Led Zeppelin. You’ve heard of them right? They were quite good at that rock music thing back in the day and after years of putting it off their chief architect is finally getting around to releasing their studio albums in remastered and expanded form.

Quite why it has taken Jimmy Page until now to finally get around to releasing Led Zeppelin’s output in a remastered form that brings them in line with other ‘classic’ rock acts is a matter for debate, but when you consider that the likes of The Beatles, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan have all had their output spruced up and remastered to modern standards over the last decade, Page’s delay in doing so has seemed really rather odd.

Few bands have enjoyed the enduring appeal of Led Zeppelin and so, to mark the re-release of their first three albums as the first phase of an extensive reissue campaign, here is a buyers guide to one of the greatest rock bands of all.

The Early Years

After The Yardbirds fell apart around him, Jimmy Page was left with a list of touring commitments but no band, so he quickly recruited fellow session veteran John Paul Jones as bass player, keyboard botherer and general compositional genius. Recruiting a suitable vocalist proved a little less simple, as Page’s first choice, Terry Reid had prior commitments, but put Page and Jones on to promising young upstart Robert Plant, who in turn pointed his new band mates to the potent drumming of his former bandmate John Bonham, and thus The New Yardbirds were formed. Under the guidance of formidable manager Peter Grant, they set out to conquer the world.

At the time Led Zeppelin’s debut was compared unfavourably at the time to the work of The Jeff Beck Group, who had already minted the supercharged blues rock sound. Much of the debut’s success is down to the single-minded focus Jimmy Page, with John Paul Jones as a fellow session musician who could act as an effective sounding board. Plant and Bonham, as the half of the band whose talent had been previously unheralded, were in many ways the junior partners in the band.

Page had delegated lyric writing duties to Plant, and in retrospect they sound like a bit of rush job, with Plan leaning too heavily on the works of the old blues masters, and when that well of inspiration ran dry, he wasn’t beyond repeating the three words ‘Oooh’, ‘Yeah’ and ‘Baby’ in as many combinations as possible wherever they would fit.

Listening back now, Led Zeppelin’s debut is by far and away their most simple and streamlined. Yes, there are minor lapses in quality control, but on the whole, it’s stripped back and all the more dynamic for it. From the simple and unfussy “Communication Breakdown”, to Zeppelin’s first epic, “Dazed and Confused”, it was evident that the whole band were already firing an all cylinders. While Page was undoubtedly the main creative force, Plant was a potent vocalist and charismatic frontman, Jones was able to give the proceedings a feeling of sophistication, while Bonham was the band’s thunderous engine room propelling the whole band forward with his uniquely powerful drumming.

With their debut Led Zeppelin had established themselves as a solid blues rock band with a penchant for being very loud, with an ear for occasional delicate acoustic passages. With their sophomore effort they beefed up and went all out hard rock.

Perhaps more than any other band, Led Zeppelin would establish what would become the cliche of the hard rock band. Loud, super-amplified blues, a preening pretty boy frontman that the girls could swoon over, a none-more-cool guitar player who was almost as pretty as the frontman, the bass player who doesn’t appear to do that much, but actually does a lot more than anyone else gives him credit for and a powerhouse drummer who could hit things very, very, very hard. Led Zeppelin 2 is their most straightforward hard rock album, an album which is pretty much still the blue print for the majority of hard rock even today.

Led Zeppelin 2 still has everything that a hard rock fan could possibly want. Colossal riffs, lyrics that occasionally overstep the line of sexual politics, a song that could possibly pass as a ballad and a sense of drive and purpose lacking in todays musical climate. This is the sound of a band preparing to take over the world and creating the tools to do it with. In “Whole Lotta Love”, Heartbreaker” and “Ramble On” there are three songs which are among the greatest rock songs ever recorded, but that’s not to say that the rest of the album is filler. “The Lemon Song” harks back to the blues infused sound of their debut and almost landed them in hot water after the band had ‘forgotten’ to credit the two blues masters that they had stolen the lyrics from, “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” is a sprint through dynamic and thrusting hard rock and “Moby Dick” is the glorious sound of Page, Plant and Jones popping down the pub for an illicit pint while Bonzo hammers away. My personal favourite track though is the closer “Bring it on Home”, if for no other reason that it does exactly what the title suggests.

While there were loud rock albums before Led Zeppelin 2, none set as many precedents.

Having created the blue print for hard rock with their previous album and conquered the United States with relentless touring, Led Zeppelin decided in 1970 to take some time out to mellow out in the mountains. This inevitably informed their next album, which was much more informed by folk and roots music than anything they had previously released. It did have its quota of rockers though, with “Immigrant Song” and “Celebration Day” being the two best.

Elsewhere Led Zeppelin 3 takes on a much mellower feeling, with the semi acoustic run of “Gallows Pole”, “Tangerine” (the band’s best attempt at a pop song), “That’s The Way” and “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” being an enviable run of songs. Plant doesn’t yelp as much, Page gets to fiddle about with his mandolins, Jones gets to play a bit of wind and even Bonzo is relatively reigned in. Parts of this album are as close to folk music that any rock band ever got.

Although it confused some of Led Zeppelin’s audience at the time of it’s release (who in truth just wanted a re-run of the hard rocking Led Zeppelin II.), Led Zeppelin 3 is actually one of my personal favourite releases of theirs, as it showed that there could be so much more to them than an unrelenting wall of loud noise. They could be subtle, effecting, slightly sensitive, which is something that they had merely hinted at previously. This display of range and breadth could very well be what saved the band from being just another hard rock band, as it showed that they had more than one string to their bow.

The Biggest Band in the World

Some albums become too big for their own good, their reputation being so all encompassing that there is no way that the album in question can live up to the expectation of anyone who hasn’t heard it before. All the big bands have them, those albums that threatened to become bigger than the band itself, for The Beatles it was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for Pink Floyd it was The Dark Side of the Moon, for The Clash it was London Calling and more recently it was Nevermind for Nirvana and OK Computer for Radiohead. These are albums that could potentially disappoint the first time listener, because their reputations are just too big. For reasons I cannot explain, Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album manages to avoid this pitfall. Maybe it’s because that Physical Graffiti competes with it as the Led Zeppelin fan’s album of choice, maybe it’s because it cleverly blends the two different styles explored on their two previous albums, maybe it’s because it houses one of the ultimate guilty pleasures as far as rock music in concerned.

Whatever the case, not one track on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is surplus to requirements and even after all these years it still sounds quite brilliant. The opening two punch of hard rock works spectacularly well, laying aside any fears that they had made the permanent transition to folk-rock. “Going To California” is a reasonable attempt at a travelogue and there’s plenty of evidence that Robert Plant had spent far too long reading the The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. To be honest, as thrilling and dynamic as Led Zeppelin could sound, lyrics were never their strong point, but Plant’s vocals and penchant for singing “Oh yeah!” as often as possible usually masks this flaw. Elsewhere though it’s business as usual for Zeppelin, John Paul Jones does the floaty bits and bass, Jimmy Page plays guitar hero and is largely responsible for the expert production and perhaps more than on any other album Bonzo proves his worth once and for all, his drumming on the closing “When The Levee Breaks” being some of the best by anybody ever.

It’s Bonzo again that gets the best bit of the album’s most well known number. “Stairway To Heaven” starts pleasantly enough, being all floaty and folky, with Page adding more and more strummed electric guitar as it builds up, then suddenly someone prods Bonzo awake and the drums tumble in, kicking off the louder half of rock’s most notorious epic. Personally I like “Stairway To Heaven” and I always have and I think the only reason long-term Led Zeppelin fans give it such a hard time is to score ‘cool points’ off each other.

At the end of the day Led Zeppelin’s fourth is everything that made the rock music of the early 70s so great. True, the band were a bit cocky in not including their name anywhere on the packaging, but by this time they were pretty much the biggest band in the world, so who was going to argue? Certainly nobody that had ever seen Peter Grant.

With their fourth album Led Zeppelin had cemented themselves as the leading rock band on the world stage. With 1973’s Houses of the Holy, for a brief moment, Led Zeppelin seemed to be taking onboard some contemporary influences. This is Zeppelin’s nod to progressive rock and on the whole, it works quite well. The regular changes in pace, reliance on keyboards and unexpected twists make it one of the Led Zeppelin albums that I enjoy listening to the most.

From the opening thrill of “The Song Remains The Same”, Houses Of The Holy strikes you as one of the most intelligent and considered of all Led Zeppelin albums, in that it doesn’t always go straight for the most obvious approach, songs are allowed to unfold and breath before they take shape, indeed Houses Of The Holy is unique in the Led Zeppelin catalogue in that the longest songs are the best things on the album. John Paul Jones finally gets to show off his talents in their best light on the astounding “No Quarter”, Plant offers some of his best lyrics and vocal work, Page is exemplary as always and once somebody nudges Bonham in the ribs he thunders into the middle of the relatively sensitive “The Rain Song” like he owns the place.

On the down side a few tracks here show Zeppelin trying to experiment but only achieving sub-par results. “The Crunge” is the first example of a Led Zeppelin track that has seemingly been included just to annoy people (there would be at least one on every album from now on) and “D’yer Mak’er” was only given it’s reggae feel due to Bonzo’s unsubtle drumming (pretty much the only time in Zeppelin’s career where Bonzo dropped a bit of a clanger recording wise). Other than these though, it’s pretty much plain sailing as far as enjoying the album goes. While the heaviosity has been toned down slightly, it offers Led Zeppelin a chance to demonstrate what they could achieve when they decided to listen to what else their fans were listening to when they weren’t listening to Led Zeppelin.

By the time 1975 came around Led Zeppelin had helped finance Monty Python and the Holy Grail and along with Peter Grant were now proud owners of a vanity record label in the shape of Swan Song.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. In the couple of years since Houses of the Holy, Pink Floyd had emerged as the other band that could have mega-selling albums without the need for hit singles. Their position as biggest band in the world was seriously under threat and there seemed to be only one course of action. Led Zeppelin had to prove that they were still the biggest and the best. The way to do this in the mid 70s was by way of the double album.

Physical Graffiti is for some fans, the definitive Led Zeppelin album, for me though, like many popular double albums (see The Beatles, Blonde on Blonde, etc) it’s at least 25% too big. Somewhere in Physical Graffiti is an album at least the equal of Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, the trouble is it’s padded out with a number of songs that were left off the five previous albums and it seems the only reason that these tracks were included was to justify a double album. As a result, for me Physical Graffiti is an album of compromise, as it includes a number of songs that were less than the classic material that Zeppelin fans had come to expect.

Sure, Physical Graffiti is home to some of Zeppelin’s greatest songs, as it includes “Trampled Underfoot”, “Boogie with Stu” and of course, “Kashmir”. The thing is, these classics would stand out even more were it not for the fact that so many other songs cause the album to get bogged down. With a ruthless editing it could have been an unarguable single disc classic, as it is, Physical Graffiti just isn’t the definitive statement that it potentially could have been. Who cares though? It sold by the warehouse full and American music fans loved it.

The Later Years

When Led Zeppelin finally released the follow up to the mega-selling Physical Graffiti, Punk had lodged itself into the musical consciousness of the music industry. Led Zeppelin were now viewed very much as dinosaurs from another era. Presence, the album Zeppelin released at the height of Punk had a slightly more stripped back feel, perhaps as a response to the Punk acts that were packing out tiny music venues across the UK.

Compared to Physical Graffiti, Presence sounds a little more lean and dynamic, but it certainly wasn’t without its epics, as both “Achilles’ Last Stand” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” demonstrated that Zeppelin had lost none of their audaciousness. Elsewhere, some songs struggled to make the impact that some expected, but on the whole Presence is one of the more overlooked Led Zeppelin albums and it’s worth revisiting if you feel a little over-saturated by material from their first four albums.

The last album to be released during the band’s lifetime, In Through The Out Door, is seemingly the least regarded Led Zeppelin album. That’s not to say it’s awful, it’s just not as good as what had gone before. That said there was a noticeable shift towards a more pop orientated sound, with an increased use of keyboards breaking up the relentless riffing, something which apparently causes Plant to slightly adjust his singing technique a little. This does back up rumours that by this time Led Zeppelin were very much a band of two halves, with Plant and John Paul Jones working together during the daylight hours and the party animals Bonham and Page coming in during the evenings to work through the night. As a result Jones seems to have had much more say in the proceedings than he previously had.

As per usual on later Led Zeppelin albums there are two overblown epics which could have easily been edited down to something much more listenable, especially the drawn out and frankly tedious “Carouselambra”. There’s also the obligatory rubbish track in “Hot Dog”.

On the plus side there are two absolute classics in “Fool In The Rain”, which really kicks in with a fun and unexpected samba section mid-way through, and the even better “All Of My Love”, which possibly due to the personal subject of the song (Plant’s young son had died in tragic circumstances shortly after the release of Presence) contains some of Plant’s best lyrics. “All of My Love” is also notable as it is one of the few Led Zeppelin songs where keyboards rather than guitars dominate, with Jones showing some real empathy for Plant’s loss. Even Bonzo is restrained and respectful throughout this high point of the album.

A little over a year later it emerged that In Through The Out Door would be Led Zeppelin’s last album. In a way that’s a damn shame, because they were good at what they did, but it’s difficult to see where they could have gone next. They had obviously struggled in the late 70s against the onslaught of punk, thereby producing a number of sub-par albums, they had tried to experiment with their sound a little on In Through The Out Door, but other than a couple of sterling tracks, they had failed to relight the fires that once burned so brightly. Led Zeppelin had dominated much of the 1970s rock scene, they were never as Pink Floyd, or as adaptable as Jethro Tull, but neither had they fallen from grace either. In Through The Out Door leaves us with a feeling of vague anti climax. It was obviously never intended to be the band’s last statement, but that’s what it turned out to be. It just goes to show that every album a band records should be treat as if it was their last, because you never know when the worst may happen.

Live

As much as I dislike quoting public schoolboys, Genesis’s Mike Rutherford was right – it is much easier to write a long song than it is a short song. Sadly he didn’t publicly admit this until 2003, a full three decades too late for his contemporaries Led Zeppelin to learn from the bearded bloke’s wisdom. Even more than their studio albums, the double live behemoth that is The Song Remains the Same is full to the brim with noodling epics, elongated song structures and far too many solos.

It’s not that Led Zeppelin were incapable of penning a punchy and flab-free classic. Their studio albums are full of them. True, the majority of them far exceed the classic two and a half minute pop song length, but in the early 70s if you recorded a track that lasted less than eight minutes, you were being economical.

For your average rock fan of the 70s, bigger genuinely did mean better. It’s too often forgotten that the whole decade was a time of severe economic strife, the cold war was still in full swing and by 1977 disco an punk were holding sway in the singles chart. This in mind, not even I can begrudge a long-haired rocker in the 70s rolling a joint as he poured over the glorious double vinyl gatefold sleeve of the most eagerly awaited live album by the biggest band of the decade. Sure, they were too out of it to realise that the album had all the sonic dynamics of a paper-weight, and that during the nights that this album was recorded Led Zeppelin were just going through the motions. Still they at least had the delight of a stoned giggle when Robert Plant asked them if they remembered laughter.

The Song Remains the Same was of course temporarily made all but obsolete by the release of How the West Was Won, which features even longer song structures and more interminable solos. However by the time of its release the kids that grew up with Led Zeppelin and had rolled all those joints while listening to them were by now middle aged and warning their kids not to do what they had done at their age. However for that particular generation The Song Remains the Same has (admittedly hazy) nostalgia value that How the West was Won will always lack.

That said, there was a collective overload of excitement from Led Zeppelin fans when How the West was Won was first announced. You want a twenty three minute version of “Whole Lotta Love” which includes a medley of early rock’n’roll hits? You get it here. You want one of the few listenable drum solos unpleasantly stretched from a manageable four and a half minutes to nearly twenty? Look no further. Hell, this was what the unfeasibly large crowds came to see in the 70s right?

To me much of How the West was Won suffers from not knowing when to stop a good thing. Yes, we’re thrilled to hear the start of “Heartbreaker”, but are we still as enthralled when it finishes seven minutes later? Sometimes a band needs to know when to stop improvising and actually move on to the next song. It’s perhaps inevitable that it’s on the shorter numbers that Led Zeppelin’s power really shines through and the acoustic section at the end of the first disc is really rather splendid.

At the end of the day How the West was Won achieves what Jimmy Page wanted it to. At the time it was superior to The Song Remains the Same in almost every way, thus ensuring that that lackluster recording received minimal play until it was remastered and reissued a few years later. Beyond that though, it’s somewhat flawed, but that’s more down to the original performances rather than anything else. Many of the songs are unwieldy and overlong (in the words of Monty Python – “Get on with it!”), which shows although Led Zeppelin were a powerful live act, they really had no concept of economy or restraint. Led Zeppelin may have been one of the best live acts of the 70s, but on the strength of this bloated three disc set, I guess you had to be there. There’s not even a moderately informative booklet.

The most recent Led Zeppelin release prior to the current reissue campaign was Celebration Day, an effective souvenir of Zeppelin’s one-off reunion in December 2007, where Bonham’s son Jason took up his late lamented father’s position on the drum stool to play a gig where only the well connected fans weren’t allocated insanely priced tickets by a lottery system.

The live album itself sounds great, though some may question why it took five years to release it.

Odds and sods

Pity poor Coda – The runt of Led Zeppelin’s output was actually promoted as a full blown album at the time of its release two years after the band had split following Bonzo’s sad death. At the end of the day it’s a lumpy stew of recordings that just weren’t good enough to be put on even the worst of Led Zeppelins more-patchy-than-some-would-admit output.

It does its best though, “We’re Gonna Groove” kicks things of promisingly, but things lose steam rapidly as “Poor Tom” reveals itself to be a paper-thin shuffle that really isn’t worth the effort. A live “I Can’t Quit You Baby” does its best to raise the energy level, but it’s fighting a losing battle, as it’s pretty obvious that Coda was little more than an exercise in squeezing open Led Zeppelin’s fans’ wallets one more time.

Coda is basically the stuff that wasn’t considered good enough to make up the less listenable quarter of Physical Graffiti and can therefore can be considered the predecessor of those frankly useless “Unreleased and Alternative Version Compilations” that cash hungry record-labels insist on throwing at us whenever an act has made an unexpected breakthrough or their last album didn’t sell as well as had been hoped.

For the Zeppelin completist Coda is a must have though, not only for “We’re Gonna Groove”, but also for the poppy “Ozone Baby” and John Bonham’s other drum showcase “Bonzo’s Montreaux”, though anybody that prefers it’s electronically enhanced sound to “Moby Dick” really should get their ears tested.

The BBC Sessions were released in the late 90s, but did little to add anything to the Led Zeppelin legend.

To be fair, when they do manage to keep any of these songs under five minutes, it’s good stuff, but like their two official live albums, there are too many eight minute plus behemoths here to keep all but the most rabid Zeppelin fan 100% enraptured 100% of the time. That’s not to say that these epics should have been expunged from this compilation, they should certainly stay as they were part of the original radio session. It’s not a failing of the compilers, it’s a failing of the band themselves and particularly Jimmy Page, for being unwilling to turn around to the rest of the band to signal that perhaps they should wind this tune up.

Of course for Zeppelin fanatics, these radio sessions are manna from heaven, but for those among you who want to know what all the fuss is about the band, this is not the best place to start.

Compilations

There have been many attempts to condense the appeal of Led Zeppelin into two or three disc sets over the years, from the self-explanatory Remasters, to the unevenly matched Early Days and Latter Days, through to the more recent Mothership, they’ve only really served to underline the fact that Led Zeppelin were a band best enjoyed at album length rather than in singular bursts of individual songs.

There have of course been a couple of definitive boxed sets of their complete studio recordings, but given the current reissue campaign, those are relatively obsolete to al but the most feverish collectors.

Who knows how long Led Zeppelin would have continued if John Bonham hadn’t died when he did, but it’s doubtful the 80s would have kind to them, especially when you consider that so many of their contemporaries struggled with the fashionable production values of the time. Could you imagine Bonzo embracing the drum machine? Or John Paul Jones going all synth-pop on us?

No, me neither.