Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin 101
Never has a band so popular maintained as much of a mystique as Led Zeppelin. Its music is ubiquitous. Its history has been chronicled exhaustively. Yet no one has ever fully reverse-engineered the band’s alchemical stew of talents, personalities, influences, and zeitgeist-dominating majesty. Even at the height of its multimillion-selling success in the ’70s, Led Zeppelin felt like an outlier. The band refused to release singles in its native England (it lost the fight with Atlantic Records to keep them from being released in the U.S.), and it avoided television appearances. Critics never fully cottoned on to them during the group’s existence. Regardless, Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut became an almost immediate sensation on its release in 1969, and it led to a stream of albums that bore a magnetic pull on the mainstream while always dwelling just beyond it.
With the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, the group—still moving massive amounts of units and packing stadium after stadium—disbanded rather than consider a replacement. Barring a string of reunion concerts that can be counted on one hand, Led Zeppelin has never reformed. And in spite of the deluxe, expanded reissues of Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, and Led Zeppelin III being released this week, guitarist Jimmy Page recently told Rolling Stone that the chances of another, perhaps last reunion is nil: “People ask me nearly every day about a possible reunion. The answer is no.” Its mystique secure, nothing remains to define Led Zeppelin but its music—which is what the band seemed to have wanted all along. As early as Led Zeppelin, the newly convened outfit—Bonham and singer Robert Plant were relative novices; guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones were seasoned music-industry vets—evoked ancient echoes, unearthly heaviness, and ethereal delicacy. This formula would inform most of Led Zeppelin’s work during its career, which ran alongside the tides of hard rock, blues rock, folk rock, progressive rock, orchestral rock, and heavy metal, without ever fully merging with any of them.
Led Zeppelin II solidified the band’s position in 1969, coming out just nine months after the eponymous debut. It didn’t significantly expand Led Zeppelin’s scope—rather, it tightened the sprawl that had been established on the first album—but it resulted in some of Led Zeppelin’s most enduring (and over-exposed) hits, including the galloping, lascivious “Whole Lotta Love.” If the group had continued in this direction, many of its most thrilling moments might never have happened; instead, Page and Plant retreated to the Welsh countryside to write 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. It was the first of many about-faces in the group’s catalog, a gently contemptuous rejection of the hard-rock pigeonhole Led Zeppelin was already being forced into. With something to prove, Page in particular invested III with a haunting, pastoral folksiness that signaled even more ambitious things to come.
The stars at last aligned in 1971 with Led Zeppelin IV. The last of its numbered albums, it has the feel of an ultimate upgrade: Version 4.0 is a synthesis, refinement, and evolution of the three albums that came before it, with more risks taken in the studio and in the wide, extravagant dynamic between tracks. From the off-kilter yet sinuous groove of “Black Dog” to a harrowing, folk-funk overhaul of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie blues standard “When The Levee Breaks,” the band topped itself magnificently—and Bonham cemented his position as one of rock’s most powerful, soulful drummers.
Charges of plagiarism would come to shroud IV (and much of Page’s composition overall), due to the undeniable similarity between the album’s biggest hit, “Stairway To Heaven,” and the 1968 song “Taurus” by the American rock band Spirit (a lawsuit to that effect is currently in the works). Page has been accused of stealing riffs from everyone from folk artist Jake Holmes to rock pioneer Ritchie Valens, plus a slew of early blues artists. Led Zeppelin has credited and paid royalties to many artists, but the subject of plagiarism remains an ongoing debate. It’s clear that, regardless of how much Page and company may have stood on the shoulders of their inspirations, no one but them could have written the entirety of an epic like “Stairway To Heaven,” which ranks alongside Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” as a song so over-stuffed and over-played it’s easy to forget exactly how stunning it is. Not that the rest of IV is anything to sneeze at.
Each member of Led Zeppelin chose an arcane symbol to represent himself in the liner notes of IV, and what might have seemed pretentious wound up being prophetic. Starting with IV’s follow-up, 1973’s uneven Houses Of The Holy, the group began retreating from the earthiness of its early work and into a more abstract realm—one that played down the band’s swaggering humanity and played up its increasingly formidable mythology. It would take Stephen Davis’ definitive Led Zeppelin biography, 1985’s Hammer Of The Gods, to unveil the extent of the band’s decadence in the mid-’70s. Page retreated into hedonism and the occult; Plant immersed himself in Tolkien and English folk; and Bonham dove deeper into the bottle. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had set the template for rock ’n’ roll super-stardom before Led Zeppelin, but with rock settling in for the long haul as the cultural default setting of the Western world, the band’s playful self-deification on IV became all but real.
The group’s antics—both jocular and sinister—while on the road were not yet known when the double album Physical Graffiti was released in 1975. For a once-prolific outfit, the two-year gap between albums could have been a sign of decay or collapse. But the result was towering. Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin’s most mature and developed statement, a document of its creators’ artistic restlessness and fearlessness. More remarkable, the album wasn’t conceived as such monumental work, but the collation of new material and outtakes from previous albums turned out to feel, ironically, more cohesive than Houses Of The Holy, and at twice the length. Along with the symphonic, Eastern-tinged “Kashmir” are complex yet heartfelt songs like “Ten Years Gone”—one of Plant’s standout performances in the group—and the greatest Led Zeppelin track to remain underplayed on classic-rock radio: the sumptuous, staggeringly vast “In The Light.”
Unlike so many of its ’70s superstar peers, from Pink Floyd to The Eagles, Led Zeppelin never sounded overly processed or slick. At its most ornate, there was still a rawness and chaos around the edges of the music. Oddly, the most airtight album in its oeuvre, 1976’s Presence, is one of its best. Plant was recuperating from a devastating car crash while Presence was being made, and the creative momentum the band had enjoyed suffered its first major speed bump. It gave Led Zeppelin the chance to reassess its place in the rock firmament and, just as punk was exploding in England and calling for the downfall of the so-called rock dinosaur, strip down its sound. Presence wasn’t well received when it came out, and it spawned no significant radio hits. But the angularity and chilly atmosphere of the record’s 10-minute opener, “Achilles Last Stand,” sounds years ahead of its time, as does the start-stop precision of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Even shorn of most of its shaggy trappings, Led Zeppelin demonstrated it could summon the elements.
Led Zeppelin’s longest gap between albums cropped up between Presence and 1979’s In Through The Out Door—a hiatus from both touring and recording partly caused by the tragic death of Plant’s 5-year-old son Karac in 1977. A tribute to Karac appears on In Through The Out Door, and it’s as atypical of the group’s cocksure style as the whole album is: “All My Love” is tender, muted, and mature, exhibiting an aching balladry that stripped away much of the mythic grandeur that had come to surround the band. Another move toward pop came in the form of “Fool In The Rain,” a song full of huge hooks, sweetness, and even a Latin-tinged breakdown. It may seem lightweight compared to much of Zeppelin’s catalog, but it also features a monstrously muscular performance from Bonham. It would also be one of his last; due to his alcohol-related death, In Through The Out Door was Zeppelin’s final studio album released during its existence, a downbeat epitaph for a band that appeared to be mellowing, but that might have had abundant life left in it otherwise.
Coda is Led Zeppelin’s posthumous album, released in 1982 and cobbled together from various tracks across its career that had never made it onto an album. Understandably, it’s a grab bag—but the inclusion of lost classics like the punk-inspired “Wearing And Tearing” more than justified its existence (as does the inclusion of the 1970 B-side “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” although it didn’t make the cut until the 1993 remastered CD version of the album). It also began a decades-long process of plundering the Led Zeppelin vaults, a process that seems to be finally culminating in the new series of reissues, which are packed with demos, alternate versions, and unreleased tracks hand-picked by Page. Various other collections and box sets have been released over the years, plus a handful of live albums—the most essential being 1976’s The Song Remains The Same, which captures the band during a stint at Madison Square Garden in 1973. The concert film of the same is as beautifully shot as it is outrageously grandiose—Plant heroically straddling the prow of a laughably small ship during one of the movie’s many staged interludes is a thing of both wonder and ludicrousness—but it sums up so much of what made Led Zeppelin larger than life.
Page and Plant reunited in 1998 for their single studio album as a duo: Walking Into Clarksdale, a respectable if bland revisiting of Led Zeppelin’s core mission that’s a glaring example of how much Jones’ prowess as an arranger and instrumentalist was missed—not to mention Bonham’s magisterial stomp. In the same recent Rolling Stone article in which Page vowed Led Zeppelin would never reform, Plant voiced his less diplomatic agreement: “A tour [following the group’s one-off reunion at London’s O2 Arena in 2007] would have been an absolute menagerie of vested interests and the very essence of everything that’s shitty about big-time stadium rock. You’re going back to the same old shit. I’m not part of any jukebox!” The man who once fronted the least singles-friendly band to ever conquer the planet still seems to loathe the idea of easily digestible, easily disposable popular music. Zeppelin’s eminence owes much to the fact that Plant and crew had it both ways: songs that rocked the pants off millions yet still feel intimate, secretive, and, at their best, sacred.
1. Led Zeppelin IV
Even if “Stairway To Heaven” didn’t appear on IV—and even if it was partially purloined—it would still be the album that best defines what Led Zeppelin is all about. From the strolling, chanting “Misty Mountain Hop” to the chiming folk of “The Battle Of Evermore” (the latter featuring the late Sandy Denny on eerie guest vocals), IV belts out monolithic riffs and coaxes dark atmosphere. And on “Rock And Roll,” the ghost of rock past gets a high-octane up-sell.
2. Led Zeppelin I
Prototypes of hard rock and heavy metal abounded in 1968. Led Zeppelin was a quantum leap. Page applied every lesson he’d learned as a fleeting member of the final lineup of The Yardbirds—along with the four-soloists template The Who had already laid down—and helmed the creation of one of rock’s most assured and intuitively attuned debuts. And with “Communication Breakdown,” punk and metal have their common ancestor.
3. Physical Graffiti
Led Zeppelin’s only double album, Physical Graffiti warrants the format by filling every spare inch with riches. “Custard Pie” prances, “In The Light” mesmerizes, and “Down By The Seaside” converts bucolic melancholy into gold. The pomp of “Kashmir”—and its breathtaking, upward-spiraling riff—sounds like the ideal that Page had been chasing after for years, at last made manifest.
4. Led Zeppelin III
While it has its folky moments, III has its share of rockers—most conspicuously, “Immigrant Song,” in which Plant goes full Viking over the top of Page’s marauding guitar, inspiring legions of metal bands in their wake. But it’s the thrust and mystery of tracks like “Friends”—cinematic folk delivered with rock combustion and skeletal spookiness—that paved a new road for Led Zeppelin to follow.
The dark-horse triumph of Led Zeppelin’s body of work, Presence is the exception that proves the rule: The group worked best when pushing itself toward something grander, stranger, and less known. Not only is its stark production a shock compared to the lushness of its predecessors, Presence hosts the awe-inducing chill of “Achilles Last Stand”—a direction the band might have continued along if fate hadn’t stepped in.