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Led Zeppelin Buyers Guide

As anyone who listens regularly to Planet Rock will know, we attach the same sense of importance to Led Zeppelin as other stations might to The Beatles, Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley. Quite simply, without Zeppelin, there would almost certainly never have been half the rock bands that came after them. Or certainly not in the way we came to know them. From Aerosmith to Guns N’ Roses and back, right up to the present day and bands like the White Stripes and beyond, Zeppelin didn’t just change the face of rock for ever, they wrote the rulebook for the whole shebang, from how not to behave on the road to releasing some of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.

Essential Albums

Led Zeppelin II (1969)

Still the most downright exciting beginning-to-end album they would ever record, the second Led Zeppelin album created the template for every hard rock and heavy metal album that would come after it. Recorded literally out on the road, during studio pitstops on the band’s never-ending world tour of 1969, the excitement fair crackles from every lusty groove, from the outlandish opener, Whole Lotta Love, to its titanic closer, Bring It On Home. A lot of the material like the two aforementioned tracks may have been based on older blues material (both songs originally by Willie Dixon, in this instance) but the maelstrom of whip-cracking riffs, thunderous drums and howling vocals were entirely Zeppelin’s own invention. Elsewhere, tracks like Heartbreaker – a vintage showcase for Jimmy Page’s uninhibited guitar flash – rocked so hard they made contemporaries like The Who and the Rolling Stones sound like lightweights by comparison, with John Bonham’s drumming pushed right into the centre, setting a recording trend that at the time was little short of revolutionary. This was also the album where Robert Plant began to emerge as the group’s chief lyricist, particularly on the dream-like What Is And What Should Never Be, the incurably romantic Thank You (written for his wife, Maureen) and the unashamedly Tolkein-esque Ramble On. Rounded off by Moby Dick, one of the first drum solos committed to vinyl – and probably the only one ever worth such an honour – if ever there was a case of right album, right time then Led Zep II was it. As if to prove it, within weeks of release it had toppled The Beatles’ final album, Abbey Road off the top of the albums’ charts in both Britain and America. Truly, a new era had dawned in rock. And we hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet….

Whole Lotta Love / What Is And What Should Never Be / Lemon Song / Thank You / Heartbreaker / Livin' Lovin' Maid (She's Just A Woman) / Ramble On / Moby Dick / Bring It On Home

Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

Known variously as Led Zep IV, Four Symbols and/or Runes, the untitled fourth Led Zeppelin album found the band approaching its creative zenith. Although their first three albums had already made them world famous, it was the arrival of their fourth in November 1971 that took the band to an even greater plateau – artistically, commercially and, most crucially, personally – from which they would look down on the rest of the rock world for ever after. Some would argue there would be even better Zeppelin albums to come – Physical Graffiti is the most often cited, though for Jimmy Page it would probably be Presence – but their fourth album was where Led Zeppelin first transcended their status as mere rock stars and transmogrified into something else entirely: a living, fire-breathing legend. One of those peerless recordings where every track seems to fit like a glove – from it’s rollicking opener, Black Dog, to its head-swimmingly hypnotic closer, When The Levee Breaks, via such transcendent rock moments as Rock And Roll, Misty Mountain Hop and Four Sticks – the fourth Zep album remains an absolute classic of the genre. Not to mention the fourth biggest-selling album of all time. A virtual template for all that was most exceptional about the band – the light and shade of folksy acoustic ballads like Going To California and The Battle Of Evermore punctuating the dark pulsing heart of bones-into-dust rockers like Black Dog and Rock And Roll – it also contained Stairway To Heaven, all the dynamic elements that made the album so exciting contained in one, mould-breaking track, and perhaps the greatest rock song of all time. If an alien came to Earth and asked you to play him one album that summed up all that was best about Led Zeppelin, this would be it.

Black Dog / Rock And Roll / The Battle Of Evermore / Stairway To Heaven / Misty Mountain Hop / Four Sticks / Going To California / When The Levee Breaks

Physical Graffiti (1975)

After the lukewarm critical reception their previous album, Houses Of The Holy, had received – a deliberately much lighter confection than its own mean and moody predecessor, Zep IV – the band knew they had to come back with a heavyweight statement with their next release. The result was Physical Graffiti, a double-album that is now generally regarded as the crowning achievement of their career. That rare thing: a double album that doesn’t reek of self-indulgence, Physical Graffiti had actually started life as an eight-song collection formulated from a batch of recordings laid down at different times in late 1973, early 1974 at Headley Grange – the same rundown country mansion they had recorded much of Zep IV at. But the length of some of these tracks – the monumental In My Time Of Dying, the epic In The Light , the heart-rending Ten Years Gone and, not least, the panoramic Kashmir – suggested that a single album might not be sufficient to contain everything they now had to offer. So the decision was taken to reassess some leftover tracks from their third, fourth and fifth albums. This source provided another seven tracks, including the unused title track of Houses Of The Holy, plus lighter ditties like Down by The Seaside, Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp, and Boogie With Stu. The result was the most rounded, complete Led Zeppelin album that would ever be released; almost a summation of everything that had gone before – only better. From the thundering dynamics of Zep II and IV to the lighter acoustic ramblings of Zep III and orchestrated pop of Houses Of The Holy. Their sixth album in as many years, Physical Graffiti also represented the high tide mark for Zeppelin. Indeed, five years and just two more studio albums after this peak the band would be gone.

Custard Pie / The Rover / In My Time Of Dying / Houses Of The Holy /  Trampled Under Foot / Kashmir / In The Light / Bron-Yr-Aur / Down By The Seaside / Ten Years Gone / Night Flight / The Wanton Song / Boogie With Stu / Black Country Woman / Sick Again

Expand Your Collection

Led Zeppelin (1969)

Recorded and mixed in just three days for under £2000, within weeks of the band first forming under the name of the New Yardbirds, the first Led Zeppelin album was a monumental achievement. As Jimmy Page would later tell me, "We just threw all our ideas into the pot and went for it.” Very much a case of taking something old (both Dazed And Confused – originally I’m Confused – and How Many More Times were numbers Page had first fashioned onstage for The Yardbirds), something new (Good Times Bad Times – also their first single – and Communication Breakdown were two of the first original numbers the new band came up with together), something borrowed (Black Mountain Side – Page’s guitar instrumental – was ‘borrowed’ from folk guitarist Bert Jansch’s arrangement of Black Water Side while Babe I’m Gonna Leave You came from an old Joan Baez album) and something blue (their roof-shaking versions of Willie Dixon’s You Shook Me and the former Otis Rush showcase I Can’t Quit You Baby) the Led Zeppelin album laid the foundations for hard rock as it would come to be known in the 1970s.

Good Times Bad Times / Babe I'm Gonna Leave You / You Shook Me / Dazed And Confused / Your Time Is Gonna Come / Black Mountain Side / Communication Breakdown / I Can't Quite You Baby / How Many More Times

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

After the huge transatlantic success of their second album, it appeared that all Zeppelin had to do to continue that success was come up with more of the same. That their next album – a collection of mainly acoustic-based material that showcased the band’s lighter side – was so utterly different from its hardboned predecessor confounded critics and left many fans scratching their heads. In retrospect, however, it was also the shrewdest move the band could have made, thus ensuring they escaped the trap of being labelled a one-dimensional heavy metal band. With much of it conceived in a cottage in south Snowdon known as Bron-Yr-Aur, the third Zeppelin album was brimful of delicate ditties like That’s The Way, the West Coast-sound inspired Tangerine and the traditional English murder ballad Gallows Pole. Not that they had abandoned their rock roots completely, as evidenced by Viking-inspired opener, Immigrant Song, the frenetic Celebration Day and the slinky blues of Since I’ve Been Loving You. The critics may  have blackballed them for not coming up with another Whole Lotta Love but as history has showed Zep III was a much braver, more original collection for it.

Immigrant Song / Friends / Celebration Day / Since I've Been Loving You / Out On The Tiles / Gallows Pole / Tangerine / That's The Way / Bron-Y-Aur Stomp / Hats Off To [Roy] Harper

Houses Of The Holy (1973)

Similar to Zep III in that it never received the acclaim it deserved, a fact almost entirely down to it having followed such a momentous predecessor, Houses Of The Holy, the first Zeppelin album to be afforded an actual title (a reference to the symbolic relationship they had developed with the giant auditoriums they now routinely headlined) is actually one of their most varied. The critics may not have thought much at the time of the funk spoof The Crunge or the cod reggae of D’Yer Maker (pronounced ‘Jamaica’) but, in retrospect, they just added to the list of Zeppelin’s musical accomplishments. Throw in the hyper-real rock of The Song Remains The Same (featuring Plant’s vocals speeded-up and phased) the exquisite acoustic balladry of Rain Song (boasting a typically obscure Page guitar tuning), the instant groove of Dancing Days, the ice-cold synthesised mist of No Quarter, the more typical folk-rock (with a twist) of Over The Hills And Far Away, and one track – The Ocean – that featured their best guitar r ff since Whole Lotta Love, and you end up with one of the most back-to-back enjoyable albums in the Zeppelin canon.

The Song Remains The Same / The Rain Song / Over The Hills And Far Away / The Crunge / Dancing Days / D'yer Mak'er / No Quarter / The Ocean

Presence (1976)

Their first recording since the car crash on the Island of Rhodes in August 1975 that had left Robert Plant in a wheelchair, fearful he might not walk again, Presence was a stop-gap album: something to keep the band occupied during a period when they had originally planned to be on their latest world tour. It was also their first album since officially becoming tax exiles: written on the run and recorded in a mere 18 days at Musicland studios in Munich. Indeed, Jimmy Page hardly slept throughout the sessions, so concerned was he with finishing quickly. The result was an album that divided opinion: undeniably brilliant in places, yet so different from anything that had come before, from Plant’s much deeper, huskier voice, to the band’s pulverising force, even on the album’s supposed lighter moments, such as For Your Life and Tea For One. Now remembered chiefly for the Olympian grandeur of tracks like the opener Achilles’ Last Stand, and the claustrophobic bluster of Nobody’s Fault But Mine, it remains a perso al favourite of Page’s, and was perhaps the closest Zeppelin ever got to capturing the sheer raw power of their stage performances.

Achilles Last Stand / For Your Life / Royal Orleans / Nobody's Fault But Mine / Candy Store Rock / Hots On For Nowhere / Tea For One

In Through The Out Door (1979)

Following another enforced lay-off after the tragic death of Plant’s young son in 1977, the singer admitted he had to be coaxed back into making what would become the final Zeppelin album. Recorded at Abba’s own Polar Music Studio in Stockholm in late 1978, the release of the album was delayed even further to coincide with the band’s planned comeback at Knebworth Park in August the following year. The first – and only – Zeppelin album of the new post-punk era, critical expectations were low. But In Through The Outdoor surprised everyone with the strength of its best material. From the epic opener, In The Evening, through to the swooning All My Love, via such typically unrestrained Zeppelin moments as the lengthy Carouselambra and the pleasingly off-the-wall Fool In The Rain, all demonstrated that the band still had an appetite to explore new musical territory. It also allowed John Paul Jones to come to the fore for the first time, as a composer and arranger (not to mention synthesiser player). That the band never had the chance to follow it up was a tragedy, both personally and professionally. As goodbyes go though, this was better than most artists’ hellos.

In The Evening / South Band Saurez / Fool In The Rain / Hot Dog / Carouselambra / All My Love / I'm Gonna Crawl

For The Die-Hard Fan

Soundtrack From The Film: The Song Remains The Same (1976)

Unwieldy title, unwieldy performance, great things were expected of this two-disc set of the band’s 1973 shows at Madison Square Garden, especially as they had been specially selected as the ones filmed for the movie of the same name, also released in 1976. Unfortunately, the whole thing was a disappointment. Not because there aren’t any good performances on here, there are: notably the excellent version of No Quarter on side one. By the time you’ve sat through the slovenly 27-minute Dazed And Confused and the disappointingly uninspired 14-minute Moby Dick, the interest wanes considerably. Not least because the fans all knew what a great live band Zeppelin was. Indeed, you only have to listen to the belated 2003 release, How The West Was Won, recorded in Los Angeles, a year before this set, to see how much this drags. Still a wonderfully overwrought document of the times, though.

Disc 1: Rock 'N' Roll / Celebration Day / The Song Remains The Same / Rain Song / Dazed And Confused
Disc 2: No Quarter / Stairway To Heaven / Moby Dick / Whole Lotta Love

Mick Wall


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