The 8 Ball 12.14.13: The Top 16 Led Zeppelin Songs (#16 - 9)
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 12.14.2013
From "Heartbreaker" and "Black Dog" to "Over the Hills and Far Away," "Since Ive Been Loving You" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas begins his look at the top 16 Led Zeppelin songs with #16 through 9!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the Music Zone 8-Ball! This week our list is inspired by news that became--well, pun intended, but music to my ears. I love my Spotify, but one of the frustrations I have is the lack of certain artists. One of those key holdouts has been Led Zeppelin, and that all changed this week as the band signed a deal to put their entire catalog on the streaming service. Few bands had an impact on the face of popular music quite like the foursome of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham; it is safe to say that they have influenced just about every genre of music in some way. I've wanted to do a list of the greatest songs from this, one of the greatest bands in rock, for a while now and this is as good a time as any. Of course there was no way I could pare a list of Zeppelin songs down to just eight, so we're taking two parts to look at the top sixteen.
Caveat: As usual with my single-act top songs list, I was looking specifically at original songs performed by the band/artist as opposed to covers. This is a little bit muddy with Zeppelin, as they have several songs where they reworked lyrics and arrangements for new takes. I went back and forth on this a lot but decided to keep them because the lyrics are pretty significantly different. I did leave "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" off (which would have been in the mix for sure otherwise) because the lyrics are by and large directly taken from the Anne Bredon version. And as usual, remember that just because as song isn't on this list doesn't mean that I didn't like it; there are many, many Zeppelin songs that I truly, passionately adore that I couldn't fit on.
Just Missing The Cut
"Ten Years Gone" (1975)
"The Battle of Evermore" (1971)
"Nobody's Fault But Mine" (1976)
"Going to California" (1971)
"The Ocean" (1973)
#16: "The Rain Song" (1973)
First up on our list is a song that had its roots planted in not just one iconic band, but two of them. "The Rain Song," off the band's 1973 LP Houses of the Holy, came about thanks to none other than the Beatles' George Harrison. Harrison reportedly told John Bonham the band never recorded any ballads. In response, Jimmy Page wrote the melody for this seven-minute epic and handed it over to Robert Plant for lyrical work. The song starts off quite mellow for a Zeppelin track but that also gives Page the opportunity to deliver some really beautiful guitar work that was different from their heavier stuff. And while the track isn't all gentle strumming, the song really gave Page the chance to deliver a wonderfully multi-layered arrangement.
Whereas most people think of songs like "Stairway to Heaven" when they think of Led Zeppelin ballads (and rightly so), this is perhaps the truest ballad in their discography. Robert Plant once told Rolling Stone that this was his favorite vocal performance on any Led Zeppelin album, and I would be hard-pressed to disagree with his opinion there. It isn't the flashiest vocal work, but it's the most precise and purely skillful and it doesn't sacrifice any emotion in hitting all that precision. This is an adventurous and bold piece of music from a band that was never afraid to be experimental and it paid off in spades.
#15: "What Is and What Should Never Be" (1969)
The second track on Led Zeppelin II, "What is and What Should Never Be" happened to be the second Led Zeppelin song I ever listened to. (We'll get to the first later.) My parents had an odd selection of records that were holdovers for them in the days of cassettes and I always enjoyed listening to them. Their only Zeppelin album was II and to this day I remember putting it on and pretty much having my mind blown at what I was hearing. This track is such a dichotomous piece of work; it swings between a gentle, folky jam session and heavy rock like a feather in a hurricane. And that helps it achieve its brilliance. This was one of Plant's first writing attempts and was said to be about an affair with his wife's younger sister. The lyrics follow the song's back-and-forth tonal shifts, alternating between fantasy-tinged whimsy and a sexier, down-and-dirty voice that sounds almost a bit malicious. It's a great see-saw and Plant delivers his usual great vocals.
But this is one of those songs that are less about the vocal and lyrical work than it is the music. This was one of the first songs that Jimmy Page recorded on his Gibson Les Paul and it's like magic has struck, particularly when he kicks into the heavier stuff. And it would be unfair not to give credit to John Paul Jones and John Bonham, both of whom show off their inestimable skill at their respective parts. While "What Is" doesn't quite have the iconic status of some of Zeppelin's other early work, it certainly stands out as one of the gems of their first two albums.
#14: "Rock and Roll" (1971)
"Rock and Roll" is a song that grew organically out of nothing, yet became filled with references to the history of the genre. The band put the piece together while the ground was having trouble putting the finishing touches on "Four Sticks" and embarked on a spontaneous jam session after John Bonham started drumming the distinctive intro that became "Rock and Roll's" opening sounds. The track was laid down for Led Zeppelin IV and the rest is history. "Rock and Roll" plays out like an homage to the genre it is named after, and that's no surprise; it is based on the twelve-bar blues progression which is one of the most well-known structures in rock and roll music. You can hear the Chuck Berry qualities bursting from the Jimmy Page's riffs and the music's hard-driving momentum provides ample ground for Plant to deliver lyrics that reference great songs of rock and roll past such as "The Book of Love" with his trademark vocal skill.
The song's impact has been inestimable in the face of rock and roll; while you can certainly hear the blues influence and the style of classic 1950s rock and roll in there, this song took those elements and cast them in another light, modernizing the sound and creating something that was not only great on both technical and artistic levels, but also deeply fun. With the Vietnam War and the rise of psychedelic rock, there had been a point (comparable to recent years) where rock and roll seemed like it had become too serious. This song showed that modern (at the time) rock and roll could be exciting and fun without sacrificing anything in terms of pure skill and musical enjoyment.
#13: "Heartbreaker" (1969)
Some guitar solos stand on a level all their own within rock and roll history. Jimmy Page's solo in "Heartbreaker" is a perfect example of that. This is truly one of the great guitar solos of all-time, comparable with anything that was put forth by just about everyone else in rock and roll. It's not as long as some guitar solos that have followed in its wake--people are always trying to outdo what's been done before--but it packs just as much punch for the time we hear it. The song literally comes to a dead stop exactly midway through its duration so that Page can bust into a breathtaking delivery that soon has the rest of the group joining in to complement the unbelievable work. The solo is, according to rock mythlore, completely unplanned and improvised by Page which makes it even more impressive.
But "Heartbreaker" isn't just about the guitar solo, as much as it is remembered for that. In truth there are not many songs that can honestly survive such a jarring break into instrumental work, but that's exactly what this song does. The performance by Page, Bonham and Jones throughout the song is top notch; Jones' bass work is just as powerful and the main riff is as distinctive as anything else within the band's repertoire, or anything from their contemporaries for that matter. The lyrics have inspired a host of great songs about heartache and broken relationships since. So yes, the guitar solo definitely elevates this song but the truth is that the entire package is pretty damned amazing and one of their best.
#12: "Black Dog" (1971)
There are many people who consider Led Zeppelin IV to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded, and there is certainly an argument to be made for that. And the opening track on that album, "Black Dog," sets the disc on its trajectory to true greatness. There's so much that I love about this track, right down to how the band decided to leave the sound of Jimmy Page's Les Paul warming up as the opening moments of the song. This is one of the most instantly-recognizable of the band's songs; everyone with even the slightest inkling of rock and roll can recite the lyrics "Hey hey, mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove" and the guitar riff deserves its title of being the "dirtiest, sexiest riff around." John Paul Jones wrote the riff under the desire to write a song that was complex to the point that people couldn't just groove along to it.
Of course, the song isn't actually about anything related to a dog; it's a song about sex, pure and simple. Robert Plant's vocals are perhaps at his most distinctive here, shrieking and moaning in a way that is shrill without seeming unpalatable. The pure skill associated with this song is actually a bit deceptive; people hear that guitar riff and they're impressed, but the complexity of the irregular timing and the song's on-off structure make it hell for people do perform right. This is one of those truly great songs that just takes hold of you and doesn't let go. And like many of Zeppelin's songs, it combines elements of the classic blues with their heavy rock innovation to create something unforgettable.
#11: "No Quarter" (1973)
Another track off of 1973's Houses of the Holy, "No Quarter" represents one of the best pure psychedelic songs in Led Zeppelin's discography. Again, this is more than just a static genre piece; the band was always more dynamic than to allow that. But this gloomy little opus hits the trippier notes of the psychedelia more strongly than anything else they ever did and the results are fantastic. The song has a somber tone to it, coming off as almost mellow thanks to Jones' electric piano work and Page's more restrained (but no less skillful) guitar work. And let's not forget the distortion work put into Robert Plant's brooding vocals about refusing to give in to the dark forces swirling around, no matter how easy it might be.
In fact, the lyrical work is part of what I love so much about this song. So much of Led Zeppelin's work is great because of the instrumental innovations the band came up with, or the quality of Robert Plant as a vocalist and showman. Certainly the band's lyrical accolades are not sparse, but I think that sometimes their lyrics take a backseat to their musical aspects. In some cases this is perfectly valid, and make no mistake: the work on "No Quarter's" sound is part of what makes it great. But the song's story mixes so perfectly with the weary, hazy instrumental work to create the idea of persevering on under the weight of oppression. This is a slow jam masterpiece that hit showed how well the band could do prog rock.
#10: "Since I've Been Loving You" (1970)
If you've ever even remotely doubted that Led Zeppelin were masters of blues rock--and I don't know why you would--look no further than this track off Led Zeppelin III. Interestingly enough, the third album had slipped away from blues for the most part, and you might almost guess that they wanted this one to have even more impact as a hallmark of the genre. Whether they intended it or not, it certainly turned out that way. Jimmy Page delivers the kind of guitar work that many greats within the genre would have given their left eye for, complemented by John Paul Jones' haunting organ work and John Bonham's slow-jam drumming. Musically the song goes through a lot of leaps and bounds; Page's guitar solo is another one of the kind of impassioned deliveries which made him so famous for his skill and the song was another one of those great examples of the band doing unique things in terms of chord changes and structural experimentation.
And the vocals. Seriously, let's just talk about these for a moment. Robert Plant delivers one of the most soulful vocal performances of his career on "Since I've Been Loving You" and his howl late in the song on "Oh yeah, it makes my life a drag" is absolutely unreal. You can feel the pain in his soul when he sings on this track and it helps launch this piece into the top ten of the band's entire resume. The track is said to have been the hardest for the band to record for III and all I can say is that the hard work absolutely paid off.
#9: "Over the Hills and Far Away" (1973)
As much as Led Zeppelin did hard, heavy stuff well, they also did pop-tinged rock well when they wanted to. We've already covered the fun they delivered with "Rock and Roll" and two years later they delivered a rather light-hearted number for the ages in "Over the Hills and Far Away." The song picks up with some great acoustic strumming which gives Page license to soften his trademark vocals down a little bit for airy choruses about the bliss of adoration. And then when it's time for the chorus the Les Paul kicks it into electric for a harder-driving direction. This song did that contrast between folksy and electric which we heard on "What Is and Will Never Be," but it melded them a little bit better than that previous song.
I love the experimentation here; it is the song in which you can hear all of the different genres that they would come to influence from both hard and soft rock to Southern rock, folk, and even new age and pop. It is a rare band that can handle tonal shifts like this in such a skillful way, but they make it sound easy here. This is a song that sounds longer than it actually is, and I mean that in a good way. Some songs seem to go on forever when you hear them because you are counting the seconds for it to be over. With "Over the Hills," the song feels so long despite its "mere" 4:50 length because it's so emotionally fulfilling and captures the imagination so fully that it just seems more epic than the length would imply. That larger than life quality is what places it so high on the list.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Instead of a traditional music video this week, we're going to honor the brilliance of Jimmy Page with a video looking at his ten best guitar solos. Check it out below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.