Led Zeppelin I (Atlantic ‘69) Rating: A+
After tinkering with a new version of The Yardbirds, legendary session ace and band leader Jimmy Page and another session veteran John Paul Jones teamed together with a couple of younger unknowns who knew each other from previous (unsuccessful) bands, Robert Plant and John ("Bonzo") Bonham. The band’s chemistry was immediately and spectacularly apparent, and the rest, as they say, is history, as the mighty Led Zeppelin was born. And yeah, they did rip off old blues artists, too often without according the proper credit, but they did so brilliantly. Besides, that was just a small part of their recorded legacy, and I’ve yet to hear any of the old bluesmen sound half as majestic or as powerful as Led Zeppelin does on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” or “Dazed and Confused,” to name but two of this album's classic songs. Recorded over a sweat soaked 30 hours and featuring nine songs that basically comprised their set list at the time, Led Zeppelin I is the band’s rawest and most blues-based studio recording. Page’s guitar is on fire throughout, Bonham’s drums thunder away in awe-inspiring fashion, Jones plays some terrific bass guitar and keyboards, and Plant’s high-pitched vocal wail, with many a “baby baby” lyric, became the template for all future hard rock singers (though it should be noted that some find his vocals to be an acquired taste and Plant himself has been critical of his somewhat hyper and over-the-top theatrics on this album; I can see where everybody is coming from but on the whole I still think he's magnificent). Yet for all of their individual excellence, and they do all take spectacular solo turns here (particularly Page), it is the band’s ensemble playing that remains most mind-blowing all these years later. As for the songs, the album starts strongly with the short, catchy "Good Times Bad Times," which is notable for Page's savage soloing and Plant's charismatic vocal as he uses his lower register. "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," a radical folk-blues-rock reworking of a Joan Baez cover (though unbeknownst to the band it was originally written by one Anne Bredon, who got belated credit and financial restitution for her efforts), is even more impressive. Years before the Pixies were given credit for creating the soft-to-loud dynamics that came to define alternative rock in the '90s, Led Zeppelin were doing just that right here, and once again all band members shine, particularly Plant who is nothing short of spectacular. Even better is "Dazed and Confused," the band's first (of many) epic-scale tracks, which took hard rock to a whole new level of heaviness. The song, which was actually an uncredited cover (albeit with different lyrics) of a psychedelic folk song originally done by the largely unknown Jake Holmes, is almost unbelievably powerful at times, especially during its frenetic jam-packed mid-section and dramatic symphonic ending. The song is also notable for being their first on which Page unleashed the eerie sonic possibilities of taking a violin bow to an electric guitar; though the Creation's Eddie Phillips was the first to do so, Page is most synonymous with this technique, and this song is probably his signature piece with it. Showing the versatility and subtlety that so many of their subsequent followers would lack, “Your Time Is Gonna Come” is a beautiful sing along country-gospel-pop ballad led by Page’s acoustic guitar, Jones’ Hammond organ, and another inspired vocal from Plant (his phrasing is impeccable), while “Black Mountain Side” is a short Page-led acoustic instrumental that nods to Bert Jansch’s “Down By Blackwaterside” and shows the influence of Eastern music while offering a lighter respite from the draining intensity elsewhere. Another classic comes in the form of the short but ultra-adrenalized “Communication Breakdown,” which features yet another great Page guitar solo and flies along at a breakneck speed. Most future punk rockers would cower in the face of such a relentless assault, making their snobbish comments a decade hence about Zep being outdated "dinosaur rockers" all the more laughable. But I digress; this album ends with another epic in the multi-sectioned “How Many More Times,” another exceptionally strong take on the blues and psychedelia, and one of several songs here ("Dazed and Confused," "Black Mountain Side") that had its roots from back in Page's Yardbirds days. Loosely based on Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years" and featuring vocal ad-libs from Plant, who also "steals" from Albert King's "The Hunter," again the song borrows too liberally from old blues sources, but again it does so brilliantly. For one thing, Plant's vocal ad-libs, borrowed or not, are inspired, and the song's pulverizing riffs, violin bow treatments, and wah wah effects are all Page, whose sparring with Bonham is breathtaking. Ironically, the two properly credited Willie Dixon covers, “You Shook Me,” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” are arguably the album’s weakest songs (least great songs is more like it), proving that Led Zeppelin were at their best when unleashing a fury (or a beauty) all their own.
II (Atlantic ‘69) Rating: A
By now Zep were something of a sensation, if not with clueless critics than at least with fans, especially in the U.S. where their phenomenal live shows (famously blowing the likes of Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge off the stage) and outrageous offstage antics were becoming the stuff of legend. This second album was written and recorded in between touring commitments, and it's the album on which Robert Plant started to assert himself as a songwriter; from here on out the Page-Plant partnership would write the bulk of the band's songs. Above all else, Led Zeppelin II is one of the greatest riff albums ever, as Zep was still primarily Page's vision and he was the dominant instrumentalist, though again each member shines and their impeccable chemistry is omnipresent. The band's first #1 album, Led Zeppelin II fittingly toppled Abbey Road from its lofty perch, thereby signally a changing of the guard within the rock hierarchy as The Beatles were about to break up. Unfortunately, for all the album's plentiful virtues, it is not without its fair share of flaws, perhaps chief among them being the band's laziness when it came to writing their own stuff (especially their own lyrics). Let's face it, the ill-informed nitwits who think that "all Zep did was rip off the blues" are mostly referring to their early albums, and this is the album that got them in the most trouble, with Willie Dixon successfully suing the band for writing credits for not one but two songs ("Whole Lotta Love" and "Bring It On Home"). These were unfortunate lapses in judgment by the band that brought them much grief, all the more regrettable because again the main strength of this album lies in the mighty playing of a powerhouse band, plus some terrific original compositions, some of which ("What Is And What Should Never Be," "Thank You," "Ramble On") had little to do with the blues. A menacing riff for the ages begins “Whole Lotta Love,” easily one of Led Zeppelin’s greatest songs (despite its borrowed lyrics) and a heavy metal prototype. Among the song's most notable attributes are its inspired mid-section, which features some difficult to describe, ahead of its time studio experimentation (much credit there goes to engineer Eddie Kramer, who not coincidentally also worked with Jimi Hendrix, one of the few other artists to create such otherworldly sounds in the service of accessible songs), a devastating Page/Bonham guitar/drum volley, Plant's sexually charged vocals highlighted by his "way down inside, woman, you need LOOOVVVEEE!!!" scream, and a fantastic fadeout ending, which was quickly becoming a band trademark. An edited single actually cracked the U.S. top 5, though curiously enough the band never released a single in their U.K. homeland, preferring to be looked upon as an album act instead (such a strategy being one of many innovations by manager Peter Grant, who was integral to the band's enormous success). Anyway, next up is the excellent “What Is And What Should Never Be,” which features dreamy, jazzy verses and catchy, hard-hitting choruses, not to mention superbly understated playing by the whole band. “The Lemon Song” is a long blues that borrows from both Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and Robert Johnson's "Travelling Riverside Blues," though on the latter (which the band would cover brilliantly; more about that later) only its controversial, blatantly sexual lyrics. "Stealing" or not, the song is only partially successful, anyway, highlighted by some great playing from Page and Jones but somewhat undone by Plant's cartoonish, none too subtle ad-libbing. “Thank You” closes out what used to be side one with a gorgeous ballad with wedding song worthy lyrics (an area that was becoming Plant's domain) that must have shocked some of the band’s critics, as Plant gives one of his finest vocal performances and Jones again plays beautifully on his Hammond organ. Then again, critics who continued to suggest that Zep lacked depth and subtlety surely missed this number; for one thing, the fact that Bonham could shine so brightly even on a slow ballad was a true testament to his greatness. Side 2 begins with the classic “Heartbreaker,” a bluesy riff rocker famous for Page's unaccompanied guitar solo; then the rest of the band joins in and Page adds another great guitar solo for good measure, while Plant chips in with a notable "evil woman" lyric. Like "We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions" and "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends," among others, on the radio (like on this album) "Heartbreaker" is always followed by the short, catchy, but overly repetitive “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid,” while “Ramble On” again shows the band’s ability to be both beautifully understated (the verses) and incredibly powerful (the choruses). This classic is also notable for being their first of several songs with Tolkien inspired lyrics, for Bonham's unique bongo-like drum sound (supposedly achieved by hitting a plastic garbage can), for Plant's vintage vocal performance, and for featuring another creative fadeout ending, as Plant powerfully fades in and out of the left and right speakers. Closing things out are “Moby Dick,” an impressive (if not all that it could’ve been) showcase for Bonham’s drumming whose best feature is actually Page’s great riffs, and “Bring It On Home,” which overcomes its slow Sonny Boy Williamson-inspired start to become another memorably amped up take on the blues. Many critics call this the first "heavy metal album," but that (as usual) undersells Zeppelin’s eclecticism, and II really isn’t any heavier than I, though it is another classic.
Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic ‘70) Rating: A
This record came as quite a surprise in 1970, and though it confounded both critics and fans alike at the time it holds up immaculately well today. After the success of Led Zeppelin II, Page and Plant took some time off, retreating to a remote cottage in the Wales countryside called Bron yr aur. Much of the album was written by the duo in that relaxed setting, and as a result the mellower music is less reliant on Page's heavy riffing and is more eclectic as Plant's hippie idealism flowered. Largely shedding their overblown reputation as blues copycats, many of these songs are acoustic-based, as the band displays a dazzling versatility and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of various musical forms. Not for the first time, “Immigrant Song” started the album off with a classic short rocker, one that's highlighted by Plant's memorable siren calls and Viking-inspired lyrics (Zep could transport you with their songs like few others). The exotic, atmospheric, dramatic, strings-flavored “Friends,” beautifully arranged by Jones and featuring impressive acoustic fingerpicking from Page, then showed the ever-increasing influence of Eastern music in Led Zeppelin’s songs, while “Celebration Day” and “Out On The Tiles” are simple but extremely effective straight ahead riff rockers that were more in line with what fans expected. One thing that's interesting to note is that Plant's voice on these songs (and "Gallows Pole") seems more shrill and high-pitched than in the past, which takes some getting used to, though it fits these songs. Anyway, this album’s centerpiece song comes in the form of “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” a slowly smoldering, at times explosive blues epic that’s highlighted by one of Page’s most expressive guitar solos, moody organ from Jones, and a wonderfully weary vocal from Plant. Actually, the whole band shines on what is arguably the band's greatest slow blues, though again lyrical similarities between this song and Moby Grape's "Never" led to more charges of thievery (though again I'd argue that the song's greatness had very little to do with Moby Grape). Elsewhere, “Gallows Pole” offers a brilliantly frenzied take on a traditional folk tune originally popularized by Leadbelly. This version is altogether different, as it is totally transformed by the alchemic magic of this superior foursome; the song features a wonderfully exciting buildup as various instruments (including banjo and mandolin) enter the fray for its exciting, jam-packed finish. Arguably even better are “Tangerine” and “That’s The Way,” a pair of lovely acoustic ballads which proved once and for all that Led Zeppelin were about far more than pure power.
The short former song had its genesis from back in Page's Yardbirds days and is perhaps most notable for Plant's multi-tracked vocals, while the long-ish latter track, the third in a row to feature pedal steel guitar, has no drums at all (it does feature mandolin, dulcimer, and tambourine) and features one of Plant's finest lyrics. Next up is “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” (apparently the band forgot the "r" in "Yr"), a playful showcase for Page’s vigorous acoustic guitar strumming that's representative of the album's rural, homespun charm, even if it is a minor track in the grand scheme of things (it’s also another track that apparently liberally borrowed from a Bert Jansch tune, albeit uncredited). Still, that one's a masterpiece compared to “Hats Off To Roy Harper,” which meekly ends the album with one of the band’s weakest efforts. Based on Bukka White's "Shake 'Em On Down" and named in tribute to the cult musician who they admired and befriended, the band should have instead closed the album with the great “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” which was released in the U.S. as a b-side to "Immigrant Song" at around the same time. Oh well, it's hard to complain too much about one duff track among ten, even though many did complain about the album at the time despite the fact that it was probably the band’s most consistent effort yet, though on the whole its peaks don’t rise quite as high as on its two predecessors. Still, time has only been kind to Led Zeppelin III, whose stature has steadily grown over the years. In fact, many of these songs were featured prominently during the Page and Plant reunion tour of 1994, and this often-overlooked gem is especially enjoyable because these songs aren’t played constantly on classic rock radio.
Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic ’71) Rating: A+
Also commonly known as The Runes, Four Symbols (each band member chose a symbol to represent himself for this album), Zofo or Zoso (Page's symbol depending on how you read it), or simply Untitled, this album was mysteriously released without any information about the band or its songs on the cover. In addition to giving the album certain mystique (Grant's promotional genius at work again), the concept behind this daring statement was that the music inside would speak for itself, and it did just that in spectacular fashion. Regarded by most people as Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece, this album represents the band’s commercial and artistic peak, as it’s simply one of the most perfectly realized albums of all time. Ironically, the album only hit #2 in America, whereas all the surrounding Zep albums topped the charts (blame Carole King's Tapestry for that), but it has gone on to become the band's biggest, steadiest seller, and even the critics couldn't deny that it was an incredibly powerful statement. It begins with two superb rockers that are perennial "classic rock" favorites: "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll." “Black Dog” is best known for Plant’s horny a capella vocals (inspired by Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well") that lead into memorable riff-based hard rock, led by Bonzo's swinging beats and highlighted by Page's soloing on a jammy outro. Even better is “Rock and Roll,” a high octane ‘50s styled rocker that features an unstoppable Bonzo beat, yet another great Page guitar solo, memorably nostalgic lyrics and catchy vocal hooks from Plant, and finally Bonham’s famous drum solo at its finish. Meanwhile, the mandolin-led, Eastern influenced “Battle Of Evermore” is a brilliantly atmospheric yet intense song that’s aided by Plant and guest Sandy Denny’s (formerly of Fairport Convention and the only guest singer on any Zeppelin album) hypnotic vocal performances and is also notable for more Lord Of The Rings inspired lyrics. And what can be said about their ultimate masterpiece, “Stairway To Heaven,” that hasn’t already been said? Simply put, there’s a reason that this epic song has often been called the greatest rock song of all time; it's won most of the greatest song countdowns I've ever heard, anyway. Starting with a beautiful, almost classical beginning (that’s clearly inspired by Spirit’s “Taurus”), the song builds and builds until it reaches its crashing crescendo and ultimate denouement. On a personal note, growing up my main rock n’ roll fantasy was to be Jimmy Page taking his amazing solo (which also often wins "greatest guitar solos" polls) at a sold out Madison Square Garden – to me that was the ultimate possible rock n’ roll moment. Returning to reality, suffice it to say that I’ve somehow never tired of the song despite its endless rotation on classic rock radio, not to mention mystical lyrics that can seem somewhat silly if not in the right mood. Continuing, the catchy and upbeat “Misty Mountain Hop” is a strong rocker with a particularly great performance from Bonham, and “Four Sticks,” though arguably the album's weakest song, is still well above average, primarily due to Page's good twisting riffs and Bonham's inventive four sticks percussion (hence the songs's title). Inspired by Joni Mitchell and featuring Jones on mandolin, “Going To California” follows with another beautifully understated acoustic folk song that's a total triumph, from its evocative music to Plant's wistful lyrics. Finishing with a flourish, “When The Levee Breaks,” based on a Memphis Minnie folk song originally done in the '20s, is simply a magnificent blues rock epic that’s most notable for Bonham’s unbelievable “hammer of the gods” drumming - when he unleashes his titanic drum fill (you know the one) it gives me the chills every single time. Bonham is often regarded as rock's loudest (and many would say, greatest) drummer, and this is his signature drum track, period. Of course, much credit there also belongs to the recording environment at Headley Grange, which seemed to bring out the best in the band; the much-sampled "Levee" drum track was famously recorded in a stairwell. Arguably the greatest album by arguably rock’s greatest band, Led Zeppelin IV is a cornerstone album of any serious rock music collection.
Houses Of The Holy (Atlantic ’73) Rating: A
Arguably Led Zeppelin’s most underrated album along with Led Zeppelin III - I myself was hugely disappointed when I first heard it as a kid, though I've grown to love most of it - Houses Of The Holy was another classic recording whose primary failing was merely that it was less groundbreaking and impressive overall than its two bookending masterpieces. Featuring a lighter, brighter, less blues-based sound on the whole, this was perhaps the band’s most pop friendly album aside from In Through The Out Door, as "Dancing Days” and “The Ocean” - the latter familiar to all fans of The Beastie Boys - were simple, upbeat mid-tempo rockers that showcased Zep at their catchiest. The former features memorable riffs and a great vocal from Plant, whose phrasing (such as the pause on "flower") is pitch-perfect, while the latter is quite infectious and notably features doo wop backing vocals, including an a capella section, and good metaphorical lyrics (comparing the band's massive concert crowds to the tides of the ocean) that also see Plant smitten with his three year old daughter. These simple but effective pop pleasures aside, Houses Of The Holy still contains some exhilaratingly experimental stuff. For example, “The Song Remains The Same” features a galloping rhythm and some beautifully shimmering, multi-tracked guitars from Page along with Plant’s weary vocals, which explode come chorus time. Even better is the epic “The Rain Song,” a beautifully lush, majestic ballad whose orchestral and ambient elements coalesce into an almost classical perfection - that is until it explodes into a splendor that is Zeppelin’s alone, highlighted by Plant’s powerhouse vocal. Another classic track is “Over The Hills And Far Away,” whose acoustic intro has long been a favorite testing ground for prospective guitar players - then the electric guitars and hippy lyrics kick in to what is simply a sublime (if not especially heavy) rock song. Plant's vocals are a definite highlight and Jones' Hammond-led outro is also notable, as is the song's West Coast vibe, also apparent on "The Song Remains The Same." Arguably the album's best song (along with "The Rain Song," in my opinion), the ominous “No Quarter” is simply indescribable, but what can be said about it is that this strange, menacingly atmospheric, utterly unique song (another epic at 7 minutes) is one of Zeppelin’s most magnificent creations. Again, this song has nothing to do with the blues, and again Zep can transport you like few others; as soon as I hear this song I'm instantly transported to the frozen tundra where the dogs of doom are howling more...trust me that'll make sense when you hear it. Led by Jones (always the band's secret weapon) on keyboards, its single best feature is arguably Plant’s dramatic, studio manipulated singing, as Page again shows his brilliance behind the control boards. Unfortunately, the album is marred by a couple of genre exercises that the band confessed were something of a joke in a misguided attempt to prove that they had a sense of humor. "D'yer Maker," oddly successful as the album's single (top 20 U.S.), has its virtues (Plant's singable "oh oh oh oh" vocals, Bonham's typically big beat and interesting drum fills, Page's serviceably melodic guitar solo) but is on the whole a rather lackluster pop reggae excursion, while “The Crunge,” a failed attempt at funk, provided further proof that joke songs soon get stale when not musically strong (which "The Crunge" certainly isn't, being one of Zep's weakest overall efforts). Still, despite some missteps, Houses Of The Holy, which arguably featured the most memorable of all their many memorable album covers, was another great album that saw Led Zeppelin grasp an even tighter stranglehold on the title of “world's greatest band.”
Physical Graffiti (Swan Song ’75) Rating: A+
By now Zeppelin was larger than life, being the biggest band in the world with their own record label (Swan Song) to boot. The band reveled in rock n’ roll excess to a dangerous degree, led by Bonzo’s gonzo antics and goaded along by their brilliant but bully-ish manager, the oversized Peter Grant. But even though a dark cloud always seemed to hover over the band (Jones came seriously close to leaving in '73), they always got it together when it came down to producing the musical goods. Befitting the band’s big stature, Physical Graffiti was their most ambitious outing. A double album (now a single cd) covering a vast amount of musical territory, Physical Graffiti contained an almost equal measure of new songs along with excellent songs left over from previous sessions. This was their White Album, their Electric Ladyland, so to speak, and as such no other Led Zeppelin album ranges as far or better showcases the depth of their talents. Only Led Zeppelin IV (or whatever you want to call it) can seriously rival Physical Graffiti for the title of “best Led Zeppelin album,” as the album features incredibly tight playing and offers up far more spontaneous, flat-out heavier music than Houses Of The Holy. Featuring some of Zep's best, most far out and expansive epics ("In My Time Of Dying," "Kashmir," "In The Light," "Ten Years Gone"), this album offers something for everyone, really, the only minor negatives being that perhaps it is a couple of tracks too long (I could easily live without "Night Flight" and "Black Country Woman") and there are times when Plant's voice sounds ragged and weathered as a result of a throat operation. The band immediately delivered the goods on the muscular “Custard Pie,” a funky stomper with sledghammer riffs that borrows lyrics from Bukka White's "Shake 'Em On Down" far more effectively than "Hats Off To Roy Harper" had, that's for sure (p.s. the song is also lyrically indebted to Sleepy John Estes’ "Drop Down Mama" and Blind Boy Fuller’s "I Want Some Of Your Pie"). “The Rover,” a churning, melodic riff rocker, is one of the band’s most underrated great songs, with great high-pitched vocals from Plant (a dead giveaway that this song preceded his throat operation), who also helps out on harmonica, and a classy guitar solo from Page. The band’s bruising, bluesy take on the traditional “In My Time Of Dying” (which had previously appeared on Bob Dylan’s first album) is an often-spectacular if perhaps slightly over-long 11-minute showcase for the band’s great group interplay and chemistry, as each member is in top form both collectively and individually. It's cute how they left in Bonzo's "that's got to be the one, hasn't it?" observation at the end of the song, too, and he must've known because this song is on the short list of his very best performances. Continuing, “Houses Of The Holy” is a swinging, upbeat rocker that’s fittingly of a piece with the band’s previous album, whose recording sessions this song unsurprisingly orginated from. “Trampled Under Foot,” an explosively funky workout (led by Bonham) on which Plant’s vocals are noticeably ragged, is another undeniable classic, and is the most notable of several songs on which Jones plays an electric clavinet (that being a big instrument at the time courtesy of Stevie Wonder). Page's wah wah guitar outbursts don't hurt either, nor does Plant's horny sex and cars lyrics (inspired by Robert Johnson’s "Terraplane Blues"); what's not to like? Still, even this powerhouse song, which crushes "The Crunge" in its attempt at funk, pales in comparison to the towering Eastern epic, “Kashmir.” Led by Jones’ brilliantly brooding orchestration, this atmospheric track slowly builds beautifully and majestically to an almost overwhelmingly powerful climax (on which Plant shines and Bonham is awe-inspiring), and no less an authority than Plant felt that the song captured the essence of everything that Led Zeppelin was all about. And that’s just the first cd! What used to be side 3 may very well be the albums best. “In The Light” is another criminally underrated Eastern epic, led by Jones’ eerie keyboard drones and its soaring “in the light” guitar/vocal climax. This track leads into the pretty acoustic instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur” (which unsurprisingly originated from Led Zeppelin III), which segues perfectly into the beautifully relaxed melody, shimmering psychedelicized guitar textures, and catchy chorus of the poppy “Down By The Seaside.” The monumental “Ten Years Gone” then takes over with another incredibly powerful Eastern-tinged epic that majestically showcases the band’s light-to-shade dynamics, led by Page, whose multi-tracked guitar is all over the place, and Plant, who delivers a wonderfully weary, deeply affecting vocal. On to side four, the funky power riffing of the sexually charged “The Wanton Song,” the relaxed '50-styled piano rocker “Boogie With Stu” (featuring Rolling Stones crony/sideman Ian Stewart and a melody based on Richie Valens' "Ooh! My Head"), and the pummeling, bluesy groupie "tribute" "Sick Again" are other highlights, though none scale as high as the previous major efforts and again I could live without a couple of tracks on what used to be side four. Still, throughout Physical Graffiti even when the band (infrequently) missteps they do so with giant strides, causing Plant to proudly proclaim to Mojo magazine: “if I’m going to blow my trumpet about anything I’ve been connected with, then it would have to be that album.”
Presence (Swan Song ’76) Rating: B+
This is the forgotten Led Zeppelin album, largely because on the whole it features less memorable material than any of their proper studio albums, but also because it was overshadowed by both their awesome prior album Physical Graffiti and the at times interesting but certainly less than awesome concert movie The Song Remains The Same released later that same year. Of course it went #1 in the U.S. and U.K. at the time, but Presence has never been the steady seller or radio friendly collection that previous albums were. What happened was that Plant had a serious car accident that necessitated the cancellation of a world tour, so the band decided to record an album instead. Perhaps due to Plant's physical condition, but also because inter-band tensions were developing (Page's drug habit and Bonzo's drinking binges didn't help), this album features a wearying pessimism to the lyrics that foreshadows years of bad luck. Hastily recorded over a mere three weeks, Presence was put together before they had gathered the customary allotment of first rate material. That said, this is still a damn fine album whose relatively straightforward and raw, spontaneously recorded songs are driven by hard-hitting, powerful performances. Indeed, what the album lacks in memorable hooks and diversity (Jones' keyboards are M.I.A., and the exotic Eastern sounds have also largely disappeared, as have acoustic guitars and mellow songs in general) is somewhat compensated by the fact that Led Zeppelin remains an amazing instrumental unit. In particular, Page still grabs many a great guitar part from his resourceful bag of tricks, though the band's reliance on simplified, overly repetitive song structures marks Presence as something of a placeholder release after the grandiosity of Physical Graffiti (the album against which Presence will always be unfavorably compared). Still, the album contains at least one all time classic in "Achilles Last Stand," one of their grandest epics, another terrific track in "Nobody's Fault But Mine," and several other enjoyable tracks as well. My favorites among these are “For Your Life,” whose best attribute is its bright, insistent riffs, “Hots On For Nowhere,” which features more strutting riffs, funky stuttered grooves, and a poppy “la la la” chorus, and "Tea For One," a slow blues epic (9:27) that clearly recalls "Since I've Been Loving You"; it’s not quite at that song’s level so I long underrated it, but it’s a damn good song just the same that’s predictably highlighted by Page’s guitar playing. Less impressive but still well played numbers include the comparatively short (3 minutes) "Royal Orleans," which at least rocks hard with its stop/start rhythms and funky staccato riffs, "Candy Store Rock," whose chugging rockabilly groove and repetitive "oh baby baby" lyric are at least better than "Hot Dog" (see the next review). As for the album's secondary highlight, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is an excellent, hard rocking song on which the band (especially Bonham, who is in first-rate form throughout the album) is firing on all cylinders, while Plant gives a compelling, stuttered vocal performance and is even a standout on harmonica (as on previous songs such as "Bring It On Home," "When The Levee Breaks," and "In My Time Of Dying"). Unfortunately, since Blind Willie Johnson had recorded the song in the '20s (though as per usual Zep's is significantly different), once again Zep were accused of plagiarism, which could've been avoided had they simply afforded Johnson a deserved co-writing credit. As for
the awesome “Achilles Last Stand," well let's just say that this 10-minute track alone is worth the price of admission, led by its galloping grooves, a particularly haunting Plant vocal (who sounds less rough voiced here than elsewhere), and several show stopping give and take segments between Page and Bonham. During these thrilling exchanges, Bonham’s titanic drum fills interlock with Page’s wailing guitar parts, seizing several moments of tension that build to the bursting point.
In Through The Out Door (Swan Song ‘79) Rating: A-
The three year lapse between releases was caused in large part because Robert Plant received the call that no father should ever get: his young son Karac had died suddenly from a respiratory infection while he was away on tour.
Released after Plant had taken the required time to regroup, In Through The Out Door was a significant departure from anything that had come before it. More than any other Zeppelin album this one belongs to John Paul Jones, who co-wrote all but one song here (the worst one), and whose synthesizer/piano parts are all over the place (if Presence could've used more keyboards and mellower songs for variety's sake, this album could've used less). Part of the reason for this was that Page was hooked on heroin and not at his best, so Jones stepped up to fill that void. The album begins with the eerie effects and powerful guitar swirls of “In The Evening,” the album's best song which brings back the droning Eastern mysticism (Page breaking out his violin bow again) of past triumphs and contains a cocksure, strutting Plant vocal that confidently told the punk pretenders - who had cropped up in the band’s absence and who were supposed to render older rockers such as Led Zeppelin irrelevant - who was still boss. This fact was reinforced when not only this album went straight to #1, but when the band's entire back catalog was simultaneously in the U.S. top 200, such was the renewed interest in Zep after the long layoff. Anyway, “South Bound Suarez” is an upbeat New Orleans flavored piano rocker that's highlighted by Page’s great guitar solo and some sunny “sha la la” harmonies; this song always makes me think of the album cover, another artistic triumph in itself. Continuing, the somewhat overrated “Fool In The Rain” presented more catchy piano pop while also creatively making use of the studio. I most enjoy the mid-section when Bonham's successfully tries his hand at a samba beat, but Page's guitar solo lacks its customary juice, and on the whole it’s a good song (with excellent lyrics) but one that’s not a personal favorite of mine. Unfortunately, things get much worse on “Hot Dog,” an unsatisfyingly slight Elvis-styled ‘50s country rocker (or was this simply another unsuccessful joke?). Fortunately, the album then upswings on the 10+ minute multi-sectioned epic “Carouselambra,” a very good song whose ambitious all over the place strengths have grown on me over time despite its over-length. Dominated by its bright synthesizer melody (which hasn't aged all that well), my favorite part is the middle of the song when it slows down and gets moodier and mellower. “All Of My Love,” the album's best known song, is another keyboard dominated track, this one a pretty if somewhat schmaltzy love song that registers due to the band’s beautifully understated, almost classical playing and Plant’s heartfelt vocals (about Karac), while “I’m Gonna Crawl” closes the album with what I'd call an "ambient blues" that again features modern synthesizers most prominently. More importantly, the song has a good melody, an extremely strong Plant vocal, and an expressive Page guitar solo that’s probably his most impressive on the album. On the whole, despite a certain lack of excitement the band's poppiest album was a largely enjoyable affair, one that saw the veteran band keeping pace with the snarling young punk upstarts (dwindling in numbers by 1979) by, ironically enough, toning things down. Yet Zep’s slicker new sound was notably less powerful than on previous albums, and though the band was still relevant they were no longer revelatory. Ironically, John Bonham’s death by asphyxiation and Led Zeppelin’s subsequent breakup prevented the band from hanging around past their prime, leaving behind a largely untarnished musical legacy.
Coda (Swan Song '82, '15) Original Rating: B
Consisting of unreleased leftovers put out to fulfill contract obligations after the band’s breakup, Coda should be purchased only after obtaining all of the band’s other original albums. That said, these songs aren't half bad for a bunch of rejects, though none of them would qualify for my Led Zeppelin playlist. Considering that the album barely passes the 33-minute mark and consists of a mere eight songs, it would also be nice to see the four previously unavailable songs from the two box sets tacked on to a future reissue, which would give the band’s fans more bang for their buck while also boosting this album’s stock considerably. However, as for what’s already here, “We’re Gonna Groove” (recorded in 1969) does indeed have an impressively loud, bustling groove, "Poor Tom" is a strange Led Zeppelin III-era folk rocker that I'd probably dismiss if Bonham (at his low-key best) didn't make it interesting, and "I Can't Quit You Baby," either a live recording or a soundcheck recording from 1969 (accounts vary), is in my opinion superior to the studio version since it's less laid back and Page's guitar is raw and inspired. "Walter's Walk," recorded for Houses Of The Holy, again harks back to '50s rock n' roll but is pretty third rate (particularly Plant's annoying vocals), while "Ozone Baby," one of three tracks recorded for In Through The Out Door but held back for a prospective, never released EP, has melodic guitars and powerful mid-tempo rhythms but a rather lame chorus. More '50s-styled rock n' roll is then delivered on "Darlene," an improved effort whose funky piano boogie is simple but catchy fun even if it's not exactly in my favorite Zep style. Still, it would've fit in well on In Through The Out Door, and the heavy, hard charging "Wearing and Tearing," ostensibly the band's answer to punk (even if it's 5+ minute running time is decidedly unpunk) and the best song here, would've provided some needed toughness to that album. On the whole, though none of the material here is first rate, there are a fair amount of enjoyable second raters, all of which are certainly well played. Plus, it’s good to hear Bonham pound away one last time; I quite like his strange showcase tune “Bonzo’s Montreux,” for example, and though Coda isn’t an essential Led Zeppelin release, fans who already love this great band will likely be glad that they own it – I know that I am. P.S. The band somewhat rectified my earlier complaint by adding the four previously unreleased songs (excluding the “Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreaux” remix) from the box sets to the version of Coda included on The Complete Studio Recordings box set. P.P.S. In 2015, as part of the band’s entire catalog remastering campaign came the Deluxe Edition of Coda. This 3-CD set was something of a mixed bag, as the first disc contained the original album, and the second two discs contained 15 additional tracks, including some alternate mixes, early works-in-progess curiosities, and instrumental-only versions. Honestly, most of theses new tracks aren’t songs I’m going to return to often (if at all), but there are a couple of highly worthwhile new songs in “Sugar Mama” and the “St. Tristan’s Sword” instrumental. We also get “Baby Come On Home,” “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do,” and “Travelling Riverside Blues” again, but the band chose not to include “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” and the “Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreaux” remix, making this set something of a missed opportunity as all of the band’s previously released non-album songs should’ve been included.
Led Zeppelin (Box Set) (Atlantic ‘90) Rating: A
At the time of its release this four-cd box set was a great investment, since its sound quality blew away the original album recordings. However, those original albums have since been remastered to equal the superlative sound found on this 4 cd box set. Since Led Zeppelin were consummate album artists whose studio albums were meticulously thought through affairs - from the artwork down to the song sequencing - listening to the original classics is the best way to get to know the group. Quite frankly, hearing “Heartbreaker” end and not jump right into “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid” was jarring to me the first time I heard it, and likewise “Black Dog” was meant to be followed by “Rock and Roll” (to cite but two obvious examples). However, if you already know the original albums by heart, the new sequencing, which was programmed by Page himself, might present an enjoyable change of pace; my personal favorite is disc three which loads up on the epics. Furthermore, the songs chosen for this box set can’t be argued with too much, except for a few questionable omissions such as “Good Times Bad Times,” "How Many More Times," "That's The Way," and "The Rover." Lastly, it has the great b-side “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do,” which was previously unavailable elsewhere (Jones on mandolin, Plant and Bonham in particularly vintage form, and one of those great fadeout endings I love so much; what's not to like?), along with an excellent, previously unreleased version of Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues” (possibly my favorite straight blues by Zep, this song features some of the best slide playing you'll ever hear), a largely enjoyable if overly elongated 8-minute live BBC performance of “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” (a showcase for Page's acoustic guitar virtuosity), and “Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreaux,” a remix of two prior recordings showcasing John Bonham. This box set renewed interest in the band and brought about a critical reassessment of their virtues. It didn’t hurt the band’s stock any that the past several years had seen an onslaught of imitators seeking to replicate their sound but failing completely in capturing their magic.
Box Set II (Atlantic ’93) Rating: B+ The rest of the best, though most of the songs here are second stringers compared to the first volume. Still, there’s some first rate stuff here (such as "Good Times Bad Times," etc.), and if you already have the first box set and don’t feel like shelling out the cash for their original studio albums, then this is a good investment. Also, for completeists there's a previously unreleased track in "Baby Come On Home," a good r&b-based ballad (recorded during the sessions for their first album and sharing a similar vibe to "Your Time Is Gonna Come") on which Jones' Hammond organ hits the spot and Plant also registers an impressive performance.
BBC Sessions (Atlantic ’97) Rating: A-
Capturing one of the last performances of a very long tour, the band’s only previous official live release, The Song Remains The Same (which accompanied the much-criticized movie of the same name) had its moments (“No Quarter,” “Stairway To Heaven,” etc.) but too often saw an exhausted band at less than their best. Now that these much bootlegged BBC Sessions have finally been released, any lingering doubts about the band’s live prowess have officially been obliterated. Disc one features three BBC sessions from 1969, and these raw performances focus primarily on Led Zeppelin the blues band - albeit the heaviest damn blues band on the planet. Disc two, which I prefer, comes from a single show recorded live at London's Paris Cinema studios (which the BBC used regularly to showcase new and current bands at the time) on April 1, 1971, and this disc is notable for some spectacular performances (such as “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and an electrified “Thank You”), and for previewing three songs (“Stairway To Heaven,” “Black Dog,” “Going To California”) from the band’s not yet released fourth album. BBC Sessions shows off Zep’s improvisational essence, and it also features some notable covers, including Sleepy John Estes’ “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair,” whose main riffs would soon morph into “Moby Dick” (uncredited, of course). The band also tackles Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” and interrupts “Whole Lotta Love” with an oldies medley containing songs such as John Lee Hooker's “Boogie Chillun’” and Arthur Crudup's “That’s Alright Mama.” Most of these songs come from the first two Led Zeppelin albums, and the performances are uniformly excellent and incredibly powerful, including “Travelling Riverside Blues” again (the same brilliant version as on the box set). On the downside, Plant tends to go over the top at times with his histrionics, and the inclusion of multiple versions of several songs (including three takes of “Communication Breakdown” on disc one) amounts to overkill. Granted, there’s some credence to the liner notes’ claim that "the band could play the same song ten nights in a row and come up with ten different versions", and the two versions of “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love” don’t have a hell of a lot in common with each other (and at least they’re on separate discs), but a better idea would’ve been to pick the best versions of each song, though few will find fault with the performances themselves.
How The West Was Won (Atlantic ’03) Rating: A
Jimmy Page: "When I was searching though the archives for visual and audio material for the Led Zeppelin DVD I re-discovered these 1972 performances from the 25th June, L.A. Forum and 27th June, Long Beach Arena. This is Led Zeppelin at its best and an illustration of How The West Was Won." As if the West had so much as a fighting chance, and not more really needs to be said beyond that this is Led Zeppelin at its best. OK, I'll add that this 3-cd set is even better than BBC Sessions (there's no song duplication, for starters), and that I'd highly recommend also splurging for the DVD, which is being released simultaneously and which contains completely different yet equally spectacular performances. Sure, some of these songs ("Dazed and Confused", 25:25; "Moby Dick", 19:20; "Whole Lotta Love", 23:03) go on seemingly forever, but that's what Led Zeppelin did live. Besides, this "Dazed and Confused" demonstrates that Page was the master of the violin-bowed guitar, and when they ad-lib into "The Crunge" even that song sounds good. "Whole Lotta Love" again incorporates an oldies medley a la BBC Sessions, and "Moby Dick" is about as entertaining as any 19-minute drum solo can be. Truth is, above all else it is Bonham who shines brightest on How The West Was Won, though all are in exemplary form on other extended workouts such as "Heartbreaker" and "Bring It On Home." Elsewhere, acoustic nuggets like "Going To California" and "That's The Way" positively shimmer, concise performances such as "Immigrant Song," "Dancing Days," "Rock and Roll," and "The Ocean" show the band tight and taut, and "Since I've Been Loving You" and "Stairway To Heaven" (sequenced back to back) are appropriately epic. Granted, some of this material will likely seem familiar to those well versed with "unofficial" releases (and perhaps even to some who aren't), but (as previously stated) rock n' roll at its best never got any better than Led Zeppelin, especially Led Zeppelin live, and this point is proven time and time again on How The West Was Won. P.S. As for the DVD, it's ideal because it covers their whole career from 1969 to 1979. The 1979 Knebworth show is eye opening because even though Page looked awful (his heroin low point) and Bonham was much heavier than he'd been, they still sounded good, proving that they were far from a spent force. My only complaint is the omission of "Ten Years Gone" from the Knebworth set since that clip gets played on VH1 Classic and had even appeared on MTV in the 1980s.