I can’t help thinking of the old clichés about first impressions. It’s extremely difficult in this day and age to be exposed to new music without any outside influences tainting your experience. Can you honestly remember the last time you listened to an artist without either having read a review, heard a comparison, or been given a brief description by a friend? I sure can’t. I still remember the first time I saw the name Led Zeppelin. I was in a Southern California indie record store, flipping through the bin cards when I got to the Ls and found what I thought was an “M” band. The bin card read “The Mighty Led Zeppelin.” I only found out later that the ‘Mighty’ was a comment by the store owner, but it left an indelible mark.
It was, in fact, years later that I ended up purchasing the Zeppelin Box Set. You know, the one with the crop circles on it. It played in heavy rotation once I got it, especially the first disc which was mostly made up of songs from the first two albums. Because of the fact that all of the best songs were culled from each album to make up this box set, I found no immediate need to obtain any of the single albums on their own. After all, when you own seven of the eight songs that make up their fourth album, why pay fifteen bucks for one song?
What I was indeed missing was the original presentation and concept of a group of songs at a particular time. For instance, Jimmy Page loved the order and progression set forth on the box set. It was a different way of telling a story that he was a part of. But there was an original story that was to be told, and that story was told on the original albums. Let me put it another way. Do any of you remember when Francis Ford Coppola reedited the first two Godfather films to make The Godfather Saga for television? He completely rearranged the scenes from the films to go in chronological order! While the new version was still quality, it wasn’t anything like the experience of seeing the first two films in their original glory. I won’t even go into the whole `remastering’ or `remixing’ debate because then I’d have to invoke George Lucas and the idiotic things he’s doing with the original Star Wars trilogy.
Led Zeppelin’s entire catalog of albums is worthy of purchase, but we can really whittle it down to the first six albums as being mandatory, the first numbered four (sort of, the fourth isn’t really numbered), Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. I personally love Led Zeppelin II. Its amplified blues, unbelievable riffs and powerful swagger make it an album that you just have to make a sneering face and to nod your head.
From the opening riffs of “Whole Lotta Love” you know you’re about to experience something dirty. Take that how you want, it works every which way. That riff can stand alongside any of Keith Richards’ or any from Jimi Hendrix; it’s that distinctive and good. Throw in the speeding car/Doppler effect sound of the guitar in the chorus and you have a guitar blues masterpiece. Then Robert Plant comes wailing in, his voice another instrument, making himself much more than a vocalist. Plant’s screams, howls, and `baby’s’ are riffs of their own, dueling and weaving with Page’s guitars. The orgasmic sounds he makes during the brief period before Page’s earth shattering solo only make the song that much dirtier. And if you think that’s blue, check out the juice running down Plant’s leg in “The Lemon Song.”
“What is and What Should Never Be” follows and filters Plant’s vocals through an organ, making it dreamy and ethereal before kicking into various choruses and solos. Page’s straightforward slow blues solo in the middle of the song is smooth and Harrison-esque, but it is the Page/Plant show at the three and a half-minute mark that really sets the song apart and air-guitar worthy. Guitar players dream of coming up with riffs like this and singers can only hope to reach the registers that Plant hits.
The organ and strummed guitar of “Thank You” take the album into a more relaxed tone before “Heartbreaker” kicks it up again. “Thank You” shows different sides of the two main members, a tender side that they expose unabashedly. The song, like Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” is holy and sacrosanct, standing on a plain high above the rest of the album, which is a lofty statement considering how good the album is. “Heartbreaker” continues the riffs that just seem as if no human should be able to come up with this many memorable blues riffs at one time. The rest of the band theorizes that, since the album was recorded while they were on tour supporting their first album, that all of the riffs came from long solos while playing “Dazed and Confused.” I don’t care, I’m just comforted to know they exist for posterity.
The ultimate traveling song, “Ramble On,” continues with metronomic drums and folky guitar. It also marks the first appearance of Zep’s Tolkien obsession with the lyric,
“Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair
But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”
Plant’s half-scat/half-improvisational overlapping lyric is never better than at the close of this song. The four minute instrumental and John Bonham show piece follows in “Moby Dick” with a massive drum solo and more blues riffs You can tell that the members of the band just love playing this song. It’s like with jazz ensembles where they trade off solos, first the sax, then trumpet, guitar, and whoever else wants to give it a shot.
In the closer, “Bring it on Home,” Plant mimics old bluesmen in his baritone vocal delivery before the Zepness of it really begins. Listening to the last track, you can virtually see the jumping off point of bands like Aerosmith that began soon after Led Zeppelin. There are Joe Perry riffs that sound just like they might have come straight from this album. For years, other blues based rock bands have been ripping off Zeppelin, and in particular this album. At least it can be said that they have good taste.
Cameron Crowe once wrote, “For a generation of kids, teenage angst was easily aided by a good set of headphones and a decent copy of Led Zeppelin II.”
Just as to some, Dio will always be Ronnie James Dio, and Bruce Springsteen will always the ‘The Boss,’ to me, Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham will always be “The Mighty Led Zeppelin.” Long may they reign.