There’s a serious case to be made that Led Zeppelin are among the most egregious and noxious rock bands of all time. They built a career on ripping off and bastardising old blues standards (never crediting the original artists). They were responsible for the turgid black tar of heavy metal, whose odour and seepage still persists in the pages of Kerrang! Lyrically, they were by histrionic turns maudlin, whimsical, misogynist (“soul of a woman was created below”), self-pitying, or pathetically self-aggrandising. They appealed to the basest, saddest instincts of their mostly young and resolutely masculine audience. Their refusal to release singles betrayed an unreconstructed sense of self-importance and pomposity, mostly on Jimmy Page’s part.
Their grotesque self-indulgence was reflected musically in the interminable wank-doodle nonsense of The Song Remains The Same. Their abominable behaviour while on the road, meanwhile, ranging from acts ranging from random vandalism and physical violence to sexual assault were regarded (by themselves, mostly) as the justifiable extravagances of latterday Gods unbound by petty moral codes or limited funds. It was just and overdue that they eventually came crashing to earth, the surviving members reduced to dinosaur remains while still only in their Thirties. Thank God for punk.
It was only about a decade after their effective demise, following the death of John Bonham in 1980, when it was possible to extricate them from their era, that you came to realise what a worthy, pebble-grey and paltry rock world it would be without Led Zeppelin. Wary and perhaps incapable of celebrating themselves in interviews (Plant can come across as an ageing backpacker, Page as tetchily muso) Zep never outlined their aesthetic intentions. It’s what they physically were that counts – pretentious, overblown, oversexed, black, massive, airborne, awesome. Thank God for Led Zeppelin.
Zeppelin were born in 1969, a year in which rock had gone “bad”, its idealism on the point of being raped at Altamont. It’s for that reason that there are things in their music you won’t find – the humanism of The Beatles, or the Utopianism of Hendrix. They were born at a time when, post Hendrix/Cream/Iron Butterfly, rock was beginning to take on a range and density, the dark stressmarks of experience, as opposed to the gossamer lightness of its halcyon days (even early Velvets or The Doors weren’t this heavy duty).
Right from the start, Led Zeppelin were never small. Both materially and commercially, they cast a massive shadow. They were always just a little frightening, an unconscious harbinger of the Seventies, as modernism went into an ominous, ideologically rudderless, supersonic overdrive, hurtling into the darkness of the future. It wasn’t just Page’s virtuosity, nor his murderous way with a riff, that enabled Zeppelin to up the ante (nor, for that matter, John Paul Jones’ discreet powers as an arranger, nor John Bonham’s pulverising percussive capacities) but Page’s production methods. He would set up the mics in the studio some distance from the amps so as to create a more expansive fretboard effect.
Even on the slightly bloated-bluesy debut album, there’s a sense of guitars assailing you, spiralling, sliding, flooding and billowing at you, from all sides. By the time of “Physical Graffiti”, Led Zeppelin’s biggest and best album, the sensory overload leaves you worrying that your ears are going to bleed pitch-black. Then there was Robert Plant. Modern eulogies to Zeppelin often neglect “Percy”, their spritely lead vocalist who was once in a group called Hobbstweedle, are embarrassed a little at his rock God effeminacy, his tassled melodrama, his Tolkien fixation, his onstage posturing. Yet Zeppelin are unimaginable without him. If Zep did write Songs of Experience then it’s Plant, in conjunction with Page’s occasional folk-tinged melodic acoustic interludes, who is wailing in anguish for a lost Innocence, his laid-to-rest hippy past, maybe, as evinced on Led Zep IV’s “Going To California”, or an ancient never-never, an imaginary idyll (on “The Battle For Evermore” or, more obviously, the Lady of the Lake wet-dreamt of in “Stairway To Heaven”), or for his lost soul on the likes of “In My Time Of Dying” (“all my cheating – all my cheating!”).
Then, too, if Zep wrote songs of Experience, it was experience as in, feeling it, doing it, living, loving. Unlike much of the dourly, sexlessly pig-masculine slew of heavy metal that followed in their wake, Led Zeppelin created, a la Hendrix, among the most highly charged, moltenly sexual body of music in rock, in its motion, its nasty ecstasy, its voracity. Random example – “Black Dog”, a pure fucksong to its last pore. Plant was the perfect conduit for that. He used to talk about “wanting to fuck the entire front row” while onstage.
In 1997, I saw Page and Plant, then supposedly well past their pomp, perform to a huge, rock-starved audience in Sofia, Bulgaria. Even in their fifties, the tumescent sonic barrage they created, the melt, the thrust, the give of the noise, made you think of some giant organism on heat. It’s hard to find “goodness” in Led Zeppelin. Yes, they “bastardised” the blues but unlike worthy contemporary replicators like Robert Cray or smalltime pub rock curators they did the blues a sort of modern justice, drag out, multiply and massively electrify all of the lust and woe and self-pity implied in those tinny, scratchy originals. The bastard was worthy of the Daddy – check “When The Levee Breaks”. Led Zeppelin’s “badness” is the point, part of the unease about them. Somehow, the idea that there’s a black, Satanic seam running through their work is an intoxicating and exhilarating one. Unworthily, you almost want to believe that they did record an album of Swabian death chants, that Page did more than dabble in black magic, that there was more than a touch of evil in their lives and legacy. Blues-rock is supposed to trade with the devil, it’s a decades old tradition. It’s a vital, poisonous ingredient.
That said, Led Zeppelin aren’t some diabolical quantity best sealed in their historical tomb, on pain of being unleashed like the furies in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (a scene reminiscent of the mid-section of “Whole Lotta Love”). They were trailblazers, they do leave a legacy. John Bonham, who with his Herculean drumming style and chairleg-sized sticks put the Hammer in the Gods, is sampled everywhere. The band’s plunder of World Musical styles, from the tablas of “Bron-Y-Aur” to the mock-Arabic orchestration of “Kashmir”, to the very Byzantine, muezzin quality of some of Page’s best riffs, is echoed in the more respectful contemporary tones of the likes of Transglobal Underground. What’s more, back in the late Eighties, when a new avant-garde in rock was beginning to reject the musically correct strictures of post-punk and attempting the sort of self-reflation and experimentation (Big Black, The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine) that would culminate in the epic fury of The Pixies and Nirvana it was to Led Zeppelin, among others, that they turned, their sense of rock as Thing-In-Itself rather than small tool. It was just that Zeppelin were brought down and spent some time in exile. However, in the contemporary rock climate of diffidence and trad caution, you can’t help feeling that we’re crying out for some of their sensual black noise and hellfire, to raise the volume and temperature of things once more.