Barely a year after their debut, Zeppelin released what is probably their most famous album. This one firmly cemented their reputation as rock’s undisputed kings and helped them break America like no British band had done before or possibly since. Riff laden, dripping with sex, and stuffed with epic songs it is a rock monument and remains the standard bearer for the genre as well as being one of the albums which aspiring artists look to for guidance and inspiration.
‘Whole Lotta Love’ is frequently listed as having the greatest guitar riff of all time and it isn’t difficult to see why. It is very simple, only a few notes, but within those notes is the embodiment of rock n roll. We immediately sense sex, excess, freedom, confidence, flamboyance, attitude, and a raft of other feelings, and that’s before Plant even opens his maw to unleash those timeless first words. As with many tracks here there is a looseness which comes from the track starting off from live jamming sessions, yet as well as this the song is incredibly tight- the sound of a band working as a whole. We get the impression that each member could anticipate the moves of the others. Though the riff was Page’s own genius, Plant adds a stream of Willie Dixon inspired lyrics to create the finished article- the song is primarily about sex and aside from the lyrics, you’ll probably get that from the moans and groans. More than a simple rock anthem, the strange middle section shows that the band were keen to experiment with other sounds and techniques but equally ready to return to normality via a stunning Page solo.
‘What Is And What Should Never Be’ seems to be a quiet moment in the album as it opens with jangly, soft guitars and some quiet Plant vocals with some phased effects. Plant sings to a woman of running away and all signals are pointing towards a straightforward love song. Bonzo comes in though with a blast lifting the song off into a heavier chorus. This is one of the major light and dark, soft and heavy combo songs which the band recorded, the technique working as well as any other song they’ve done. We get a last blues guitar solo, followed by a larger, louder one, we get fading effects, we get an outro over a minute long of Page and Plant psychedelic partying- all in all another hit.
‘The Lemon Song’ continues the riff magic with another masterful introduction from Plant and Bonham. Plant squeals loudly through a range of Carry On style innuendos and classic Blues routines while Jones gives the song some funk with his bouncy improvised bass. Page unleashes one of his best solos before a free jamming session in the middle, before an explosion of excessive metal madness where every member blasts away as loud and fast as possible.
‘Thank You’ brings the quiet moment eventually, a ballad packed with loving sentiment, hippy ideals, organs, chimes, acoustic beauty, harmomic vocals, yet keeping free of saccharine droplets. One of Page’s best acoustic solos features here, backed wonderfully by some subtle keys by Jones while Bonzo keeps blasting away inexplicably. Plant wrote all of the lyrics here in a tribute to his wife, a sign that his skills as a writer were growing significantly and the band were continually messing with form ending the song not once, but twice.
‘Heartbreaker’ opens with one of my favourite riffs ever, one which oozes with sleaze and rock-god quality. Add to this some raunchy lyrics about a sexually conquering woman and a man grown wise and weary of her ways, some skyscraping power chords, and a lesson in skins by Bonzo and we have another classic. As great as the riff is, the real moment of genius is Page’s improvised solo which goes on and one and which you never want to end. Beginning slowly with the spotlight on him, he string bends and picks up speed before free jamming up and down the fret board with ridiculous speed and then burning out; just as you think it’s over, the rest of the band provide cavalry support which kicks Page back to life and things go from insane to somewhere else. This opened the door for a million imitators.
‘Livin Lovin Woman’ follows quickly and is similar in sound and theme, this time relating the story of a groupie who harassed the band. Page never liked the song and it was never performed fully live, but it is one of my favourites. The light and shade is there again, the title is used as a refrain with Page giving backing vocals, the riff is again inspired, and the whole thing is silly, fast, and fun.
‘Ramble On’ is another acoustic moment and while it is recognized as a favourite by fans and critics alike, it’s never been too high on my list. It’s well constructed and well played as to be expected, the lyrics are full of Tolkien and folk inspired moments, and it provides a breather after the previous songs. I simply find it quite plain, but the melodies and rhythms are charming nonetheless.
‘Moby Dick’ is the stuff of drumming legend- a lone man stuck behind his kit as a spotlight shines upon his brow while he stares down a slavering crowd of fifty thousand, his band-mates off stage, his arms held high, ready to swing down and begin a 10 minute thunderous lesson. The version on How The West Was Won is near 20 minutes, whilst the original here is a meager 4 minutes and features accompaniment from Page and Jones at the start and end. When played live the band would often jam along, incorporating bits of other Zep tracks as well as segueing into songs from other artists, but the selling point is that Bonzo would thump away for an eternity with a variety of techniques. The fact that his drum solos keeps listeners entertained is testament to his genius and skill as most would turn off within 1 minute.
‘Bring It On Home’ is often the forgotten track here- most people hear the slow, soft intro, the harmonica along with Plant’s zany vocals and assume the rest of the track is similar nonsense. While this part does last over a minute and isn’t the most listenable part of the canon, around halfway through Page unleashes one of his greatest riffs- all the more powerful because people never get this far in the track. Bonzo crashes in to help out, the riff is repeated in 3 different keys before Plant chimes in with some heavy rock vocals. This could have been 2 standalone tracks, though one of them would have went down as a classic, the other possibly as a joke.
Any number of tracks from this album are classed as rock classics; indeed some of them are classic simply amongst the best songs of all time, so much so that every music fan should have it in their collection. It goes without saying that any budding rock stars or guitarists (or drummers, bassists, singers) should use this as a bible. This album marked a turning point in the band’s career, where they would move away more from covers and become creative song-writers in their own right. It also shows a change in the tide of rock music, becoming, heavier, faster, more sexual, more daring, more technical; many of today’s clichés and standards were either started or perfected here. It is already obvious that this is an influential album- for any younger readers or those who have not yet heard it for whatever reason- this does transcend genres and boundaries and whatever may have been putting you off getting this-put that aside and give it a go- it will likely be nothing like you expected.