In the third installment of our Discussions series, we explore one of the most impactful bands in music history, Led Zeppelin.
JON BLISTEIN: Oh man, where to even begin. My gut reaction when it comes to the best Zeppelin record is always to say II, but just looking at track names on I through IV, Houses Of The Holy, and Physical Graffiti is making me second guess that choice. To me, II andIV have always been kind of the logical go-to picks, but am I completely off on that? What’s your top choice? Hell, is it even possible to single out “The Best Led Zeppelin Record”?
JASON HIRSCHHORN: I feel this is a common conundrum with any great, prolific artist. Can you pick the best Zeppelin album? Well, depends on which kind of Zep you like most. If you liked them at their bluesiest, I don’t think you can top their first album. Robert Plant has never since captured that kind of raw power. For me personally it is Zeppelin IV. While it’s become popular to dismiss it due to “Stairway”‘s overexposure, Zep has never made an album as grand and beautiful as that one. Maybe Physical Graffiti, maybe.
JON: Yeah, I think you’re right: It’s gotta be IV. I mean every song on that record is just a punch to the gut; not mention “When The Levee Breaks” has to be one of the best album closers ever — everything from the engulfing echo of Bonham’s drums to how eerily clean and smooth Page’s guitar sounds to Plant’s ad-libbed cries of “going to Chicago.” But the whole “Stairway” overexposure does make IV an interesting choice these days. Wayne’s World references, Butthole Surfers albums, and Cadillac commercials (hell it isn’t even just “Stairway” anymore; it’s a sad day when people associate “Rock and Roll” with luxury vehicles) aside, what do you think it is about how this record has aged that’s made it so easy to dismiss? You look at the way a lot of people dismiss “Stairway to Heaven” and IV, and it’s hard not to think that nowadays we Zep’s ambition as classic rock pomposity and egotism.
Also, a quick side-note: Do you remember the first time you heard “Stairway to Heaven”? That moment’s ingrained in my mind. It was the the summer before I started 7th grade and I was sitting in a friend’s computer room while we downloaded a whole bunch of classic rock tracks on LimeWire that he was going to burn to a CD for me. I remember being really surprised that there were songs that went as long as 8 minutes…
JASON: I think people dismiss “Stairway” because they think they have to. Granted it’s somewhat of a fool’s errand, but if you can mentally strip away all preconceived notions of what the song is, the magic is still absolutely there. It’s a beautiful arrangement mixed with some really great lyrics that all work well together. The words are kind of cliche now, but that’s only because of the song’s popularity.
As for my first experience, it was similar to yours. Seemed like a right of passage for everyone I knew who started to take interest in music. We waited the 3 hours for the song to download on Napster (not counting those awful half-finished internet drops that pushed the whole procedure back to square one) and then sat back and listened to the song on repeat. It very well might be the best song on that album. If, of course, IV didn’t also have “When The Levee Breaks” which is the most fearsome sound in the human audible range of noise.
JON: I agree; it’s really tough to appreciate “Stairway” for what it is considering all the cultural baggage, but it still is really remarkable. And I do have to say, I hold a serious soft-spot for II. “The Lemon Song” is one of the best, and raunchiest tracks Zep ever did — and that’s saying something — and almost nothing comes close to matching the drum roll and ensuing guitar riffs that takes the band out of the dissonant bridge in “Whole Lotta Love.” Throw in the Lord Of The Rings references on “Ramble On,” a song that’s just one big drum solo, Page’s remarkable guitar break down on “Heartbreaker,” and “Thank You,” which is practically a wedding song, and you’ve got one hell of an album. For me, II‘s always my second choice, just behind IV, and mostly because I think it’s got everything you could ever want from this band in a single album: It’s got some heady, experimental stuff, but it’s also got a whole lot of bare-bones blues. It may not be their most innovative or ground-breaking statement — but if I had to pick the record that best epitomizes Led Zeppelin, the record that paints the most accurate portrait of that band, I’d pick II. I also think I just discovered it at the right time in my life. I must’ve been like 15 or 16 when I really started listening to that record, which (a) made me think I was grown-up and some hot shit because, y’know, my idiot adolescent mindset said, “Look at me, I’m not buying into your crappy Top 40 stuff, I’m listening to Led Zeppelin”; and (b) that record just has “SEX!” written all over it. Though I should add that it had its bleak, depressing moments. For all their energy, “Heartbreaker” and “Lemon Song” are both very lonely songs; “Ramble On” also has a rebellious/outcast feel to it; and “Thank You” and “What Is And What Should Never Be,” as beautiful and celebratory as they, can often feel tragic.
JASON: I’m not sure I share a lot of your opinions on II. It’s certainly a fine record, and it does contain some of the absolute best Zeppelin songs (you already mentioned “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker,” I think you also have to mention “Bring It On Home” which is as close to a head-on collision between the blues of Sonny Boy Williamson and Zep’s version of the blues). However, I feel it’s the weakest of their first four albums. Their debut is just a more solid blues record if that’s what you’re going for, and the band didn’t really start to branch out until III. II certainly holds its own, but I don’t think it was particularly experimental or heady record.
As for Physical Graffiti, it comes at the peak of Zeppelin’s power and at their peak of excess. That’s absolutely why it was referenced and mocked in movies like This Is Spinal Tap! (my favorite movie, by the way), but it’s also why it’s so great. Everyone and their mother already know about the huge tracks like “Kashmir” and “Trampled Under Foot,” but that’s just a small part of what makes the album great. “Ten Years Gone” shows the band at their most melodic and Plant at his most melancholy. He truly misses that woman of his past, and it is rare for a band as huge as they were by the mid-seventies to be still writing such personal material. Graffiti also contains the venomous “Sick Again” where Plant rips the groupies and hanger-ons and all the shit they bring with them. There’s even prog-rock moments like “In The Light” stuck in there too. It shouldn’t all work together, but it does and stands as their last masterpiece album before their hedonism brought them down.
JON: Alright, I’ll give you that I is a more well-founded blues record (I mean can you get much better than “Good Times Bad Times”?), though I’m surprised you’d put III ahead of II. Don’t get me wrong, III is wonderful — and frankly I can’t believe I’ve gone this long in a discussion about Zeppelin without mentioning the glorious, agonizing, and heart-wrenching beauty that comprises “Since I’ve Been Loving You” — but as a whole that one, as you pointed out, is where they really start to branch out and for that reason I think it falls just a bit flat. There are some great tunes on III, but it is a transition record: I mean “Out On The Tiles” is just waiting to turn into “Black Dog” (in How The West Was Won, I think the band even uses that “Out On The Tiles” intro in “Black Dog” cause they can’t really mimic the latter’s opening live). You’re totally right about Physical Graffiti though — it’s so wonderfully self-indulgent, and even at 82 minutes it’s never a slog to get through. Plus, I might have to nominate “Trampled Under Foot” for best non-bass contribution from John Paul Jones and/or the best clavinet riff Stevie Wonder never wrote.
I do want to go back to II for a bit though, if only as a jumping-off point to something else. I totally understand why you’d put it at the bottom when you rank I – IV, but like I mentioned a bit earlier, that record means more to me because of the time in my life when I was listening to it. Obviously, adolescence and musical obsessions is nothing new, and people can/have/and will continue to go write and talk about their connections with groups like the Smiths or Weezer or Nirvana or whoever forever (I sure as hell will). I think there’s a common thread that runs through those bands, though, in that they’re all fairly angsty and so it’s easy to latch onto those feelings of loneliness, sexual frustration, anger, and/or anxiety – I mean that’s what being 15 is all about.
But for a hell of a lot of adolescents – often males, but obviously not exclusively – Zeppelin is absolutely one of those bands. Chuck Klosterman’s got this theory in his book Killing Yourself To Live: “Every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed… This is your Zeppelin Phase and it has as much to do with your own personal psychology as it does with the way John Paul Jones played the organ on ‘Trampled Under Foot.'” Okay, so I know this isn’t 100% accurate, but I certainly went through that phase, and I remember distinctly when I first realized it: I was sitting on the school bus on my way home sometime in early fall of my freshman year of high school and I remember having my iPod headphones in, forehead pressed up against the window, staring absentmindedly outside, and listening to that main guitar line on “The Lemon Song” and just thinking, “This is perfect. Nothing will ever sound better than this.” And that’s great and all – it’s moments like that that remind us why we love music. But what is it about Led Zeppelin that does this to adolescent males? It’s really easy for me to pin down why I loved a band like Nirvana so much around the same point in my life; but other than just pointing out the obvious fact that they rocked, I struggle to really say what it was about Led Zeppelin that made them so important to me as a teenager.
JASON: You’ve given me a lot to digest at once. For starters, your dead on about JPJ’s keyboard work on “Trampled.” Only Stevie Wonder can claim as much keyboard credit as Jones does.
As for Klosterman’s theory, it does have some merit. There is something about Zeppelin’s music that made more sense to me during the teenage years than anytime before or after. For me it all clicked during the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I finally had a driver’s license, access to a car, and free time. It was around that point that I got a copy of Zeppelin’s debut album. I remember driving down Highway 53 at 70 MPH (considerably over the limit) and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” comes on. That was the moment when music changed from a passive interest to full blown obsession. I remember getting chills down my back when Plant sang, “It was really, really good. You made me happy every single day. But now… I’ve got to go away!” It’s a cherished memory for me.
JON: Yeah, there’s something very liberating about Zeppelin’s music. Not necessarily in a calculated, Sex Pistols-like “fuck ’em all” kind of way, but listening to it at that age forces you to kind of reconsider everything you thought you knew about music: How it could be played, what it could mean (not just the song’s literal meaning, but what it meant on a personal level), what it could achieve. I think Zeppelin’s such a captivating band because they just ooze pure id – and you get this in everything from Page’s free-wheeling, impossible guitar solos to Bonham’s unbridled drumming; but more importantly you also get it from the mystique that just completely engulfed the band. You can’t listen to Led Zeppelin without becoming at least mildly interested in Aleister Crowley and the occult; you can’t not think the infamous mud shark story is just as gross as it is funny; and you definitely can’t avoid all the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll that’s just being thrust in your face at an age when, let’s be honest, those are pretty much the only things that really matter. Zeppelin manages to embody a lot of the really messed up, confusing stuff that’s racing through the minds of adolescents everywhere.
JASON: This would be another point of disagreement. I don’t really concern myself with the legends and myths surrounding the band. I know them, and know them well, but it’s been a long time since I really thought about those things while listening to Zep. Page’s occult dabbling seems to be only an issue because of the “sold their souls to the devil” stories. It doesn’t really seem to inform much of the music.
And as for your labelling of Zep as “pure id,” I don’t think that applies to all their work and performance. Sure, the first two albums are lustful, and that side of them pops up on each album (“Custard Pie” being a personal favorite), but that stereotype of Zep’s music ignores so much. “That’s The Way,” one of their greatest songs and most popular songs, has nothing to do with id. They get pigeonholed as this mammoth ball of sex and excess, and so much of their work doesn’t fit that description. I think it’s misleading. Zeppelin were far more complex and capable of subtlety, though no doubt you too are aware of this.
JON: Oh totally, you’re absolutely right. Sex and excess are certainly a part of what made up the band, but it certainly doesn’t define them. Not to mention the fact that you can definitely question the claims that they were the epitome of masculinity and heterosexuality in rock ‘n’ roll: I was transcribing an interview recently with this woman Steph Payne, who’s the lead-singer/guitarist for an all-female Zep tribute excellently named, Lez Zeppelin, and she was talking about how feminine Zeppelin really was, and how she thinks seeing women perform their music causes audiences to reconsider these notions of male/female sexuality. Page and Plant especially were stick thin with long hair, and do I even need to bring up the Dragon Suit? Frankly, whether we’d like to admit it or not, there’s an element of homoeroticism in the idolization of Led Zeppelin. Not trying to pigeonhole them here, but I did want to at least mention that.
That said, I do agree that Zeppelin is a much more complex band, and this is what makes them great, especially when you look at the juxtapositions of raunch and subtlety – hell, “The Lemon Song” is sandwiched in between “What Is And What Should Never Be” and “Thank You.” But, for me that hyper-sexuality, as well as the various legends, are crucial factors when you’re trying to pinpoint what it is about Led Zeppelin that makes them so appealing to teenagers. For instance, when I listen to the band now, do I care that Jimmy Page bought Aleister Crowley’s mansion or think that his choice in real estate somehow influenced his music? No. But as a 15-year-old I thought it was kinda creepy and pretty damn cool. That’s not to say that an adolescent (or anyone really) can’t appreciate and love Led Zeppelin’s music simply for what it is and be able to disassociate it from everything else that surrounds the band; but musical obsessions, regardless of how short or long they last, are fostered by so much more than just some great tunes.
JASON: Homoerotic? Yeah, I can certainly see a bit of that. I would think it’s more accurately to describe that as feminine, though. Tori Amos said she felt connected with Led Zeppelin because she saw something in Robert Plant that taught her how to be comfortable as a woman. Seems very odd on the surface, but there is something soft and tender at the heart of Zeppelin’s music (even the raunchier parts). Even when Plant sings about the women he loves, there’s a vulnerability that can often be overlooked. As much as we’ve discussed how Zeppelin appeals to the adolescent male, there’s something about it that naturally connects with women.
JON: Well they really were the full package. I mean their music’s always been rooted in the blues (I find it necessary to quickly note another Zeppelin reference via The Simpsons: “There goes Jimmy Page, the greatest thief of American black music whoever walked the earth”), but when you look at their entire catalogue there’s honestly so much going on. Which is why it’s so hard to single out their defining statement – not that that’s really a bad thing though.
One thing we haven’t really touched on are the post Physical Graffiti records. (Though I think we’ve also missed Houses Of Holy, which is a very strong record – “Over The Hills And Far Away” and “The Rain Song” are two favorites — but it’s definitely not in my top 5. Any opinions on that one?) Personally, I never really cared much for Presence, In Through The Out Door or Coda, and as far as I was concerned they just, y’know, kind of existed (I do, however, have a soft spot for “Achilles Last Stand”). I look at those records and basically see a great band who, granted, obviously still know how to make some damn good tunes, basically riding out into the sunset. Any thoughts on those last three; or, considering the greatness of their previous 6 records, is discussing their value almost a moot point (i.e. no issues regarding burning out and/or fading away, because this is Led Zeppelin we’re talking about)?
JASON: I happen to like Presence, even if it’s not on par with their first six albums. “Achilles Last Stand” is the song that gets the most pub, but my favorite track on that album has always been “Tea For One.” Is it basically a rewrite of “Since I’ve Been Loving You”? Yeah, but being in that mold is anything but a negative. Plant was particularly meditative on that album, and that comes out on “Tea For One,” where Plant describes the state of a band both convalescent and in exile from their home (thanks, as often is the case, to British tax law). The album also has “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” which is pretty cool.
JON: Ha! I totally forgot how “Tea For One” is “Since I’ve Been Loving You” part deux. But I think that really kind of captures what’s so great about this band – they more or less made the same song twice and it’s still totally engaging. And I mean that’s kind of what the blues is all about. Honestly, the whole genre is pretty repetitive (and that’s not a criticism!), whether we’re talking about song structure or lyrical content; and so the best blues artists have to make those common, constant elements their own. And I don’t think anyone did it better than Zeppelin, especially once they started incorporating other genres like prog-rock or folk. You just stayed with them every step of the way because they melded all of these things together and the outcome was always so distinctly Zeppelin; I don’t think there are many other bands that could’ve written, for example, both “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” and “Black Dog.”
I guess I’ve just got one last thing: You could argue that Zeppelin is the greatest band of all time, but whatever; that’s a whole other discussion that’s never gonna end. But – and maybe this is just me – I think you can definitively claim that no band has ever rocked harder than Led Zeppelin. Thoughts?
JASON: I don’t even know what it means to rock hard. Does that mean louder? Faster? Plant getting blow jobs from groupies during “Moby Dick”? Though if it’s the latter, it’s definitely them.
JON: Well, I don’t really know what it means either, but that’s always how I’ve described Zeppelin in general terms. Y’know, they just really rocked.
I think that kind of covers all of our bases. Anything else, you’d like to add?
JASON: I’m one of the 16 people in the world who actually enjoy the song “Hot Dog.” Other than that there’s really not much more to say.