"As soon as I heard John Bonham play, I knew this was going to be great ... We locked together as a team immediately" - John Paul JonesLed Zeppelin (1969)
Released in very early 1969, Led Zeppelin's first offering was incredibly ground-breaking. A mix of rock and blues with clear folk influences and a bit of late 60s psychedelia thrown in.
Only Hendrix and Free played blues rock with anything approaching the soul, feel and raw electric full-on power as this. It is still my favourite Led Zeppelin album. The two shorter more "commercial" tracks, the proto-punk riffage of Communication Breakdown and the bluesy power rock of Good Times Bad Times are the ones that initially stuck in the mind. Despite their comparative brevity, they are full of vibrancy. Check out the searing lead guitar on Good Times Bad Times.
Led Zeppelin’s fascination with Tolkeinesque imagery and mythology first made itself known on Ramble On. There hadn’t been any of that stuff on the first album. Here we saw the acoustic and the electric merged together perfectly with the mellifluous bass too and the ethereal passages in between the heavy rock that so typified Led Zeppelin’s early- mid 70s output. It started here, with this track. It deserves to be in any Led Zep Top Ten. Then there is Moby Dick with the dreaded drum solo. It is a John Bonham drum solo though. Great heavy guitar in it too. As on the fist album, many tracks go straight into the next one, and we are into the slow bass beginning of Bring It On Home, with its blues harmonica-blues vocal part before it explodes into a blast of pure Led Zeppelin power. It is at points like this that one realises, as good as the first album was, this was where this album saw improvements.
Most of the songs are defined by their guitar riff as opposed to the chorus or verses. Yes, we can all sing “I wanna whole lotta love” but we sing “da-da-da-da-dahhh” a lot more. Heartbreaker is similar in that respect - crammed full of riffs. As is the whole album.
Rather than release more of the same, Led Zeppelin turned things very much on their head with this, their “acoustic, folky” album. Yes, there is still the classic full on rock of Immigrant Song and the typical Led Zep blues rock of Since I've Been Loving You, but other tracks on this innovative album are somewhat different from what people had come to expect.
That said, tracks such as Friends and Celebration Day, while having their acoustic moments, still are rock songs and contain some truly great lead guitar. Out On The Tiles is a powerful rocker that would not have been out of place on either I or II. Indeed, the old “side one” is pretty rocky, to be honest. So, the whole “the folk album” is a bit misleading. just as Beatles For Sale was not a “country album”. There are some tracks that certainly fit the bill, but not all of them. It is “side two” which saw the real change that people are referring to and the use of the material recored in the Welsh Cottage, Bron-Yr-Aur. Gallows Pole leads it off with an acoustic folk lament about being kept from the gallows pole and attempts to bribe a corrupt hangman. As well as the acoustic guitar and mandolin, there is still a potent rock drum sound from John Bonham and John Paul Jones underpins it with a rumbling electric bass. Robert Plant’s voice, of course, is no folky whisper, either. Electric guitar kicks in at the end. Again, begging the question just how folky is it, really? Sounds like Led Zeppelin to me. Using acoustic guitars was nothing new, The Beatles had used them a lot, also contemporary artists like Marc Bolan and David Bowie were merging rock and folk sounds.
Tangerine is a perfect blending of the acoustic and electric. Once more, the track has a great bass line and a truly huge drum sound. That's The Way has a much more laid-back feel to it. Plant’s voice is gentler and another lovely bass makes the fade out so appealing. Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp is folky, for sure, but it is, as its name suggests, a stomper, and Plant’s voice is at its blueiest here, funnily enough. Even more so on Hats Off which I would say is bluesily experimental as opposed to folky. Quite why this album garnered such bad reviews at the time is incomprehensible. Time has seen opinions change. however.
Robert Plant went full on Charles 1 for a while too, see picture above.
After the blues rock of the first album, the concentration on rock of the second and the supposed folky feel of the third, what were Led Zeppelin going to come up with for their fourth album in just over two years? A bit of everything, that’s what. It was a massive monolith of an album, huge in stature and retrospective critical acclaim but also one that had heavy rock, rock'n'roll, folk and blues all vying for attention. Even the cover emphasises these dichotomies - the rustic rurality of the old man with his pile of twigs on the front, the fantasy mythology-inspired fold out middle artwork, the bleak British council estate on the back and the use of the much-analysed runes-inspired symbols.
Then, of course, lest we forget, there is the hedgerow bustle that is Stairway To Heaven, where all styles meet in possibly the band’s most well-known song. As everyone knows by now, the early folky acoustic verses take a while to reach the climax (over five minutes or so), but when Jimmy Page’s guitar kicks in for real it is still one of rock music's unforgettable moments. One of the best endings to a song ever.
Misty Mountain Hop isn’t the folky tune its title may suggest, but a pounding drum and keyboards insistent rock shuffle. The monumental closer, When The Levee Breaks, is one of those classic, extended, thrilling blues numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on I or II. Four Sticks has an almost funky drum intro with equally funky riffs and provides a first flavour of the sort of material that would later appear on Houses Of The Holy and Physical Graffiti.
Regarding the sound - even though the latest batch of remasters of Zeppelin's work are considered the best ones, they still sound a bit muffled and tinny to me, as do all the masters-remasters over the years. Maybe it just always sounded like that - that stark, industrial drum-led attack with less audible bass guitar is the sound of Zeppelin. Purists will argue that Zeppelin's sound was produced in such a way as to lessen the impact of the said bass (particularly in comparison to many contemporary recordings) and that, in the seventies, bass was not as important, vinyl often not being able to handle too much of it (supposedly, although reggae never had a problem). Whatever, it still sounds to me, at times, as if John Paul Jones' bass just isn't there. The Mothership remasters are the best for me, (controversially, I know for many people) but even they still sound somewhat cold, bassless and bleak. Led Zeppelin didn't do sonic warmth. Maybe the runes had decreed it thus.
This album was quite a departure from what had been before. The blues were left a long way behind now. It lacks the sheer raw blues power of both “I” and “II”, or the rock-folk diversity of some of III and IV, or indeed, the classic status bestowed upon the latter. Led Zeppelin were now rock gods and they saw fit to release a “big”, potent album full of long, intense tracks reflecting the majesty they now held, plus a few throwaway ones too, that showed that they could now mess around and record whatever they liked. The Beatles got like that on The White Album. Never a good sign. I much prefer the previous four albums to this. The sound is also very tinny and over produced on the treble side of things. Too many layered guitars. John Bonham’s drum sound is very harsh and stark. Yes, he was always loud, but on here he is too loud, lacking in any real subtlety.
Journalist Gavin Edwards said of the album:-
“The epic scale suited Zeppelin: They had the largest crowds, the loudest rock songs, the most groupies, the fullest manes of hair. Eventually excess would turn into bombast, but on Houses, it still provided inspiration”.
Not so sure about that, but I get his point. Certainly, reputations were restored with a familiar return to big-bodied, booming rock on No Quarter. Similarly with the insistent rock shuffle of The Ocean. Overall, however, a patchy album.
Just when Led Zeppelin III seemed a long time away, we get the acoustic strumming of Bron-Yr-Aur and the country-folk strains of Down By The Seaside. The latter ends with some solid rock parts, however. Ten Years Gone is an affecting, beguiling slow guitar and vocal-driven almost soft rock ballad. Night Flight finds the band even going slightly poppy, with a catchy, lively number. It still has some top notch riffs on it, though, although some of them are almost glammy. The Wanton Song is a return to typical Zeppelin riffy rock in some style. It would not have been out of place at the beginning of the album. Boogie With Stu was the result of a 1971 jam with the then Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart. It is a loose slice of boogie-woogie piano-led rock 'n' roll, with Plant sounding not unlike Slade's Noddy Holder. Or maybe 1972-era Holder had heard this and sounded like Plant. The track is fun and shows the band's lighter side, something that was not always apparent. The carefree feel continues on the acoustic blues of Black Country Woman. It also has a Led Zeppelin III feel to it, particularly the thumping drum sound together with the acoustic guitar. Sick Again is a powerful slice of rock to end this mighty collection of songs. There are "proper" Led Zeppelin fans who no doubt can review this a lot better, but as one who has all their albums but is not an absolute die-hard, I always find this an intriguing and very enjoyable album.
After the previous year's double album behemoth in Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin returned relatively soon after the difficult period following Robert Plant's serious car accident (he sung his vocals in a wheelchair). For many, the seven track album that ensued, minus keyboards and most acoustic guitars, was underwhelming, particularly in the contemporary music media. By now they were all jumping on the punk bandwagon. Time, however, has proved to be a healer, and it now gets a far more favourable retrospective re-assessment. Yes, it was frantically arranged, conceived and recorded, but sometimes that leads to an ad hoc, edgy, raw and almost live feeling. That, to a certain extent was the case here. The cover and accompanying inner sleeve pictures, were odd, though, I have to say. Quite what they were supposed to symbolise with regard to the music is unclear.
John Bonham keeps up the rolling pace throughout Achilles, so much so, that, although the rhythm doesn't change much, you never tire of it. Great stuff from one of rock's most powerful drummers. Another huge drum sound can be found on the thumping For Your Life. This was a slower pace industrial strength rocker with an impressive vocal and great big chunky lead guitar riffs. This stripped down, "back to basics" rock sound certainly does the business here. Personally, I much prefer this album to Houses Of The Holy, for example. After two such gigantic tracks, the sub-three minutes of the vaguely funky rock of Royal Orleans comes as something of a surprise. It is a good track, though, with some killer guitar on it and it is good to hear them doing something shorter and punchier.
This album was recorded by an emotionally drained Led Zeppelin, following Robert Plant's car accident and loss to illness of his young son. Drummer John Bonham was an alcoholic by then and Jimmy Page was in the throes of heroin addiction. John Paul Jones and plant were "clean", apparently, although Plant obviously carried a huge amount of personal trauma around with him at the time. Plant and Jones managed to lay down most of the seven tracks before Bonham and Page could eventually be found to come in and do their bits. Amazingly, though, it all sounds pretty cohesive. It would, as everyone knows, prove to be their last album.
Fool In the Rain has some syncopated Latin-ish rhythms and guitar. Bonham copes with the subtlety required, surprisingly. It is a most un-Zeppelin song. Again, Jones supplies some excellent piano. Plant's increasing interest in world music inspired this song's creation and inclusion. A the end it goes full on "arrrriba"-style Latin, which is very strange to hear Zeppelin doing. Plant had insisted that diversification was the way ahead. I like the track quite a lot. It has a refreshing vitality and light-hearted enthusiasm to it. Hot Dog was a throwaway, three minute piece of fun, showing Plant's love for early Elvis-style rock 'n' roll. It is enjoyable and lively, but sounds very much like a piece of studio fun at the end of a session, once the serious stuff was over. It also features a folky guitar solo in the middle.
All this stuff begged the question of was this Zeppelin's attempt to sound different, in the midst of punk and new wave. Well, the ten proggy minutes of Carouselambra, with its Emerson, Lake & Palmer prog rock keyboards from Jones sounded as if it had been recorded in 1973. Bonham's drum pound along reliably, though, giving it a bit of solid rock feel under its symphonic pretensions. This was no threat to any new wave. Plant's voice is, by his own admission, far too low down in the mix. He stated that it summed up everything that was wrong about the later period of Zeppelin's career. "you can't hear the words", he said. He was right too. That said, it is still a good track, actually, featuring several distinct passages. The bass-drum-guitar interplay at about six minutes is my favourite bit (no synthesisers!). The quirky synth bit after that is enjoyable, though, and the way different instruments keep arriving for little solo parts is very Tubular Bells.
All My Love was one of the album's best tracks, an evocative love song composed by Plant and Jones with a laid-back "soft rock" feel, backed by some Genesis-ELO-style classically-influenced synthesisers. Page has since stated that he and Bonham had no time for the track's softer feel and yearning, romantic lyrics. They had wanted a harder rocking album overall. You could see where Plant and Jones were heading with this one, though, trying to catch the neo-classical ELO vibe that was popular around that time. Again, it is certainly nothing like any earlier Zeppelin material, but it is an appealing song. You could hear Plant's voice better on this one too. I'm Gonna Crawl also had synthesisers on it, but it also develops into the bluesiest thing on the album and features an excellent bit of mid-song guitar too, and another convincing vocal. I have read reviews that opine that this was a dark, sombre album. I have to say that I disagree with that. Personally I actually find it their lightest, most "fun" album (strangely, despite everything that had gone on). It was also musically their most diverse thus far. It was not received well by the UK music media, however, with their punk/new wave-centred take on things. The "boring old farts-dinosaurs-time to retire" lines were duly trotted out. The Americans, though, lapped it up. What it was, at the time, was not very relevant to the zeitgeist. Listening to it now, it is fine, but in 1979, it seemed dated.
Coda was a retrospective compilation of rarities released two years after Led Zeppelin's split in 1980 after drummer John Bonham's death. The best version of it is the latest one, which features several more bonus tracks than the original album did.
Poor Tom is a marvellous bit of lively blues rock, powered along by John Bonham's sledgehammer drumming. It has similarities to The Rolling Stones' Prodigal Son from Beggars' Banquet, which was in turn based on Reverend Robert Wilkins' 1929 song, That's No Way To Get Along. It sounds great, though, and would have sat well on side one of Led Zeppelin III from whose sessions it was taken. A storming live version of I Can't Quit You Baby from Led Zeppelin I would appear to be from an actual concert at The Royal Albert Hall in 1970, although it was credited as being a pre-gig rehearsal. There is no crowd noise either way. Walter's Walk is a solid, muscular rocker from the Houses Of The Holy sessions. it is arguably superior to some of the tracks that ended up on that somewhat patchy album. Once more, Bonham's drums are outstanding.
The old "side two" contained three outtakes from In Through The Out Door. Ozone Baby is an infectious little rocker, all guitar, drums and bass and, notably, none of the synthesisers or piano that dominated the album that it failed to make the cut for. It is one of my favourites on here, with a catchy "ooh-ooh it's my love" chorus. Darlene fitted in with some of the rock 'n' roll-influenced material that did appear on the eventual album in 1979. John Paul Jones' boogie piano is integral and there is a bit of a Rolling Stones circa 1972 about it. There are also hints of Queen in places near the end, vaguely like Crazy Little Thing Called Love in its vibe and vocal. Bonzo's Montreux was a sledgehammer drum solo from Bonham, dating from 1976, when he lived in Montreux, Switzerland, as a tax exile. It is the album's tribute to him. Wearing And Tearing was, apparently, Zeppelin's answer to punk, in its breakneck, riffy style. It doesn't sound remotely punky to me, it just sounds like Zeppelin rocking in their own inimitable fashion. I loved punk, but I loved Zeppelin too. The two were different beasts, they didn't need to meet.
** From the bonus tracks, Baby Come On Home is a slow, slightly rock 'n' roll ballad meets rock number, with a loose, soulful bluesiness to it. It features some Atlantic Records-style gospelly organ too. Travelling Roadside Blues is an impressive piece of slide guitar-driven blues rock, taken from a 1969 BBC live in the studio session. It includes the "Squeeze my lemon 'til the juice runs right down my leg" lyric used also on Led Zeppelin II's The Lemon Song. It is also included on the live album Led Zeppelin At The BBC. In my opinion, it is remastered better here on Coda - fuller and bassier. The version of the instrumental White Summer/Black Mountain Side was recorded in London in June 1969. This also appears on the BBC album. Hey Hey What Can I Do is an appealing piece of folky rock, typical of Zeppelin's 1970 output. Sugar Mama is a cover of a Sonny Boy Williamson song dating from sessions in 1968. It is riffy and lively, with a high-pitched Robert plant vocal. Bonham's drums are engagingly rhythmic on this, despite their ubiquitous thumping power. St. Tristan's Sword was a Led Zeppelin III outtake. It is a rocking instrumental that would again have suited side one of that album. Also interesting is the Bombay Mix of Four Sticks called Four Hands, which has an instrumental version of the track played by Indian musicians, Zeppelin going full-on George Harrison. They do the same to Friends. This one includes a Plant vocal. If It Keeps On Raining (When The Levee Breaks) is bassily addictive too, although this one is a Zeppelin mix, involving no Indian musicians.
Overall, there is some very good stuff on here, not as much as many never-satisfied fans wanted, perhaps, but it is fine by me.
Also interesting, but by no means essential, is this 1994 "unplugged" get-together from Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. They re-worked several Led Zeppelin songs without Bonham's blunderbuss drumming or any electric guitars (with a few exceptions such as Since I've Been Loving You), concentrating on the folky and acoustic blues aspects of them. It is no surprise, then, that the tracks covered include things like Friends, Battle Of Evermore, Four Sticks, That's The Way and Gallows Pole.
The pair utilised Moroccan and Egyptian musicians on the previously unreleased tracks Yallah, City Don't Cry, wonderful One and Wah Wah. Unsurprisingly, they all have distinct North African soundscapes, as indeed does the embellished version of Kashmir, which, of course, is tailor-made for that type of backing. I read a review that said that however good a fist the two of them made of it, and Nobody's Fault But Mine is particularly appealing, it is not an album that requires returning to very often. I can sort of agree with that. Yes, it's ok, but do I prefer the originals? Yes in every case, although that is not to decry what are some interesting re-interpretations.