Led Zeppelin Revisited

I’m not actually revisiting, just visiting their career, 38 years after the original lineup ceased to exist.

Who would have thought in the 1970s that a heavy rock group would be so mainstream decades later. Cultural icons. The band members even received a Kennedy Honor salute. How’s that for becoming your grandfather’s rock band?

In their day, Led Zeppelin was loud, decadent, drug users, misogynistic, property destroyers, rule-breakers and linked to the occult. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Ask them about the girl and the fish while on tour.  Or the time their security crew nearly beat one of Bill Graham’s guys to death after a concert. Or Jimmy Page covering his naked body in whipped cream and delivering himself to teenage female fans. Crazy times.

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You didn’t want your teenage daughter attending a concert unsupervised, your teenage son dissecting album lyrics or album art for mystical clues, but you would listen to the bluesy, pounding and hypnotizing songs. Led Zeppelin wasn’t the only heavy rock band, but they were the best.

The four members of the band were experienced and talented musicians, who had done session work and had cut their teeth in other bands. Jimmy Page was the chief writer and musical director, he had a plan for this new band, and picked other musicians who could realize his vision, the musical one, not necessarily the satanic one.

Page was the star, he had been a member of the popular Yardbirds and from an early age, had played on many recording sessions. Page formed Led Zeppelin and paid for the first record himself.

John Paul Jones had also done a lot of session work, including in the role of musical arranger. He played bass and keyboards, and like Page, was a songwriter. He would give Zeppelin a funky and mystical groove with his keyboard and bass work.

John Bonham had thunder in his playing, not just loud, his drums not only set the course in each song, his instrument was on an equal plane with his other band members. His deep drum sound was imitated by many drummers.  Yes, it is true, Karen Carpenter rated higher on the Playboy Musical poll than Bonham, at least with pop fans.

Robert Plant’s voice was created for Zeppelin’s mission. Versatile in range and pitch, the blues were easy for him, and a perfect match for Page’s musical odyssey. With long curly locks and open shirt, girls lined up rows deep to get backstage to get a drink of that.

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From their self-named debut album, the song “Dazed and Confused” was a great introduction to the next decade. The song typified Page’s guitar magic, combining wah wah effects with a violin bow, taking the listener on a psychedelic journey to the moon and back as Plant pushes the lyrics to the extreme  and Jones used a walking bass line, to line up Bonham’s stomping drums. From here on out, Zeppelin would tear up the musical soundscape as never before.

The second album, with the cryptic Led Zeppelin II title,  explodes with “Whole Lotta Love”, a guitar riff dream. This album is tighter and more original than the debut,

chocked full of FM radio-friendly hits including “Heartbreaker”.

The third album, Led Zeppelin III, took the band in a different direction, full of acoustic-based folk songs with their own juice but lacking the sledgehammer guitar attack. It would return.

Led Zeppelin IV became the heavy rock monster fans were waiting for. All you have to say is “Stairway to Heaven”.  Great song, but not the only tremendous song on the album. “Rock and Roll” and “When the Lever Breaks” have established their own legacy. The album combines the return of the harder sound while incorporating acoustic stylings that add layers of polish to rugged songs. Every young kid learned to play the opening notes of “Stairway” on the acoustic guitar.  It was a rite of passage.

The fifth album was a bit of a disappointment (at least to me), a step backwards, although it contains several classic songs, but no “Stairway to Heaven”. “The Song Remains the Same”, “The Rain Song” and “No Quarter” show the emergence of John Paul Jones who adds incredible textures to Page music.

The sixth album was a double album, Physical Graffiti, of newly recorded songs and several from previous sessions but unused. The extended nature of a double album allows several of the longer songs to play out. You get the feeling these songs were from jam sessions that needed extra time to take flight. John Paul Jones again plays a central role with his keyboards. This would be the high water mark for the band. A sonic delight.

A year later, Presence, returned the group to a harder, bluesier sound. No keyboards or acoustic guitars or fun. With the exception of one song, an album I don’t listen to.

The Sound Remains the Same, the soundtrack to their film, was released to mixed reviews. It is getting a re-release next month, both the album and the film. Both have gained in appeal through the years, with old and new fans. The performances are gutty and pure Zeppelin, but not their best performances. A nice record of the era.  The film, with the fantasy sequences are a bit bizarre and garish, even by 70s standards.

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In Through the Out Door was the last album of original material released while the group was together. Better than Presence, but weaker than every other album. Page is notably absent as a writer and player. Jones and Plant mainly guided the project, very keyboard focused, but the songs are weak and uninspired. This album serves as evidence by Punk Rockers that the dinosaur age was coming to an end.

With John Bonham’s death, the band dissolved. It shocked the musical world. Sadly, their last album was the end.

In the years since, the band have released collections of unreleased material and live performances. Each has fed the desire for more product by fans.

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Plant and Page combined for two albums together, in part reworking Led Zeppelin songs, and newly written material. They toured in support of their album. Jones was not asked to participate.

Several times, the group played one-off concerts, but the results were embarrassing.

In 2007, the remaining members reformed with Jason Bonham on drums. This was a benefit concert for the late Ahmet Ertegun, who signed the group to his Atlantic Records. They rehearsed and were ready this time. Filmed and recorded, Celebration Day, was not released until 2012. When it did see the light of day, the response was enthusiastic, and won a Grammy Award for the band.

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The reunion concert sparked interest from fans and promoters for a full reunion tour. But it didn’t happen. Despite a small fortune being dangled in front of Robert Plant, he said no. And he’s continued to say no ever since.

In recent years, Jimmy Page has overseen the re-release of each album, remastered and expanded with demos, alternate and live tracks. Millions of units sold, proving the public’s love of Led Zeppelin remains the same.


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