Given that the band is so famous that there’s absolutely no piece of minute trivia in my brain that isn’t widely reported elsewhere, I opted to not worry too much about providing historical or biographical context unless the effect on the music is too great to ignore. The rest of the internet will gladly provide if that’s a quality you crave. I tried re-listening to these as albums-as-albums and not as Albums of Importance, meaning I didn’t go into them with the intention of trying to appreciate them any more or less than I already did or didn’t given their humongous impact on music, rabid popularity, and largely revisionist critical praise. That’s not easy to do.
Regardless of my opinion on any of them, anyone remotely interested in building a basic rock library should own Led Zeppelin through Physical Graffiti, the same way Dark Side of the Moon or Are You Experienced? are essential irrespective of how often you listen to them. (Full disclosure: I have a copy of Dark Side around somewhere, but I only put it on at a guest’s insistence.) There is no way to properly understand 70s rock without a working familiarity of their catalog, and though they are the genesis of heavy metal, their penchant for folk songs and addiction to boogie (not to mention their immense individual talents) set them apart from generic arena-rock successors and imitators. When Bonham died in 1980, that was the end of Led Zeppelin. There was no replacement, no proper reunions for decades after. But take a look at any other heavy metal group from the era and find one that doesn’t have an extensive and ever-shifting personnel list that embodies the dilemma of the Ship of Theseus.
Though I can’t recall what urged me to undertake this project in the first place, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed myself during the multiple listen-throughs I’ve done over the last couple months. My tastes have developed and been refined so much over the years that there was a real part of me that I would be turned off. But no. Not only was I pleasantly surprised, I’ve put the records on even on days when I had no intention of writing anything about them. Much as I hate to say it, I’m sure nostalgia is part of my enjoyment, but another part of it is very real. There are plenty of albums from ten or so years ago in my late teens that I’ve since let go with little or no interest in revisiting. That’s not the case with Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin (Atlantic ’69): Blues-based though they may be, long slogs like “You Shook Me” or “Dazed and Confused” never impressed (or shook) me the way their punchier ditties did, because they go on about two minutes too long. Though other songs might better represent their standard sound—heavy, loud riffs topped by Plant’s wild howl, like on “Whole Lotta Love” or “Black Dog”—nothing else in their catalog better captures their ethos than “Communication Breakdown,” a two-and-a-half minute proto-punk behemoth with a staccato one-note lick capped by a two-chord bump. Plant, energized by the band’s raucous performance, lets loose like he does nowhere else on this better-than-scrappy debut, and Page lays into one of the more underappreciated guitar solos in rock and roll. And I admit, though their “You Shook Me” cover isn’t my jam, watching someone move to it the right way can be the sexiest thing in the world. But that doesn’t make up for the technically impressive but ultimately useless instrumental (read: filler) “Black Mountain Side,” or the completely forgettable (and seemingly infinitely long at only 4:42) cover of Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” It ends with “How Many More Times,” an eight-plus-minute whateverfest whose break is a nice little nod to “Beck’s Bolero,” a tune Jeff Beck and Page both contend they wrote. Funnily enough, Beck’s Truth got the earlier release date and the better review from Rolling Stone. And truthfully, I prefer Truth to Led Zeppelin. But as far as prescience goes, we know how that one turned out. B PLUS (***)
Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic ’69): Only one extra-long blues toodler here, the Willie Dixon-esque (in lyric, not sound) and incredibly dumb “The Lemon Song.” Too bad they couldn’t be bothered to follow the formula of other extra-long songs like “What Is and What Should Never Be,” which even though its pattern of cloud-dream softness punctuated by rapid-fire jabs is predictable never sounds that way, and builds a little bit each time the airy verses switch to the pounding chorus with either Plant altering his delivery or Page’s axe working its way around the riff. Regardless, I find this split about 50/50 on each side—the second’s got “Heartbreaker,” the oft-overlooked “Bring It On Home,” and the first of their folk-rockers-in-name-only, “Ramble On,” one of the best Zep songs ever, Tolkien references be damned. Side A’s got the aforementioned “What is” and the Willy Dixon-esque (in lyric and sound) “Whole Lotta Love,” which sounds fantastic regardless of what they stole. The rest is filler. Entertaining and masterfully played filler, but filler by Led Zep standards nonetheless. And if you’re about to jump up and defend “Thank You,” just remember this: Plant placed lyrics like “The tears of love lost in the days gone by” in the song directly following one featuring lines like “Squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg.” Plant’s a lot of things. A poet ain’t one. A MINUS
Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic ’70): Just when you thought they’d figured out their strengths were in balls-to-the-wall riffs and hard-edged folk jams, they go and resurrect the ghost of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” with “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” a seven-and-a-half-minute blues bore that would have sounded excessive even on their debut. III’s most obvious problem is the song order—why the hell would you put “Tangerine” and “That’s the Way”—both great acoustic tunes that wouldn’t sound so similar if you spaced them out—back-to-back, especially when you’ve got heavy metal bangers like “Out on the Tiles” to spare? And why would you even include “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” which so obviously has no place on this album, especially when one of your best friggin’ songs—the bouncy folk tale “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do”—got slapped on the B-side of “Immigrant Song” and forgotten about? “Immigrant Song,” by the way, is III’s saving grace: a thundering clap of Viking oars slashing at the black seawater in anticipation of pillaging, and the one Zep tune whose Norse/medieval themes are so over-the-top they’re actually funny. It’s the album opener, and so gives you hope. And while “Friends” and “Celebration Day” are decent enough song, Side A ends with “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” So it wasn’t until their next outing that they figured it out. B PLUS (**)
Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic ’71): Shoot me if you wish, but no matter how great aficionados claim “Stairway to Heaven” to be, it’s in that list of songs with a fucked-up legacy I’ve never understood—you know, like “More Than a Feeling” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Hotel California,” songs I don’t mind but could go the rest of my life without hearing again. And it’s also in that list of songs I’ve heard too many times courtesy of crappy corporate classic rock radio to be able to really enjoy—you know, like “All Along the Watchtower” or “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Baba O’Riley,” songs I consciously avoid outside of album replays so as to preserve what little tolerance I have left. So I love what’s arguably Zep’s best album in spite of what’s generally considered the band’s crowning achievement. I put IV on for the undanceable lick of “Black Dog,” the attempt to encapsulate all of rock & roll in “Rock & Roll,” the chugging Delta blues cynicism of “When the Levee Breaks,” the nimble acoustic guitar of “Going to California,” and the bouncing bass and drums of “Misty Mountain Hop.” I deal with Tolkein-influenced folk ditty “Battle of Evermore” and don’t mind the monotonous “Four Sticks.” But “Stairway to Heaven”? Well, uh, I, ahem. It’s definitely influential. A PLUS
Houses of the Holy (Atlantic ’73): I used to think it was Side A that made this album, period. I’m half right. It lifts the album high enough that the worst aspects of Side B—the faux-reggae “D’yer Mak’er” or the gurgling funeral march “No Quarter”—can’t pull it down. That first side is flawless, with the galloping “Song Remains the Same,” or the perfect back-and-forth between acoustic tip-toeing and kick-out-the-jams rocking on “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Or that Jimmy Page finally figured out he couldn’t leave Robert Plant to his own devices on ballads, injecting a lush, cathartic instrumental passage to climax “The Rain Song.” Finally there’s the mock-James Brown “The Crunge,” which I’m pretty sure is more a ripoff (given their proclivity to rip off) of Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It a Loose” than an honest inspiration. But when it comes time to listen to Side B I catch myself really digging the copped Mediterranean rhythms of “Dancing Days” more than I remember digging them, or the post-“Black Dog” minimalist riff of “The Ocean,” or, yes, the stupid faux-reggae of “D’yer Mak’er” and, to a much lesser extent, the gurgling funeral march of “No Quarter.” Which I maintain is in the Top 5 of least-essential Zeppelin songs of their first six albums. A
Physical Graffiti (Swan Song ’75): I have a theory that applies to 99% of good double-LPs: the band creates a single album’s worth of great material, and someone comes in and says, “This album would be perfect. So let’s add a bunch of okay songs to slow it down.” Cut-for-cut, though, it’s their most consistent album, collectively more consistent than IV, even if its best songs don’t overpower IV’s best songs. That’s because Physical Graffiti for all its hits has very few KOs: On their best-known and best-selling best-of—a two-disc, twenty-four-song compilation—only three of the fifteen tracks in this double-LP make the cut: “Trampled Under Foot,” “Houses of the Holy,” and “Kashmir.” Good choices all. But I’ve always loved booty-shaking beat of “Custard Pie,” the slow guitar layering of “In the Light,” and “Ten Years Gone.” I probably couldn’t hum the songs if prompted, but I like the groovefest that kicks in halfway through disc two with “Night Flight” and ends with “Black Country Woman.” Of all the instrumentals that’ve found their way on to Zep albums, “Bron-Yr-Aur,” a two-minute acoustic tribute to the cottage which served as a writing retreat for Plant and Page, is the only one I like—nay, love. It’s songs like that—“Bron Yr Aur” and “Night Flight” and “Ten Years Gone” and “Custard Pie”—which might not belong in Zep’s highest echelon, but it’s songs like that which put Physical Graffiti in the other 1% of good double-LPs. A
Presence (Swan Song ’76): The drop in energy is palpable, and not just because Plant recorded his vocals from a wheelchair because of a broken leg. Page admitted to Presence being the most slapdash Led Zep album in their discography, and its jamminess attests to that. Outside extended opener “Achilles’ Last Stand,” I rack my brain trying to understand what exactly Zep heads go nuts for on this POS. C
The Song Remains the Same (Swan Song ’76): Having never listened to this live double in the heyday of my big-fan phase because of the universal negative reviews, I was encouraged to pick it up recently because of a setlist I thought was promising. Long story short: the reviews were right. D
In Through the Out Door (Swan Song ’79): “All My Love” and “Fool in the Rain” are two of the worst, worst, Zep songs ever, the first a synth-laden ballad in which Plant can barely stay in tune, the second a stupid samba shuffle that gets more airplay than most of their good stuff. With Bonham a drunken mess and Page strung out on heroin, John Paul Jones was a major player in developing the new material as he tinkered on his new keyboard. All in all, not bad for material largely conceived by the band’s bassist. But it’s still material largely conceived by the band’s bassist. B
Coda (Swan Song ’82): Fucked up thing about Coda? I really like it. Like, way more than In Through the Out Door or Presence. “We’re Gonna Groove” is a wonderful whirlwind of a live performance, a track that captures their raw and chaotic kinetic energy. “Darlene” is a poor man’s “Custard Pie” that I kinda love regardless. “Poor Tom” is a folk romp better suited for III than a lot of the material that made it on there. And I admit that “Poor Tom” aside, nothing here can sit at the same table as Good Zep, but as third-tier fodder from a great band it’s Pretty Good Zep. B PLUS (*)
BBC Sessions (Atlantic ’97): Everyone else seems perfectly satisfied with How the West Was Won, an album I find obnoxious even if the performances are good, so if that’s the case with you I don’t know how much in-studio live performances with crude sound quality will shake you. I never wind up listening to all two discs, and there aren’t any performances that are obviously better than their studio-assembled counterparts, but the first disc’s got three great covers, two of which are indispensable: a useless but fun rendition of Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else,” a biting remake of Sleepy John Estes’s “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair,” and the most fun tribute to Robert Johnson in “Travelling Riverside Blues” I’ve ever heard. Maybe that’s reason enough for you to add this to your collection. Remember, though, that single track purchases from iTunes are always an option. CHOICE CUTS: “Travelling Riverside Blues,” “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair,” “Somethin’ Else”
How the West Was Won (Atlantic ’03): Seventeen songs, only six of which clock in under five minutes, with seven over seven, and two of those are over twenty minutes with a third (“Moby Dick”) that comes close and includes a John Bonham infinity solo. Supposedly what makes this 3-disc collection so great is that it filled the live album void fans were craving, since The Song Remains the Same didn’t quench that thirst properly and the only viable alternative was BBC Sessions released six years prior. Honest truth: I do not have the patience to properly digest this album. Even taken in one-disc doses it’s too fucking long. So my antidote is to skip the 25-minute “Dazed and Confused” and 20-minute “Moby Dick.” Because “Whole Lotta Love” is a medley, it’s bearable. Anyone who demurs is welcome to send me video of themselves sitting through the album’s entirety without once checking the smartphone, playing on their computer, leaving the room, taking a nap, or generally looking bored. B PLUS (*)