10. No Quarter (Houses Of The Holy, 1973)
The only studiedly ‘down’ track on Houses Of The Holy, No Quarter was first tried out at Headley Grange during sessions for Zeppelin’s fourth album, at which time it was much faster than the final versions. On Houses Of The Holy, it was John Paul Jones’s personal showcase. “This was the album where Jonesy really came into his own, and this is the track that proves it,” producer Eddie Kramer told Classic Rock in 2017. “I wasn’t there when they finally recorded it, but they had demo versions of it going back a few years. It really demonstrates that Led Zeppelin could do anything they turned their minds to now – and do it better than anybody else. They were able to really stretch out now and experiment, which allowed the space for Jonesy to come in and do his thing on the arrangements. It wasn’t just his brilliance as a keyboard player or even a writer, it was also the subtlety of his arrangements, and the economy of notes that made this track such a powerful statement. Genius.”
9. Dazed And Confused (Led Zeppelin, 1969)
In 1967 the Yardbirds (opens in new tab) with Jimmy Page (opens in new tab) played the Village Theatre in New York, supported by folk singer Jake Holmes, who’d just released his debut album, The Above Ground Sound Of Jake Holmes. Bass player Chris Dreja remembers Page coming back to the hotel with a copy of the album and enthusing over the track Dazed And Confused. The Yardbirds worked up the song and added it to their set, and at some point rookie guitarist Jimmy Page produced a violin bow that he proceeded to viciously employ on the strings of his over-cranked Fender Telecaster. It was a gob-smacking gimmick, but it represented a tantalising glimpse into rock’s future. For with this single flamboyant gesture Page was sweeping aside the studious purism of mid-60s blues austerity and flinging open the door to the grandiose gestures and limitless possibilities of titanic 1970s mega-rock. It also provided Page with his broadest canvas for live extemporization.
8. Black Dog (Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
One of the heaviest of all the great Zeppelin riffs, Black Dog’s title has often been the subject of speculation. It has been suggested the ‘black dog’ was the depression that hung over John Bonham in particular, after a hard night’s partying. Others have claimed that it was simply named after a dog that was seen lurching around Headley Grange. The somewhat doomy mood of this all-powerful rock tune was enhanced by the location it was played in. The basic track was recorded in the crypt, and the blues style call-and-response between Plant and Page works wonders. 'Hey, hey Mama/Said the way you move/Gonna make you sweat/Gonna make you groove!' The whole band answers this particularly sweaty, sexy bellow with a unison statement that certainly recalls Fleetwood Mac (opens in new tab)’s song, Oh Well.
A funky groove from Bonham lifts Black Dog out of its blues roots. Page’s riff is basic, but self assured, as he jams over an odd time signature (4/4 is offset by 5/8). John Paul Jones devised the theme and the arrangement on which Jimmy overdubbed no less than four guitar tracks, using a Gibson Les Paul played through a DI box. John Paul Jones remembers Bonham had problems with Black Dog. “I told him to keep playing four to the bar, but there is a 5/8 rhythm over the top. If you go through enough 5/8s it arrives back on the beat. Originally, it was more complicated, but we had to change the accents for him to play it properly."
7. Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)
This tune was recorded in Olympic Studios, London, in the summer of 1970, where Jimmy and John Bonham laid down the backing tracks to Immigrant Song inside a small, low ceilinged room that looked more like somebody’s private den than a high-tech studio. The song was just an untitled piece, a relentless, pounding theme, hypnotic in its intensity… Jimmy was slouched over his guitar while Bonham crouched over his kit, glaring at the snare drum. He wasn’t a man to be interrupted while concentrating on a new riff. If Bonham took one thing seriously, it was pleasing his guitarist with the right kind of beat. The pair always worked closely, and Bonham’s propulsive pattern soon helped to shape this unlikely Viking saga.
It had been inspired by a trip to Iceland in June that year when Robert Plant became intrigued by Nordic myths and legends. The tune was unveiled at the Bath Festival in June when the band played in front of 200,000 fans. Jimmy wore his country yokel’s hat and Robert’s beard made him look like a Viking who’d just arrived by longboat. Immigrant Song was released as a single in the US, coupled with Hey, Hey What Can I Do in November. It went on to claim the number one hot spot during a 13-week run in the Billboard chart.
6. Achilles Last Stand (Presence, 1976)
Having used up their backlog of material on Physical Graffiti, songs for the album that followed would have to be built from the ground up. One of the first to take shape was Achilles Last Stand, the lengthy opus that would eventually open Presence. Built on the sort of strident, all-hands-on-deck guitar figure that Iron Maiden (opens in new tab) would later build a whole career out of – Page attempting to create something, he said, that reflected “the façade of a gothic building with layers of tracery and statues” – Achilles Last Stand also featured the first of a string of intensely autobiographical lyrics Plant now felt compelled to write. Originally nicknamed The Wheelchair Song, the subject in this instance was the enforced exile which had forced the band to become what Page later described as “technological gypsies”, and led indirectly, Plant seemed to suggest, to their current malaise – ‘the devil’s in his hole!’ he wailed balefully. Page later described his guitar solo as “in the same tradition as the solo from Stairway To Heaven”. In truth, few would now agree but, “It is on that level to me,” he insisted.
5. Since I've Been Loving You (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)
Originally earmarked for inclusion on Led Zeppelin II, this seven-and-a-half-minute marvel remains arguably rock music’s greatest drowsy seduction, Bonzo’s metronomic drums and John Paul Jones’ woozy jazz organ providing the backdrop as Page’s galactic soloing and Plant’s glass-shattering vocal build to what can only be described as a musical orgasm. An electrifying comedown blues, Since I've Been Loving You also stands as a musical metaphor for the new decade, where the wide-eyed optimism of the ’60s would be traded for a far earthier reality.
4. When The Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
The Led Zep version of When The Levee Breaks is one of the band’s authentic masterpieces of transforming acoustic country blues into monolithic rock. Words like ‘epic’ and ‘awesome’ have become drained and devalued by sheer repetition, but here they’re entirely justified. No heavy band ever played funkier, and no funk band ever played heavier.
Structurally, it’s one of the band’s simplest pieces: they jettisoned the original’s conventional 12-bar structure and played the song pretty much all on one chord, except for the serpentine riff which periodically inserts itself into proceedings. (They also retooled Joe McCoy’s original lyric, dropping some of his verses and adding new words of their own.) By contrast, it’s one of Jimmy Page’s most complex productions. “You’ve got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there’s also flanging, and at the end you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that’s all built around the drum track,” explained Page. “And you’ve got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It’s all done with panning… each 12 bars has something new about it, though at first it might not be apparent. There’s a lot of different effects on there that at the time had never been used before. Phased vocals, a backwards echoed harmonica solo…”
Most important of all, the basic track was slowed down, giving it even more weight and murk. Lawdnose how many guitars Page overdubbed: layers of Mizzippi-mud Les Paul grunge, topped off with a clean, ringing slide guitar. It’s both huge and claustrophobic: Plant’s voice in perpetual danger of being overwhelmed by the immense natural forces swirling around him.
It also includes the most famous Zeppelin backbeat ever, and one that launched a thousand samples. As Robert Plant remarked: “John always felt his significance was minimal but if you take him off any of our tracks, it loses its potency and sex. I don’t think he really knew how important he was.”
3. Whole Lotta Love (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)
When Zeppelin faced the task of creating a follow-up to their mega successful debut, they blasted fans and critics alike with Led Zeppelin II, released in October 1969. This confident album topped the charts in the US and the UK, and sold three million copies within months. The opening salvo, Whole Lotta Love, rapidly became their new anthem. When played live, it caused a sensation and fans roared whenever Page set up that earth-shattering, blues-drenched riff.
The guitar, bass and drums heralded Robert Plant’s ear-shattering whoop and personal assessment that: 'Woman you need love!' This piece of rampant sexual chemistry was concocted at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London, and mixed later in New York; with the band constantly on the move, sessions had to be scheduled whenever tour dates permitted.
Plant opens his vocal section to Whole Lotta Love with a just-audible laugh and a yell of 'Baby, I’m not foolin’… I’m gonna give you my love!' Each of Robert’s love calls is greeted by a glissando from the guitar. Jimmy produced this particular effect by using a metal slide on the strings, as well as adding a backwards tape echo.
During the percussion interlude on this song, John Bonham stomps on his hi-hat and plays patterns on the bells of his ride cymbals, before unleashing an unwavering, battering assault on his snare drum. This innovative freak-out was largely cooked up by Page and Bonham alongside the band’s engineer, Eddie Kramer.
The track was edited down for US single release and got to number four in December 1969. Whole Lotta Love was a hit for Alexis Korner and his CCS big band, and became the long-running theme tune for the BBC’s Top Of The Pops programme.
2. Kashmir (Physical Graffiti, 1975)
A mood of sustained mystery and menace pervades what is undoubtedly one of Zeppelin’s greatest achievements. The impact of Kashmir was immediate when the tune made its debut on the blockbuster double-album Physical Graffiti in March 1975. The pulsating, hypnotic Eastern theme married to the insistent rhythm and orchestrated backing resulted in a most innovative piece of work. Yet, just as Stairway took time to grow in stature, so Kashmir was greeted with doubt and foreboding. It seemed to come out of nowhere.
The song was originally called Driving To Kashmir. Robert Plant had been on holiday in Morocco, a desert kingdom nowhere near Kashmir. Plant told how he had written the lyrics while driving through the Spanish Sahara. Apart from the occasional camel, there was nothing to see for miles and the single track, sandy road seemed to go on forever. Robert dreamed one day the road might lead to his own personal Shangri-La, in Kashmir.
Jimmy Page had devised the main part on a demo he’d made with John Bonham. It was based on a guitar tuning he’d used before on tunes like White Summer and Black Mountain Side. Combined with an arrangement by John Paul Jones, it was enhanced by Page’s use of Moorish-sounding chords played on a Danelectro guitar and backed by session string players. Peter Grant, their manager and mentor, thought the new song was “a dirge”. It wasn’t like anything they’d ever written before, or anyone else for that matter. It was slow, ponderous and doomy, and flew in the face of contemporary trends in rock’n’roll. As an early example of music crossing over with world music, the band thought Kashmir was the highlight of their career. “It had all the elements that defined the band,” said John Paul Jones.
1. Stairway To Heaven (Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
Anticipation was at fever pitch in 1971 as fans awaited the successor to Led Zeppelin III. This eclectic album, released the previous year, had dispelled the notion that Led Zeppelin were merely a heavy rock machine, incapable of playing anything more subtle than Whole Lotta Love. Ditties like Bron-Y-Aur Stomp and Hats Off To (Roy) Harper had veered the band into more folksy, acoustic areas. The untitled fourth album, eventually commonly known as Four Symbols, was just as fruitful, yet more consistent. It saw the unveiling of Stairway To Heaven; the band’s best known song, which was destined to become a rock classic.
Yet Stairway had humble beginnings. The first time the UK public heard it played live was in Belfast on 5 March, 1971. The ‘new number’ caught everyone by surprise. ‘What’s this?’ they cried, as what seemed like a Led Zeppelin symphony began to unfold. It soon became clear that Stairway was a perfectly formed piece of music, full of contrast and dramatic devices. In the best classical tradition, every step on the musical ladder helped progress the arrangement. There was the famed acoustic guitar intro, John Bonham’s brutal drum entry, Robert Plant’s passionate vocals and Pagey’s full-blown guitar solo. Another important facet was John Paul Jones’ warbling wooden recorders – heard on the album, but alas never made it on stage.
It all contributed to a masterpiece that simply gripped the public’s imagination. In fact, Jimmy Page’s double-necked guitar melody became so popular with aspiring players, it was banned from being played in guitar shops. Stairway To Heaven was assembled by trial and error during sessions at Headley Grange, in Hampshire, with the aid of the Rolling Stones (opens in new tab)’ mobile studio. The old mansion was ramshackled, neglected and supposedly haunted – but the former Victorian workhouse had great acoustics. It was so cold in the bleak midwinter of 1970 that the band were forced to burn the stairway’s banisters to keep warm.
As a result, Robert wrote the lyrics while sat on a stool in front of the blazing fire. Page had already recorded his ideas for the main theme on cassette tapes he brought to the manor for Plant to hear. A rehearsal tape of Stairway helped everyone focus on the lyrics. The crucial moment when Bonham picked up the beat was a device Jimmy had used before. He explained: “I wanted to create that extra kick. There’s a fanfare near the guitar solo, then Robert comes in with his tremendous vocal. Stairway crystallised the essence of the band. It had everything there and showed the band at its best. It was such a milestone for us.” After work was completed at Headley Grange, the bulk of the eight-minute piece, including Jimmy’s Fender Telecaster solo, was recorded at Island Studios in London, which had better facilities. John Paul Jones added Hohner electric piano and bass guitar, while Jimmy delivered the final guitar overdubs. Said engineer Andy Johns: “I knew Stairway was going to be a monster. But I didn’t know it would become a bloody anthem!”
Indeed, it became ‘the most played track’ on US radio and won copious awards. However, Robert was embarrassed about its sentiments and such lines as: 'There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold/And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.' After the demise of Led Zeppelin following John Bonham’s death in 1980, Jimmy Page performed it as an instrumental, when he made his comeback at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1982.
It’s been both loved and loathed in equal measures, but nowhere is Page’s supreme understanding of rock dynamics better illustrated than on Stairway, with a song that teases and caresses and then climaxes with nothing less than the world’s greatest ever guitar solo.
All that glitters is not gold. But this is. This is what we came here for.