LED ZEPPELIN - How Could They Fail, Part 2

Musically, Led Zeppelin mined two parallel, opposing strands, often within the same song. On the one hand they were a hard rock band, immersed in the blues and fifties rock’n’roll stretching back to Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon through to Elvis Presley and Little Richard. This was all delivered with a gargantuan thump and exhilarating panache, their blues re-workings especially benefitting from the supercharged rearrangements that were their speciality – though in this regard eyebrows were raised at the extent to which they plundered the work of blues pioneers. On the other they were a soft rock outfit, exploring Celtic folk traditions with a touch of mysticism that went back to Anne Briggs and betrayed the influence of groups like Pentangle and the fantasy writer JRR Tolkein. The former style was epitomised by ‘Whole Lotta Love’, the explosive opener to their second album, the latter by ‘Stairway To Heaven’ from their fourth LP, which would become the most played song ever of US FM radio.
         With its solid five-note riff, much repeated and awash in echo, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ became the blueprint for what came to be known as heavy-metal music, with the result that Led Zeppelin became known as heavy metal pioneers. This was unfortunate for they were much more besides, though their delivery and style certainly influenced many lesser bands that unlike Led Zeppelin never strayed from the tired HM formula.
         ‘Stairway To Heaven’, on the other hand, opens with a folksy, pastoral melody that becomes richer and sturdier as it develops over an eight-minute time span. With Jones contributing bass recorder on the introduction and Bonham held back until about half way through, the song reaches a powerful crescendo with the chiming D-chord variations that launch Page’s now celebrated solo and the final, full-throated climax.
         These contrasting musical styles were most evident on the group’s third album which at the time of its release caused observers to remark that they were softening up in response to the success of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and other American groups whose music was performed largely on acoustic guitars. The group denied this though Led Zeppelin III certainly contained more acoustic songs than its two predecessors, songs like ‘Gallows Pole’, ‘Tangerine’, ‘That’s The Way’ and ‘Bron YAur Stomp’, and it was around this time that they introduced an acoustic segment into their shows, with all four musicians seated in a line at the front of the stage. This was a brave move, not least because audiences, especially in the USA, expected full-tilt rock from their Zeppelin and were often intolerant of their quieter side, much to the group’s frustration.
         In some ways this wasn’t surprising for Led Zeppelin had forged their reputation through wildly energetic and exceedingly loud stage shows that invariably opened with a vigorous flexing of the muscles, songs like ‘Immigrant Song’ or ‘Rock And Roll’, before settling down into a programme that was designed to showcase the particular talents of its members. To this end they would play for anything up to three hours and many of their songs were extended well beyond the length of the recorded versions. ‘Whole Lotta Love’, for example, might become a half-hour exercise that featured Plant working his way through a medley of rock’n’roll songs from the fifties, while ‘No Quarter’ was turned into a keyboard showcase for Jones during which he might quote from his classical repertoire. Bonham habitually took a long and much appreciated drum solo during the instrumental ‘Moby Dick’, while ‘Dazed And Confused’ became an extended vehicle for Page to demonstrate his astounding guitar technique, state-of-the-art electronic effects and the trademark violin bow. Though it was all accompanied by a dazzling light show and pyrotechnic displays, the emphasis was clearly on the individual musicianship, with Page in particular emerging as a guitar hero of world status. The interplay between Plant, the blonde bare-chested macho rock god, and Page, the dark elfin wizard of the guitar, was the fulcrum on which the group thrived on stage, a thrilling combination of dexterity and spectacle.
         Many fans consider the group’s strangely untitled fourth album to be the finest they recorded, and it is certainly their biggest seller. It includes the epic ‘Stairway To Heaven’, two of their very best rockers in ‘Rock And Roll’ and ‘Black Dog’, a pair of much-loved acoustic songs in ‘Going To California’ and ‘Battle Of Evermore’, and the extraordinary blues shouter ‘When The Levee Breaks’, with its cavernous, widely-sampled drum track. Others, however, believe Led Zeppelin’s career reached its apogee in 1975 with the release of their double album Physical Graffiti, the highlight of which was ‘Kashmir’, often described by Plant as ‘the pride of Led Zeppelin’. With its arabesque chord pattern and travelogue lyrics, ‘Kashmir’ evoked the eerie sound of North Africa, the deserts and nomad tribes, a glorious flowering of Led Zeppelin’s musical ambition that remains the jewel in their crown. The worldwide touring that accompanied the album’s release, including an unprecedented four-night run at London’s Earls Court, is remembered by all who saw them as Led Zep’s finest moment.
         Thereafter the group suffered an unfortunate run of ill luck. In 1976, while holidaying in Greece, Plant was badly injured in a car accident, which set them back by a year, and a decision to spend 12 months out of the UK for tax purposes seemed to sap their energies. Back on the road in 1977 there was a violent confrontation backstage at a show in San Francisco that set them at odds with the US’s top promoter Bill Graham, and almost immediately afterwards Plant’s young son died from a mysterious stomach infection. All of this, together with overindulgence in hard drugs on the part of Page, Bonham and Grant, took the wind out of their sails.
         Recovery was slow and Plant was especially reluctant to resume normal service after his loss. Although the albums Led Zeppelin recorded during their later years never reached the standard of their earlier work, when they did re-emerge they did it in style, with two outdoor shows at Knebworth Park in the summer of 1979 where the attendance has been estimated at upwards of 300,000, which is probably an all-time record. The following year they played a brief and, for them, low-key European tour as a warm up for a return to America but just as it seemed as if Led Zeppelin might fly again the alcohol-induced death of John Bonham caused the three remaining musicians and Grant to announce the group’s formal demise. 

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