Led Zeppelin belong to a category that includes only them. If it’s “blood and balls, heart and thunder” (as Robert Plant puts it) that make an artist on stage credible, exciting, and magical, in Led Zeppelin there was nothing but sex, for them to play was an emotional outburst and an erotic act. Led Zeppelin have bred generations of adolescents’ virility in the American suburbs; have shown that love for life goes beyond death, and that four musicians – those very four – can form an undivided unity; have sought throughout their entire career something always new and different; have seamlessly superimposed musical styles by combining light and shade, soft and heavy, acoustic and electric; have allowed, thanks to the aesthetics of the ‘sublime’, in comparison with which everything else is small, to make their audience live an emotional disorientation, an illusion of measure in disorder and a feeling of pleasure in displeasure.
Which indicators allow us to state that Led Zeppelin are the greatest rock band of all time?
The four Zeps were five
During their epic (1968-1980), Led Zeppelin included four extraordinary musicians: Robert Plant aka Percy (vocals), John Paul Jones aka Jonesy (bass and keyboards), John Bonham aka Bonzo (percussions), and Jimmy Page aka Pagey (guitars).
Robert Plant could mold his voice in order to suit it for each single track’s persona, by adjusting intensity, volume, and timbre. Led Zeppelin’s Percy was also the personification of the semi-divine status of a rock star: he was beautiful and impossible, a cruel dominator of cheering crowds, a self-appointed Golden God in the city of the angels and the damned. Plant-Priapus has embodied in the most convincing way the model for a stage animal.
John Paul Jones played the bass by following John Bonham’s drums in unison, in order to produce a sound rhythmics that would not surpass nor decrease the bass drum’s effectiveness, and acting as to create the impression that the two instruments were one only thing. Without the melody of Jones’ bass lines, his colors and punctuality, Zeppelin’s songs would surely have been much flatter.
The kits John Bonham used rarely included more than four drums. This means that the ‘Bonham sound’ simply derived from the way he hit them, plus an impeccable sense of timing, but also from his courage in experimenting new and never obvious ways. Furthermore, he used particularly long and heavy sticks, and an oversized bass drum. The main reason for Zeppelin’s drums unique sonance was however Bonham’s sticks and wrists inclination, which let him get from any drum kit he played the same “monumental” sound.
Jimmy Page was not just a spectacular guitar player but also an arranger, a composer, and a producer with a very clear vision of where he wanted to get to. Apart from his skills in exploiting the recording studios’ resources, Page himself likes to make clear that his primal vocation was a composer’s one. He used to build harmonies by orchestrating his guitars as he was orchestrating a classical music suite, and by creating unexpected melodies inside a rock frame.
On the album credits, next to Peter Grant’s name you find ‘executive producer’ as an official nomenclature, but this does not tell you all you need to know about his role inside the band.He made his boys earn huge amounts of money, because he inverted the shares distribution that in the rock scene had always favored majors, producers and promoters. Contrary to any other producer and manager, Grant used to travel together with his band; he slept in the same hotels, and attended all their shows. Furthermore, he supervised logistics, personally took care of unexpected issues, and collected credits. Finally, he faced threats and put his hands on anybody who didn’t keep in line.
The ‘sublime’ in the lyrics and sound of the songs
Led Zeppelin neither impart moral lessons, nor do they deliver any political proclamation. Led Zeppelin’s lyrics encourage us to follow our heart, to find the queen of our dreams, but also to accept the inherent dualism in our lives.
The essential message is to take chances, recognize and follow our desires, and bravely hold life. Frequent are the lyrics that talk about love: love for a woman, for friends, for family. Love for the planet, for our neighbor, from a universal fraternity perspective. Love is also meant as a force that is able to bring light, and knowledge. Love can be even a source of pain that bites our heart and makes it bleed. Looking for love is however always rewarding, it’s something worth crawling for. Zeppelin songs are also filled with mysticism, spiritualism, and paganism. God is everywhere; He/She is Harmony, Nature, and Light. To fully embrace life will be our prayer, and Reason can live together with Faith.
Most of their songbook can be divided in four main thematic threads: the joy of living (friendship, good vibrations, universal fraternity), love pains, sex, and journey. To the latter doubtless belong some of their most meaningful numbers, songs like Ramble On, Achilles Last Stand, and Kashmir, because they express a fundamental principle of Led Zeppelin’s philosophy: the impatience with stasis in favor of a fondness, even an incoercible urge to leave, to go on the road again, and to ramble on. You understand you are in a ‘sublime’ territory not only because of the lyrics, but also thanks both to the songs’ musical structure and to the way the sound is recorded, and to the PA’s loudness at live exhibitions. Such power was furthermore amplified by John Bonham’s pressing, syncopated and deafening drumming, which Jimmy Page was able to enhance in the studio recording’s production.
Power, sensuality, and mysticism
Led Zeppelin played extremely loud. They created a sonic cocoon from which everyday life was excluded. They assaulted the audience with their Marshalls’ power in order to let them jump onto their seats, but the impression of vastness they produced did not depend only on the wattage but also on their mastery in alternating acoustic sounds with electric sounds, delicate tones with powerful tones. Their songs seldom have actual hooks, being instead mainly based on electric guitar riffs and continuous changes of rhythm. The audience had to be frightened, seduced, and dominated. Jimmy Page & company tingled their fans’ spines through loudness and their riffs’ mantra, which created a transformative energy both in the performers and in the audience. Having attended a Led Zeppelin’s (or a Page and Plant’s) concert is described by fans with the same emphasis that would be used by somebody who had joined a pagan mass, or experienced a synesthetic and magical trip that allowed him to physically see energy and took him in places where he never was before.
What was typical of Led Zeppelin in live concerts was risk. The band tried every night to pursue the height of its excellence, and to scale-up by pushing their boundaries farther and farther, until they were aware of another height they could climb and leave behind them.
We listen to Led Zeppelin mainly for the physical involvement that the rhythm and timbre of their music are able to alert, making us aware of being alive, of having an animal body that vibrates. The music of Led Zeppelin therefore has viscerally to do with sex, pain, excess, the dark and irrational forces of mankind, death, and the Sacred. It is, in a word, Dionysian.
All Led Zeppelin’s songs have in them something unique that makes you want to listen to them again and again. Both in concert and on vinyl, Led Zeppelin took (take) its audience on a journey through different musical spaces. It’s a fact that Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham loved to play music together, since they immensely enjoyed the almost paranormal alchemy that allowed Zeppelin to frame everything perfectly, and to become something that was more than the mere sum of their parts.
In giving consent to life in all its forms there is joy, bliss, and happiness. Led Zeppelin’s life has alchemically fused music and magic, pain and pleasure to create freedom. The albums, the concerts, the way of addressing existence are a declaration of love for life, of which Zeppelin wants to welcome all the necessary dualities: depression and ecstasy, distance and depth, mourning and exultation.
It is an existential wisdom practicable by all those willing to take it in order to hedonistically expand their lives. And the will to expand was the rule that Zeppelin has always followed throughout the whole parable of the band’s life: the search for something always new and different is the cornerstone of Led Zeppelin’s philosophy. The seamless overlapping of different musical styles, the stated intention to develop its aesthetics by the juxtaposition of light and shade, plus the typical counterculture elements like surprise, contradiction, and uncertainty can be found in Led Zeppelin’s musical composition, in the lyrics’ writing, in the records’ production, in the shows’ sound, visual, and choreographic impact, in the albums’ artwork, in the four Zep’s public discourse, finally in their lifestyle on the road. All holds together. And all is magick.