Led Zeppelin led the way to new world of rock music

Reissues of Led Zeppelin's first three albums confirm their status as the band who changed rock, writes Jack Hamilton

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 12:18pm

It's early 1969, and you are young. You hold in your hands an LP by a band with a strange name. The cover art is a black-and-white photo of the Hindenburg exploding, cropped and retouched to resemble some phallic, Nazi apocalypse. You remove the record from the sleeve and place it on your turntable. The sound of a guitar explodes into your ears, two quick bursts of a Fender Telecaster, each lashed to a violent drum hit. When it all ends you grab the needle and move it back to the record's edge, to confirm all this is real, and it all begins again.

That twin blast of an E chord is the opening sound of Good Times Bad Times, the first track on Led Zeppelin, which would soon be known as Led Zeppelin I once Led Zeppelin decided to name their next two albums after themselves as well. In 1969 it was a powerful shot across the bow of pop music. It was the sound of a new world being born, and the louder sound of an old world being destroyed.

These are, and always have been, three of the most perfect-sounding rock albums ever made

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III have recently been given deluxe reissues by Atlantic Records. Each package contains a remastered version of the original album, along with a generous helping of bonus tracks. The first boasts a live set from a concert in Paris in 1969 while the other two include collections of rough mixes from the sessions from Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III.

The remastering is superfluous: these are, and always have been, three of the most perfect-sounding rock albums ever made. The rough mixes of II and III, though, are a revelation, casting light on Led Zep guitarist Jimmy Page's immense talents as a producer and giving us the opportunity to rediscover this band as they were: four absurdly gifted young people making music together, as opposed to the rock deities they'd forever after be imagined as.

Led Zeppelin's legacy is fittingly long and fittingly loud. Depending on your preference in white male hagiography, "modern" rock music is often said to have started with Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone, or The Beatles' Sgt Pepper, but these myths are wishful, and overly fanciful: modern rock music started with Led Zeppelin. Their influence, for better and worse, over all that's come since is singular. Punk in the 1970s was a rejection of their pompous pretentiousness, metal in the 1980s an affirmation of their excesses, grunge in the 1990s a reclamation of punk that often sounded a lot like Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin were the first significant band to emerge from a post-British Invasion world and effectively reversed its trajectory. They conquered America before even bothering with their home country: Led Zeppelin was released two months earlier in the US than it was in England, and on an American label to boot.

For a band so fundamentally associated with the 1970s, it's startling to remember that Led Zeppelin came out seven months before Woodstock, eight months before Abbey Road, 11 months before Altamont. Much like Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols or Straight Outta Compton, Led Zeppelin was an enormously important album that wasn't an entirely great one. It had two exquisite tracks ( Good Times Bad Times and the nastily brutish Communication Breakdown), but much of the rest was uneven and bloated. The album's centrepiece was the six-and-a-half-minute Dazed and Confused, a morass of shrieking chromaticisms and asinine misogyny. It would quickly become one of the band's most iconic works, stretched to 20 or 30 minutes in concert, replete with gongs, vocal histrionics and tricked-out guitars played with violin bows.

From the beginning, they had vocal detractors. One of the well-worn saws of Led Zeppelin lore is that they were universally loathed by the critical establishment. Like so much about the band, this is a partial truth that's been exaggerated. Plenty of critics liked Led Zeppelin and plenty more politely tolerated them (the British press were particularly enthusiastic - New Musical Express breathlessly declared them "a blitzkrieg of musically perfected hard rock that combines heavy dramatics with lashings of sex into a formula that can't fail to move the senses and limbs"). What is true is that an influential contingent of writers hated them. Specifically, Rolling Stone magazine hated Led Zeppelin and hated them during a period in which the publication was consolidating its reputation as the world's most influential organ of rock journalism.

Led Zeppelin II arrived in October 1969, a mere nine months after Led Zeppelin, an incredible feat given the band's gruelling touring schedule. Led Zeppelin II opened with Whole Lotta Love, which became the band's first proper "hit", peaking at No4 in the US in early 1970. Today Whole Lotta Love is so famous it's easy to forget that it's probably one of the stranger singles to scale the upper heights of the Billboard charts. For starters, it's not much of a song: there are no chord changes to speak of, and the "bridge" is an extended interlude that sounds like someone faking an orgasm in a haunted house. The rest of the track is just a guitar riff supplemented by vocalist Robert Plant intoning lame pickup lines.

All that said, Whole Lotta Love is Led Zeppelin at their most essential. It's big, loud, riff-driven, not terribly bright, and probably twice as long as it ought to be. It's also an incredible piece of music that creates a five-minute cauldron of volume, rhythm and sex about as effectively as anything ever has. It instantly became the iconic track of Led Zeppelin II, which was predictable but also a bit of a shame, as it eclipsed the enormous strides the band made elsewhere on the album.

Like the band's first album, Led Zeppelin II was produced by Page, and it marked his full emergence as one of the great studio architects in popular music. Every sound captured on the album is extraordinary. Instruments swoop between stereo channels, the bass and drums blend perfectly against each other, Plant sounds as if he's in the room with you even when he's off singing about Middle Earth. And the guitars - good lord, the guitars.

Led Zeppelin II was a commercial smash - it knocked Abbey Road off the top of the charts in the US - but it failed to change the hearts and minds of the band's critics. In Rolling Stone's notorious trashing of the album, we see a new narrative emerging, that Led Zeppelin were simply the next and worst generation of blues plunderers, the limited case of white opportunism. At least Jagger and Janis had been reverent. Accusations of wholesale cultural larceny abounded. The problem with Led Zeppelin was never really what they'd stolen from the blues, but what they hadn't: economy, wit, taste. And then Led Zeppelin blew everything up, again.

Led Zeppelin III, released in October 1970, opened with Immigrant Song, a screeching, pummelling anthem about Viking invaders. The only way Immigrant Song could have sounded more like a parody of Led Zeppelin is if it were seven minutes long as opposed to two and a half. If you hated Led Zeppelin, Immigrant Song confirmed everything you thought you knew, and you may have stopped listening there.

But Led Zeppelin III was a shocking musical curveball and remains the strangest album in the band's catalogue. It debuted at No1 because it was a Led Zeppelin album, and then sales dropped, because - was it a Led Zeppelin album? And it still didn't garner the acclaim the band sought, met with confusion or dismissive contempt by writers who barely seemed to have listened to it. "It would be hard to imagine a popular musical organisation that is any more consistently ugly than Led Zeppelin," The New York Times declared. The song remained the same, even when it didn't at all.

When victory did finally come for Led Zeppelin it came like everything else had - massively. In November 1971 they released their fourth album, which bore no title but would soon be known as Led Zeppelin IV. It contained the band's self-styled masterpiece, Stairway to Heaven, along with their actual masterpiece, When the Levee Breaks.

Today Led Zeppelin IV is widely regarded as one of the finest albums ever made ( Rolling Stone even liked it!) and has sold nearly 40 million copies. It cemented them as the biggest band of the post-Beatles era, even if returns afterward were diminishing: Houses of the Holy (1973) was a very good album that was a step down from the work that preceded it; 1975's Physical Graffiti was a double album that would have been great had it been a single album; 1976's Presence just wasn't very good; and 1979's In Through the Out Door wasn't much better.

When drummer John Bonham died in 1980 the band called it quits, but the Led Zeppelin idea endured. By the time Led Zeppelin were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, they'd faded into archetype, open-shirted lead singers and Les Pauls slung around the knees having long since lost their ability to be thrilling or crass. And the three surviving members of the band have aged remarkably gracefully, with Page taking his rightful place as a public intellectual of the electric guitar, Plant reinventing himself as a Grammy-winning interpreter of high-end Americana, and bassist John Paul Jones enjoying family life (with his wife since 1965) while occasionally joining other Zeppelin-ish supergroups.

One of the most impressive achievements of the former members of Led Zeppelin is how deftly they've each disentangled themselves from Led Zeppelin. But they can't really, no more than any of us can. That murderous burst of guitar that opened Good Times Bad Times did everything it was supposed to, and everything it wasn't: it changed the world.

Slate Magazine