COUNT Ferdinand von Zeppelin dreamed of his magisterial airship dropping entire wars of bombs on helpless cities terrorizing whole continents with floating, dreadful sovereignty, reconnoitering phantom seas, icy wastes, swirling deserts, piercing the Himalavan mists. His corsairs were never conceived as the emblem for Led Zeppelin, arguably the most instrumentally distinguished rock group. Organized by English guitarist Jimmy Page. Led Zeppelin immediately placed itself in the pantheon of rock with the release of its first album. The group does not have the range of mood or gift of assimilation of the Beatles. the only group which can take Dakker's Lullaby for Patient Grissel and use it touchingly in a song such as Golden Slumbers. Although Led Zeppelin draws upon such blues wellsprings as Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon. it does not make its debts its originality. While Led Zeppelin is not so resonantly lyrical as the Beatles. or self-consciously evangelical as Jefferson Airplane. or menacing and cleverly crude as the Rolling Stones. it nevertheless produces a more puissant and unmannered sound than any of these more famous groups. Led Zeppelin like the very few excellent groups. plays with neither tediousness nor superfluity. The essence of the group is superior playing of a propulsive character controlled- by imagination and a firm sense of structure- from degenerating into an assault of unending tours de force.
Lead guitarist Jimmy Page provides the primary force for Led Zeppelin. His playing is rhythmically acute. especially across bar lines. sane in the use of distortion and intelligent rather than self-indulgent. His solos offer neither the bludgeoning egotism of Jeff Beck. nor the excellent yet ultimately tedious work of Eric Clapton; neither the excessively frenetic passagework of Alvin Lee, nor the elegant but limited solos of George Harrison. Page has a much better grasp of the organically developing long line than Eric Clapton, whose style of repetitious punctuation suggests a less sentient man. But Cream was organized around the drums while Led Zeppelin is organized around the counterpoint of lead guitarist and vocalist. Nor does Page have to contend with the supernaturally inane lyrics which Jack Bruce brought to Cream. Led Zeppelin's lyrics are never violently imagistic, and eschew "silver horses run down moonbeam in your dark eyes" ("White Room") for the related theme- provocative to puerile adolescents and Marshall scholars alike- of unrequited love. Their blues songs are populated by the inevitable uxorious men, boastful lovers, and sagacious unfortunates. The song titles themselves suggest perturbable stoicism in the face of a vampire as their recurrent subject. Other possible concerns are the sexual connotations of fruits ("The Lemon Song"). the chinoiserie of the open fifth ("Black Mountain Breakdown"), and caetology ("Moby Dick)."
The remaining members of Led Zeppelin should be mentioned. John Paul Jones is a fluent bassist unseduced by the primordial roar or steadfastness of his instrument. but attracted rather to its opportunities for polyphony. Drummer John Bonham's distinguished use of syncopation unifies, maintains, and elucidates each song. Finally, vocalist Robert Plant provides a fourth instrument which counterpoints and impels the gathering thrust of each song. Plant has a theatrical, coruscating voice capable of a range of tones and speech rhythms equalled only by Paul McCartney. Plant is mainly responsible for raising Led Zeppelin above such groups as Cream, Procol Harum, and Blind Faith.
The three finest songs on Led Zeppelin's first album illustrate the foremost capacities of the group. "Good Times Bad Times" is based, as is usual with their songs, on an energetic riff rather crudely syncopated but irresistibly developed. Page plays a brief solo characterized by his enormous intervals and rapid triplets: Bonham employs complex drum pedals; Jones adds a sinuous independent bass line: and Plant insinuates a tone of bemused disconsolation into the song's eternal situation of calumniating fate. "Dazed and Confused" deals with incoherent man in the face of a latter-day Cressida. After a sufficiently stunned introduction of echoing vibrato notes, the organizing riff enters. Page amuses himself by playing his guitar with a violin bow and follows this with the most involved solo of the album. After this the song dutifully falls apart, the lover, eyeless in Gaza, presumably reduced to tatters. "How Many More Times" is unduplicable for sustained, accumulating force throughout four distinct sections. Plant uses his "soaring eagle heartbroken blues" voice, bringing the song to an arresting climax with a long glissando on the word "gun," the latter instrument being both an expression of the lover's libidinal anguish and his rather desperate solution to Rosy's polygamous impertinence.
IN TURNING to Led Zeppelin II we might feel that the bold change in cover art from the phallic to the cenotaphic argues a change for the worse. Dirigibilis mutabilis! The new album contains two of their best songs, two of their clearest failures, a delight in light parody, and an explicit and jocular exhibitionism, verging at times toward crudity, only suggested in the earlier record. This last element is most apparent in the lurid copulative jactitation of "Whole Lotta Love." This very involved song, with its assemblage of background sounds of connubial exertion, reminds one (very hazily) of Southev's lines on the waterfall of Lodore (execrable lines but probably undeserving of such context):
Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,
Recolling, turmoiling, and toiling and boiling,
And gleaming and streaming and steaming and beaming,
And rushing and flushing and brushing and gushing,
and so forth directly into "What Is and Should Never Be," a desultory serenade. This song's marcato conclusion features the best example of Plant's consummate syncopated singing in which he takes cognizance of each word past and forthcoming, and deftly employs the syllables to counterpoise the principal rhythm. "The Lemon Song" is a tongue-in-cheek medley of blues cliches, even to the point of "down on this killin floor." Although the band is almost as wry as the Beatles in "Yer Blues" or "Helter Skelter," the result here as there does not prove durable. Led Zeppelin's only ostensible love song. "Thank You," is quite frustrating. Page assumes a twelve-string and Plant emulsifies his voice for such less than breathtaking lyrics as "If mountains should crumble into the sea/ There would still be you and me," and "Inspiration is what you are to me." But the inspiration is unfortunately bathetic, and the sanguine ending is a bit too Panglossian. "Thank You" does provide a needed contrast to the previous songs, amatory alacrity and citrous jeu d'chair, but its flawed beauty recalls Checkhov's reply to a plea for biographical disclosures: "If you haven't facts, substitute lyricism."
"Heartbreaker" and "Ramble On" perhaps represent Led Zeppelin's finest achievement. "Heartbreaker" reveals the group at its best, integrating creative solos and complex subordinate lines without verbosity, repetition, or loss of outline. "Heartbreaker" takes its place with "How Many More Times" as a genial yet cynical song about the sumptuous and toxic banquet of credulous infatuation. "Ramble On" is the structural successor to "Babe I'm Going to Leave You," in which several sections are unified by Plant's masterful use of slight dynamic and tempo adjustments. "Ramble On," perhaps Led Zeppelin Il's finest song, also affords a good illustration of the group's use of several guitar timbres in order to avoid monochromaticism. The good taste of "Ramble On" helps to balance "Whole Lotta Love" and "The Lemon Song." which while partially humorous, possess the grace of a lecherous cheese-monger.
John Bonham's drum solo, "Moby Dick," is another failure. It will inevitably be compared, probably extremely unfavorably, with Ginger Baker's "Toad," which must be recognized as the finest rock drum solo. Baker's ability to develop rhythmically redefining motives over a beat which is itself reforming is beyond the demonstrated capacities of any other drummer. No drummer has ever carried a bad song with such unfailing strength as Baker did with "White Room." Yet Bonham proceeds primarily by a method of complementary rhythmic motives which, at least in "Good Times Bad Times" and "Ramble On," are the equal of Baker. Bonham's solidity of striking, his footwork, and dynamic range are comparable to Baker, while his talent for long-term organic development of genuinely complex rhythms compares disadvantageously with Baker.
The last song, "Bring It On Home," is a humorous comment on the current preoccupation of coming together. Since Led Zeppelin never left home, or wandered into the hell's kitchen of supporting orchestras and electronic accessories, they bring it on home with one last incomparably precise instrumental exposition. Plant gestures toward the return to simple instruments with a wittily languid harmonica part, punctuated by an indolent "Watch out, watch out." Their signature blend of innuendo, vaguely arrogant virtuosity, and exhilarating braggadocio return home with unexpected lightness as the harmonica quietly arrests the song with a sarcastic but still good-natured wince of a glissando. So the album which began with a laugh ends with a smile!