world into the appalling tragedy of the deaths of Robert Plant’s son and of John Bonham within a few years—I’d never want to see those guys again either.
Here’s the Spotify link to the playlist for this primer. If there’s a band you’d like to see next or in any future primer, let me know.
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