Rating:Led Zeppelin is the quintessential Boomer band. They represent not the promise of the ‘60s and its politicized and aesthetically far-reaching bands, but the coagulation of this social upheaval into self-satisfied, obliviously apolitical arena rock. Revisionism has added several asterisks to Zeppelin’s entries in the record books: seemingly never-ending revelations of the extent of the band’s song theft have eroded the band’s credibility, and even their hallowed status as a live behemoth holds less and less weight as sober younger generations gain access to troves of bootlegs, countering rose-colored (and, perhaps, chemically altered) memories of the band’s live prowess with the objective record of bum notes, ruptured vocal cords and unbearably long, aimless jams.
But just as the band forecast the long, slow collapse of the Boomers from radicals to reactionaries, so too do they embody, better than anyone else, how infuriatingly right the old-timers’ boasts of superior music can be. If no band of that era has suffered as badly from overexposure, neither has any group retained so much respect on purely musical grounds. Groups like Journey and Queen now get most of their airplay at well-lubricated karaoke sessions, and one-time multi-platinum stars like Bob Seger and Supertramp pad out dad-rock stations as the official soundtrack of denim. Zeppelin, though, continue to occupy that rarefied space that the Beatles do, that of a band that puts off many younger listeners suspicious of being fed their parents’ and grandparents’ nostalgia, but that wins just as many new converts with each generation.
Trying to figure out how Zeppelin became such a seismic force is nearly impossible, and their 1969 self-titled debut only further obscures an explanation. Put together in 36 hours for less than £2,000, with compositions honed by scant rehearsal and nine Scandinavian shows played to fulfill the obligations of Jimmy Page’s defunct group The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin wound up with the most lopsided ratio of preparation-to-impact since Please Please Me. The Beatles at least apprenticed with each other; Zeppelin was just an alchemical match between two trained session men (Page and bassist/arranger John Paul Jones) and two relative unknowns (singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham). The lack of discipline combined with professionalism may be as close as we can get to distilling the band’s x factor.
Released in January 1969, Led Zeppelin sounds like the volcanic end of the British blues album, more traditional than the psychedelic touches that set into erstwhile purist Eric Clapton’s Cream, but unmoored from the stagnant reproduction of blues riffs that typified the scene. For a band that would eventually be the ur-dinosaur of stadium rock, “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” could slip comfortably among the tracks of a pre-punk garage outfit. They’re fast, raucous and, most important, LOUD. The former’s one-two riff opens the album with a sucker punch, and Page’s solo gets underway with the kind of searing, rip-a-hole-in-the-sky squeal of Hendrix but maintains a focused ferocity instead of spiraling off into free territory. “Communication Breakdown,” with its caterwauling gallop of bashed drums and noisy guitars, forces Plant to keep pace. His ability to hit low growls and wailing high notes at a speed that most singers would find difficult to just flatly bark lyrics marks him as an instant star.
Much of the rest of the album is devoted to more traditional blues arrangements, but as the new remaster attests, Led Zeppelin upended the brightness that many English blues bands afflicted on the haunting music they covered by pursuing one of the heaviest sounds ever recorded. Page had picked up production tips from his various session gigs, and his work on this album isn’t just commendable but innovative; nothing, not even Black Sabbath’s low-end debut made a year later, sounded like this before. Listen to the cavernous space of “You Shook Me,” which takes the title’s verb literally by pushing up Bonham’s tooth-rattling kick drum in the mix, propelled further by toms that sound lower than most people’s bass drums. Page’s guitar beams in like sighted artillery bombardment, and Plant seems to dredge up his yelps not from the pit of his stomach but from a subterranean lair.
Even “Dazed and Confused,” the album’s only outwardly psychedelic track, sounds miles removed from the navel-gazing mental exploration of late-’60s drug-pop and even the scattered noise of bad-trip purveyors like The Velvet Underground. Cribbed from a 1967 song by Jake Holmes and warped by bowed guitar lines, shrieking wah-wah riffs and sudden tempi increases, “Dazed and Confused” sounds like the first post-psychedelic song, a pummeling hangover that prompts morning-after assessment. The album’s greatest track, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” provides the clearest vision of where the band would go, its half-folk, half-exotic acoustic riff punctured by choruses dipped in magma. It showed a sophistication that the band would soon hone on the road, where they became such an instant sensation that a second album hit shelves before the end of 1969.
Led Zeppelin’s debut is one of the finest first LPs ever produced, and its successor, creatively titled Led Zeppelin II, is as good as hastily assembled second albums get. Perhaps because the group assembled its first album so quickly, it ducked the sophomore slump that plagues groups that workshop their first album for years and suddenly have to craft a fast successor in the middle of a tour. Instead, the band solidified their alchemical interaction with stronger songwriting and a deeper exploration of their musical strengths.
If II is stronger than most albums cut in the shadow of a group’s first big tour, it is still clearly the product of that gigging. It is on this album that the band reveals its tendency to jam, with breakdowns in “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker” that seem like ready-made templates for half-hour dissertations on the sonic possibilities of a guitar. The vulgarized Howlin’ Wolf and stop-start sections of “The Lemon Song” are reflective of the song’s birth on the stage as an amusing bit of lyrical stretching by Plant. Then there’s “Moby Dick,” the song that, despite little contribution from Page and Jones and none at all from Plant, is perhaps the quintessential Zeppelin jam. The studio version is mercifully stripped of the marathon length of live renditions, and is actually listenable, typifying Bonham’s musical range — from fills that have a kind of swing to them to frantic pounding — in just a few minutes.
The band’s future as a target for the coming punk generation and a scapegoat for dinosaur rock lies in these extended compositions, but it’s also easy to see how they propelled the group swiftly out of clubs and into arenas. The hiccupping riff for “Whole Lotta Love” is compulsively gripping, while the Slinky-esque descent of the chords in “Heartbreaker,” every note of the riff held slightly until that last rush of notes, is as exciting as the pre-shred section in which Page executes a run of unaccompanied hammer-ons and pull-offs. “The Lemon Song” and “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” exhibit a goofy sense of humor that occasionally buffered their increasing self-seriousness.
The musicianship is also unimpeachable. Page may be the most disputed guitarist in the shredder canon, a universally respected player who nevertheless gets his fair share of criticism for listless jams and missed notes. He is on fire here, with every crunchy riff and dynamic solo both a continuation of British white blues and a confident step beyond it, never more so than on the blistering closer “Bring It On Home,” in which the “it” in question sounds like the band’s name made literal, a gigantic contraption of metal crashing into the Earth. (No wonder the video game Brütal Legend animated this very image as a finishing move and named it for the song.) Jones’ impossibly warm bassline for “Ramble On” helps the song move from ballad to groove to back again without losing its lightness. Bonham is Bonham, and that perilously deep sound he brought to the debut only sounds stronger; even his brief fills as “What Is and What Should Never Be” lurches back into action sound like boulders plummeting onto snares. The band was still in its upward ascent when this album swiftly followed its predecessor, but this is an album by a group who knew they were superstars, and the world was just about to catch up to their way of thinking.
That makes Led Zeppelin III an even more puzzling document. The kind of album most bands wait years to produce in a fit of deluded hubris or after popularity has peaked and experimentation carries less risk, III is a reinvention by a band that had only just been invented. Released 20 months after their debut, the album takes a sharp detour from the blues roots of the band in favor of English folk only hinted at in “Black Mountain Side” and “Thank You.” This is not to say that this is the group’s “acoustic album.” It opens with one of the band’s heaviest numbers, the gloriously cheesy and eternal headbanger anthem “Immigrant Song,” and “Celebration Day” is an unjustly neglected rocker in the Zep canon, despite lending its name to their 2007 reunion show. Bouncing on an elastic riff from Page, “Celebration Day” is lighter than pile drivers like “Communication Breakdown,” but it moves at the same delirious, giddy clip. The centerpiece of the more electric first side, “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” rates with “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “When the Levees Break” as the band’s greatest blues epic. It features what might be Plant’s greatest vocal performance, nailing wild octave leaps and pouring emotion into every word. Plant’s bluesy screams often had more swagger than soul, but this is one of the band’s few heartbreakers, and if III announced a departure from this kind of sound, this track reminded everyone that the band hadn’t yet exhausted their blues bona-fides.
The acoustic numbers often have florid, electric arrangements, “Friends” getting an epic string arrangement for an otherwise straightforward acoustic arrangement, Jones even adding Moog swells near the end. “Tangerine” features an elegant guitar solo, and “That’s the Way” has twanging electric accompaniment. These touches all mesh perfectly with their compositions, and it is only the album’s obscured reputation as a scaled back record that makes these flourishes surprising. In truth, III is not a progression nor a retreat but a lateral move that rounds out the band’s strengths with new traits, incorporating sounds that they would put to use in the full blossoming of talent on their fourth album. The third LP gets pegged as a transitional work, but so are the first two, and by stopping the first round of remasters with this album, Page does III the favor of letting contemporary listeners re-evaluate it without hopping straight to IV. If the bottom-heavy remastering generally benefits its heavier predecessors more, III gains the most from the mere existence of these re-issues.
Speaking of the remasters, the touted bonus discs add little to the albums we know and love. II and III come loaded with alternate takes that are interesting in the way that most non-jazz alternate takes are, which is at best a chance for fans to hear how the artists arrived at the superior final versions. You can hear “Whole Lotta Love” taking shape while retaining the looseness of its raw mix, or “Immigrant Song” not quite at the barnstorming pitch of the LP version. The highlight is the 1969 Paris show that the debut’s bonus disc comprises. Not yet the juggernaut that would carry on for three or four hours, Zeppelin still sounds hungry in this recording, and though they’re already flexing a 10-minute version of “Moby Dick” and a 15-minute “Dazed and Confused,” they still keep things tight. The opening mash-up of “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” is speaker-melting, and “Heartbreaker” lacks the sometimes tedious midsection, heading straight from verse to Page’s incandescent, fully backed solo.
Led Zeppelin’s first three albums mark a shift from rock’s acknowledged debt to black blues and R&B artists to a bleached scene where white artists came of age listening to white artists and produced accordingly more sterile, polished recordings. In less than two years, Zeppelin grew from an explosion of sludgy blues to an ambitious blend of hard rock, folk and progressive rock that set the stage for excursions into old European styles, Middle Eastern music and any other sound they could get their hands on. Led Zeppelin’s place in the rock continuum, and the many negative rock traits they embody, can make it uncomfortable to think about them too much. But listening to the albums, all the niggling, retrospective doubts fade away, and if Page spearheaded these remasters to remind the world how great a band Zeppelin was, he succeeded wildly.