one man’s guide to most of one band’s catalog
Collected below are the seventy-eight brief essays originally posted to the Ninety-Six To Ninety-Eight St. Mark’s project beginning in the summer of 2017 and concluding in the fall of 2019. Two and a half years is a long time to spend on anything, let alone thinking piecemeal about a band you’ve spent most of your life listening to, and along the way it was hard not to notice a few things. Like:
- If you think “this rules” is an annoying phrase the 20th time you see it, just wait until the 21st.
- The things you notice when you’re 17 are not always the same things you notice when you’re 37.
- But then again, sometimes they are.
Pretensions and broader commentary aside, suffice to say that what began as a lark ended as almost a relief, as no band’s catalog should ever bear this kind of scrutiny by anyone, ever, anywhere, for any reason, save for the people who were actually there. Presented here in album and track sequence, this is the end result of arguably too much thinking, definitely too much writing, the correct amount of listening, and all kinds of other similarly pretentious over-examination one might otherwise never think possible, to say nothing of what is justifiable. Let this be proof once and for all that the music you love will always be there, whether you need it to or not.
Chicago, IL / Nashville, TN / Charlotte, NC / Philadelphia, PA
July 2017 to October 2019
“Good Times Bad Times”
You usually make the case for any band by starting at the beginning or starting at the top, or in the case of this one you can do both at once; as rock opening salvos and statements of purpose go, you might as well put this one atop Olympus, smiling down on its children “More Than A Feeling,” “Runnin’ With The Devil,” and “Welcome To The Jungle.”
The verse riff that sounds like it starts dunna-dundun but actually goes dunnadunnadunna; the not one but the two unnecessarily killer bass breakdowns; the drums delivering twice the kick with half the gear. Tricks like this are why Jimmy Page is the best rock guitarist. Percussive assaults like this are why John Bonham was the best rock drummer. Low-end savvy like this is why John Paul Jones is the best rock bassist. Songs like this are why Led Zeppelin rules. [A]
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
That change, man. Two songs in and they were already staking their claim to minor-key death folk. “Good Times Bad Times” may have been the perfect opening salvo but this could just as easily be called the equally perfect thesis statement. Or something. [B+]
“You Shook Me”
A confession: despite their excellence at the form and their near-inarguable title as kings of said form as it relates to the subsequent two to five generations of hard rock that followed, the blues numbers are not my favorite manifestation of this band. Yes, they really loved doing them and yes, if you are into the Jam Led Zeppelin then Blues Led Zeppelin is obviously the place to get excited. Noodling, call-and-response, predictable song structures: you can keep them.
But even I cannot deny that opening lick, nor can you, nor can anyone else. Hot damn. [C+]
“Dazed And Confused”
Hello. Are you high? If yes, put on this song, perhaps one of the 20-plus-minute extended live psychotropic space/time asynchronous telephony jam versions where you could swear the band—let alone anyone listening to them—doesn’t even remember, let alone know, let alone care what song they were even playing at the time, though rest assured the studio version is just as excellent even without the bolted-on segues and chemical assistance.
If no: do you wish to become high? If so, please see the previous paragraph. [A-]
“Your Time Is Gonna Come”
You can’t accurately describe much from the first album as being “out of place,” considering how at the time the first album was the only place. But listen to that winding organ married to that big, wide-open folk slide, and ask yourself where any of it resurfaced again on the neighboring tracks. They didn’t, of course, but having delivered those here with such authority the band could get away with reaching into its bag of tricks right out of the gate. Bonham may have laid off this one, and lyrically there’s not much here worth exploring, and yet these gaps between the aural and visceral reveal yet another illusion the band had mastered: that there could be so much, even when there was so clearly so little. [B]
“Black Mountain Side”
They could be adventurous. Sure.
Gritty, sleazy, raunchy. Absolutely.
Tasteful, even beautiful. Of course.
But did you know Led Zeppelin could be pretentious, too? That I did not.
This isn’t one of their more notable tunes, or even one of their more memorable tunes, or even the best unaccompanied-Jimmy-Page-alternate-tuning track they ever recorded. In the grand scheme of guitar instrumentals, it’s not bad; in the even grander scheme of acoustic Eastern-influenced bridges from hippie blues numbers to belligerent rock numbers, it’s the best. [B-]
It’s good that this was the B-side to this album’s absolute killer of a lead single, because not only was the first side going to lay waste to the earth but then, having left total annihilation in their wake, they could point to this and prove to what doubters existed (and those doubters were many) that the band had plenty of other cards left to play. Maybe it’s not the most representative, or the most dynamic, or even the most complex of hard rock numbers, but to want any of those from this band (and at this stage) misses the point: Led Zeppelin was not here to release palatable singles. Led Zeppelin was here to rule. [A-]
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”
It’s good that Jimmy Page had such a solid vision for this band so early on because, mostly enjoyable lark that it may be, it’s for the best the blues jams were only part of the sound rather than the point of it. Make no mistake: John Paul Jones and John Bonham absolutely shine here in ways which I don’t think anyone would expect of a band so nascent, letting Page and Plant wail freely in such a space as only the greatest rhythm section of all time can create. But blues tricks only go so far, and I’m pretty sure Page messes up at the 3:30 mark anyway. [B-]
“How Many More Times”
Some—me, for example—heard that opening bass line and, having by now reached the end of that first album, kind of knew what to expect, or at least the broad contours of whatever was on its way. The singer would wail something bluesy about how his woman did him wrong; the drummer was going to hold down the groove but never hesitate to hit just a little too hard; the bass, more than anything else, was going to lead where the guitar would instead wander off towards someplace a little more far out, man. You could understand the toolkit even as the blueprints called for something previously unimaginable.
Others—my friend Kyle, for example—heard that opening bass line, remarked out loud not in words but in clumsy 13-year-old-boy singalong, “Help me Rhonda, help-help me Rhonda,” effectively forcing the other 13-year-old boy they were playing Street Fighter II against to spend the rest of their (read: my) life unable to unhear that. Thanks for nothing, Kyle. [B]
“Whole Lotta Love”
Another well-kept secret, at least among the Zeppelin acolytes such as the person writing this: this song isn’t that great, at least as songs themselves are concerned. Folks will point to the main riff as some masterwork of hard rock musicianship but even the most casual fan could point to at least a half-dozen better in this band’s catalog; Jones didn’t have too much to work with here and wisely kept things simple; Bonham rules, but Bonham always rules; the less said about Plant’s lyrics the better.
But the real alchemy is in everything that’s not the song but that song’s components. Bonham’s fills. The thundering chords closing the first interlude. Bonham’s endless catalog of fills. Page’s wise deployment of echo and reverse echo. Bonham’s infinite recipes for fills. Did I mention the fills? They scrapped a song in favor of a skeleton, and no wonder this one always boasted live running times well into the double digits. They also did better elsewhere, and in hindsight it’s easy to call this song overrated. But it’s also easy to understand why it deserves whatever hype it gets. [B+]
“What Is And What Should Never Be”
Given a lot of the other genre detours this band ever took—funk, reggae, prog, synth-pop, punk, country, hippie folk, proto-metal—and those detours’ respectively varied degrees of success, and considering the pedigrees of the band’s two musical principals (and Bonham’s by-now obvious rhythmic adaptability), and considering above all just how well this particular experiment actually worked, it’s surprising the band never really revisited the brand of psychedelic jazz put so masterfully on display here. Other elements resurfaced, sure: Jones throwing down basslines that walked for miles; Page’s slide sections screaming from (and back into) the great beyond; Plant’s vocals willing those clumsily endearing lyrics into nothing short (to the converted, anyway) of poetry. But the concept of “Led Zeppelin jazz numbers” ultimately never saw much in the way of subsequent life and this one, for whatever reason, would have to suffice. Not bad for a one-time thing. [A-]
“The Lemon Song”
Is the metaphor stupid? Yes.
Is “switch to double-time and solo some more” the laziest possible songwriting choice? Yes.
Is “let’s do that double-time part again” the second-laziest possible songwriting choice? Yes.
Is this track on the whole maybe a bit too close to not only emulating but mimicking what its originators were doing? Yes.
Did anyone really ever turn to double entendre blues jams for intellectual stimulation? No, because do the breakdowns rule? Yes. Yes they do. [A-]
With rare exception, any love song by a band of this nature as it approached this kind of stature is going to have a few things true of it:
- Mostly predictable chord progressions
- Immaculate production
- Surprisingly tasteful arrangement when compared to their usual output
- (Probably) an acoustic guitar solo
- Not-great lyrics that arguably crib from their contemporaries
And here Zeppelin hits each of those beats, which was fine. Plant was 20 while Jones, the elder statesman of the band, was 25, and what do kids that age know about anything anyway? Nothing, that’s what. [B+]
“Heartbreaker” / “Loving Loving Maid”
I don’t care what the track listing says. I don’t care what the album art says. I don’t care what their own boxed sets, live releases, or compilations say. I don’t care what the mastering says, or the concert history that followed, or what any countdown or cover version or glowing tribute choosing one half over the other has to say about it. I don’t care what even Jimmy Page had to say about it: this is one song. Without the latter, the former is just another sleazy blues riff driven into the ground in service to some jam about some nameless woman; without the former, the latter is just another rock-by-numbers track (also about some nameless woman) filling out the back half of a young band’s album. Taken together—and only when taken together—the two are made nothing short of their excellent whole, six ebbing parts and seven flowing minutes for and into the ages. This may not be how they meant it, but this is how it is. End of discussion. [B / B- / A]
This is the best Led Zeppelin song, even if not necessarily best Led Zeppelin song. The hallmarks are all there—the multi-stylistic arrangement, the oddball flourishes, dorky yet simultaneously pretentious Lord Of The Rings references, and so on—but in “Ramble On” the band actually bottled the whole experience together in a way they had yet to prior and would arguably never do in the years to come. There were bigger amplifications of elements laid down here, but it’s hard to argue seriously that such harmonious balance was really even broached again.
Note that echo on Plant’s wail, now starting to complement the authority with which the young singer was still learning to wield it. Note Bonham finding a perfect percussion track (allegedly) atop a plastic waste basket. Note the country jangle in Page’s electric lines. Note that perhaps no greater contribution to rock music exists than Jones’ walking bass line. Note the magnificent simplicity of everything involved and the way it all creates such a flawless journey from wistful acoustic opening to four-on-the-floor rock-n-roll closer.
If you were a 12-year-old boy just getting into this band, this is exactly what you needed to hear to know this band was for you. If you are a 40-year-old man who never stopped liking them, this is all the proof you ever needed that your fandom was the right decision. Led Zeppelin was not always perfect, nor did they always make the right choices, but here in the confines of these four and a half minutes they were, and they did. [A+]
The best thing about this—and I mean the absolute best thing, really—is not the brute force of Bonham’s drum attack, nor the beautiful simplicity of the arrangement, nor the idiotic perfection of the song structure, nor the cowbell rendered somehow appropriate, nor the expert-level Blues 101 of its bassline, nor the fact that largely unaccompanied percussion has been rendered somehow listenable, but that for these four (or nine) (or eleven) (or nineteen) (or twenty-nine[!]) minutes, one can be convined that the music really is all there ought to be.
Forget about how much drum solo you think you want; ask yourself how much drum solo you really need, man. [B]
“Bring It On Home”
First things first: it’s a cover, it was always a cover, credit was always due where credit was always due, and “tribute” is not and never was the right word.
There exists a school of thought that says II is the best Led Zeppelin album, and that’s a defensible stance. The songs are supreme to the point of near-flawlessness, but if you really think about it Zeppelin as an “album band” largely falls flat if you think of an album as having some broader thematic statements beyond “we rock” and “we rule,” both of which Zeppelin did and said. But with II in general, and this track in particular, there was a bit more of an album dynamic to be found, even if only in the form of the big opener and cards-on-the-table closer. Does the album open with a monster riff? Of course it does. Does it end on a perfectly-resolved blues progression? Of course it does that, too. [A-]
They were not a heavy metal band and, all things considered, this isn’t—musically, anyway—much in the way of a heavy metal song, its reliance on attack over impact making it more a contemporary of, say “Stone Cold Crazy” than of anything on the first Black Sabbath album*.
(*) The band Black Sabbath opened its debut album Black Sabbath with the song “Black Sabbath.” This fact deserves more love than it gets.
Yes, its lyrics talked about Vikings and yes, the song hits harder than all hell and yes, it’s really a juvenile metaphor about how Led Zeppelin was coming to your town to kick your ass, man, and yes, it gave countless followers a playbook to follow should they need to make similar statements and issue similar warnings. But none of those things—nor the sum of those things—can qualify this as heavy metal, nor should they. Later songs in their catalog certainly came closer and hewed more closely to what metal was and still to this day is about, but Led Zeppelin didn’t need to be metal. Led Zeppelin didn’t even want to be metal. Led Zeppelin rocked, and for Led Zeppelin that was enough. [B+]
It was only their third album, and this only that collection’s second song, but with III in general and “Friends” in particular Led Zeppelin made perhaps the first significant turn away from what they did and towards what they were. Yes, they had rocked; had dabbled in proto-metal; had played blues ranging from superb to sleazy (and often both); had dipped into jazz and psychedelics and folk and whatever else made sense at the time. But here we got the first notion that the full Zeppelin recipe required a bit of drama to fully work. Is this their best song? No, not even close, but that’s not the point.
The point is to let the open guitars sustain a bit longer.
The point is to let the tunings work for the instrument rather than the other way around.
The point is to weaponize tempo.
The point is to forget about the lyrics and focus on the vocals. The point is to know how to find rhythm beyond the drum kit. The point is to be unafraid of trading perfection for excellence, and being especially unafraid of owning your mistakes if you have to. You never what kind of doors they’re going to open.
“Don’t just be a band,” a music writer of a certain hyperbole-prone dispostion might say. “Be Led Zeppelin.” Here, for the first time, they did just that. [B+]
Far be it from me to introduce scorching-hot takes into an otherwise innocuous exercise in personal essay masquerading as music criticism, but let this be added to the permanent record, or whatever temporal touchstone this all ultimately ends up a part of, despite the internet being surprisingly void of either the observation or any related commentary: the guitar solo section as led by Zakk Wylde on Ozzy Osbourne’s “I Don’t Want To Change The World” (track two on the Ozzman’s 1991 masterpiece No More Tears) is a direct and overt homage to Jimmy Page’s excellent guitar work all over “Celebration Day.” This is irrefutable, so long as you know what you’re listening for—and if you’re the kind of person who listens to both Ozzy solo albums and Led Zeppelin, you know exactly what you’re listening for. [A-]
“Since I’ve Been Loving You”
And while we’re at it, let’s set another thing straight: Led Zeppelin was not a blues band, either.
Could play blues? Yes, and unquestionably.
Championed the blues? In their own way, sure.
Created a masterful example or two of how to be a rock band playing the blues? Undoubtedly.
But in the end, you gotta get it how live it, and no one who ever aspired to an airplane with their name on it could ever really occupy or even understand that world, or at least not for very long. Seven and a half, eight minutes tops. [B+]
“Out On The Tiles”
Part of what made Led Zeppelin a better and easier choice of favorite band than, say, literally any other rock band ever, was its repeated and unique adventures away from its bread and butter. If you latched on to Rush, you liked prog and whatever baggage came with that; if you cast your lot with Black Sabbath, you liked metal for better or worse; if you liked Zeppelin, your by-proxy commitments amounted to absolutely nothing*. Zeppelin was Zeppelin and you could do with that as much or as little as you cared to.
(*) Note: the author enjoys a lot of prog, loves metal and Black Sabbath, and with time even became quite fond of a few Rush songs.
With “Out On The Tiles,” we hear the band finding a balance equal parts delicate and fascinating—a rollicking nexus of swagger, swing, and straight-up hard rock—that they were never really able, willing, or compelled to strike any time afterwards, though the elements would resurface (as they so often did): the ambient studio slop opening “Black Country Woman,” the endless coda informing most of Physical Graffiti and beyond, even the boogie-riff-turned-heavy-groove-sludge shaping “Black Dog” (right down to this track’s opening riff becoming the latter’s de facto onstage intro. That “Out On The Tiles” by itself was somewhat of a concert rarity shouldn’t be a surprise, as those stutter-stops throughout and Plant’s absolute nailing of the opening “walk” have got to be difficult to recreate, to say the least. Which is not to say plenty of others haven’t made valiant efforts, but 1) few [if any] doing it live ever could drop that kick just right and 2) even with all the studio magic in the world at their disposal, no one sings like Robert Plant. No one.)
Led Zeppelin III is often referred to as the band’s acoustic hippie folk album, but this is an incomplete way of talking about it. Yes, the gentler, strummier songs were more numerous than before but when this album rocked (which for the most part it still did), it hit as hard as anything else in the catalog. It’s hard to call anything released by one of the most famous musical entities in the history of the world and sold 8 million copies “misunderstood” with a straight face, but the fact remains that, its beligerent opener aside, the band wasn’t doing anything different here, save for all those times they were doing something that was nothing but different. Or something. [A-]
Here’s a fun exercise: look up any subsequent version of this number—Neil Young, Willie Watson, whoever—and note to yourself how quickly you think to yourself not a bad Zeppelin cover, followed up with wait, is it still one if the Zeppelin one was already a cover itself?
“Crossroads.” “All Along The Watchtower.” “Hallelujah.” “Torn.” This happens a lot, and by a lot of different means: the re-arrangement of an original becomes the standard, or a cover of a cover outlives the source material, or an update of a traditional song gains a life of its own. Zeppelin here was digging deep in its own way, building on an earlier recording’s arrangement and Plant adding his own Plant-y ending to the lyrics, but it’s a very fine line these fellows chose to walk on this one. Even the band even referred to it as an already-existent number; time and fame made it into a Led Zeppelin song. [A-]
When you think of this song, it just seems longer than three minutes, you know? Like that strummed 12-string part goes on forever, or those nice electric parts in the background disappear and return into perpetuity, or there’s more than six lines of verse lyrics for Plant to so excellently harmonize. The quiet parts should keep building, and the loud parts should roar a bit more than they do. But they don’t, and that’s probably for the best. [B+]
“That’s The Way”
It’s a mistake to call Led Zeppelin a hippie band, though at times they certainly invited the label. This song is one of those times.
Acoustics and mandolins and sonically superficial what-have-you aside, it’s interesting to note the band turning (yet) another comment on what they wanted their existence to mean to the people on the receiving end of it into a subtle bit of honest sympathy for outsider and outcast alike. That Page and Jones wisely chose not to overpower the arrangement (tempting though it may have been) is just another credit to the power of the working dynamic they had found, as in lesser hands one can only imagine what would become of this number’s handful of chords and surprisingly long coda section. Play what you must; hear what you will; love thy neighbor, man. [B+]
The legends came later, and it was still a year or two before the shadow this band cast would be fully realized, so it’s instructive to hear a song like this—buried at the back half of an album like this—where Plant, either laughing his ass off or else just out of his ideas, finds himself singing a song about his dog while John Bonham holds down the fort with a pair of spoons. Inspiration, I suppose, is wherever you find it. Hell yeah. [B]
“Hats Off To (Roy) Harper”
For anyone who ever dug as deeply into the band’s operational history as they might have its catalog, allow me to present this as one of the first real litmus tests of what Led Zeppelin was also really all about. Is this:
- an homage?
- a cover?
- a medley of reinterpreted traditional numbers?
- a con by the record label to avoid paying out royalties to anyone besides Led Zeppelin?
- totally awesome?
- entirely frivolous?
- required listening?
No. No, it’s not any of those things. It’s all of them. [B+]
Someone writing a song for the sole purpose of actively and savagely parodying Led Zeppelin could not write a better parody of a Led Zeppelin song than this. Every criticism anyone ever of the band is right here in big bold letters, from the idiotic lyrics to the juvenile inspiration to the casual objectification and not-so-subtle misogyny to the totally pointless closing section that only goes on too long as long as it goes on at all. This is the sound of a band at the height of its powers rubbing its audience’s faces in it. Rock never sounded so crass; crassness never rocked so hard.
And yet, that riff. That call-and-response. Those drums. God damn. [A-]
“Rock And Roll”
The song “Rock And Roll” by Led Zeppelin is a rock and roll song by Led Zeppelin. Let’s not overthink this. [A]
“The Battle Of Evermore”
This one always felt much like a longer song than it actually is, you know? Like there is no way a fantasy epic of a track could dare be condensed to a scant (checks track details) . . . well, okay six minutes is still a bit much. Anyway.
There’s probably some hot takes just waiting to set this one alight, maybe something about how Sandy Denny had a better Plant voice than Plant, or how Alison Krauss or the Wilson sisters were the better voices for this number, or how even for a band so prone to fits of high-fantasy nerdiness this was still a bit much—perhaps an arguably comparable excess to the damn plane with the band’s name on it—but at the end of the day, the people issuing such things are exactly who fast-forward buttons were invented for. [B-]
“Stairway To Heaven”
Call this song what they must and ascribe to it what magical powers they may, what it truly does best is cast a shadow over things: the band, of course, but the album too. The catalog. The genre. What other songs and artists it may have (not impossibly) stripped for parts. Over fledgling guitarists. Rock singers. Rock bands befriending hippies. Discussions around honorifics beginning with “best” or “most.” Discussions around occult imagery in rock music. Discussions about the worthiness of cover versions, and discussions about the worthiness of those covers’ performers. Recorder melodies. The Am-F-G progression’s supreme worth and infinite utility. The greatest song in the world. Tributes. Multi-part songs that are or are not epics and what defines which as which. Every guitar solo known or rumored to have been tracked for this song. Every guitar solo ever. The merit and necessity of a “centerpiece” song in the context of a truly classic album. The merit and necessity of “centerpiece” songs in the context of a truly great album. Classic versus great. Tarot cards. What constitutes a fair deal with the devil. Whether the “words [with] two meanings” are those making up the lyrics of this very song. Whether words only sometimes have two meanings. But it rocks. Let it roll. [B+]
“Misty Mountain Hop”
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: they were not mystics, nor were they gods, nor were they wizards (well, okay, maybe they were at least part wizards). At root, Led Zeppelin were hippies. Play what you love; live how you live; do what you do, and get the hell out of anyone else’s way when they’re doing the same. Be nice. Leave people alone. Play heavy or play light but just, like, play, man.
Call this track and the incarnation of the band playing it what we must (Pop-prog? Acidprop? Fusionjuana?), and indeed we will. This song rules anyway. [A]
What a strange song, made only stranger the more one thinks about it. Is it rock? Is it pop? Is it heavy, or is it the opposite of that? Is Bonham’s use of the titular quartet of drumsticks creative or lazy? Does the synthesizer add a unique brand of heft or just a layer of cheese betraying the song’s year of birth? Is Plant finding a useful new vocal area, or is he leaning too hard on the most easily-parodied part of his register? Is it in five-time, or is it really in three? Is the main guitar riff excellent or trite? Are those chiming accent chords at the end of the measure necessary? Where the hell is the bass on this? Do the lyrics about red rivers and shields and lore and owls in the night make it a metal forefather or a hippie grandfather? If Led Zeppelin were such great musicians, how could this of all songs really be that hard for them to record, let alone take on the road? Does any of this matter? [A-]
“Going To California”
Same here, man. Same here. [B+]
“When The Levee Breaks”
With Led Zeppelin IV—and yes, that is the album’s correct name—rock music in general and hard rock specifically got the authoritative and best version of the Great Album template:
- Come out swinging
- Keep rocking
- Spend forever saying goodbye
The number of tracks any masterwork takes to accomplish the task at hand is irrelevant here: some finish the job in as few as four*, others as many as 45**. What matters is a band putting the correct punctuation mark on the statement it has spent all this time making.
(*) Alice In Chains, Sap
(**) Minutemen, Double Nickels On The Dime.
With “Levee,” Zeppelin chose the heaviest of periods, not just to close the album but for all intents and purposes letting us know what it’s going to sound like when the world itself comes to an end. The skies sliding upwards before slinking down, the Earth rumbling beneath, the air itself tightening, cities crushed under the relentless assault of the final thud that ever need be heard.
That the drum beat could at once find home in new age, hip-hop, r&b, pop rock, alt-rock, and pretty much anything else in need of the most reliable backbone on offer should be of no surprise. With “Levee,” the band had ended an album, closed a book and, depending on how you look at things, wrote a contender for the final chapter of music itself.
According to the internet, the band never had much use for this as a live number, ostensibly for reasons relating to Page and Bonham in particular being unable to recreate much of the sound and, by extension, raw thunder of the album version. This is probably true, and it’s probably for the best. Anyone able to summon such thunder at will has likely not come to entertain but in actuality been sent, and to do something far, far worse. [A]
HOUSES OF THE HOLY
“The Song Remains The Same”
All stories begin somewhere, and mine begins at the Rose Records in Vernon Hills, Illinois.
In the spring of 1992, gift certificate in hand, I intended to buy two things:
- Ten by Pearl Jam (cassette, obviously)
- Whichever Led Zeppelin album it was had that “the way you move” song on it (also cassette, also obviously)
I am pleased to report the Rose Records in Vernon Hills, Illinois, did in fact have the Pearl Jam tape in stock, whose purchase would mark the beginning of its own similarly lengthy though far more conflicted fandom within the author; at the same time, I can report to great temporary sadness though infinitely greater ultimate gratification that the Rose Records in Vernon Hills, Illinois, did not have any copies of the specifically sought-after Led Zeppelin tape in stock, but did have another whose artwork was indescribably bizarre, whose songs I had never even heard of, and whose name sounded so familiar for reasons I could not for the life of me (until many years later) remember. But to a certain type of 12-year-old boy, there are few easier ways to make a sale than to take a mostly known quantity and offer as an alternative its weirder, more mysterious, less-prominent follower. (Case in point: all these decades later, that 12-year-old boy still hasn’t shut up about it.)
In musical terms, that tape’s first track did a lot of things just well enough, but not to any extent that would eclipse whatever awaited the compelled listener: a pretty rocking guitar line, a rhythm section that propelled without overpowering, solos the untrained ear could listen along to, and a singer wailing convincingly enough to the heavens about California and Calcutta and who knew what else. As an opener, it was pretty good; as an introduction, it was as good as anyone could have asked for. [B+]
“The Rain Song”
And despite their predeliction for music that would ultimately overpower the listener, for lame innuendos, for clumsy metaphors, for juvenile literary pretensions, the fact remained: they could write music to get lost in, too. Sure, there’s a strong element of mediocre Dude Poetry to a lot of what Plant’s singing here, but everything else going on renders any blemish invisible—even when that everything is nothing more than the Mellotron and piano layered atop that battalion of masterful alternate-tuned guitars.
Led Zeppelin had better songs than this, may (possibly) or (most likely) may not have had better ballads than this, and definitely had more representative songs than this. But to call this anything less than one of their finest is to ignore what being any or all of those things should really mean. [A+]
“Over The Hills And Far Away”
Young, new, or otherwise untrained guitarists, take note: if you want to learn hammer-ons and pull-offs, this is about as good as it gets.
Producers, roadies, guitar techs, and other assorted tone enthusiasts, take note as well: no one will blame for confusing that outro steel with a synthesizer, as we all make that same mistake. Plenty of us do that for five, ten, even all the way up to eleven years, despite otherwise knowing every word, note, and hit contained in the minutes leading up to it. Honest mistake. Happens all the time. Really. [A]
I don’t know, exactly, who told them this was a good idea, nor do I know whose job it was to have told them this was much closer to being a very bad idea, nor do I necessarily believe outside input here would have been heeded either way. What I do know is that, whether viewed as a disastrous co-opting of a genre towards which they had no business even looking (defensible) or a noble experiment that led to some excellent results down the road (also defensible), Zeppelin created something not fun but actually, unintentionally and, in its own way, funny—and not in the sense of poking fun at the music they were hoping to emulate, but in the sense of Led Zeppelin actually appearing to poke fun at itself. In the context of an album whose high-water marks include an eight-minute Mellotron ballad and an eight-minute Viking death dirge, that’s not the worst way to liven up the middle. But it’s not the best way, either. [C+]
Something about this one always seemed a bit off, as though Led Zeppelin, despite being a band infinitely capable of writing songs about partying and just as infinitely capable of writing songs that absolutely defined how hard songs could rock, somehow found straight-up party rock remained just out of its collective reach—even while this one, weird riff and chunky structure and all—still managed to create a miraculous bridge to the song that came after it.
Even great albums are allowed a clunker; consider it a testament to the band making them that Houses Of The Holy got away with having three. [C]
When you’re a 13-year-old boy, you hear in this song the full, real, undeniable proof that Led Zeppelin was a band so excellent, so immutably capable, that even stylistic reaches were going to end in nothing short of total and perfect success. Wow, you think, not only did they really like everything but they could also truly do anything.
They aren’t just a hard rock band that was really into blues and begrudgingly helped birth heavy metal, you think, but also were into, like reggae and stuff, which is just a wild thing to be into, let alone play when you’re, like, not even a reggae band.
That’s amazing, your 13-year-old self continues. They were, like, the best at, like everything. Ever. Probably.
But you can’t stay 13 forever. No one can. And for god’s sake, stop pronouncing it like that. [B-]
This was not as heavy of a riff as they ever came up with, though easily as sonically ominous and lyrically evil a track as they (or a lot of bands of such stature) ever dared. Plenty of sludge to go around, and all told this is as Sabbathesque as Zeppelin ever got (save for, you know, that), but it’s important to note the distinction: Zeppelin’s heavy songs did not exist because the boys made heavy music, but simply because they liked it and they understood its trappings while still letting others do the grunt work. To call Led Zeppelin a metal band is to call Blondie a rap group, The Clash a reggae act, or Queen a funk band—which is to say it misses the point entirely.
“No Quarter” is not a metal song, but it is a song about Vikings and Lord Of The Rings and a thinly-veiled metaphor for someone storming the frontier in search of, you know, whatever, man. Most of the time, it was seven minutes long. Others, it was twenty-five minutes long for no real reason. It was a song at home wherever it landed, purpose found in whatever distant land it made shore, its journey launched unto whatever coast warranted plundering. In other words: a Led Zeppelin song. [B+]
A track opening in an aggressively weird meter; changes between not just time signatures but entire genres; a groove that somehow holds and drives by just plodding along; bass and guitar riffs competing for complexity and supremacy; harmonies that only kind of harmonize and for not all that long and to not that much effect. Musical muscle-flexing aside, what an absolute joy of a song this is, and what a fun band this band could be when it chose to. Sure it’s another one about Zeppelin being Zeppelin but, at this point, was there really anything else they were qualified to discuss? [A]
Had “Good Times Bad Times” not so capably set the table for its entire catalog, “Custard Pie” would unquestionably be the finest of the band’s album openers, and by no insignificant margin. Here we find the simple sum of Page cranking out as authoritative a pair of main riffs as he—or anyone—ever could, Jones finding the perfect spots in which to land the synth lines, Bonham finding the intersection of shuffle and thunder, and Plant commanding the dumbest of rock-lyric innuendos as only one can from the heights of a rock-and-roll Olympus.
This is not just a great first track, but a perfect table-setter for the best album by the best band. Others hit harder, others arguably reached further, but “Custard Pie” proved once and for all—even after some misses to their name and some arguable disasters on the album prior—that they could do both without one coming at the expense of the other. No small feat. [A]
This is not the best Led Zeppelin song per se but it is, as far as this writer is concerned, the best Led Zeppelin song, in that if you want to find everything at which this band ever excelled alongside the band doing its best version of those things at which it did not always excel, look no further.
Start with the opening drum beat throwing down for those huge E chords just in time feed the power progression to follow; Jones and Plant’s dueling riffs creating the illusory holding pattern before that glorious, musically beautiful—yes, beautiful—chorus descending back into that glorious slush of low-end verses and holding pattern bridge; the greatest—yes, greatest—of Page’s solos, even better than the famous one or the ballad one or that one we all learned how to play when we were 15; Plant putting aside the double entendres for a moment and finding, of all things, a message of hope through adventure while redemption awaits just over the horizon, some band of pirates sailing on to a world others have already condemned to death.
According to any credible source, Zeppelin never played this live in full, and why would they? What could this recording possibly have left to prove? Long may this rock. Long may they roll. [A+]
“In My Time Of Dying”
You can take the blues parts or you can leave them, and the question of exactly how convinced you are by Plant’s begging of Jesus for mercy has no right or wrong answer. You can write off the slide guitar and you can call the chorus lazy. You can even say this most of this track shows a band in over its head, whatever sensibility it had obliterated by its inability to call off a jam that’s gone off the rails.
If you do, start at 3:46, because the double-time section of this one rules despite whatever criticisms one might try lobbing at the dirge preceding it. [A-]
“Houses Of The Holy”
“Bad” and “weak” are not really the right words here, as the song is fine and in the context of the best album by the best band there’s room for material that’s not quite as strong as, say, the absolute apex of their catalog. But what’s interesting is how, if you look at this track in the context of the album for which it was originally intended and for no good reason named, those are the right words. Are we really to accept this as of a piece with disastrous funk experiments? With wildly successful doo-wop experiments? Where does a clunky 4/4 rocker fit in amongst an 8-minute quasi-orchestral love ballads and a 9-minute Viking doom ballad? Are we to pretend this song is anything loftier than a song about getting high and enjoying music? We are not, and it doesn’t, which was probably the point of saving this one for a better album in the first place. [B-]
“Trampled Under Foot”
They would elsewhere—and to much less success—try a funk number, but lucky for 15-year-old boys everywhere that first clunker didn’t stop them from trying again. In this, you can hear the band eschewing “The Crunge”‘s impression-of-a-genre approach and building in the opposite direction: start with the elements that make Led Zeppelin into, you know, Led Zeppelin, and twist those in the direction of what funk-pop was coming to light elsewhere at the time. The guitar line rocks and the drums roll but it’s the bass and the keys (especially those breaks) which propel this from the average labored-over jam into something broaching proper hard funk territory, Jones’ riffs so expertly complementing Bonham’s pocket as the lyrics, as they so often do, remain stupid beyond comparison. [A]
By far the heaviest Led Zeppelin ever got, and for that matter just about anyone else ever did, and by such deceptively simple and crude means to boot. Tune down, but also tune everything else sideways. Kick-then-snare on the 1 and 2, but add the plus-two at the top and those little stuttered hits in the bridge right before the turnaround. Have the bassline follow the riff, but only so you can also play the Mellotron at the same time. Sing about a mythical apocalyptic wasteland at the edge of the world even if you’re really writing about playing tourist in western Africa and naming an Arab-inspired song after disputed territory between India and Pakistan.
They still weren’t a heavy metal band, were never going to be one, remained insistent that didn’t want to be one, and most importantly they didn’t have to be one. Let this be proof enough of that. [A]
“In The Light”
This is not the best song by this band. This is not the best song on this album, is not the best song on this half of the album and, in even more specific terms, is not even the best song on this (spectacular) side of this (again, spectacular) record.
But take its components—Jones’ still-somewhat-novel-to-them deployment of the keys, Page’s quasi-Baroque guitar lines in the chorus, Bonham’s thunderous drum assault, Plant’s full-throated wailing about life and death and ev’rybody—and what you have is something perhaps more akin to a musical thesis statement than anything else in their catalog. The verses all doom and foreboding blues (woman!), a man losing his very soul(!!) and a six-string spinning the wheel of minor-key death behind him(!!!) but behold! The triumphant clavinet! The roll of the toms! The Light!
And so a (read: this) fan of this band points to this track the way a Van Morrison fan may direct outsiders to “Astral Weeks” or a Metallica fan might single out . . . actually no, Metallica fans don’t work that way* but the point stands.
(*) I say as one of them that Metallica fans actually 1) have specifically favorite songs and 2) weaponize said favorite against all other reasonable candidates for the title, which are both terrible ways to look at it, but also somewhat strange considering everyone who knows anything knows their best song is “Battery.” You heard me.
It’s unique in sonics, unconventional in structure, surprisingly tasteful in execution, and four minutes of a pretty good song hiding inside of eight minutes of superior-grade music. This is not the best Led Zeppelin song, but it is the most Led Zeppelin song, and in the scheme of things that’s still pretty great. [B]
One could fault them, if one were so inclined, for never before or again reaching these heights. One could make the case that meandering and belligerent were Zeppelin’s only honest modes of instrumental attack, and that this song stands so alone in the catalog because it is as much of a detour as any of their more overt genre gambles, albeit one played out to admittedly more tasteful effect. One could then conclude this to be so obviously a fraud—an impostor song by an impostor band, as it were—meant to throw anyone off the scent of who and what the band really was.
One would be wrong, of course: Led Zeppelin could not beat these two perfect minutes for the simple reason that no one can beat these two perfect minutes. Not even Led Zeppelin. [A+]
“Down By The Seaside”
What idyllic whimsy in those verses, and what foreboding menace in that bridge. Such a strange song. [A-]
“Ten Years Gone”
Even among their great ballads—and for as hard as this band hit, the fellas could absolutely bring the soft stuff as well as anyone—this one rivals any for the right to be called the best: the opening guitar lines hanging almost forever; Bonham bringing not just thunder but rain; Page’s solo turn here perhaps his most magnificent proof that melody and phrasing will crush chops every single time. Yes, it’s a juvenile girlfriend song and unfortunately it gets stupider the more closely you look at it. But this music isn’t for looking; this music is for listening. [A]
At face value, there shouldn’t be too much going for this one. Chords bordering on primitive, for example; lyrics hinting at either some half-baked commentary on the pros and cons of draft-dodging or else some other, undefined turning point away from boyhood; a song named for air travel whose lyrics center on a train metaphor; that bridge and coda that absolutely destroy whatever momentum preceded them. But then listen to that Hammond, and Bonham’s hi-hat rolls, and Plant’s voice hitting its highs as well as it ever did, and Page (wisely) backing the hell away from all of it. It’s perhaps not their best pop song—let alone even a pop song—but where previous album outtakes ultimately buried in the back third of the late-career kitchen sink double-album are concerned, this is about as good as it gets. [B+]
“The Wanton Song”
Hallowed as they are in the halls of rock, it’s almost startling to take stock and realize how few relentlessly aggressive songs they have to their credit. Heaviness and mood abound, space aplenty, more changes in that catalog than any responsible band should even attempt but for whatever reason they held back more often than people would assume they did. Perhaps this was a good thing, in that tracks like this one were given the change to truly shine; perhaps this was a bad thing, in that we have to wonder what an all-out Zeppelin Assault Album could have sounded like. Perhaps this song rocks like all hell in either scenario, and perhaps that’s enough. [A-]
“Boogie With Stu”
What magnificent throwaway nonsense this is. It is rare the band that could tack something like this—an outtake jam from sessions two albums prior, mind you, a jam no more complex than blues-derivative rock-by-numbers about wanting to play and/or do rock and roll things—onto the end of what was already a sprawling double album and somehow emerge all the better for it. But there you go. [A]
“Black Country Woman”
Airplane noise. Studio banter. A mandolin still not totally tuned as the tape roles. Lyrics bordering on self-recycling. An arrangement that never quite feels solidified. A beginning marked by no one being ready for the starting gun. An ending that more closely resembles a stop than a finish. In lesser hands, this is the sound of a band that doesn’t care; in the hands of the masters, this is the sound of a band that isn’t worried. [B-]
It’s true that Physical Graffiti is the band’s best album, but did it really need all of those songs tacked on to the end of the second record? In one sense, no, of course not: not everything is killer, not everything needs to be heard, not every idea is a good one. But in another, cooler sense, sure it’s a(nother) groupie song, but where greasy Stones-esque jams go this is a fine enough effort and while it’s not the strongest of closing numbers, it does foreshadow a bit more than I think people gave it credit for. Listen to the riff get sloppier, to the rhythm getting slipperier, to the vocals getting sleazier. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be a sign-off from the top of the mountain, but for what it is it works just fine. [B]
“Achilles Last Stand”
I. It’s too long. The lyrics, as with any Zeppelin song that flirted with being heavy metal, were an inane ode to the band’s M.O. of kicking any and all ass. Plant’s vocal ad-lib parts are beyond unnecessary. Even in the confines of a tired and bloated and album, this one really makes a listener work, and not necessarily for any great reward. Ten minutes of this is far too much.
II. The opening rules. The bridge rules even harder. The staccato guitar/bass/drum part is the direct forebear to every great metal riff that followed. The mighty arms holding Heaven from the Earth belong not to Atlas but to Bonham and Bonham alone. Ten minutes of this is not nearly enough. [A-]
“For Your Life”
A pair of bullseyes aside, Presence really marked the band’s turn into a disproportionately long, unexpectedly poorly-lit corner where they went from sounding only like Led Zeppelin to sounding like a band that was trying to sound like Led Zeppelin. Plenty of critics, historians, and generally flippant youths will point to how the world around this band was changing, but left unsaid is how the world within this band was changing, too: Plant’s voice; Page’s approach; the ability of literally everyone involved to simultaneously fire on all cylinders. Here we find one of Page’s best bridges chased by some of Jones and Bonham’s most plodding arrangements, a nice tambourine flourish buried at the bottom of the mix, and a cool 15-count meter rendered unplayable, all collectively obscuring what is, at its heart, one of Zeppelin’s few message songs delivering a specifically bizarre sort of anti-message (and an oddly grizzled one at that, considering this band’s relationship with not just drugs but also with drug users to boot).
Legend and lore both have it the fellows wrote this song more or less on the spot, and if we are to accept this as the sign of a band losing its step then we owe it to ourselves to also try (even in vain) to imagine how giant those steps must have been to begin with. Whether that’s a testament to their ability to keep moving forward or their inability to say no to a challenge is really up to whoever was—and is—still listening. [C-]
It’s heartbreaking in a way, knowing that the same band running on fumes throughout the rest of Presence could still find it in them to write one on par with this. The solos were still there, the groove was as strong as ever, and the stylistic palette was as full as anyone could hope (dig that groovy funk guitar, man). Shame they couldn’t more readily find those things when they needed them most. [B]
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”
Presence was, by any useful measure anyway, Zeppelin’s weakest and worst album, its plodding arrangements and dearth of memorable moments leaving it dwarfed—especially in light of the masterpiece that preceded it and the five straight killers prior even to that—and void of any real shred of a classic among its contents (even In Through The Out Door could claim two, although its clunkers may surpass even those found here). They were out of steam, maybe out of ideas, four young men not so young anymore making an album for no other reason than they felt they had to. Yes, it’s a cover and yes, it’s another blues jam and yes, it’s what anyone paying attention might have called Zeppelin-by-numbers. So what?
Worse things have been done, and for worse reasons. The fellas still had it in them to rock when they had to and roll when they needed to. Who knew? [B+]
“Candy Store Rock”
Listen to that opening riff.
Ask yourself: is this possible?
Wonder, albeit with justifiable skepticism: are they really going to pull off a heavy country number in the middle of this dirge of a rock album?
Fill with delight, even if not yet earned: could it be that they weren’t in fact done, nor were they out of ideas, but were really just finding new wells from which to draw collective musical strength?
Marvel to yourself, even without reason to do so: have I found something everyone else doesn’t know about? Is there some secret font of genius hiding in this dismissed and written-off late-period album of theirs? Has time been harsher to this album than it was ever justified in being?
And then stop after the opening riff. Seriously, you’re not missing much. Never let them say this band didn’t prove to you the value in quitting while you’re ahead. [C]
“Hots On For Nowhere”
It’s . . . fine, I guess, but what a letdown to hear that after so many gems, so many peaks, so many outright and irrefutable classics up before, Zeppelin could write, record, and produce a hard rock song so achingly average. You could argue that the riff digs in pretty deep, and that the drums are kind of cool, and of course it’s good to hear Plant having a good time singing a song about what a good time he had living in Malibu in the 70s. Honestly, given a little more time, a little more focus, and a little more polish, this could almost pass for a Led Zeppelin song.
“Tea For One”
No one—especially not this writer—was going to tell them it wasn’t happening, even if the blues jams had entered the “this is nice background music” stage, and no one was especially going to dare tell them they may have already done this exact number in superior fashion under a different name four albums and six years prior. And why would they? The guitar tone is fine. The bass lines are fine. The stops are fine. The solos and vocals and musical workouts and this song as a whole are all just fine. Whatever. Let’s move on. [C]
IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR
“In The Evening”
It’s a lot of things, yes: a death rattle; a last stand; a band that for so long rocked so hard and so effortlessly actually, visibly, having to try to do the thing they were presumably born to do. A clumsy chorus. A synth line that cuts maybe a bit too hard off the end of the verse line. A lazy riff. A sloppy solo. An uninspired drum beat.
But it’s a lot of other things, too: an absolute killer of an intro section. An spaced-out bridge nearing, for lack of a better word, beauty. A young frontman’s yelp easing quite nicely into adulthood. A band running towards the brand of big rock they’d inspired, rather than away from it, showing the up-and-comers how it’s done, even if it wasn’t totally what they did. This would unexpectedly become their last great rocker, but still: what a way to go out. [A]
“South Bound Saurez”
You can take a long train ride followed by three flights across some seven thousand miles, two trips through two separate nations’ version of border control, a bus to the center of a strange and distant city, a few happily accidental wrong turns on foot and an unplanned walk to this particular street to finally, after damn near 40 years of living and damn near 30 of listening, understand it’s not some exotic boat or a mislabeled French party or whatever the hell else you thought he was singing about but rather a fun little number about a gorgeous Uruguayan woman and you can embrace the admittedly petty and misplaced symbolism of how this revelation serves the idea that the things you love are with you wherever you go.
Or, barring that, you can just read it as a typo that’s gone uncorrected. Either is fine. [C]
“Fool In The Rain”
Lost among the Led Zeppelin songs about Vikings and the Led Zeppelin songs about mythology and the Led Zeppelin songs about no-good women and the Led Zeppelin songs about Led Zeppelin music and the Led Zeppelin songs about Led Zeppelin itself was this: when it had to, Led Zeppelin could be fun. Jones’ piano lines could dance; Bonham’s drums could swing; Page’s guitar could follow, could layer, could complement, could actually do things besides obliterate everything in its way. Shame they didn’t do that more often, but what a treat that they did when they did. [A-]
Amazing, in a way, that this was the only track from In Through The Out Door not to emerge in some way from the songwriting brain of John Paul Jones. Amazing too that a band so bent in musical exploration and genre-dabbling would wait until a decade along before trying their hand at a country(!) number, but where lesser indulgences go you could call this a successful little foray into the heart of Texas. The guitar leads like a bullet out of a gun, the wonderful saloon piano, Bonham on the perfect Tennessee chucka-chucka drums and Plant, well, Plant doing the Plant thing but this time outside a . . . U-Haul depot? Whatever. Like a lot of good country songs, thinking about it too much is gonna cause problems. [B]
Read the lyrics as you must—another Led Zeppelin song about a woman, or another Led Zeppelin song about touring, or another Led Zeppelin song about how much ass Led Zeppelin kicks, or another Led Zeppelin song about how much Led Zeppelin just kicks so much ass especially while on tour WO-MAN!—but its excellence and its unique position as the last great song on the band’s arguably-so-so-but-still-last-true album only serve to prop up the great big What If this track would come to represent to those invested enough to have bothered spending much time with it in the first place.
Yes, they could dial back their production while simultaneously expanding their sound.
Yes, they could sound modern without ending up dated.
Yes, they could explore and adventure at the same time.
Yes, they could still rock even if they were getting a little to tired to roll.
In a vacuum, it’s a very good ten-minute rock jam threading that fine needle between cheesy and earnest, between laughable and admirable, Jones’ magnificent keyboard lines and even more magnificent bass lines picking up whatever weight and slack Page’s guitar was too exhausted to lift and Bonham’s drumming too over it to carry. In a vacuum, they had opened a door; in a vacuum, they proved a band could progress without copping to any clichés of overt progressive rock; in a vacuum, there was a way forward.
But that’s just it: nothing ever really exists in a vacuum. Not even Led Zeppelin. [A-]
“All My Love”
Say what they must about this one—and yes, there is much to say—but unlike so much of else of the catalog there is not just raw musical feel here but undeniable and real (for lack of a better word) emotion at work. Plant had written about things important to him by now, and on plenty of occasions, but here in the recollection of unspeakable loss we get the sound of a man looking inwards in the hopes of someday looking ahead. Jones and Page masterfully trade those clipped keyboard notes and country licks through the intro and verses, but just listen to those middle two minutes: who knew this band was capable of such lovely drama?
Led Zeppelin could indeed grow up—yes, that Led Zeppelin—and all the other Led Zeppelins could, too. They wouldn’t, of course, but this is still a nice place from which to wonder what could have been. [B]
“I’m Gonna Crawl”
As a vaguely country-influenced late 1970s adult contemporary ballad, this isn’t the worst thing anyone could’ve come up with: some neat guitar lines, nice dynamics in the arrangement, and Plant’s voice here settling nicely into something resembling a raspy hard rock middle age. Even as a closer, deliberately of an album and inadvertently of an band, it’s a decent enough capstone. Admittedly, this was not just any band setting that capstone. But here we are. [C+]