Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Thirty Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs, Part 1: Numbers 21-30

In my estimation Led Zeppelin is the most important band, musically speaking, in the history of rock music. Other bands may have boasted a greater facility at writing pop songs and thus had greater mass appeal (The Beatles). Others, driven by a purist love for classic blues and country music, produced a more traditionalist rock 'n roll body of work (The Rolling Stones). Zeppelin, however, possessed unsurpassed vocal and instrumental chops (only Cream and such art rock bands as Yes rivaled them). More than that, Jimmy Page and company almost always subsumed any artistic pretensions they may have had to the integrity of the songs they were playing, which were always more than merely skeletal frameworks for improvisational pyrotechnics. And, whereas their music was based in the blues, they incorporated a host of diverse elements far and wide, from trad rock 'n roll, country, and reggae to English and Celtic folk to Arabic and Indian music, all to create an inimitable musical stew. Over the years many have tried to imitate Zeppelin. The closest most came was to the sheer muscular velocity of their sound. Inevitably, however, what all missed was the nuance, the "light and shade," as Page once put it, that defined their sound.

In a series of three posts, I would like to list what I consider the 30 greatest Led Zeppelin songs. This is not an easy task, for their first six albums, from 1969's Led Zeppelin I to 1975's Physical Graffiti, are uniformly excellent, with nary a bad song in the bunch. But try I will, always recognizing that the list I might compile next week would differ in some respects.

30. "Fool in the Rain" (In through the Out Door, 1979)

One of the least "Zeppelinesque" songs in the band's catalog, "Fool in the Rain" boasts a Latin flavor with its polyrhythmic, 12/8 meter in the verses and a samba beat in the interludes. The song is a showcase for the talents of rock's greatest drummer, John Bonham, and guitarist Page, who produces a fine solo enhanced by his use of an MXR Blue Box effect pedal. For a listen, check here.

29. "Dancing Days" (Houses of the Holy, 1973)

"Dancing Days" is a somewhat slight, light-hearted tune inspired by a trip Page took with Robert Plant to Bombay (Mumbai). The Indian influence is most evident in the stinging slide guitar figure around which the song is built and in the somewhat off-kilter main melody, which stand in some tension with the lyrics, which Rolling Stone calls "an almost Beach Boys-like vision of Edenic summer ease." For a listen, see here, though for my money, a better version may be found on the Live CD, How the West Was Won.

28. "Immigrant Song" (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

This song was my introduction to Led Zeppelin back in Junior High: Jimmy Page's powerful, staccato riff (a variation of which would later dominate "The Wanton Song" from 1975's "Physical Graffiti"), Plant's unbelievable banshee wail, and lyrics derived from Norse mythology. The expression, "hammer of the gods," later to be used of Zeppelin itself, comes from this song. For a listen, see here.

27. "Thank You" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

One of the most beautiful songs in the band's catalog, "Thank You" is the 20-year old Plant's tribute to his wife, Maureen Wilson. The song boasts a nice organ accompaniment from John Paul Jones and acoustic solo from Page. For the original studio version, see here. For a video of a performance by Page and Plant in their 1994 Unledded tour, see here.

26. "Trampled Under Foot" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

This is Zeppelin at its funkiest, with an updated sound (reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's clavinet-based "Superstition") to go along with lyrics derived from Robert Johnson's great "Terraplane Blues." The studio version (here) is excellent, but it pales in comparison to the remarkable live performance delivered at Earl's Court, London, in 1975 (here).

25. "Gallows Pole" (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

This is Zeppelin's arrangement of the centuries-old traditional ballad, "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," with a twist at the end: rather than being freed, the maiden is still executed, the hangman ignoring the plea despite his cashing in on the bribe. Mostly acoustic (Page whips out his Les Paul at the close), the song is notable for its use of banjo and mandolin along with multiple guitars. Plant at this point was still at the peak of his vocal powers. For a listen, see here.

24. "Travelling Riverside Blues" (BBC Sessions, 1969)

This is ostensibly a cover of Robert Johnson's classic 1937 side of the same name (see here). As usual, Page totally reworks the music into a complex slide guitar workout that bears little resemblance to the original. The precision of the live recording, done for the BBC, is impressive. For a listen, see here.

23. "Good Times Bad Times" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

The opening song on Zeppelin's debut album, "Good Times Bad Times" packs a wallop in its 2 minutes and 45 seconds, containing everything the band would become famous for: a killer riff (courtesy of John Paul Jones), electrifying guitar from Jimmy Page, and superhuman drumming (one kick drum!) from Bonzo Bonham. Listen here.

22. "Going to California" (Untitled, 1971)

One of the gentlest and, dare I say, prettiest songs in the band's catalog, "Going to California"'s homage to Joni Mitchell (the "girl with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair") is an acoustic masterpiece, with Page's six string and Jonesy's mandolin providing exquisite accompaniment to one of Plant's greatest vocal performances (for the studio version, see here; for a performance from Earl's Court in 1975, see here).

21. "D'yer Mak'er" (Houses of the Holy, 1973)

Another sui generis Zeppelin tune, "D'yer Mak'r" is an amalgamation of '50s-style doo-wop and reggae (hence the pronunciation "Jamaica"), filtered through the standard grid of Bonzo's thunderous drumming and a quasi-heavy metal guitar sound. The song was meant as something of a joke, and Jones reportedly hated the song, but for once Jonesy was wrong. Despite its slightness, the song's a great listen (see here).

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