Many months ago, my good friend Moo charged me with writing a blog to explain why he should listen to Led Zeppelin – in response to a blog he wrote on why I should listen to Richard Thomson. I never got around to writing the blog, although I did give Mr. Thompson a good listen to.
He’s somebody that has already has a presence in my record collection – on Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief, and as a guest musician on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter. Given his back catalogue, and the number of artists he’s played with, I’m surprised I haven’t heard more of him. I’ve always been aware of the name, but like a lot of folk music, I prefer to keep a safe distance for fear I may be lured into a Wicker Man-style human sacrifice situation.
Thompson comes across as the folk version of Ry Cooder – ever the enigmatic touch, constantly moving around, and trying new things with an endless stream of great musicians. And Los Lobos.
So, in belated response, and in no particular order, here are 50 reasons why I love the mighty Zeppelin…
1. John Bonham
There’s not many a musician I can say this about – let alone a percussionist – but I could listen to Zeppelin’s back catalogue, isolating Bonzo’s drum tracks and removing all other instrumentation and vocals, and I’d be a very happy man. I can’t find an isolated drum track for Good Times Bad Times – probably the best example of his skill – but this version of Whole Lotta Love is pretty representative. It sounds like the bed-boards of a 1969 Vietnamese brothel come to life on the 4th of July.
2. Jimmy Page
There’s a story I remember from a Zeppelin biography which gives an insight into Jimmy Page’s sense of humour. Growing up near a hospital for adolescent girls with sexual disorders, young Jimmy and his friends would often drive past and shout random rude things to the girls over the wall. The reason I mention this is that, aside from his status as a rock god / groundbreaking producer / human riff machine, he’s just a cheeky young chap at heart, filled with childish wonder about the guitar.
3. Robert Plant
The guy is a fucking air raid siren, set on ‘perpetual wail’. If he’d been a young man during WWII, his services could have been employed by the allied forces to warn of impending Japanese air strikes on the western seaboard of America. And he’s not lost it – each of the three times I’ve seen him play live over the last decade or so may have been relatively laidback compared to Zeppelin standards, but each time he’s done a fair bit of wailing. I thought we were being invaded at the time. Bloody Japs…
4. John Paul Jones
Jonesy looks like the most normal and least cool member of the band, or so he would have you believe. He’s probably the most alternative member of the band, and therefore the most interesting – whether it be joining up with Dave Grohl and Josh Homme on 2009’s Them Crooked Vultures or playing with the likes of Robyn Hitchcock, Seasick Steve, Sonic Youth or Ben Harper. For me though, my favourite Jonesy moment of the last 10 years was this guest spot with Lenny Kravitz at the MTV music awards in 1993, back when Lenny was writing decent tunes.
5. The Hindenberg disaster
You’ve got to love a band who use a photograph of the Hindenberg disaster on their debut album, and then try and curry favour with a von Zeppelin descendant so that they can continue to use the family name. When Frau Eva von Zeppelin – descendent of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, creator of the Zeppelin aircraft – met the band in 1970, she caught a glimpse of the infamous photo on the cover. ‘When she saw the cover she just exploded!’ Page explains. ‘I had to run and hide. She just blew her top.’
Zeppelin are probably the most myth-ridden band next to the Beatles. If you believe everything you read, then Robert Plant’s five year old son died of a strange virus because of Jimmy Page’s dabbling with the occult. Page even went so far as to buy Aleister Crowley’s old residence, Boleskine House, which added fuel to the fire. I’m guessing the place needed the carpets washing when he bought it.
7. No singles
‘Singles? Fuck that. Let’s just release albums!’ As good as it may be to say this about Zeppelin, unfortunately it only applies to the UK, and even this was spoiled by some moron at Atlantic Records choosing to release Whole Lotta Love as a single in 1997. Still, which other bands / artists can make a similar claim? I would naturally say Pink Floyd but they released plenty of singles over the years.
8. Session musos
Probably one of the reasons why Zeppelin took off so quickly is because Page and Jones had both been around the block a few times already as session musicians. This pedigree is astounding, whether you like Zeppelin or not. For example, amongst other gems, Page played on The Who’s Can’t Explain, The Kinks’ You Really Got Me and All Day And All Of The Night, Tom Jones’ It’s Not Unusual, Them’s Baby Please Don’t Go and Gloria, Marianne Faithfull’s As Tears Go By, The Rolling Stones’ Heart Of Stone, Joe Cockers’ With A Little Help From My Friends, and Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man and Sunshine Superman. That alone is a fine body of work for a guitarist.
9. Jimmy Page, vinyl enthusiast
Jimmy Page appears to be a pretty normal bloke – if record collecting can be considered ‘normal’. He’s been spotted in record shops around London – including one appearance on Record Store Day a few years ago, looking for a hard-to-find 7” that was being released that day – and that makes me very happy. If I’m going to meet any of my musical heroes, I couldn’t think of a better place to bump into them than a record shop.
10. Cello Bows
As much as I find their 25 minute live renditions of Dazed And Confused a test of my endurance and willpower, you have to admit that scraping a cello bow across a guitar not only looks cool, but sounds as mean as hell. You can try it yourself – just make sure your violin is in tune.
11. The double-necked Gibson EDS-1275
How many bands have the balls to release an album at the height of their fame – and not bother putting the band’s name, or the title of the album, on it? Instead there are just four symbols. It’s just a massive middle-finger to the record company. I remember buying my first copy of the album on CD and the old guy in the record store had great fun in asking ”Ooo, this is Led Zeppelin, isn’t it?” Of course it is, you moron!
13. Tribute Bands
One of the best things about famous bands is that there are always a slew of tribute bands with amusing names. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the Oasis tribute band Definitely MightBe that I saw in Crewe’s Limelight club once, but some of Zeppelin’s imitators are hard to beat. There’s Whole Lotta Led (who I saw in the Witchwood in Ashton), the all-girl group Lez Zeppelin, Birminghams’s Fred Zeppelin, and possibly my favourite – Northern Ireland’s The Rubber Plants.
14. The cover of Led Zeppelin III – pop art at its very best
15. The drum intro to When The Levee Breaks
I could listen to this all day. Fuck choosing eight songs for Desert Island Discs – just give me this on a loop.
16. John Bonham’s breakfast
Four quadruple vodkas and a ham roll, apparently. Who would have thought that would have ended badly?
Part of the reason I’m such a fan of Zeppelin is that I’m a guitarist, and not only are they a treasure trove of riffs, they’re also a source of weird tunings. Retune your guitar to DADGAD and it instantly sounds like you’ve stepped into another century (or another part of the world, Kashmir perhaps).
18. Show me the money
Jimmy Page was so sure of the band that he paid for the recording of the first album himself. It cost £1,782 and took nine days from start to finish. Not only did Peter Grant then go and sell the album to Atlantic Records (securing an ‘advance’ of £143,000), but it is thought that the album went on to gross more than £3.5 million.
19. Peter Grant
Speaking of Peter Grant, he really deserves a mention as the fifth member of Led Zeppelin – and as much an integral part of the band as Brian Epstein or George Martin were to The Beatles. My favourite story of Peter Grant involves him poking his giant belly into the gun of a would-be shooter. Note to self – never pull a gun on an obese person, they have far too much padding.
20. Heavy Metal? Really?
Zeppelin are generally written-off as a dumb heavy metal band – which is strange considering half of their material is acoustic. In that respect, not only are they a fantastic rock band, but they’re also a great folk band (and they manage to avoid the hi-diddly-dee pitfalls of a lot of English folk music of the ‘60s and ‘70s).
21. No More Led Zeppelin
After Bonham’s death in 1980, the band was no more. I’ve often thought that the press release explaining this at the time was poetic in itself:
We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were – Led Zeppelin, 4th December 1980
22. Chicks love Zeppelin
I once caught the train from Manchester to Leeds, and a lady gave me and my friends her table seat – just because I was wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Now that’s cool.
23. You can buy a Led Zeppelin bikini*…
* hot chick not included.
24. This Beavis & Butthead clip changed my life
How’s this for fate / destiny / kismet / whatever… In the early ‘90s, as I was devouring everything Zeppelin-related, I chanced upon this clip from MTV’s Beavis & Butthead. This video for Over The Hills And Far Away (from 1973’s Houses Of The Holy) really gave me a passion for the song and it not only became my favourite Zeppelin song, but I also learnt to play the guitar parts, becoming somewhat of a party piece of mine in my first couple of years at University (well, they asked me to play over the hills and far away – maybe I misunderstood them). Five years later, just after I met the lady who became my wife, I had taken a brief hiatus from playing the guitar. I agreed to play the song to her – an important moment in our courtship – and not only did it become her favourite Zeppelin song, but we walked down the aisle to the tune when we married in 2011. I’m going to kill Mike Judge if I ever find him, he has a lot to answer for.
25. Stairway To Heaven
Often claimed to be the most requested song on radio – probably requested by DJs themselves as its eight minutes would give them ample time for a toilet break – Stairway To Heaven appears on IV and is very polarising. Half-hearted mysticism or the backing for a blistering guitar showcase? You decide – but I love it, especially the moment when Bonham’s drums come in.
26. Marketing Fail
The fourth album – and its centrepiece Stairway To Heaven – caught the band at their creative peak, elevating them to (arguably) the biggest band in the world. To celebrate, when Atlantic Records released its second repressing of the album, they placed a spoken-word message between a couple of the tracks, congratulating the listener and giving the phone number they could call to claim their prize. The trouble was, the lady who ended up with the winning copy of the album only bought it for Stairway To Heaven (the final song on the first side of the record), and the competition message was hidden between two songs on the second side. She didn’t bother listening to the second side of the album and so the message went unheard. Years later when the message was finally heard, Atlantic Records followed through on their word and awarded the prize.
27. Marketing Win
One hidden message on IV that was heard was the backwards masking inserted into Stairway To Heaven. If you play the ‘If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow’ line backwards and strain your ears, you can almost hear Plant singing ‘Here’s to my sweet Satan’. I’m not sure how somebody first discovered this, but I’m guessing drugs were involved. As the late, great Bill Hicks would suggest, either the band put this into the song themselves in order to kill off their fanbase, or Satan himself put it on there: ‘Satan! Ruiner of stereos, destroyer of needles!’
28. Did I mention that you can buy a Led Zeppelin bikini?
29. Protecting a legacy
Zeppelin, like other big name acts (eg. The Beatles and Pink Floyd) are seldom heard on a film soundtrack. This is a good thing, as there’s always the potential they could be used in High School Musical, or even worse, Glee. Recently, the band vetoed Ben Affleck’s use of the song When The Levee Breaks in the film Argo unless the filmmakers showed the needle dropping on the record in the correct position (the last song on side two, as opposed to the first song as it was shown in the original edit). But as good as this stance may be, you have to take the rough with the smooth. Richard Linklater’s great film Dazed And Confused would have been even better if he’d been allowed to use the Zeppelin song over the opening credits (Robert Plant vetoed the idea, forcing Linklater to use Aerosmith’s equally awesome Sweet Emotion in its place).
30. The drum fill in The Song Remains The Same
I marvel at how long Bonham stretches this fill out, every time I hear it (between 2:00 and 2:07 in this clip). You could almost get a beer from the concession stand and be back in your seat before it’s over. The band will all come back in when John Bonham is good and ready!
31. Who needs a stylist when you look this good?
32.The producer’s chair
Part of the reason Zeppelin’s body of work is so dependable is that, aside from the same four players on every album, there’s also a consistent presence in the producer’s chair – Jimmy Page. Not even The Beatles can claim this, with the turgid Let It Be being reproduced by lady-killer Phil Spector. When people talk about producers, Page always – ALWAYS! – gets overlooked. He deserves a place in the top 5 rock producers of all time simply for his groundbreaking way of positioning microphones away from the drums to create natural reverb – ‘Right from the first album, I insisted that the drums were going to breathe, and that we were going to get a proper tone on them’.
33. Led Zeppelin IV is more effective than alka-seltzer
I’m not sure why but there’s two albums that really help me get over a really bad hangover – Led Zeppelin’s fourth album and AC/DC’s Highway To Hell. I’m not alone in this – I’ve read and heard people saying the same thing about both albums. Maybe listening to them simply causes me to feel happy and the resulting endorphins attack my hangover, or could there be a deeper meaning? Perhaps the albums help me internalise the rights and wrongs I’ve committed during the previous night’s heavy drinking session – have I deserved the Stairway To Heaven or the Highway To Hell?
34. Always think of your neighbours before turning the Zeppelin up
Probably the greatest gift for a Zeppelin fan is the point when, working your way through their body of work, you finally discover Physical Graffiti. I’m not usually a fan of double albums – they can be long, drawn-out lengthy affairs – unless the material is diverse enough to warrant such a long running time. Zeppelin cover pretty much every musical style on Graffiti, making it the 1970s’ answer to the Beatles’ White Album. I’ll admit the album does outstay its welcome, but only by one song (closer Sick Again brings nothing new to the table). It’s probably the double-album I listen to the most, and one of my favourite Zeppelin albums.
36. Is that a mudshark in your orifice or are you just happy to see me?
I always like a bit of sensationalism when I’m reading a rock biog, and Stephen Davis’ 1985 biography Hammer Of The Gods is probably the most sensational of them all:
‘One girl, a pretty young groupie with red hair, was disrobed and tied to the bed. According to the legend of the Shark Episode, Led Zeppelin then proceeded to stuff pieces of shark into her vagina and rectum.’
Road Manager Richard Cole claims ‘It wasn’t Bonzo, it was me. It wasn’t shark parts anyway: It was the nose that got put in. We caught a lot of big sharks, at least two dozen, stuck coat hangers through the gills and left ’em in the closet… But the true shark story was that it wasn’t even a shark. It was a red snapper and the chick happened to be a fucking redheaded broad with a ginger pussy. And that is the truth. Bonzo was in the room, but I did it. Mark Stein filmed the whole thing. And she loved it. It was like, “You’d like a bit of fucking, eh? Let’s see how your red snapper likes this red snapper!” That was it. It was the nose of the fish, and that girl must have cum 20 times. But it was nothing malicious or harmful, no way! No one was ever hurt.’
37. The Zeppelin album covers offer perfect parallels with everyday life
38. Valhalla, I am coming!
Whilst playing in bands over the years, I’ve found there’s nothing more satisfying than when a shared love of Zeppelin between yourself, your drummer and your bass player leads you to start jamming on Immigrant Song. There are hundreds of great songs to jam on – thousands probably – but for me, when a guitarist, a drummer and a bass player lock in on that groove, it sounds like something else.
39. Jonesy’s bass lines on The Lemon Song
Led Zeppelin II has a lot of treasures – it was the album that introduced me to Zeppelin – and one of my favourite bits on it is John Paul Jones’ slinky bass lines on The Lemon Song. “Borrowing” heavily from Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor (to the extent that my vinyl copy actually lists the song as Killing Floor on the centre-label, despite it being listed as The Lemon Song on the sleeve), the song is essentially a jam in which Jones gets to shine with a funk-tinged bass solo mid-song. Sublime.
40. Zeppelin really knew how to make an awards ceremony something to remember…
41. Led Zeppelin II
When bands record albums under pressure, the result can sometimes be a patchy affair (the best example being 1964’s rush-released-in-time-for-Christmas Beatles For Sale). Led Zeppelin’s second offering is a great example of pressure creating perfection. Cobbled together while the band was on tour throughout America – an overnight recording session here, a overdubbing session there – the album sounds far from rushed. In fact, it’s probably a testament to Page’s producing skills that he was able to put together something so polished from so many constituent parts.
42. Talk of reunions…
It always amuses me how cranky Robert Plant gets when talk turns to a full-on Zeppelin reunion. If I ever met, I’d like to think I’d ask him if there’s going to be one – but make it sound like I’m convinced I’m the first person to ever think to ask him about it. You can’t blame him though – there’s been enough talk about one over the years. The long-dead drummer problem is no longer an issue – Bonham’s son Jason is adequately skilled to take up his father’s duties (and has done so on several occasions) and Dave Grohl has put his hand up many times for the same opportunity (he’d drop the Foo Fighters mid-tour if it meant joining Zeppelin). But the most amusing story is how after the 2007 Ahmet Ertegün tribute concert in London, Page was so driven to bringing on a full on Zeppelin reunion tour, despite Plant’s firm stance, that they auditioned another singer for the role. Who? None other than Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. Tyler spent a couple of weeks rehearsing with Page, Jones and (I’m guessing) Jason Bonham before the whole thing was called off. As much as I love Aerosmith – and Zeppelin – I’m glad, very glad, that this didn’t eventuate.
43. …but no actual reunions
Aside from a couple of one-off concerts here and there (1985’s Live Aid , 1988’s Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert, 1995’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction and 2007’s Ahmet Ertegün tribute concert), Zeppelin have never actually reformed. And when I mean ‘reform’, I mean get back together full-time, record some new material and go back out on tour. This is a huge plus in Zeppelin’s favour as there’s nothing to dilute their former glories. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the surviving Beatles hadn’t messed with those John Lennon tracks on the first two Anthology albums, or if Pink Floyd had ended the day that Roger Waters walked out the door? Most projects that Page and Plant have done in the spirit of Zeppelin over the years – specifically their Zeppelin-infused UnLedded MTV performance and their subsequent Walking Into Clarksdale album – have actually been interesting on their own merit without the weight of the Zeppelin name behind them.
44. Jimmy Page is incredibly polite
45. Why bother coming up with names for albums?
If Peter Gabriel had followed this rule, then perhaps he wouldn’t have released four albums all called Peter Gabriel between ’77 and ’82. Idiot.
46. Led Zeppelin III
The most interesting album of the classic run of II – III – IV, the third album sees the band change direction completely and go down the folk path. I always see it as a true stepping-stone between their heavy blues / heavy rock direction of the first and second albums, and the world conquering tone of IV and Houses Of The Holy (album number five). I don’t even think you can classify the fourth and fifth albums as any specific musical genre – they’re so much a little bit of everything that the only way you can describe it is ‘Led Zeppelin’ – and I don’t think they would have been able to own this space so comfortably if they hadn’t taken such a huge left turn on the third album.
47. Almost Famous
Any Led Zeppelin fan who knows his beans will spot the overarching influence of the band in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous. Although the band in the film is named Stillwater – and seems to be based on a number of bands that Cameron toured with in his early days as a Rolling Stone journalist, Zeppelin included – it is Zeppelin who infuse every moment of the film. Hollywood doesn’t tend to get films about the music scene right very often – straightforward biopics of recently deceased artists tend to be the winning formula – but Almost Famous is right on the money, coming across as a truly entertaining love letter to the rock n’ roll scene of the 1970s.
48. Black Dog
Zeppelin’s progressive approach to time signatures really hit the nail on the head on IV’s opener Black Dog, which straddles three time signatures. I can hardly hear the changes these days, just because I know the song so well, but I remember my wife saying it sounded so wrong when she started listening to Zeppelin – it just sounds so right to me. (By the time they recorded 1976’s Presence though, Zeppelin were doing such weird things with time-signatures that, for me at least, they were starting to detract from the enjoyment of the song. The otherwise excellent Nobody’s Fault But Mine is partly spoilt for me by later sections where the Bonham and Jones purposefully play off-beat.)
49. Paging Dr. Page…
In a parallel universe somewere, there’s a Jimmy Page who’s made his name in the field of biological research.
50. Whoops, nearly forgot this one…
The fucking music!
Postscript / Coda
Despite each and every one of the fifty reasons above, I fully concede that Led Zeppelin aren’t for everybody. If you don’t have good taste in music, you can pretty much write yourself off as a lost cause. Go listen to Bieber instead.
It might sound strange, but I’m actually glad I’ve never seen Zeppelin play live, given their predilection for improvisation and playing 4-hour sets (only Rock And Roll used to be played with the exact same number of bars in each performance, the rest of the set was a free for all). When I see bands play live, I much prefer a short sharp jab to the face rather than a protracted torture session.
When I started listening to Zeppelin in the early ‘90s, they were very unfashionable – unlike now where they seem to be on the cover of every rock magazine and constantly rereleasing material. If Zeppelin reformed now, their shows would be just as much attended by the sort of people who only listen to music when they’re hosting a barbeque, as they would be by true Zeppelin fans. At Robert Plant’s recent show in Auckland, I saw a couple of people I work with in attendance. These weren’t people I knew as fans of rock music or regular concert-goers. Where were these people when I saw Black Sabbath, or AC/DC, or any of the countless number of smaller bands I’ve seen in Auckland over the years? The answer: Led Zeppelin – and by extension Robert Plant on his solo tour – are just as much a household name as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles. I remember the good old days when it wasn’t like this, when it used to be hard to find a Led Zeppelin t-shirt to buy. Now, Twilight’s Kristen Stewart is photographed by the paparazzi wearing a Zeppelin t-shirt…
The other bad thing about Zeppelin is that they are blatant thieves. Much of their bluesier material from the first and second albums was “appropriated” from old blues songs, without giving the original writers their credit. The reason this is so damning is that in most cases the band was stealing material from musicians who didn’t have the means to defend their claims – namely poor, black musicians from the mid-20th century. They didn’t just steal from the past either – the first album’s Dazed And Confused is a rewrite of Jake Holmes’ 1967 song of the same name without any due credit, while Black Mountain Side from the same album is far too similar to Bert Jansch’s Black Water Side to be accidental. This kleptomania caught up with the band, from lawsuits by Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Ritchie Valens. In each of these cases, the suits were settled for undisclosed sums – so I guess being the biggest rock band in the world is handy when you need to buy your way out of trouble.
Still, did I mention you can buy a Led Zeppelin bikini?