Marching through time with Led Zeppelin
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I have this vision of the band.
There are thousands of fans screaming. Absolutely delirious at what they’re seeing. Maybe most of them don’t even realize the magnitude of what they’re witnessing, but the overwhelming power of the band is enough.
That band, on an ever-expanding stage, growing to try to meet the demand of an ever-increasing audience, is huddled together. Bass and guitar amps line each side of a drum riser, the singer in the middle, all four principals huddled together. There’s eye contact, smiles, laughs, and in seconds it turns into white-hot alchemy, just molten magma now churning out this nearly demented take on the blues.
It could be 1969, or 1975, or 2007, it doesn’t matter. It’s Led Zeppelin — Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham — and what they’re conjuring from the air would be otherwise unimaginable. And in a short space of time, they pumped out pure magic, the likes of which we’ve yet to see again.
So far this month, I’ve basically listened to nothing but this band. It began at the end of January, when I decided it was time to go through the entire catalog again. As in, one album a day, in order, moving through the discography from the debut Led Zeppelin up to Celebration Day, the live album documenting their 2007 reunion gig.
Now, nearly three weeks in, I haven’t let up. I’ve jumped into bootlegs and circled back through albums, reinvestigating this phenomenon I discovered in high school and, with a brief blip there after college, haven’t let slip through my grasp. And I’m not remotely sick of it yet.
Running through the first five or six albums in as many days, it because obvious how locked-in they were. From the shortly after their formation in late 1968 to the early days of 1972, they were a machine, pumping out album after album in between live shows at a startling pace. And they were just on the same album-a-year schedule as most major bands of the time. The sheer amount of quality material is simply astounding.
The first album is cranked out in about 36 hours in October 1968. The second is recorded in multiple studios through the U.S. and U.K. in 1969. A brief retreat to the country results in the bulk of the music that would make up the third album after that. They keep writing and recording in unorthodox locals for the fourth and fifth albums. And after finally taking a break at the end of 1973, they reconvene in 1974 for Physical Graffiti, recording a number of new songs and pairing them with songs that were unceremoniously left off of the previous records, effectively capping about six years of absolute brilliance without a single misstep.
It is dizzying.
As the years go on, the obstacles began to mount, personal tragedies started piling and simply finding the time to continue their creative work became increasingly difficult. But there are two more proper albums — Presence and In Through The Out Door — that each have their own high points and prove that, though the road had become much more treacherous, they were still able to navigate it to brilliant artistic ends.
The range of expression on In Through The Out Door, for example, astounds. The droning doom of “In the Evening” maintains all of the mystery and power of their great works, and stands as a thundering reintroduction to a band that had been absent from the recorded world for three years. Plant and Jones turned personal tragedy into “All My Love,” and on the flip side, took a rollicking southern beat and spun it into “South Bound Saurez.” They teamed with Page for another epic, the three-part roller coaster of “Carouselambra,” and put an eye towards future paths with “Fool in the Rain,” which could stand as one of John Bonham’s finer performances behind the kit. Amid all that, they were still able to toss in their love of Elvis and early rockabilly with “Hot Dog.” Is it slight? Sure. But it’s real, and it’s representative.
But finally, “I’m Gonna Crawl” is a masterpiece that deserves more attention. With the band reeling and far from 100 percent health, the sounds of Page’s guitar, Plant’s voice, Bonham’s percussion and everything else Jones threw into that pot is a totem to their unmistakable take on the blues. If “Since I’ve Been Loving You” was their first youthful step into the world of sorrow, this was the tale spun by older, wiser men entering their thirties — still young, of course, but miles from where they started.
I’ve mentioned it before, but the image of the early Led Zeppelin, huddled around the floor of a Danish radio station and in total lockstep before a crowd of bemused witnesses, is one of the defining sketches of the band, in my mind. They were young, blasting out of the gate, yet still looking at each other intently to deliver this music with their defining howl.
It didn’t occur to me until recently, though, that that fighting stance — huddled together while blowing away crowds with their unholy blend of blues and rock — was a constant through their career. From the New Yardbirds to the heights at Madison Square Garden in 1973, Earl’s Court in 1975, Knebworth in 1979, right on through to their triumphant 2007 reunion in London, they always kept their circle tight. And Plant noted as much in an interview about that final night in 2012:
“The great thing about what happened in 2007, when we played together again, was that we were back — even though we were in a reasonably sized venue — we were close together, really listening intensely, and intently, to the interplay between the four of us. ... And that was exactly kind of how we started off.”
Upon re-watching the Celebration Day film, he was right. On that typically expansive arena stage set in one end of the O2 Arena, the four of them were huddled together, just as they were back on that Danmarks Radio stage nearly 40 years earlier. It runs so contrary to the big arena acts, with the band laid out along the backline from end to end, with the optional runway (possibly leading to a secondary B stage) cutting through the crowd. It goes beyond mystique — they were and remain above and beyond the normal parlance of the Big Rock Concert. But they always seemed to be above nearly everything else.
Running through their entire catalog again (and spending plenty of quality time on bootlegs along the way) just reinforced how different they were. And that simple decision to stay close, keep outsiders at bay and follow their well-honed instincts proved to be wildly successful. And when it was over, they had the good sense to understand it was over.
In the end, they were greater and grander and superior to every peer simply because it never occurred to them to consider anyone else. What’s this about another way? They were Led Zeppelin.
Feb. 16, 2023
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com