Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Bonzo, Percy, Led Wallet, and John Paul Jones.
Rock ‘n’ Roll 101: The Beatles are for elementary school. The Rolling Stones for middle school. Led Zeppelin for high school. The Doors for college. Reason being, you’ll learn the meaning of love by second grade, you’ll want to crumple up every piece of your homework around seventh grade, you’ll need to release your angst come sophomore year, and you’ll feel smart enough (and on plenty of drugs) to defend the lunacy of “The End”. Let’s go back to Zeppelin for a minute.
In high school, my friend and former writer of Consequence of Sound, Dave Moser, bought me a two-disc greatest hits collection of Led Zeppelin during our band’s secret Santa. (“Roffman will love this,” he told my drummer, who was then perplexed why he opted for that over some unnecessary Nirvana relic.) The thing never left my car, soundtracking every moment, from the time I peeled away from a few racist Davie boys to the night I drove over to my girlfriend’s house knowing I was going to lose my virginity that night.
Watch Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (Yes, I understand Amy Heckerling directed the film, but the writing’s all Crowe.) Mike Damone’s advice says it all: “When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.” Granted, I was always partial to the second half of Houses of the Holy in those situations, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Led Zeppelin represents the rock ‘n’ roll you’re meant to believe in as a teenager. We’re naive to ignore the musical perfection and hungry enough to enjoy the feels.
For that reason, above all, I can’t dust off Physical Graffiti or III without thinking about long drives, easy nights, and PBJ days. Whether you’ve lived that, are going to, or are currently… the ride is always the same and definitively worth it.
Led Zeppelin (1969)
“What Is” (What Works): The songs that showcased the band’s raw power. At their core, “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” are pop songs, but for 1969, they were seriously heavy slabs of hard rock — a risky choice for a debut single, in retrospect. The music-consuming public was hardly ready for Robert Plant’s wail and John Bonham’s drumming, which were the muscle behind the pragmatic skill of Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. The loud-soft buildups in “Dazed and Confused” and the brooding “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” are also notable, hinting at the band’s immense songwriting talents.
“And What Should Never Be” (Black Sheep of the Album): The call-and-response between Plant and Page on “You Shook Me” is iconic and would be a signature of live shows, but it’s repetitious on the record. And the other Willie Dixon cover here, “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, sounds almost exactly the same — a slight variation on the blues scale — though it is more concise and memorable. The only truly inessential track is the instrumental toss-off “Black Mountain Side”, which would have been a nice nugget on the recently released reissue but comes off as filler on an otherwise legendary tracklist.
Plagiarizing the blues? The token jab against Zeppelin is that they ripped off the old bluesmen like Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, lifting riffs and arrangements. It would be more reasonable to consider them a progression of the form rather than copycats, but Plant and Page should’ve at least credited those from which they borrowed ideas (e.g., Jake Holmes not being on the LP’s original credits despite the obvious influence his original “Dazed and Confused” had on Zep’s version).
“I Can’t Quit You Baby” (Most Addicting Song): The opening chords and subsequent drum fill in “Good Times Bad Times” are the stuff of legend — a perfect way to launch the career of the greatest hard rock band ever. An instantly memorable, endlessly enjoyable gem.
“In My Time of Dying” (Best Funeral Song): “Your Time Is Gonna Come” builds to an uplifting climax of gospel harmonizing. It’s also the only song on the album that would sound appropriate at a funeral unless you want to be a cold bastard and play “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” for all your weeping relatives.
“We’re Gonna Groove” (Danciest Track): “How Many More Times” touts one helluva bass line, and its swing-inflected rhythms make it the obvious choice for a dance number.
Cover art ranking: No. 1. The immortal Hindenburg shot. The definitive Led Zeppelin sleeve and one of the greatest album covers of all time.
Led Zeppelin II (1969)
“What Is”: Join us for a tour of the many moods of Led Zeppelin. First stop is the epic psychedelic blues chugger “Whole Lotta Love”, remarkable both for its iconic awesomeness and as a transition between the Delta blues inspiration-heavy Led Zeppelin I and the genre-redefining rock and metal of the albums that will follow. If “Whole Lotta Love” isn’t your speed, stick around for two of the sweetest (but still rocking) love songs … well, ever, with “What Is and What Should Never Be” and “Thank You”.
Not feeling sentimental? Slide on down to the gut punch, uppercut combo of “Heartbreaker”/”Living Loving Maid”, which is just guitar>guitar>epic guitar. The “Heartbreaker” legacy is cemented by the fully improvised Page solo (most album solos were carefully composed) that comprises the song’s second half. Once the rhythm section kicks back in and Page switches on the distortion pedal… hold on to your hats folks.
If all that wasn’t enough, Plant takes a track off (to reread The Two Towers, no doubt) and lets the rhythm section have a go with “Moby Dick”. Page sets the tone with a stately guitar riff that whets the palette for the fierce Bonham barrage around the corner.
“And What Should Never Be”: What keeps Led Zeppelin II from seriously contending for a place atop the Zeppelin canon are the distorted blues rip-offs of “The Lemon Song” and “Bring It on Home”. The latter is excusable as the album closer, easy to skip. But “The Lemon Song” is almost entirely devoid of value beyond the ripping bridge that demonstrates Bonham and John Paul Jones at their tightest. Other than that: “Squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg”… no, just no.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: Led Zeppelin II has many excellent examples of loud/soft dynamics, but “Ramble On” is perhaps the finest. The sweetly strummed and softly sung opening bars just barely hint at the tremendous journey we are headed on (to the darkest depths of Mordor, in fact). By the song’s end we are in full-on shred mode, full of life and inspired to continue the chase. It is a journey that never ends, just fades slowly out. “Sometimes I grow so tired/ But I know about one thing I gotta do/ RAMBLE ON!”
“In My Time of Dying”: It is easy to imagine a true metal funeral — pony-tailed heads bent low, tattoos tastefully covered by black leather jackets — with nary a dry eye in the place as “What Is and What Should Never Be” plays over the loudspeakers. It’s soft, it’s sweet, but it never forgets to rock. Is there any sound more mournful than a slide guitar solo? Is there a sound more exultant than Robert Plant riffing out: “Everybody I know seems to know me well/ But does anyone know I’m gonna move like hell.” My friends, you’ve just experienced the five stages of grief and loss in just five rocking minutes.
“We’re Gonna Groove”: Within seconds of Plant intoning, “With a purple umbrella and fifty cent hat,” the listener is already caught in the web of “Living Loving Maid”, one of Zeppelin’s catchiest songs. The story is of a proud woman’s faded glory. But the riff, the hooks, Zep at their finest.
Cover art ranking: Fifth. Not as iconic as IV or Houses of the Holy, but up there. What’s not to love? It is essentially a how-to-guide for making cheesy metal cover art, but presented without irony. There’s an enormous Zeppelin and sepia-toned shot of WWI German aviators with the band’s faces superimposed over them. And who is that back there? Why it’s Miles Davis, Neil Armstrong, and some others. It’s the Sgt. Pepper’s cover gone mental. Metal.
Led Zeppelin III (1970)
“What Is”: The twistedness. III is no doubt the weirdest LP in the band’s catalog, taking queues from psychedelic folk rather than the blues (initial sales were lower than previous records as a result). Songs like “Friends” are urgent, frenetic, and slightly off — both lyrically and musically — as drug and alcohol use started to affect the band’s musical output. They also fire through scorchers “Celebration Day”, “Out on the Tiles”, and “Immigrant Song”, the latter having become a mainstay at sporting events. III came out of a weary stage for Zeppelin, but nothing falls apart or sounds half-assed. With one exception…
“And What Should Never Be”: “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” is weird for the sake of weird, acid-fueled nonsense and not only the black sheep on this album, but the black sheep of their discography. Fortunately it closes the album, and you can just lift the needle after “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: “Tangerine” seeps into your soul. I remember having a burned copy of III and playing this song over and over on my CD player back in junior high. Everybody knew Led Zeppelin could shred, but this showed their softer, sincere side and hinted at the future brilliance of “Going to California” and “The Rain Song”.
“In My Time of Dying”: Not a lot of options here. “Gallows Pole” is about a funeral, in a sense.
“Rhymin & Stealin” (Zeppelin Sampled): Vanilla Ice performed a song called “Power” during his 1999 tour that borrowed from the opening of “Immigrant Song”. Few heard it.
Cover art ranking: Sixth. A wacky collage reflective of the album’s unhinged vibe. It can be better appreciated on the original gatefold LP with the spinwheel.
Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
“What Is”: IV is one of the most confident albums ever. In barely two years, Led Zeppelin became the biggest band in the world, and it wouldn’t have happened without some big thinking. Few of the band’s contemporaries would’ve even dreamed about recording the three longest songs here (“Stairway to Heaven”, “The Battle of Evermore”, and stormy blues closer “When the Levee Breaks”). Still, IV is as on-the-screws in places as it is colossal elsewhere. Songs like “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, and “Misty Mountain Hop” boast signature riffs and hooks as tight as those of earlier bursts like I‘s “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown”.
“And What Should Never Be”: “Four Sticks” isn’t exactly flaccid, it just isn’t as recognizable as the other heavy tracks here or as warm as the acoustics (“The Battle of Evermore”, “Going to California”). Some good came out of “Four Sticks”, though, including the titular trivia (Bonham played with two sets of sticks) and an improvised riff that wound up on “Rock and Roll”.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: “Rock and Roll” is rife with hooks that pile up on top of each other; you could wake up with a different part stuck in your head every day for a week. Bonham’s opening beat sets the listener up for a smooth, accessible listen, but more distinctive are Plant’s “ooh-yeah”s and that sidewinder main riff.
“In My Time of Dying”: “Going to California”, the acoustic breather between “Four Sticks” and “When the Levee Breaks”, compares to the sheer beauty of The Beatles’ “In My Life”.
“We’re Gonna Groove”: Plant sings the words “move,” “sweat,” “groove,” and “shake” in the first 12 seconds of “Black Dog”, so there’s no really competition in this department.
“Rhymin & Stealin”: “No ‘Stairway,'” pouts a disappointed Wayne Campbell in Wayne’s World, reading from a sign displayed at a local guitar shop. He should’ve known better. Only guitarists under the age of 12 — kids who are oblivious to cliches — are allowed to play riffs this familiar in public.
Cover art ranking: Fourth, coincidentally. The cover itself, which features a 19th century painting hung on a partly destroyed wall, is high on the list. However, the other visuals that accompanied the album — including the four symbols on the inner sleeve — helped cement Led Zeppelin as a band whose every move warranted discussion.
Houses of the Holy (1973)
“What Is”: Houses of the Holy is a pure riff fest, from the feisty spiraling intro of “The Song Remains the Same” to the slithering licks on “Dancing Days”. By now, Jimmy Page was a virtuoso on the guitar and beginning to meld his blues style with other genres such as reggae and classical. His unflinching brilliance holds together what is Zeppelin’s most diverse record. “No Quarter” would influence copious stoner metal and prog-rock bands, and “The Rain Song” is a melancholy, multi-movement masterpiece. Page grew more ambitious as a songwriter after IV, and the songs here feature a stronger focus on the intricacies in addition to brute strength, which was often flexed.
“What Should Never Be”: “The Crunge” fails from a production standpoint. Plant’s vocals are modulated weirdly and mixed to an overbearing volume over the instrumentation. Jones and Bonham hold down the rhythm section, providing a cool backbeat, but that doesn’t save this one.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: “D’yer Mak’er” is a timeless jam. It’s played incessantly on classic rock stations, yet it hasn’t grown boring or tired like some of the band’s other overplayed tracks. The aforementioned reggae inflections turn up in the verses, which build to melodic flourishes of “ohh ohh ohhs” and “ah ah ahhs.”
“In My Time of Dying”: “The Rain Song” has all the emotions: the darkness, “the coldness of my winter,” as Plant sings. This recedes as the song progresses from the minor chords to a triumphant closure. Choose this if you want to be uplifting in death.
“We’re Gonna Groove”: Closer “The Ocean” was written about the sea of people packing arenas to see Led Zeppelin, and its syncopated riffs and funk groove certainly keep those fans in mind as this track is a mover. A doo-wop coda kicks in for good measure.
The end of an era: Houses of the Holy would be the band’s final record on Atlantic. Future releases would be on their own label, Swan Song Records.
“Rhymin & Stealin”: De La Soul (“The Magic Number”), Fatboy Slim (“Going Out of My Head”), and Jurassic 5 (“Lesson 6”) have all sampled “The Crunge”. Bun B used aspects of “No Quarter” on his 2010 track “Gladiator”. Ever the Zeppelin fans, the Beastie Boys sampled “The Ocean” on 1986’s “She’s Crafty”. A sample of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” can be heard on Dream Theater’s “5 Days of a Lifetime”.
Cover art ranking: Numero dos. Naturally, a mural of nude, underage girls climbing rocks didn’t go over well in 1973, though this remains a classic cover and one of the band’s best.