Sunday, July 28, 2013
Hey, hey, mama, here's my Top 10 Led Zeppelin songs
When Red Hot Chili Peppers’ virtuoso bassist Flea inducted Metallica into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, he said: “There are divine forces at work that make magic things happen, and in the rare instances—when that magic happens in a band—it’s not something that you can add up with regular math. It’s a cosmic chemistry and it is inexplicable.” Though I’m an atheist, I totally agree with him. Each generation has a moment when time and the elements align for a group of talented individuals to cross paths to pollinate and give communal birth to music offerings that will last as long as humankind will. Led Zeppelin is one of those cosmic happenings.
My homeboy, Justin Goldman, happens to be a big Zeppelin fan, too. (And we both revere Jimi.) Since we had so much fun coming up with a list of our ten favorite episodes from The Simpsons, we figured we’d keep the good times rollin’ by compiling a list of our ten favorite Zeppelin tunes. You can check out Justin's list here. And here’s mine:
Picking my ten favorite Zeppelin recordings is difficult enough, but it would be impossible to pick one favorite Zeppelin song. That said, if I had ten minutes of breath left and if I could listen to one last Zeppelin song, I’m fairly sure “Kashmir” would be my pick. This song with its simple D major melody—though Jimmy Page's DADGAD tuning is hardly elementary—is simply transcendent. Page’s fascination with Eastern and Middle Eastern melodies is evident on this track. As Page said in an interview, John Bonham’s drumming is the key to the song; his bass drum beats are simple but thundering; the notes he doesn't hit is what allows the song to work. Similarly, John Paul Jones’ triad bass notes are just enough to give the song a pulsating drive yet restrained enough to allow Robert Plant’s vocals and the Egyptian/Moroccan orchestra string and horn sections enough space to dance and float above the rhythm. The result—especially when Plant wails at the 4:14 mark—is godly. The song is immaculate. That’s why I would listen to “Kashmir” over any other Zeppelin tune—and over just about any other song ever recorded—if I were on the brink of kicking The Big Can. Why bother with the abstracts of a make-pretend heaven when you can just close your eyes and listen to this song and be there?
2) The Rain Song
This is the springtime of my loving/the second season I am to know
Inevitably, a list like this gets personal; this is where mine takes that turn.
Over three years ago, during my Life Before Lymphoma, Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy—though the disc sat in my spinning CD tower—barely made a blip on my musical rotation. “Dancing Days” and “The Ocean” were the only songs on that album that I was drawn to at that time.
Words alone could never explain what happened within me during Life After Lymphoma. An alchemic change (of sorts) took place; the ABVD cocktail of chemotherapy that was injected into my veins produced its share of curious side effects but feeling “The Rain Song” on an emotional level I did not before Life With Lymphoma could not have been an anticipated effect. With certainty, I can say two things happened to me after I regained my good health in the spring of 2010: a part of me softened (probably an affect of growing older, too), and I have a greater appreciation—every once in a while (because I’m dumb and get wrapped up in our text-message present like everyone else)—for the life beating within me.
“The Rain Song” starts as a lilting, tranquil acoustic song. Once Jones’ mellotron fully enters at the 1:38 mark, the song—at least to me, coupled with sliding notes from Page’s Danelectro—literally sounds like a symphony orchestrated by a quiet torrent of raindrops outside one’s window. It is a song I can close my eyes to and feel myself floating peacefully through the sky like a singsong leaf descending in the wind. Sometimes I listen to this song and wish my death will be like this.
It is a moody ballad that slowly builds to an emotional peak before the end of the song. And there is something about the song’s peak; it feels triumphant with Bonzo’s drums and Plant’s invigorated vocals. It feels like a cleansing—like Plant and the band have attained some sort of long-sought freedom. And that’s what making it through that trying time in my life and being alive feels like for me. Like one of the lyrics in the song, this part of my life—when I remember that I am healthy and alive—is “the summer of my smiles.”
And the ending, with Page’s guitar playing, is gorgeous. And perfect.
3) When the Levee Breaks
Like “The Rain Song,” I love this song because it is fucking epic. Bonham’s drums—especially the bass—sound mighty like few other rock recordings I can think of. (And thanks to my homie, Justin, for discussing this track and its recording in his blog where I learned how Page recorded Bonzo’s drums for this song.) Zeppelin’s mighty, bluesy power is on full display in this song: Plant’s otherworldly vocals, his wailing blues harp, Page’s understated but powerful guitar playing, Jones’ relentless droning bass line to accompany Bonham’s thundering drums and clanging cymbals.
This song feels timeless and sprawling in a way that few other songs ever have for me.
Whenever this song has played from my iPod or the CD player from my old car, I have never grown tired of telling whoever I’m riding with (usually mi amorcita, Maria): “Best part of the song’s comin’ right—” then lifting my hand and one finger up in the air before pointing at the music player at the 5:27 mark. Try it!
4) Since I’ve Been Loving You
A lot of what I wrote about “When the Levee Breaks” also applies to this blues number. Led Zeppelin’s potent, bluesy power is cranked to 11 in this song off their third album. But to that let me add this: if I ever had to convince a room full of Delta blues-playing black musicians that white boys like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page can sing and play the blues, without a doubt this is the song I’m playing to make my case. For his blues playing, this is a signature track for Jimmy Page. Throughout the seven minutes and twenty-four seconds of this epic song Page never fucking fails to hit the right note to pull at the heart. And this is a signature track for Robert Plant, too. Let me give you this scenario to more fully explain: if an alien ever crash-landed to Planet Earth and asked, “So who is this Robert Plant fella?” I could play one track—this one—and let his wailing, shattering vocals in this song answer that question.
And that outro peak that “Since I’ve Been Loving You” builds to, starting at the 5:33 mark, dear mother of god, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve listened to it throughout my life and felt this surge of energy ripple throughout my body to make the hairs on my arms stand in ecstasy. As long as I have a pulse I don’t think that feeling will ever go away when I really listen to that part. I have motored down the highway with my jaw agape and eyes watering because there is a part of me that cannot believe what I am listening to during that outro; there is a part of me that literally cannot comprehend how a human being can sing like that; how a collective group of four musicians—four measly human beings—can conjure that music, that power, those emotions. I still cry from awe just listening to it. I could re-do this list every year and this song will always be in my top 10 Zeppelin songs of all-time.
5) Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
If “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a signature song for Jimmy Page’s blues playing, “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is a song that perfectly displays his mastery of the acoustic geetar. Page carries the first 35 seconds by himself—and the way he plays it, he could probably carry the entire first minute if he wanted.
So how fucking rad was Led Zeppelin?: they could make people rock out to an acoustic song. The handclaps are a nifty touch that gives “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” a light, chipper touch. And the song has one of my favorite Plant lyrics—two lines of lyrics I used to enjoy asking myself when one of my past relationships inevitably teetered:
Can a love be so strong when so many loves go wrong
Will our love go on and on and on and on and on and on?
This song is a hoot; it carries none of the emotional torment I tend to favor in my music (and books—and movies. And well everything.) I’d probably go cuckoo-bonkers if I ever played it on a bar jukebox.
6) No Quarter
Like “The Rain Song” from the Houses of the Holy album, this song has grown on me in the past few years. This is where I’ll confess and tell you I’ve never really listened to Zeppelin’s last three albums; I do intend to change that. Though I deeply admire the musical range they covered from Led Zeppelin I to Coda, I’ve never gotten into their later, more progressive material. But “No Quarter” is a song I love for its progressive vibe. I love the peach-fuzz distortion of Page’s guitar; Plant’s ghostly-sounding vocals (from a frail-sounding tone to his extended, distorted wails); the unusual guitar effects captured in recording; Bonzo’s solid drumming as the song’s anchor; and Jones’ keyboard playing.
I love the breath and jazzy-patience the band allowed in this song. It gives this track an improvised vibe. From beginning to final note “No Quarter” has a strange vigor to it. It’s an unusual song that became a staple of their live performances including an excellent rendition for their The Song Remains the Same live album.
Like many of my favorite songs, “No Quarter” makes you feel like you’re on a pleasant high. It’s a musical journey that takes the listener somewhere. When I picture the perfect setting to play this song, I think of the time I cycled alone in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It seems like the perfect tune to listen to for a long, long ride into a mystic unknown.
7) In the Light
My second favorite song on Physical Graffiti. Like “Kashmir,” this is an epic—and one the band members are particularly fond of though they never played it live.
This is one of those rare exquisite musical compositions I could play for someone and with complete seriousness say, “The very best of mankind is in this song.” Jones’ clavinet notes, Plant’s lyrics, his searching vocals, Page’s complementary guitar playing and Bonham’s emotive drumming synthesize together to create this godly tapestry of a song.
And since this list—like any—is completely subjective, it would have been difficult to impossible to leave this song off mine. When I began my chemotherapy treatments in the summer of 2009, I listened to “In the Light” while I cycled around San Francisco on a few sun-filled days. One time, while I was cycling up Golden Gate Avenue toward USF I remember closing my eyes and feeling the sunlight fall on my arms while Plant singed Light, light, light/in the light. I imagined myself grasping that sunlight, imagined it to be like water seeping to my roots. I imagined myself becoming one with the sun’s light (which we are an extension of)—its warmth, its energy healing and nourishing me as I pedaled on. And I really believe it did. So understandably, this song and me are close.
8) The Rover
Like “In the Light,” I feel like this Zep song has a touch of the divine. I hear it in Page’s simple riff for the song’s chorus; the notes sound as though they are twinkling on beams of light. (I swear I have been sober while I have written the entirety of this blog post.) Being a former bassist, I love John Paul Jone’s playing on this song: the effective yet simple driving bass notes he thumps along with Bonham’s drums during the verses; the ascending scales he plays to busy up the chorus. Like he has done throughout his career, Jones always provides a bass line that the song needs, not one that shows off his chops. After all these years, he is still the bassist/musician I would aspire to be.
A final note on why I love this song: Plant’s lyrics are decidedly hippie: “If we can just join hands” and “Oh how I wonder, oh how I worry and I would dearly like to know/I've all this wonder of earthly plunder will it leave us anything to show.” I suspect the zombie hippie within me digs his lyrics? No se.
9) Immigrant Song (BBC Version)
“Immigrant Song” has always been one of my favorite Zeppelin songs. The simple octave-driven riff. Plant’s Tarzan-like wails. The relentless thumping rhythm section. Altogether, it gives the song an exotic, frenetic quality to it. Zeppelin’s live BBC performance of the song only amplifies the wildness of this song. Driven by Page’s guitar playing, the band literally feels like a force of nature when they begin playing this song.
10) Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
Since I noted earlier that I gravitate towards emotionally tormentous artistic material, it should be no surprise that this song squeaked into my top 10 list. This 1969 rendition of Joan Baez’s cover of the song showcases Led Zeppelin’s raw power. Whether driving a car or riding a bike, I’ve headbanged beaucoup times to this song.
It’s hard to believe, but Robert Plant was only 21 years old during this recording; Page was 25 (at most). Jones and Bonham were kids, too. At 21 I had barely lost my cheap virginity yet Plant was singing with youthful sonic vigor coupled with a sense of maturity that belied his young age. I couldn’t fathom any young band in our generation pulling this song off like Zeppelin did. Not even fucking close.
That’s what made Led Zeppelin such an extraordinary band. They’re one of those rare once-in-a-lifetime pairings that manage to advance us as a species. Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham literally evolved our musical possibilities.
And really, if you were being swept off to sea, what other band could be worthy of being one’s last words like Otto in The Simpsons “Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood” episode?
· Bring It On Home
· Dazed and Confused
· Whole Lotta Love
· Trampled Under Foot (live at Earl’s Court, 1975)