Physical Graffiti (1975)
“What Is”: The two-disc, 82-minute Physical Graffiti is not a product of mid-’70s double LP bombast. It defined it. It is ultimately perhaps not Zeppelin’s most eclectic record (more on that later), but it is easily the group’s most sprawling and ambitious effort. And while not the flawless statement I believed it to be as a teenager (Disc Two falls wayside by the end) and so not quite IV’s majestic equal, it does depict the band at the height of its powers in every conceivable fashion. The first disc — which contains unfuckwithable tracks like “Kashmir”, “Trampled Under Foot”, and “The Rover” — is especially sublime, and I’d point to Graffiti as Zep’s second or third best record overall, even despite the odd filler track.
“And What Should Never Be”: There’s nothing offensively bad on here, but after “The Wanton Song” is where things start to blend together. If you can remember how “Black Country Woman” or “Sick Again” go, you’re a better Led Zep fan than I am.
Previous outtakes used on Graffiti: Led Zeppelin III (one track), Led Zeppelin IV (three tracks), and Houses of the Holy (three tracks). Dating back to 1970, the fleeting folk cut “Bron-Yr-Aur” is the oldest thing on here.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: Aside from “Trample Under Foot” (for which I’ve expressed my bountiful love below), “Houses of the Holy” is a driving rock track so relentless I’ve never understood how it could have been omitted from the album that shares its name.
“In My Time of Dying”: “In My Time of Dying”, clearly. At 11 minutes, it’s a hell of a third track and Physical Graffiti’s only early-style blues workout.
“We’re Gonna Groove”: With its stone-cold funk riff and furious Bonhamisms, “Trampled Under Foot” makes for some of the most godlike five minutes this band ever set to wax. Shout-out to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” for inspiring a song that tramples it underfoot like a daisy plot.
Song that most sounds like it could’ve been cribbed from Fleetwood Mac: “Down by the Seaside”, which is as breezy and lilting as its title suggests.
“Rhymin & Stealin”: Hey, remember the 1998 Godzilla soundtrack? Remember when Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page teamed up for “Come with Me”, a hip-hop reinvention of “Kashmir”, complete with Tom Morello guitar parts? Oh, you don’t? You do now.
Cover art ranking: Third. One of the best. Lettering in a now iconic New York City tenement building spells out the album title, one letter at a time. For trivia purposes, the buildings in question are 96 and 98 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village; the Stones later found themselves posing at the same spot in the “Waiting on a Friend” video.
“What Is”: Presence scales back the scope of Physical Graffiti into what is easily Zeppelin’s most homogenous record since their debut. It’s pretty much one song all the way through, but that’s okay! Despite its occasionally rotten critical reputation, it’s a very good song: galloping rock and a hard track that takes its cues from “Houses of the Holy” (the song) and some of Bonham’s most poundingly fierce rhythm work. The relentless opening epic, “Achilles Last Stand”, is of course the classic, but the Blind Willie Johnson-adapted “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and the crawling blues workout “Tea for One” are worthy contenders as well. Presence is probably the most guitar-heavy record in Led Zeppelin’s canon, so it’s hardly surprising they followed it up with much the opposite.
“And What Should Never Be”: At worst, Presence can be faceless and non-distinctive in the Zeppelin canon — there are no genuinely iconic hits, no ballads, and not much in the way of variety. The rollicking, ’50s-style “Candy Store Rock” epitomizes these tendencies.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: Again: “Achilles Last Stand” — all 10 minutes of it, but especially those “I know the way, know the way, know the way” counter-harmonies — is worth the price of admission. This side of “Immigrant Song”, it’s the only Led Zeppelin song I can imagine riding into battle with.
“In My Time of Dying”: Try “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” — particularly Plant’s wordless singing in unison with the menacing opening lick.
Reasons for Presence’s diminished ambition and lukewarm reception: Robert Plant was recovering from a major car accident at the time of recording and found himself singing from a wheelchair; he felt claustrophobic and lonely in the basement studio in Germany, and a heroin-addled Jimmy Page wound up staying awake two nights in a row to tackle all of the guitar overdubs. The whole record was recorded in 18 days — a rush by Zeppelin standards — and it shows.
“We’re Gonna Groove”: “Royal Orleans” carries the hard-charging funk tradition along, following solidly on “Trampled Under Foot” and “The Crunge” from the last two records.
“Rhymin & Stealin”: Rapper MF Grimm made liberal use of “Achilles Last Stand” on “Adam & Eve”, from his 2006 triple album, American Hunger.
Cover art ranking: Tenth. As baffling as the music contained therein. A ’50s-style photograph of a family seated and smiling at a mysterious black obelisk with a boat show behind them. Obelisk was the favored album title of the designer, and Page has said it was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In Through the Out Door (1979)
“What Is”: Led Zeppelin didn’t survive more than a few months into the ’80s, but if you wonder what ’80s Zep would have sounded like, In Through the Out Door is a solid guess. Here, the band follows up an album where every song sounds basically the same with its most eclectic hodgepodge, which — despite a few spotty moments — is far better than I remember it sounding when I was 14, even if it is the band’s weakest studio effort. “Fool in the Rain” is damn near classic, “All My Love” is a touching tribute to Plant’s late child, and the heavy synthesizer wash marks a curious change from Presence’s relentless guitar, err, presence. Plant pretty astutely summed it up in a 1990 interview: “In Through the Out Door wasn’t the greatest thing in the world, but at least we were trying to vary what we were doing, for our own integrity’s sake.”
“And What Should Never Be”: A genuinely scattered bag, In Through the Out Door is largely a collection of black sheep tracks from start to finish. If you’re looking for a particularly failed experiment, witness “Hot Dog”, the group’s yee-haw attempt at a rockabilly hoedown. If ever you’ve wanted to hear Robert Plant exclaim, “I’ll never go to Texas anymore!” in an Elvis drawl, here’s your jam.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: Infectious and playful, with a deep, Latin shuffle that’s been confounding high school cover outfits ever since, “Fool in the Rain” is Out Door’s unlikely centerpiece. Its only flaw: John Bonham died before he had a chance to attempt it live.
“In My Time of Dying”: The three-part, 10-minute, synth-wild “Carouselambra” was being rehearsed on the day John Bonham drank himself to death and choked on his own vomit, if that counts. It never ended up being performed live, alas, but it lives on as Zeppelin’s only real negotiation with the disco era.
“We’re Gonna Groove”: If you can dance to a Latin-inspired “Purdie shuffle” in polyrhythmic 12/8 time (note: you can, you just don’t know it), then “Fool in the Rain” is your song. If not, stick with the synth-tastic “All My Love”.
Wussiest track, according to Jimmy Page: “All My Love”, duh. “I was a little worried about the chorus,” the guitarist told Guitar World. “I could just imagine people doing the wave and all of that. And I thought, ‘That is not us. That is not us.’”
“Rhymin & Stealin”: Space One’s “4 Peace 4 Unity” is a solidly surreal trip-hop bastardization of “All My Love”.
Cover art Ranking: Seventh. As far as ’70s album art gimmicks go, In Through the Out Door is neither the worst nor the best. Displaying a sepia-toned New Orleans bar scene, the sleeve came in what appeared to be a brown paper bag and contained an inner sleeve that, if lightly watered, would begin to show color.
“What Is”: It’s a collection of unused material, so what do you expect it to be? Considering it spans their 12-year career, it’s a rather disappointing collection of odds and sods, though there’s a sliver here and there that indicate while they weren’t always on the mark, they were forever near it. “Wearing and Tearing” was written during the sessions for In Through the Out Door as a sort of shoulder tap to the punk scene. It’s too refined for the likes of the late ’70s punkers, but still, it rattles about with the energy of early Zep, especially that chewy chorus.
“And What Should Never Be”: “Ozone Baby” sounds like the interlude tuneage for That 70’s Show. It doesn’t go anywhere exciting, and neither does Out Door outtake “Darlene”, which would have fared better in the hands of, say, Billy Joel. Also, III was weird and jangly enough without having to deal with “Poor Tom”.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: Did I mention how good “Wearing and Tearing” is? Up above there, didn’t I? Well, it’s just too contagious to ignore, from the way Page apes Townshend on the verses to the way he does this Chuck Berry by way of Eddie Van Halen thing in the chorus. Fun fact: They once considered releasing this as a commemorative single for their 1979 performance at Knebworth Festival. What a lousy mistake on their part.
“We’re Gonna Groove”: Duh? Said song, Zepphead, though only in a cadillac and specifically while wearing some tight-ass bell-bottoms with a joint dangling from my lips. I don’t reckon ever dancing to too much Zeppelin — well, save for rippin’ off my high school girlfriend’s clothes and doin’ the hippety dippety to “Good Times, Bad Times” — but “We’re Gonna Groove” does enough to bring back the pistol fingers.
“In My Time of Dying”: Eh, fuck it: “Wearing and Tearing”. Get everyone real smashed, bury me six feet under, and then have the ol’ lawyer come in and tell my pop that I preferred to be cremated. That’ll do ’em.
“Rhymin & Stealin” (Zeppelin Sampled): Surprise, surprise: those Beasties loved Led so much they dug into “Bonzo’s Montreux” for their 1994 track “Resolution Time”. Speaking of which, every reader out there who named Neil Peart “the greatest drummer of all time” probably missed out on this track. It’s not exceptional, but it’s a worthy solo for your studies.
Cover art ranking: Dead last at 10. Why would I ever try drawing that on my binder?
The Song Remains the Same (1976)
“What Is”: Especially for the School of Rock generation, the visual component of Led Zeppelin — which includes things like Plant’s air-humping, Page’s SG double neck and bow, and Bonham’s gong — is an integral part of their reputation. But The Song Remains the Same, the album that accompanied the concert film of the same name, is still a thrill. Thanks to the likes of Page’s “Dazed and Confused” solo — which takes up all of Side Two — the album epitomizes the band’s expansiveness. At least in retrospect, it’s more legendary than indulgent.
“And What Should Never Be”: Let’s face it: Drum solos are nowhere near as fun to hear as guitar solos, so while Bonham’s “Moby Dick” thundering is mesmerizing to watch, the finite nature of the skins makes for a samey listen.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: While the album’s sound isn’t jarring, “Celebration Day” backs up the band’s reputation as metal pioneers. The heaviness, the force of it, is enough to bring you back.
“In My Time of Dying”: N/A. Never staying quiet for long, The Song Remains the Same is kinda in conflict with the whole “rest in peace” idea.
“We’re Gonna Groove”: With Bonham’s propulsive playing, the version of “Rock and Roll” here is especially high-energy.
“Rhymin & Stealin”: “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same”, the conversational longest song on Sun Kil Moon’s album from February, Benji, is about Mark Kozelek’s formative viewing: “Jimmy Page stood tall on screen/ I was mesmerized by everything/ The Peter Grant and John Paul Jones dream sequence scenes/ The close-up of the mahogany double SG.”
Cover art ranking: Eighth. The band should’ve used black space like this more often, but the edifice on the Song Remains cover looks too everyday to inspire elaborate theories about its meaning.
Celebration Day (2012)
“What Is”: The legendary 2007 concert at London’s O2 Arena that 99% of Zeppelin’s fanbase never got to see. Oh, they had their chances, what with that ridiculous ticket raffle thingy (I tried for hours, like some mindless ape clicking the button again and again to no avail), but they would wind up waiting some five or six years to hear anything substantial. And really, it was worth it. Opening with “Good Times, Bad Times”… I can only imagine the face Dave Grohl was making in the crowd.
Speaking of which… No, he’s not on here and probably never will drum for them. Despite pledging his assistance for years, and later playing alongside John Paul Jones, Grohl was ignored in favor of John Bonham’s excellent son, Jason. Kudos on the choice, even if I’d love to see Grohl do his thing.
“And What Should Never Be”: How about skipping this song for starters? Maybe Plant couldn’t land the vocals anymore? Admittedly, he is a tad rough here and there, especially “Ramble On” — Christ, was that cut rough. He more than makes up for it with “Black Dog”… well, kind of. Those awesome squeals in the chorus are replaced with silence.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”: There isn’t a track here that trumps the original recordings, or anything off The Song Remains the Same for that matter. However, Plant and Jones shine oh so bright on their cut of “Misty Mountain Hop”. Close your eyes and you almost forget Plant looks like this.
“In My Time of Dying”: A live track from a late-era reunion show with 3/4ths of the original band present and you’re asking me which one should be played at my funeral? …well, glad you asked: None.
So, when is this happening at Bonnaroo? If there’s one act Ashley Capps has valiantly tried to grab, I’m sure it’s this one. There isn’t a better setting in America than The Farm to host these boys, especially if they managed to squeeze out two and half hours. It wouldn’t just be something of legend, it would shatter the hopes of ever having another enviable headliner ever again.
What about Talking Heads, dude? I’m of the camp that already knows this will never happen.
Cover art ranking: Somewhere in the end, so, ninth? It’s a cute drawing and all, but it makes me hungry for an Arch Deluxe or something fried.