Publication date: June 2014
Dazed and Confused? The Dizzying Ascent of Led Zeppelin
(This is the only piece I wrote for R&F that was directly commissioned by them. I'm not a huge fan of Zep, but I thought this was quite a good article - and it was the cover feature!)
In the great pantheon of rock music, Led Zeppelin undoubtedly sit at the highest table as both harbingers of a new age and destroyers of the old order. And somehow, it doesn’t seem odd or ridiculous to talk about them in these terms – more than any band before them, they understood and summoned forth the shock and awe implicit in the fledgling medium of rock, turning it from the house music of the counter-culture into an industrial-scale riff machine that sent audiences around the world crazy with an alchemical combination of volume and velocity, howls and hauteur. Little wonder then that Zeppelin have more than a hint of magick about them, their music sometimes akin to the conjuration of an uncanny supernatural force.
With their first three albums about to be re-released, re-mastered and replete with bonus tracks and deluxe packaging, Led Zeppelin are once again front and centre of rock’s ongoing discourse with itself, their appeal seemingly undiminished with fans and critics alike. For a band that broke up decades ago, they’re only rivalled by the Beatles in terms of the reverence afforded them, a recognition of both the sonic and compositional impact they had and something less definable, a sheer wonder at the magnitude of their achievement.
What was it that made Led Zeppelin so special? Why is it that many of the songs on these three albums still sound so vital and powerful? What was the leap they made and how did they make it?
While it’s nice to imagine that a fire from the heavens created Zeppelin sui generis, it was actually a combination of more earthly factors that made them the band they were. Chief among these was the figure of bandleader Jimmy Page. Throughout the 60s, Page had established himself as one of the top session musicians in London, working with many of the major groups of the period – The Kinks, The Who, the Rolling Stones – while appearing on hit singles such as Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By” and Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. And immediately prior to forming Led Zeppelin, he was a member of The Yardbirds, perhaps the hardest-hitting of the original 60s beat groups – in fact, Zeppelin were initially billed as The New Yardbirds when Page found himself obligated to fulfil a Scandinavian tour booked for his former band. The point being that Page had already been around the block a number of times when Zeppelin got together, so had a very clear idea of how he wanted his new group to sound – this is in contrast to the great majority of bands, even the successful ones, who often stumble upon their sound by accident or hone it over time. While Zeppelin clearly evolved through the years, Page planned to do something different from day one, and boy, did Zeppelin hit the ground (no pun intended) running.
I’ll talk about the specifics of that sound more closely when we get onto the albums themselves, but in simple terms, Page’s own description of wanting “a marriage of blues, hard rock and acoustic music with heavy choruses” is a pretty good summation. Given his fascination with the occult and the writings of Aleister Crowley in particular, it’s tempting to depict Page as some dark magus throwing various riffs and solos into his cauldron to create the perfect potion. But Zeppelin’s game-changing impact was down to far more than just a savvy melding of different genres.
New technologies played an important role in the development of Zeppelin’s sound. For example, Page was the first musician to own a prototype ‘fuzz box’, given to him in 1964 by Roger Mayer, an acoustic electronics genius and unsung hero of rock’s early years. Able to produce the distorted metallic growl of an overdriven guitar at the flick of a switch, this little device completely revolutionised rock music, with Page at the vanguard of exploring the possibilities it presented – by the time he formed Zeppelin, he had already had years of experimenting with and mastering the guitar effects that would be a vital part of the band’s arsenal.
In addition, Zeppelin were not only one of the first bands to mic up every instrument during recording sessions – the separation of John Bonham’s drum kit being integral to the monster sound he achieved – but also pioneered the concept of capturing ‘ambience’ on recordings, where the sound produced by the live room itself is also taped and added into the mix. New amplification and studio technologies were also important, with the development of more powerful live PAs and speaker stacks matched by more sophisticated microphones and upgraded mastering equipment – this allowed lower frequencies to be accurately reproduced and gave Zeppelin recordings a much bassier bottom end than had previously been possible.
Of course, the sheer talent involved in the Zeppelin line-up was also a major factor in creating the new sound. We’ve already seen Page’s credentials – he’s not only an amazingly versatile guitarist, but also a producer, songwriter and arranger of subtlety and imagination. Ditto John Paul Jones, nominally the group’s bassist, but a similarly accomplished session musician whose keyboard skills would become an increasingly important part of the group’s sound. Bonham was a soul and Motown fan who nevertheless played drums with an attack and stamina that was unheard of before. And then there’s Robert Plant, the archetypal screaming frontman, whose mystic-macho persona would imbue Zeppelin’s sound with a visceral, sometimes troubling, carnal power.
And finally, it’s worth mentioning Led Zeppelin as an organisation. Page’s years of experience in the music business meant that he was a lot less easy to push around than most young players, but his decision to employ the hard-nosed and hands-on Peter Grant as their manager was what really made the difference to the band’s fortunes – not only did he negotiate uniquely lucrative deals with labels and live promoters alike, but he also ensured that Page and the band had new levels of creative control, enabling them to make records in their own way without undue pressure.
But all this would mean nothing if the music itself hadn’t been so extraordinary. Just listen to the first few seconds of Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album of January 1969 – it’s the future of rock music writ large in all its hot-headed, foot-stomping glory. “Good Times Bad Times” starts with a staccato airburst of guitars and drums. There’s an ominous pause filled only by a ticking hi-hat and natural reverb, then those twin detonations again, the tense stop/start dynamic already doing strange things to the reptile part of your brain. You can hear the space between the instruments and feel a sense of scale that hasn’t previously been reproduced on record. Sure, there’s been ‘heavy’ tracks before – the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues”, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)“ – but compare the sludgy psych overload of those songs with the sleek, brutal efficiency of “Good Times…” That opening salvo is like a morse code transmission announcing a new era of music.
“Good Times…” finds its groove, with Plant’s melodic pipes guiding the song through verse and chorus, but there’s a heft and density to the sound that literally feels heavy, the hammer blows of the intro underpinning the arrangement, constantly priming the listener for the next peak of excitement – for instance, when Page’s solo comes crashing in. If the opening track neatly represents one facet of the Zeppelin sound, then the song that follows establishes the other side just as forcefully. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is an artfully-constructed gothic folk ballad that leaves the listener in a constant state of anticipation verging on dread. With its descending chord sequence like a psychological bludgeon to the senses, and a theatrical arrangement that was surely influential on the progressive rock groups to come, “Babe…” consciously uses contrasting sounds and moods to manipulate the listener’s emotions, an inherent sense of drama being a key feature of the new heavy.
“Babe…” also impels us to address one of the more controversial aspects of Zeppelin’s ascent, the question of songwriting credits. “Babe…” is based on a song by the American folk singer Anne Bredon, which was subsequently recorded by Joan Baez – however, the song was credited solely to Jimmy Page when it first appeared on Zeppelin’s debut. This was corrected on future releases of the album, with Page claiming to have mistakenly thought it was a traditional song. But this isn’t the only instance of this happening, with some critics claiming that only two of the tracks on Zeppelin’s debut are wholly original. While this certainly raises some difficult ethical issues, there’s a long history of songs being adapted and pilfered by players within the blues and folk traditions that Page was coming from. Alternatively, maybe this is just another indication of the mindset that Zeppelin approached the world with, a will to power philosophy that again set them apart from their peers – or as Page’s spiritual guru Aleister Crowley might have put it, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole law.”
Arguably the most ground-breaking song on the album is “Dazed And Confused”, which brings together the crushing heaviosity and thrilling drama of the first two tracks into a monumental slab of downer rock, its plunging bassline mirroring a descent into madness, once again gripping the listener by evoking an extreme state of mental distress. “Dazed…” is another uncredited re-write, this time based on a track by singer-songwriter Jake Holmes – but man, what a re-write! In fact, it’s supremely instructive to hear what Zeppelin do to these co-opted songs to understand why they were so successful. “Dazed…” transmutes from gloomy minstrel music into a Wagnerian opus of despair, with guitars like the screech of devils in some purgatorial courtroom and Plant wailing in torment about how the “soul of a woman was created below.” Everything is amplified, from the Sturm und Drang of the arrangement, the dense, physical quality of the sound and the violence of the sentiment. Hearing this for the first time in 1969 must have been an overwhelmingly intense yet utterly compelling experience.
The other truly notable track on Zeppelin’s debut is “Communication Breakdown”, a driving surge of testosterone rock that emphasises the primacy of the riff over everything else. The thrust and velocity of this track marks it out as a very early progenitor of heavy metal while the way it favours repetition over melody anticipates an emerging genre of rock built for speed and thrills rather than head-nodding contemplation. And even on the tracks where the band pay explicit homage to their roots, their instinct is to massively enhance the template: “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” turn the melancholic chug of the blues into the foreboding stamp of the steel foundry, while final track “How Many More Times” moves from a groovy r’n’b foundation through sections of sci-fi guitar, bolero and even proto-drone.
Just nine months later, Zeppelin returned with their second album, having already begun to establish a reputation as an incendiary live act. ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (note the gnomic title) consolidates the advances of the debut while seeing the band flex their muscles in new ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the gargantuan riff-monster that is album opener “Whole Lotta Love”. Along with “Stairway To Heaven”, this track would come to define the band in the public’s eyes – but while “Stairway…” is meticulously composed and leans towards the esoteric, “Whole Lotta Love” is primal and direct, aimed at the groin rather than the head. Page and Jones crank out the mercilessly exciting riff in unison in an awesome display of firepower before Bonham’s drums drop the rhythm like an aerial bombardment. This isn’t some crass analogy: in stark contrast to the anti-Vietnam, peace and love aesthetic of the Woodstock generation, this track explicitly evokes the terror and ecstasy of warfare, complete with dive-bombing guitars. Plant is equal parts domineering and dissolute in the face of this aural blitzkrieg, the shamanic sexual energy that fuels his vocal acrobatics being key to Zeppelin’s appeal beyond rock’s traditionally male fanbase (ironically so, given the rampant misogyny of many of their songs’ lyrics). And then there’s that astonishing breakdown, like being flung into a body on the point of orgasm, the massive pay-off and Plant’s inflamed boast of “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” imbuing the song with an over-heated, positively pornographic vibe.
For all the unabashed hip-thrusting and musical ferocity of “Whole Lotta Love”, many of the other songs on ‘II’ showcase a greater sophistication and sense of restraint, with both follow-on track “What Is And What Should Never Be” and fan favourite “Ramble On” mixing mellow, laidback verses full of misty-eyed imagery with thumping red-blooded choruses, though the overall feel is a lot less oppressive than before. And while Zeppelin are still playing the blues on the likes of “The Lemon Song” (an adaptation of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” which inserts the suitably ribald Robert Johnson lyric, “Squeeze me baby, til the juice runs down my leg”) and “Bring It On Home”, there’s a less reverential approach to the source material, with a harder, faster, longer attitude setting the template for the blues rock bands of the 70s. In terms of Zeppelin’s future direction, the other key track here is “Heartbreaker”, yet another riff-based stormer, but one that hints at a funkier, more lithe side to the band, soon to be given full vent on classics such as “Black Dog” and “Trampled Underfoot”. “Heartbreaker” also features the first example of rock god showmanship from Page, his unaccompanied solo being another precursor of heavy metal histrionics to come.
‘Led Zeppelin III’ continues with the self-mythologising and increased finesse, even as it blasts off with the Valkyrie cries and monomanic riff of “The Immigrant Song”, which sounds like the demons of “Dazed And Confused” have broken free to roam the earth. It’s another lean and mean testament to the accumulating power of a locked groove dynamic, but Plant is noticeably more measured in his vocal delivery, which creates an interesting tension in the song. The lyrics also point to the more fantastical direction that Plant would start to move in beyond the ‘woman-done-me-wrong’ theme cleaved to so far. “Friends” develops this sense of tension further, introducing a novel palette of instrumentation – folk guitars, eastern strings (like a premonition of “Kashmir”) and synth – to produce an urgent, driven raga rock. Deliciously disorientating, “Friends” is something of an overlooked gem in Zeppelin’s discography. It segues into the densely-woven carpet of sound that is “Celebration Day”, before we get to another milestone in Zeppelin’s oeuvre...
Coming on like a grown-up cousin of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a moody r’n’b ballad par excellence that drips with class, even as it ever-so-slightly puts you at one remove from the emotions being conveyed – like a touching display, it never seriously threatens to throw the listener into a trough of depression as previous Zeppelin songs of this ilk might have done. But that’s not to say it isn’t still a beautiful piece of music, with a marvellously lyrical solo from Page and an impassioned vocal from Plant, which makes plain the influence on him of that other lightning rod of unmediated sexuality, Janis Joplin.
The first half of ‘III’ comes to a satisfying close with “Out On The Tiles”, a hot and heavy shuffling funk-rock workout that would inspire the likes of Aerosmith et al. However, having just heard probably the most cohesive and consistently impressive side of ‘Zeppelin music’ so far, it’s not surprising that the listener may be a little perplexed when they flip the vinyl over…
Side 2 of ‘III’ shifts gears and taps into the booming folk rock movement then happening in Britain (to be consolidated by the appearance of Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny on the following album’s “The Battle of Evermore”). But for many fans and critics at the time, the clustering of tracks such as the acoustic gallop of “Gallows Pole” and one-man-band-isms of “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” was a bit too much, leading to accusations of the band losing its mojo – ironic, given that the 12-string guitar intro to “Tangerine” is basically an early version of the start to “Stairway To Heaven”.
Already a major act off the back of these albums, Zeppelin would go on to conquer the world in a blaze of bombast and excess, tempered with a genius for composing era-defining songs. Incredibly successful speculators as much as innovators, Zeppelin married advances in technology with precision musicianship to create a heavy new sound that went straight for the brain’s pleasure centre. Their first three albums contain many of the set texts of modern rock, and capture the absolute essence of what makes this music so transporting and life-affirming.