Every Led Zeppelin Album, Revisited and Reviewed

Earlier this month, Rhino reissued the first three Led Zeppelin albums in super-duper deluxe remastered special editions, complete with all the usual reissue bonus material: live stuff, unreleased stuff, demos, alternate mixes, outtakes, etc. Zep showed up pretty late to the reissue party (the 2007 hits collection Mothership notwithstanding) but they came packing heat: the re-releases of Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, and Led Zeppelin III kick off what will be a full-on reissue series tackling all nine original Zeppelin studio albums.

News of this first wave of reissues prompted me to look back at Led Zeppelin III, which I hadn’t listened to in a while. Of course, listening to III prompted me to listen to II and then to Led Zeppelin and then things just got out of hand.

Everyone goes through a Led Zeppelin phase, right? I’m at least sure that every unpopular white boy does, and I’m pretty sure it usually occurs in that horrible, horrible gap between when you start to hit puberty and when you start filling out college applications. To dig Led Zeppelin before this period makes you a nerd; to dig Led Zeppelin anytime afterward essentially makes you 55 years old. My Zeppelin period fell squarely into my high school years, when I learned the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” on guitar and scared the cat by drumming along to “Rock and Roll” and marveled at old VH1 videos of Robert Plant’s moose knuckle. It made perfect sense to be into Zeppelin at that age, and looking back I’m not sure how much it really had to do with the music. The opening riff to “Whole Lotta Love” is bad-fuckin’-ass no matter what age you are, but no more so than the riffs for “Brown Sugar” or even “Life in the Fast Lane.” The reason Zep appeals particularly to pimply adolescents has to do with the band’s two major obsessions. The first was sex–which any high schooler, especially one who knew nothing of it firsthand, could get on board with. The second obsession was black magic, and that sealed the deal not only with Tolkien fans but with anyone looking for an escape from the everyday-ness of the music we were brought up on. The Beatles and the Stones and Nirvana were great, but they were too human; prog rock, on the other hand, was too intellectual. Zeppelin split the difference: they made cock rock for dorks.

And that’s exactly why kids tend to outgrow Zeppelin fandom by the time they reach college. The social atmosphere that creates the nerds vs. jocks dynamic is indigenous to high school, but in college it no longer exists. Being smart is socially better for you in college, and so you no longer need a Led Zeppelin to lean on for support. Eventually you renounce your former self completely and decide that Zep are merely rock star caricatures rather than serious artists. You then spend the next four years writing term papers about the literary significance of Modern Vampires of the City.

But revisiting Led Zeppelin in the context of adult life allows us to see them as they actually were: a group of talented young guys who used reverb and riffage and general epic-ness to make the blues sound more ominous and foreboding than most metal bands. The quality of their records should be enough to shut up anyone who would mock their earnestness or their ambition. I know, because I recently listened to all of them.

Led Zeppelin (1969)

You could do a lot worse than “Good Times Bad Times” for the best musical first impression of all time. Indeed, there’s a lot to like here, but whats most interesting is how the best tracks on the first album–“Communication Breakdown,” “How Many More Times,” “Your Time is Gonna Come“–now seem atypical in the Led catalog. The output that the band would become known for was never again as “verse-chorus-verse” simple as it is on these songs, and particularly the up-tempo headbang of “Communication Breakdown” would become rare hereafter. At the opposite extreme is the patient drone of “Dazed and Confused” and the trad-blues slog of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” which are optimal songs to throw on the iPod if you’re doing some light reading or having really boring sex. Jimmy Page would eventually figure out that his shredding wasn’t quite enough to make these blues-by-numbers numbers enjoyable to listen to (this never seemed to occur to his fellow Yardbirds alum, Eric Clapton). The attack-and-release of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” is less effective with each listen, but the big hits here remain (mercifully) unsullied by years of classic rock radio airplay, which means that this album is still at least half-great. B

Led Zeppelin II (1969)

Speaking of classic rock radio, I don’t know if I ever need to hear the words “You need coolin’/Baby I’m not foolin‘” ever again, even if I live to be a hundred thousand. Sure it’s not the band’s fault, but “Whole Lotta Love” is no longer an actual song; it’s an advertisement for rock and roll. It’s the “15 minutes could save you 15% or more” of music. Babies who were just born yesterday are fucking sick of it. I can’t even believe I’ve written almost a hundred words about it already. Let’s stick this song in a time capsule and open it some time around the year never.

That said, the rest of this album is pretty much perfect. “What Is and What Should Never Be” is a top five Zep track despite its own radio mileage, and the “Heartbreaker“/”Living Loving Maid” one-two punch demands to be heard at least once every few months. “The Lemon Song” is a step in the right direction for Page’s reinvention of the blues, and I’m probably the only person who doesn’t completely tune out during the drum solo on “Moby Dick.” Skip the first track, take a pee break during the “Heartbreaker” solo and you’re golden. A-

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

When I was a kid, this was called The One with “Immigrant Song” and All That Acoustic Bullshit. And that’s not entirely inaccurate: Led Zeppelin III does indeed contain the great Viking Kittens soundtrack, and there is a higher density of acoustic material than can be found on I and II. But that’s far from the whole story on this album. First of all, I could probably listen to “Immigrant Song” on repeat for all eternity. Second, the acoustic stuff is all on Side B (with the exception of the awesome “Friends“) and it’s also excellent. The band finally got their sinister blues experiment to pay off with the haunting “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and the rockers here (“Celebration Day,” “Out on the Tiles“) are on par with the band’s best work. The only real misstep is “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper,” but it’s the last track so I’m perfectly content to pretend it doesn’t exist. A

Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

No band’s reputation has been as damaged by classic rock ubiquity as that of Led Zeppelin, and no album has been so thoroughly strip-mined for resources as their untitled fourth album from 1971. Five of the eight songs on this album have fallen victim to the Curse of the Overplayed Classic, and the remaining three range from pretty good (“Going to California“) to pretty okay (“Four Sticks“) to pretty goddamn boring (“The Battle of Evermore“). Luckily, however, most of those overplayed tunes are good enough to still be enjoyable during a casual listen. The only real casualty here is “Stairway to Heaven.” As unfair as it is to allow the inherited stigma of radio overkill to influence subsequent listens, the cultural context of certain tracks can’t be ignored; it’s part of the listening experience now. But even when I try to buck the bias, listening to “Stairway” remains, for me, a largely unrewarding experience. It’s a long wait for a weak payoff, and compared to the great Led Zeppelin songs we’ve got to look at, it’s not even one of the 5 best songs on this album. Perhaps the weirdest thing about this album is the lack of stylistic cohesion. That’s kind of a dumb complaint from the guy who just praised the schizophrenic III, but when you’ve got danceable riff-monsters like “Black Dog” and “Misty Mountain Hop” to play with, why bring the mood down with a quarter hour’s worth of songs about druids? The good tracks are great, but this album is only worth listening to as a whole if you’ve never been in a car driven by a baby boomer and you just need to know what it’s like. B-

(Fun sidenote: When I searched “Stairway to Heaven” on YouTube, the suggested videos in the right hand sidebar included “Hotel California,” “Free Bird,” “Dream On,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Yeah.)

Houses of the Holy (1973)

If Led Zeppelin aren’t the greatest band of all time, they’re at least  the kings of #DGAF when it comes to album packaging. It was one thing when they released IV with no information whatsoever–not even the band’s name–attached to it. But that’s nothing compared to the headaches they caused their latter day fans by putting the title track to Houses of the Holy on a different fucking album. Every time I look at the cover to this album, I think of the song “Houses of the Holy,” only to remember that the song is actually on Physical Graffiti. That kind of middle-fingerism drops this album at least half a letter grade.

The album itself is a mishmash of genre experiments, including the reggae-infused “D’yer Mak’er” and the gorgeous ballad “The Rain Song.” My favorite is “The Crunge,” a funky ode to James Brown that shows off, among other things, Bonzo’s mindmelting ability to bounce back and forth between all sorts of insane time signatures while maintaining his characteristic heaviness. Side Two is comprised of shit you’re sick of hearing–“Dancing Days,” “D’yer Mak’er,” “The Ocean“–plus “No Quarter,” which is so forgettable I literally forgot about it until I listened to it, and then realized that’s a perfectly acceptable reaction. Side One would be perfect were it not for “Over The Hills and Far Away,” which is a favorite of people who generally don’t like Led Zeppelin. I hate having to sit through it just to hear “The Crunge.” I’d rather just have five more minutes of the latter song than ever have to hear the former again. C+

Physical Graffiti (1975)

Here’s a thought that my dad might disown me for even entertaining: What’s the real difference between Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones? In theory, they’re basically the same band with purely cosmetic differences. They’re both blues-obsessed rock bands who came into their own in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They both rely heavily on repetition-friendly riffs to power their songs. They both have English lead singers who tend to put on a midwestern American affect when singing. Maybe Plant wailed higher than Jagger could, maybe Bonzo hit harder than Charlie Watts, and maybe Zeppelin was more prone to long, drawn-out jams, but on paper these bands are not very different.

It occurred to me while listening to Physical Graffiti that the key difference is that Zeppelin’s songs always seemed practiced. Every band practices, of course, but the Stones, at least on record, tended to sound less perfect, less harmonious, as if they just showed up and laid down the tracks without much fuss. Loose; nearly unprofessional. And that lack of perfection is part of what makes the Stones endearing: they could be great even when they weren’t trying very hard. But Zeppelin was always trying hard, so much so that their songs seem to better resemble the work of engineering than that of rock and roll. If everything isn’t in its right place, the song will fall apart. Even their bad songs are structurally flawless.

That perfectionism makes the great songs greater, but it makes the duller songs positively tedious. It’s on Physical Graffiti that we run into both situations. What band other than Zeppelin could sustain the groove-riding “In My Time of Dying” for eleven minutes without putting us to sleep? Somehow it works, and even though it’s found on Side One of a four-sided double-album, it’s the centerpiece of Physical Graffiti. The song that should be the centerpiece–not only because of its reputation and its intensity, but also because it’s the last song on Side Two–is “Kashmir,” but that’s no longer possible. “Kashmir” is the Citizen Kane of twentieth century music, something you don’t need to hear all the way through to get the point. Apart from its omnipresence over the last four decades, it’s just not a good Led Zeppelin song. When I think Zeppelin, I think riffs, and inasmuch as “Kashmir” can be said to even have a riff, it’s a boring and stunted one. I know it’s a classic, and the fact that it makes me think of Chase Utley walking to the plate earns it five hundred points. However, it also makes me think of Godzilla, which earns it negative infinity points.

Beyond that: “Houses of the Holy” still holds it power; “Trampled Under Foot” doesn’t quite; the entire fourth side is expendable; “Ten Years Gone” is great. This is the sort of album you throw on at work and halfway through you forget you’re even listening to music. B-

Presence (1976)

This album begins with a ten-minute battering ram to the face called “Achilles Last Stand.” This is not a complaint, and in fact Side One of Presence is all but flawless, with the muscular “For Your Life” and the funky “Royal Orleans” rounding it out. Side Two opens with “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” the closest thing on this album to a radio-friendly unit shifter (which automatically ups this album a full letter grade) and one of the band’s most satisfying psych-funk-blues jams. “Candy Store Rock” is less satisfying but it’s a fun diversion. And “Hots On For Nowhere” sounds like every Led Zeppelin song at once, which is awesome. Presence is easily the band’s leanest album, especially coming hot off the heels of the bloated Physical Graffiti. The fact that they chose to end it with “Tea For One,” however, is bothersome. An unremarkable ten-minute slow blues, the song is the musical equivalent of a mid-afternoon nap. It’s not bad, but after the urgency of the rest of the album, “Tea For One” just sounds like a bad hangover. Still, Presence is the most fun album in the Zep catalog after IIA

In Through The Out Door (1979)

What a relief and what a pleasure it must have been, after a three-and-a-half year drought between Zeppelin albums, to drop the needle on In Through The Out Door and hear the blistering opening riff to “In The Evening.” Out of curiosity, I Googled “best Led Zeppelin songs,” and the first thing that came up was a Rolling Stone list of the 40 Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs (funny how these lists always use the word “greatest,” implying that “best” literally isn’t good enough). I was surprised to find “In The Evening” all the way down at No. 40 (behind fucking “Four Sticks”??!!!). Yeah, yeah, I know, all “greatest” lists are stupid and pointless and arbitrary, but “In The Evening” is at least the finest opening song on a Zeppelin album (and possibly any album) since “Black Dog” on IV. (To give you an idea of the sorts of people who make these lists, the top two spots were predictably occupied by “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway.” Yawn.)

Many of the songs here are atypical, most notably the piano-driven “Fool in the Rain,” which, even after being co-opted by the corporate radio stations of the world, is the most fun song the band ever produced. “South Bound Suarez” and “All My Love” show that Jimmy Page wasn’t the only genius at work in the band. In fact, the only imperfect guitar-playing of Page’s career can be found on “Hot Dog,” which is a godawful song in the first place and finds Page having a hard time with the central riff. (Wikipedia says he was strung out on heroin at the time, but that’s no excuse; ask Keith Richards). “Carouselambra” is funky enough to remain fun for most of its ten minutes, but the band pushes their luck with “I’m Gonna Crawl,” an apt title for the drone-y closing track. The album works more often than it doesn’t, and if you lift the needle on Side One before “Hot Dog” starts, it’s almost perfect. B+

Coda (1982)

It bothers me that Coda always gets looped in with the core Zeppelin catalog. A collection of outtakes and B-sides released two years after John Bonham’s death in order to capitalize on the booming bootleg market, Coda is little more than a curiosity. “We’re Gonna Groove” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” are decent live cuts, but the crowd noise is edited out to make them sound like studio tracks. An entire track is devoted to a Bonham drum solo, which is a nice tribute after the drummer’s untimely demise, but it’s a waste of tape. Even the good tracks are infuriating. Of the three songs on Coda taken from the In Through the Out Door sessions, at least two are a good deal better than “Hot Dog,” so we’re left wondering why none of those tracks made it onto the original album. Apparently, Rhino considers Coda to be an original studio album, so it’s getting a re-release along with the rest of the catalog, but isn’t there something redundant about tacking a bonus disc of outtakes and rarities onto an album made up entirely of same? C-

Even if we count Coda, Led Zeppelin still walks away with an impressive report card. They’re a band worth revisiting, and as much as the listenability of some of their material has been assaulted by decades of repetition, there’s some killer stuff here. Zeppelin always hid behind a veil of their own mystique, and for that reason they’re much more fun if you get way too into them. They never went far outside the Led Zeppelin box, which made them feel exclusive even though their music was for everyone. It can be exhausting to listen to them casually, but that makes Led Zeppelin the perfect band to binge on.

MF

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