Led Zeppelin: Why we should dig the 'rock dinosaurs' all over again
They were the biggest band of the 1970s and they're about to reform
Everyone loves Led Zeppelin. Always did. Yeah, even in the 1980s. And you couldn't have had grunge without them weren't they Nirvana's favourite band?
And hip-hop. You couldn't have had hip-hop without John Bonham's drumming. And you couldn't have had This is Spinal Tap without The Song Remains the Same, the daftest home movie ever made. Did you get tickets for The O2? Nah, me neither. But yeah, we've always loved Zeppelin.
Except that we haven't. We've despised them, discarded them, held them up to ridicule. They were the institution that gave rise to the expression " rock dinosaur". God knows we have had our reasons to sniff and turn away. How shall we number them.
We could start at the beginning and listen to the higher-minded American critics, who loathed Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham on grounds of their "ham-handedness", "vulgarity" and lack of deference. According to these custodians of the blues tradition, Zeppelin were an undisciplined war-party of English orcs who reduced the cultural dignity of the "Devil's music" to that of a cock-measuring contest.
We might then shift our focus to the group's moral friability. Throughout their early American tours, Messrs Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones gorged themselves on the flower of American girlhood. Eventually, they even had their own aeroplane to do it in.
Let us also consider the management thuggery which attended the group's pillaging of the defenceless American village, the "authoritarian" loudness of their concerts, the occultism, the narcissism... They were rubbish, Led Zeppelin.
Except they weren't. They were great. Which is one of the reasons why 87 million souls pitched for O2 tickets an echo of the way Led Zeppelin represented one of the more appealing historical triumphs of popular taste over critical authority. Try as those American critics might to convince readers that "Zep" were a blot, the youth of America made them the "biggest band of the 1970s", an operation without rival as a unit-shifter until the onset of the West Coast soft-rock counterpoint to punk.
The youth of the British Isles felt much the same way about them, at least until punk. But then we Brits knew where Led Zeppelin were coming from. It was in our bones. By 1970 the oiks of Old England had been stealing black American blues music and turning it into something else for half a decade. In 1977, some punks even secretly hung on to their copies of Physical Graffiti on the grounds that if you want your head stoved in, then " Custard Pie" will do the job better than "Pretty Vacant".
And if rock'*'roll is measured in the manner of its proceeding from the foundation, Little Richard, then Led Zeppelin was its fulfilment. Everything that followed was either a reaction to them or an afterthought. Led Zeppelin really were the last word in rock'n'roll. And here's why in 10 riffs:
'Dazed and Confused' (1968)
It is an under-acknowledged fact that Jimmy Page was the first man to record electric guitars and drums properly, to get them to sound in your bedroom the same way they did in his, as if all the air has been sucked out on to the landing. Not an easy thing to do in the studios of the day. All Led Zeppelin records sound loud even when they're on quietly. Lyrically, " Dazed and Confused" is a steal from the American songwriter Jake Holmes, a protracted wail of adolescent sexual anguish chromatic, slow and cadenced with a sledgehammer. The blues Gothicised.
'Whole Lotta Love' (1969)
It may or may not be true that the heavy rock riff was invented by Page during his session days when he sat in on the recording of The Kinks' " You Really Got Me". And let us not forget Keith Richards' " Satisfaction" or Jimi Hendrix's feral achievements in this area. But the daddy riff is "Whole Lotta Love". Does engorgement have a sound? Best ask the 14-year-old boy in your life. Better still, ask the 54-year-old, because he will have done the research at the time and be over the embarrassment by now.
'Since I've Been Loving You' (1970)
The blues not Gothicised but hymnodised. Plant's anguish has changed in character. There is in "Loving You" a hint of heart. But, again, structure is what this elegant, curtained blues is all about: light, shade, weight, levity, colour, texture. Sound as architecture. It contains the most plangent solo Page ever committed to tape, fingered in one take in Memphis, 4,000 miles away from the song's actual birthplace, Basing Street, W11.
'Gallows Pole' (1970)
You cannot get to grips with Zeppelin unless you're prepared to give in gracefully to their Englishness. It's the way their Englishness enjoyed an easy relationship with their Afro-Americanophilia that made them the charmingly original blues-burglars they really were. "Gallows Pole" is a 17th-century gibbet ballad, Americanised by Leadbelly, then re-anglicised by our boys, who restored to it a mad-eyed, capering vibe, banjo, block-busting kick-drum and all.
'When the Levee Breaks' (1971)
We've done the blues as Gothic spasm and as hymn. How about the blues as chorale? "Levee" is an old Memphis Minnie flood song, drenched in mystery, shaking with the migratory instinct. Page and Bonham roll it out over seven stirring minutes with an incantatory Plant unrecognisable from the thwarted goon of "Dazed and Confused". And don't those drums at the beginning sound weirdly familiar? They're the drums sampled on all those hip-hop records you bought in the 1980s.
'No Quarter' (1973)
"Close the doors, put out the light/ You know they won't be home tonight." Not a bad way to start a song. Yet songwriting was never Zeppelin's strong suit. Their sound, not their words, was the vessel containing the things they had to say. Good job, too, because Plant's early attempts at transcending the blues idiom were fraught with hippie waffle. " No Quarter" is typical in one sense it reads like a pastiche of a Nordic saga. But it's different too: more real. It certainly has the psychological integrity to support its drama: the song describes a frightened moment rather than a sequence of events to be frightened of. Led Zeppelin would never be Bob Dylan, but they weren't Iron Maiden either.
'In the Light' (1975)
The religious Right went to a lot of trouble in the 1980s trying to demonstrate that Led Zeppelin were the tools of Beelzebub. They'd noticed that if you played certain records backwards, as you do, then you'd hear dark voices calling the youth of America to throw off their comfy lives in favour of beastliness. It's true that Page had, and probably still has, an interest in the works of the occultist Aleister Crowley he even acquired Crowley's old manor on the shores of Loch Ness. It's also true that Zeppelin's taste for domineering volume, minor intervals, bludgeoning rhythm and sexual allusion lent their music a certain fetid dolour. But the happy fact is that lots of their songs extol the hippie ideal of living in a state of spiritual enlightenment. This elaborate one is a case in point.
Bonham died in 1980 after drinking more than his fair share of the vodka in Berkshire. The group immediately announced that they would not be carrying on. Not many groups would have done that drummers are usually regarded as replaceable parts. "Bonzo" might have been the greatest rock drummer ever; he certainly belted his kit with unmeterable force. Yet it was his "feel" that made him a fully authorial component in the Zeppelin sound. Every note they ever played issued from the pulse in Bonham's body and he swung against the click of time with a weight and suppleness. Bonzo was irreplaceable, and "Kashmir" is the best place to hear the simplicity of that fact.
'For Your Life' (1976)
You wouldn't want to dance to Led Zeppelin, but that doesn't mean the group weren't funky after their own savage fashion. "Trampled Underfoot" is the one everyone knows, but this is better a ruthless on-the-one lurch with layered guitars trying to drag Bonham's delayed backbeat out of its hole. Plant sat down to sing it having smashed up his leg in a car crash on holiday. "For Your Life" is Led Zeppelin giving up orcs for the world most of us live in. It really hurts.
'Stairway to Heaven' (from How the West Was Won, 2003)
If you must. But have the 1972 version on this live triple album. Bonham is sensational. *
'The Song Remains the Same' is out now on DVD. The Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert at the London 02 on 10 December is sold out