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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Led Zeppelin 1

I've never been a big Led Zeppelin fan, to be honest and I'm still not really. Hell, I actually like the last two albums that Robert Plant put out - both Americana albums, one with Alison Krauss - more than almost the entirety of Led Zep's catalog. That said, though, there were certainly a good band and they had a bunch of very good songs but the only had one truly great - from beginning to end great - album. And oddly enough, it was their first. I haven't listened to the entirety of Led Zeppelin 1 for ages but there's no doubt: it's a terrific record.

From (Originally posted 15 August 2005)     

From my admittedly limited exposure to the band, I’ve come to the conclusion that Led Zeppelin suffers from one simple but fairly problematic flaw: their songwriting is, at best, seriously below par. Sure, they make up for this somewhat by being masters of arrangements, production and of course, of their instruments but ultimately their inability to come up with truly great original compositions means that I will never hold them in the same esteem that everyone else seems to. Added to this, the band suffers from several other flaws, not the least of which include a wildly inconsistent lead singer and a ridiculously high level of pretension.

The good news is that for one shining moment none of these problems had any hold over the band, a moment that came along right at the start of their career with an album that is simply known as Led Zeppelin I. This collection of blues-jams, hard rockers and acoustic-folk tracks represent Led Zeppelin at their most blissfully perfect at a time before they started loosing track of what made them great in the first place.

The songwriting isn’t up to much but for these songs it’s the arrangements, performances and production that truly matters and, as I mentioned, these are three things that the band truly excel at. Plus, I don’t know if it’s because he wasn’t that sure of himself yet but Robert Plant turns in nothing but one top-class vocal performance after another and the pretentiousness that would soil so much of the band’s later material is wholly absent here. Meanwhile, the rest of the band are as great as ever with Jimmy Page pulling off some typically priceless solos and trademark heavy riffs, John Bonham smashing away on his drum kit and John Paul Jones offering up his ever steady bass foundations.

If there is one complaint that I can level at the album, it’s that there is just a bit too much blues so I can’t help but get slightly bored towards the end there. Still, that small problem aside, this represents everything great about Led Zeppelin, while leaving out almost all of their weaker points. After this the only way left go was down - and it was down that they did indeed go but not before presenting the world with one of the all-time great hard rock/ heavy metal albums – as well as one of its first.

The album starts off with a heavy but heavenly explosion of instruments as the first song, Good Times Bad Times, sets the stage for the rest of the record. This is poppy metal at its best that of course bares no relation to the Rolling Stones song of the same name. I could only imagine what people back in 1969 thought when they heard that lethal combination of relentless drumming and that ear-splitting guitar solo exploding out of their speakers but in comparison to what was to come, Good Times Bad Times was only the tip of the iceberg for hard and heavy rock and roll.

We then move onto the band’s first and possibly best ballad, Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You. It may not really be the most moving of ballads but the way the band segue between the softer acoustic parts and the sheer sensory assault of the electric parts is nothing short of genius. This is hardly the last time they would try this but they just couldn’t ever really beat this flawless original no matter how hard they tried.

We then move into a double dose of a hard and heavy take on the classic blues song. The Willie Nixon cover You Shook Me really, really, really lives up to its name and though I’ve never heard the original, I’m pretty sure it sounded nothing like this. The song is a slow, pounding slice of the blues that features some revelatory organ playing from JP Jones and typically heavy drums from Bonzo that fit this song to a tee and of course a great performances from Page and Plant as well.

Even better though is Dazed and Confused, a song that all but defines the word “electrifying”. Needless to say the band are in top form here but I especially need to point out Plant, who delivers what is unquestionably his finest moment – just listen to the way he roars “Well, I’ve been dazed and confused/ For so long it’s not true” and tell me it doesn’t send shivers up your spine. This song is also ample proof for the band’s magnificent arrangement skills as they take a basic blues structure and blow it to pieces, ensuring that this six-and-a-half minute long piece never gets boring for even a single second.

After that burst of no-nonsense, unmerciful blues magic, they wisely move into two far lighter songs. Granted, Your Time Is Gonna Come is hardly wimpy easy-listening muzak but it does become undeniably poppy by the time the sing-along chorus comes along. It also sports a very mellow tempo during the verses but the band is as tight as ever and Plant offers yet another sterling vocal performance.

Black Mountain Side though is very breezy being a nice, folky spotlight on Page’s exemplary skills with an acoustic guitar that has a simple but undeniably lovely melody. If only the folk stuff on Untitled/IV was this good, I would almost understand why that album is as loved as it is. As it is, these two songs offer up a perfect break from the heaviness of the tracks that surround them and make this album a far easier listen than the seemingly relentlessly heavy Led Zeppelin II.

Communication Breakdown starts off this triple feature of breathtaking heaviness in style. It’s the album’s fastest track and it just might be the most economic example of heavy metal you ever shall hear. At just two-and-a-half minutes in length, this song showcases all the best sides that heavy metal has ever produced: heavy riffage; powerful, screeching vocals; pounding drumming; fat, humming bass lines and a short but unforgettably exciting guitar solo.

I’m not quite so enthusiastic about the next track however because though there’s nothing really wrong with I Can’t Quit You Baby, it does feel like one generic blues song too many especially since it is the most straightforward of the lot. Oh well, at least it is the shortest of these tracks so there’s no real harm done.

How Many More Times is much better though because though it is something of chore to sit through what with its eight-and-a-half minute long length and its placement at the end of the album, it is a very satisfying blues track. It sports an awesome riff, dynamic drumming, more of that great Page soloing, another spellbinding Robert Plant vocal performance and a fair amount of unpredictability. All in all, it’s a perfect way to end off the album. 

South African readers get Led Zeppelin 1 from Take2.

International readers get it from Amazon:

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