For those of you that don’t know, I was a hipster in high school. By the time I was a senior, my musical criticism was legendary. It was the butt of jokes. Some people were offended by it, others respected it.
At the time I was friends with two guys who owned a music store. The majority of my taste came from them. They introduced me to Okkervil River, The Smiths, Jeff Buckley, The Hold Steady, The Mountain Goats, and Joy Division to name a few.
Nothing pissed me off more than the kids who listened to classic rock and mouthed off about how all post seventies music sucked. I took every opportunity I got to argue with them about great modern music. My rivalry with them was so intense I found it impossible to enjoy anything that got played on a classic rock station.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010. I was no longer a hipster and beginning to really enjoy classic rock. I was a big fan of Hendrix, Dylan, and The Beatles. I was constantly driving in my car, and my radio dial was permanently stuck on the classic rock station. I listened to it so religiously within seconds of a song being played I could name it and the artist.
Just about every band I bashed in high school I now enjoyed with one exception: Led Zeppelin. As far as I was concerned, Rolling Stone had them pegged back in the late sixties. Sure they had a few good songs (Rock ‘N’ Roll, Immigrant Song, Heartbreaker), but they were wildly overrated. I didn’t understand why nearly everyone worshiped them.
However, I want to change that. I consider myself to be a very open minded person now. You name it, I listen to it. Country, jazz, techno, ska, classical, rap, pop, reggae, soul, funk, metal, punk, gospel, blues, and of course my beloved rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps a little bit of my high school hipster is still lingering in my brain somewhere, refusing to let me appreciate Zeppelin for what they have to offer.
So to combat that and prove once and for all if Zeppelin are gods or hacks, I’m going to listen to Zeppelin’s six critically acclaimed albums (Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin IV, Houses Of The Holy, and Physical Graffiti. Presence, In Through The Out Door, and Coda are widely considered to be mediocre at best even by die-hard fans.), and review them track by track. I assure you I’m leaving personal bias out of the equation. I want to like Led Zeppelin. Will I become a fan? Only one way to find out. Time to rock ‘n’ roll!
Good Times, Bad Times: The first thing that stands out when you spin Led Zeppelin’s debut album is John Bonham’s drumming. Unlike most modern metal bands, it’s very rhythmic. Every member of the band is featured equally. Jimmy Page’s solo pales in comparison to Hendrix and Clapton, but it’s still compelling nonetheless. None of the riffs are overly catchy, but they’ve still got that traditional rock and roll pulse. Amid all the rhythm, soloing, and shrieking John Paul Jones bass riffs are both easily audible and the highlight of the song. I’ve never been a fan of Robert Plant’s vocals, but they aren’t annoying me here. I really dig this song. Good Times, Bad Times has set the bar fairly high. Hopefully, the rest of the album can compare.
You Shook Me: Led Zeppelin’s third track is yet another cover, originally written by Willie Dixon and J. B. Lenoir. There’s nothing really special about it. Just your standard blues fare. The organ and harmonica solos are an unexpected highlight. Plant yet again doesn’t have the vocal chops to do the song justice, but he doesn’t butcher it too badly. Page’s guitar solo is cliche and predictable. Honestly, there isn’t much to hate or love about this song. It’s boring, but at least it doesn’t offend. My opinion is still split.
Dazed And Confused: Originally written by Jake Holmes. “Dazed And Confused” was covered by Page’s previous band The Yardbirds, and then reworked by Zeppelin. Although it’s another cover song, Zeppelin holds copyrights to their interpretation of it, so technically it’s theirs. The problem with Zeppelin’s rendition is it can’t decide if it wants to be a blues rock or psychedelic song. Instead of complementing each other, the two opposing genres fight each other like alley cats. Just when the psychedelia begins to take hold halfway through, everything speeds up and Page’s guitar kicks you in the balls. Thankfully Page’s solo saves the day. When the song moves back into slow territory during the last minute, it isn’t as hard to swallow as it was in the beginning. Although the first three minutes are boring as shit, the second half of the song makes up for it. Overall, this a step in the right direction, but my opinion is still split.
Your Time Is Gonna Come: Featuring an organ and out of tune steel guitar, the first minute sounds like something you’d hear in church. When the song picks up speed it feels very natural. The chorus is very catchy, and the dark lyrics juxtapose extremely well with the upbeat instrumentals. Normally I can’t stand rock ballads, but this is a rock ballad done right. So far this is my favorite track on Led Zeppelin, and one of the best songs I’ve heard by them. I feel optimistic about the next track.
Black Mountain Slide: Sixth track “Black Mountain Slide” is an instrumental, and unfortunately it forgets the most basic rule of instrumental songs, have a catchy hook. It sounds like a garbled mess of guitars and African percussion with nothing to latch on to. It’s incredibly self masturbatory and boring. Thankfully it isn’t very long. My opinion is once again split.
Communication Breakdown: Now this is a rock song. “Communication Breakdown” opens with a catchy, balls-to-the-wall guitar and bass riff. Bonham keeps things pounding forward and Plant’s vocals fit the song perfectly. Page’s guitar solo is melodic, impressive, and over much to quickly. The song doesn’t overstay its welcome and leaves you wanting more. Perfect single material, “Communication Breakdown” rivals “Your Time Is Gonna Come” as the highlight of the album. Once again I feel optimistic about Led Zeppelin’s debut. Let’s hope the next track doesn’t blow it.
I Can’t Quit You Baby: “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is another Willie Dixon cover, and much like “You Shook Me”, there isn’t anything special about it. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t good. Just another par for the course blues song. The problem with playing blues standards is if you don’t infuse some personality into it, the song quickly becomes background noise. The majority of the song is Page noodling around. Nothing to see here, move along.
How Many More Times: Clocking in at eight minutes and thirty seconds, “How Many More Times” is the longest song on the album. Once the riff is established and the band locks into the tempo everything moves along nicely. What’s great about this song is how easy Zeppelin makes it sound. They’re a very tight ensemble. As the song presses forward everyone in the band gets a moment to shine. Page’s guitar does this interesting fade in fade out thing during the first solo. Halfway through everything slows down, but it feels natural. John Paul Jones begins to take over, subtly showing off. Finally, Zeppelin does psychedelia correctly. Page’s guitar buzzes in and out of your left and right ears while Bonham cements everything together. Six minutes in Bonham does his complex rhythmic thing as Jones carries the melody while Page zips in and out of consciousness. Page’s vocals fit perfectly into the mix while the instrumentals thrash around him. The song ends with that traditional “wail on everything as loudly as possible for twenty seconds before playing a single note together and dropping out” thing exclusive to rock ‘n’ roll. “How Many More Times” is the magnum opus of the album, because despite it’s length it never becomes boring. If this album was a gymnst, despite a shaky routine, they stuck the landing.
Overall, Led Zeppelin’s debut is a solid album. At worst, it’s boring, and at best, it’s pure distilled rock ‘n’ roll perfection. The low points aren’t too low and the high points more than make up for them. Had I been alive during 1968, I’m sure I would have blared this album proudly. Is it worthy of “Rolling Stone’s 29th Greatest Album of All Time”? No. It’s still a damn good three out of four though.