So I got a chance to listen to Led Zeppelin I/IV today. And I know what you're thinking: "What business do you think you have writing for a music column if you hadn't listened to those two albums before, you dumb son of a whore?"
Well, you know what?
I can only imagine what growing up at this time, listening to all of these albums as they came out, must have been like. The first Zep album I ever heard was II, then III, then Physical Graffiti. It's a weird layout of what they sound like, to be sure: I heard them as pure rock and roll, then folk rock, then balls trippin' pseudo-prog. In other words, I wasn't able to get a handle on them for the longest time. I loved the music(for the most part), but I wasn't really sure what the point of it all was. I've had a theory as of a few weeks ago, however(to answer your next question, yes, I do spend a fair portion of my free time theorizing about rock bands), and as of I and IV I think I finally get it.
As stated above, my first exposure to Zeppelin was with II, which is still my favorite of their discography. I naturally assumed that I, being the closest to II chronologically, was also probably going to be the closest thing to it sonically. And I was correct, but not in the overwhelmingly positive way I was hoping for.
Back in the 60's, blues rock was becoming popular with stoners and nerds, mostly due to a heavier, fuzzier sound and a penchant for wandering into Jamsville as soon as all those fucking Goddamn words started to harsh your mellow. Bands like Savoy Brown, Canned Heat, Blue Cheer and Vanilla Fudge pioneered this sound, and besides being largely influential in the creation of heavy metal, the one thing that all these bands had in common was that they all kind of sucked. You can only hear the same 5 lyrics and riffs used by one band, much less all of them, so many times before you wish they would smoke pot somewhere that wasn't near a recording studio.
Unfortunately, as stated above, heavy metal wouldn't be the same without a lot of these guys, and bands like, you guessed it, Led Zeppelin took more than a few cues from our bombed out trail-blazers. And to be fair, their first album was better than your average blues rock album. But not by as much as people seem to think.
During an interview with Rolling Stone in the ‘70s, Page had this to say about the first album:
“…I was under pressure to come up with my own riffs. On the first LP I was still heavily influenced by the earlier days. I think it tells a bit, too. The album was made in three weeks. It was obvious that somebody had to take the lead, otherwise we'd have all sat around jamming and doing nothing for six months.”
The one thing I would disagree with Page on is that it kind of already sounds like the product of jamming and doing nothing for six months. Most of the longer songs are boring with only the quickest snaps of interest: “How Many More Times” and “You Shook Me” ramble on far past their welcome, and most of the other tracks are completely forgettable. “Communication Breakdown” and “Dazed and Confused” are considered classics for good reason, and they stand out on an album that’s otherwise nothing all that special.
Still, Led Zeppelin and all of music took one for the team with this album, as it would become popular enough to make future albums possible, lay down many of the continuing themes of their music and open the band up to new realms of creative possibility.
A couple of albums in between and a mere two years later, we get Led Zeppelin IV, an album that has become a radio staple and what many people believe to be their crowning achievement. I went into this one with more than a fair amount of skepticism-albums lauded to be the best one in a band’s discography almost never are (see Sgt. Peppers or Dark Side of the Moon as prime examples), and I was fully expecting to hear something that I would enjoy, if maybe find a little tiresome due to radio overplay.
And for the first two songs, I came very close to being convinced I was correct-the riff to “Black Dog” is practically part of the Collective Unconscious at this point and I never thought “Rock and Roll” was anything worth commenting on. So far it was pretty much exactly what I was expecting.
Then we get to “The Battle of Evermore” and it knocks me for a loop a little bit. It’s soft and largely acoustic, with lyrics not unlike something you might hear off of an early Genesis album. Maybe a little goofy, but it’s a break from the radio singles and I enjoy it.
Then we get to “Stairway to Heaven”. And I am telling you people right now: I don’t care that it’s legendary, I don’t care that it’s overplayed, I don’t care if the guitar solo isn’t actually that wonderful, I don’t care if the lyrics are something approaching nonsensical-that fucking song gives me chills every time I hear it. Every. Time.
After that, the album starts to get sort of weird. And completely wonderful.
“Misty Mountain Hop” is another song that took me by surprise, as I’d heard the song on the radio before, but not nearly as often as the first two tracks. I could never catch the name, either, so it was a welcome curveball. “Four Sticks” hops and jangles along well enough, and “Coming to California” is surprisingly touching, as well as being unexpectedly dark when one takes a look at the lyrics.
As for “When the Levee Breaks”-well, you already know that song. It’s a fucking freight train.
If there was a phrase I could use to describe this album, it would be “nuclear rustic”. It’s obvious that they’d taken a cue from Led Zeppelin III’s folksier roots for this album, but unlike with III, there’s no confusion as to what this is, or who is making the music. This isn’t a folk album, it’s rock and roll to the bone and it never lets you forget.
That said, the imagery created through the instrumentation and lyrics is all broken dreams and twisted metal-like a hamlet at the foot of a mountain that just had a battalion of tanks roll through it. It’s not so crushingly bleak throughout, but there is a dark magic flowing through this work-a mysticism that seeps out only when the listener pays attention. A spirit of freedom fighting against a crushing force.
And I think when you take all of Led Zeppelin’s discography together, you’ll see that the one thing that unites them, more than the fantasy lyrics or the Bonham’s mountainous drums or Page’s unmistakable riffing, is that same spirit-the soul of the wanderer, searching for peace, or power, or cosmic knowledge, or maybe just a good time at a pub. It's more obvious on some tracks than others, but it's always there and it's always driving the song, from the bass lines to the organs. That, I believe, is Led Zeppelin’s appeal, and always has been. Everyone is always searching; everyone is always looking for what they need. I don’t know that there’s another band that can capture the essence of the traveler quite as well. I don’t know that there will be another in my lifetime, or even that there should be.
Just never forget:
Robert Plant is still a tremendous douchebag.