Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#2)


There's no shame in the silver medal. Find out who finished at #2 after the jump.

If there was never a time in your life when you thought Led Zeppelin was the most awesome f-cking band on the planet, then someone needs to make apologies for you. They’re as real a real deal as real deals get. And just reading back that last slightly awkward sentence, I lined up the accents of the vowels with a John Bonham drumbeat and it sounded great. If the human heart ledzeppelin1could beat like his kit, cardiac arrest would be as rare as a giraffe getting decapitated by a blimp. And if by some disaster you manage to succumb to an episode anyway, a bluesy Jimmy Page lick works better than a defibrillator. As the cliché goes, this music makes you feel alive, y’know?

More alive, really. Led Zeppelin is bigger than anything the human body can comprehend. They’re not traditionally uplifting, but damn it if they don’t lift you up anyway. It’s like pornography for musicians. They’re based on fantasy that you can live through vicariously. Even when they deal with real subjects, it somehow still feels unreal. We’ve all answered the doorbell ring from the pizza delivery guy, but Meat Lovers doesn’t mean the same thing in the real world. Likewise, we’ve all felt dazed and confused for so long, but on the same level as Robert Plant’s telling us? With that black storm thrashing down around him? Please, nothing outside of fairy tale is ever that epic. People who survived D-Day can’t even comprehend such scale. Greek mythology experts start looking at Zeus as just some dude with cardboard lightning bolts and a hard-on for water nymphs.

ledzeppelin2Without Led Zeppelin, hard rock and heavy metal today would be crap. Whatever lessons you could have learned from Cream or Hendrix or Sabbath or anyone else, doesn’t matter. Zeppelin was it in a way that is impossible to define “it.” That’s because it differs from person to person. Trying to figure out why they got lousy reviews in their day, I can only glean two possible theories. I’ll get to the other one later, but first: there’s no way to analyze their music on a strictly professional, logical manner. Someone could have sat there at their typewriter and hammered out some bullshit about the “You Shook Me” echo effect or the colossal sound of the drum on “When the Levee Breaks” or “No Quarter”’s eerie bowed guitar, but no knowledge matters. That’s why Zeppelin is so great for young, hungry minds and folks diving into the warm, choppy waters of rock music. There’s no study or experience required—it just hits you and does something (even if that something is turn you off for whatever unsavory reason). It reduces all response to a series of grunts and lurches, and all other thoughts, fears and considerations just melt into the groove.

There’s no doubt in my mind about this. Although I listen to a wide array of musical genres, I’ve always been and always will be a “rock guy.” It’s what I’m drawn to the most. And yet there is an alarming number of “rockhead” favorites that I’m simply unimpressed by—at least to the extent that most of that ilk tends to be impressed. Some I like but still think are either overpraised or get a little tiresome at length or in repetition (AC/DC, Van Halen), some have a few quality songs but are just as often quite terrible and by and large simply mediocre (Aerosmith, Boston, Ted Nugent, Journey), and then there are the ones that I’ve never liked and am flabbergasted by their popularity (KISS, pretty much anything considered “hair metal”); in saying so I’ve probably just alienated two-thirds of the people salivating over this celebration of Zeppelin because exclusive adoration is so rare—love one, love ‘em all (or at least most). And in my estimation, I then think to myself that maybe I’m a snob, maybe I’m too uptight, maybe simple, mindless, thudding rock is just too boring for me. But then I hear Led Zeppelin and I want to weep. I want to drop to my knees and wail out like Wayne or Garth: “I’m not worthy!” And I turn into the same weird guy ledzeppelin3picking fights with people who don’t insist Neil Peart is the greatest drummer ever or the hairy fella in a faded Molly Hatchet tee hollerin’ drunkenly in the parking lot outside of the latest Poison/Mötley Crüe tour stop. But that’s what Zep does: I’d be less surprised to see a nun in full habit pull out an air guitar with “Heartbreaker” at Earl’s Court blasting away in the background than see one who wasn’t.

It’s so difficult to talk about them in normal, “educated” terms that their fans were reduced to just deifying them all. Robert Plant is the “golden god,” maybe the greatest rock singer in history, especially on those first few albums when wailing hadn’t yet torn apart his vocal cords. Damn near anyone who came after him and tried to moan and howl in any remotely similar fashion sounded so cut-rate and mimicking that I would sometimes literally shudder. Then there’s Jimmy Page, the “guitar god.” Because Hendrix seems so far gone and on a different stage altogether, I can’t declare in favor of ol’ Jimmy, but he’s one of the few guitarists who’ve ever really moved me with his playing, so he belongs in that conversation—and it seemed like he lost control even more than the gypsy, like something had possessed him. John Bonham is simply known as “god,” in a consistency and fervor rarely seen since Eric Clapton’s name was tattooed across London in ’66. I don’t care what Peart fans think; there has never, ever been a rock drummer to match him. And I’m not sure if I’ve ever even heard anyone describe someone as being “god on bass” because bassists almost always go unsung outside of funk and jazz, but if someone ever has, they were probably describing…someone else. That’s ‘cause poor John Paul Jones never got the credit he deserved. He won’t get the credit he deserves even from me, and I want to give him what’s due. The words don’t really exist.

ledzeppelin4Those four stole, saved, and ruined rock n’ roll for life. All of the rowdy, heavy bands that came before them (including the Yardbirds, before becoming the New Yardbirds featuring Page and three “new guys,” and then becoming Led Zeppelin), everything that led to titanic English blues and muscular psychedelia and searing garage and stoned age rock, Zeppelin just took it and reworked it into a roiling beast. They were so good so quick that people sometimes forget about Cream’s legacy today—they made you f-cking forget about Clapton, Ginger Baker and…uh, something Bruce? Jesus, they made me forget that guy’s name! Well, compensation can be offered in the fact that they saved the genre from jam bands, hippies and softies who were taking over in a hurry as the 60s belched out the 70s. They weren’t the only ones, of course, but they were clearly leading the pack.

Then, there’s that matter of ruining rock n’ roll. Not really their fault, mind, but blame must be assigned where due. You know that old saying about how all metal bands owe their existence to either Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin? Well, almost all the good metal bands of the last thirty years came largely from Sabbath. Zeppelin accidentally spewed the overblown fantasies, macho posturing and get-real-laid vibes of the “pop” scene that unearthed Sunset Strip sleaze and spandex…oh, so much spandex! And before that, they gave every long-haired wannabe with a guitar and an ego the license to solo and solo and solo until the only thing drowning out the yawns was the damn solo. Zep need not apologize for that unfortunate byproduct; do we demand Lincoln ledzeppelin5to make amends for Republicans? On the plus side, at least that trash led us to punk and alternative…many of which confessed to owing a debt to Zeppelin.

Punk wasn’t rebelling against Zeppelin; they rebelled against what Zeppelin wrought—that slew of pale imitators without the fire, soul and arrogance. And never forget that: the guys who made up Led Zeppelin were some arrogant sons of bitches, but it’s impossible to be humble when you can do the superhuman things they did. Arrogance in speech is what has always irks me (and thankfully they rarely participated), but arrogance in performance (like Michael Jordan dominating the entire basketball court or Daniel Day Lewis making mincemeat out of an actor as good as Leonardo DiCaprio as if he was sitting in on an amateur theater production)—that’s always forgivable. The arrogance gave them the swagger, and swagger cannot be successfully faked. And the swagger gave them the swing and the mystery, which brings me to the second theory I can produce as to why critics were so ignorant back in the day while the band’s albums flew off the shelves.

Without the swing, Led Zeppelin would have been a lumbering dinosaur, and no one wants that. Just being heavy and thunderous breeds stagnancy. It wasn’t enough for Bonham to be an incredibly powerful drummer (whenever someone describes a percussionist as being “thunderfisted,” I immediately think of him); he also had style and accentual change-ups, he knew when to pull back and when to push that beat right down the listener’s throat, knew the ins and outs of contrapuntal engineered and otherwise, and he could land early or late on what was expected and give it almost a funky flavor (especially helpful on Houses of the Holy when the band goofed on James Brown and reggae). They were doing some great soft-loud stuff way before Pixies, like when they exploded after the extended intro of “Over the Hill and Far Away” or the woodsy, galloping folk parts of “Ramble On” erupting into an efficient but chest-beating chorus. ledzeppelin6And you absolutely need that jive and swagger when so many of your songs utterly drip with sex—it’s not hard to get some teenage dude riled up about getting some, but making the ladies beg for it just as much? That takes something extra.

And then there’s the mysticism side, which gave the critics a lot of their shabby ammo. Why can’t these British bluesmen and houndogs sing about something that mattered? It was 1971 and John Lennon’s imagining a “brotherhood of man…sharing all the world” and Marvin Gaye is asking, “What’s goin’ on?” Meanwhile, this lead balloon thing is going on and on about some Middle Earth orc fight in “The Battle of Evermore” and some lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold. It was one thing to be psychedelic and experimental, but what’s all this stuff about druids and sorcery? There’s a reason why This Is Spinal Tap takes several hard, hysterical jabs at these guys—they could be quite ridiculous if taken at face value. But here’s where I spin it faster than “Black Dog”’s rolling bass: that just made them even more astounding! Led Zeppelin is music to play when you just need to get the hell out of dodge; you’ve been beaten up by a long, hard day, week, month, lifetime, whatever, and you just gotta go. I don’t wanna hear some sad sack moping about his broken heart or a sneering poet lacerate the greedy pigs at the top of the mountain or some chipmunk-voiced tart beg you to dance with her. I want to bash it out, I want to roll over folksy hills, I want to ride a groove like it was intercourse, I want to climb onto the scruff of a luckdragon’s neck and just fly, man.

There was nothing that these guys tried and sucked at. Of course, there was the bluesy heavy metal side (or, really, the way they took blues and gave it the size, power, and most important, the attitude to become heavy metal), but they also touched on reggae that was goofy but still nasty, country in songs like “Down by the Seaside” and “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp,” the kind of R&B/funk that ledzeppelin8only white rockers can get away with (just let “Trampled Under Foot” blow your mind), synthesizer rock that might have sounded heroic if not for the Who, prog compositions and roots rock tableaus, and best of all, a slew of folksy acoustic numbers that people obviously forget about when they describe Zep as being monolithic. Usually, when a hard rock band dusts off the ol’ unplugged six-string, it’s time for a ballad to get the ladies involved, but not Zep. Those maneuvers were there from the beginning, and they weren’t sideshows—many of their heaviest numbers are influenced by folk rock dynamics. And they weren’t ballads in the strictest of sense, either. They sounded like a canter over stony hillocks or rural life or sweet, graceful pleasure. Even their so-called “power ballad,” the legendary “Stairway to Heaven,” has two of the most sizzling electric solos ever recorded in the studio.

They were lucky to find studio time at all for a good portion of their career. Led Zeppelin II, a defining hard rock record if there ever was one, was recorded mostly on the road in bits and pieces, allowing Page the opportunity to take traditional, even familiar blues licks and squeeze out the juice. He wasn’t worshipped because of what he played but rather how he played. And it’s easy to think of him in terms of his economical riffs and face-melting solos, but he did some imaginative things acoustically as well, and he played the slide guitar like he was wielding a rapier (“In My Time of Dying”). The mystic aura that surrounded him, his affinity for the occult, the strange, shadowy sounds he could wrench out with his guitar made him seem like some sort of wizard. As acclaimed ledzeppelin9and adored as he is, people still sometimes overlook the subtle shifts and black noise he could caress into a song’s skin.

Overlooked even more was the impact of Jones, whose overblown, murderous bass resembled John Entwistle’s, and also like Entwistle, had a very versatile range. On later band records, he was dominating with keyboards and the Mellotron, devised eastern scales and arranged synthesized strings for the epic “Kashmir,” and touched “Fool in the Rain” with some Latin flair. He and Bonham gave the rhythms a Stax-edge, dubbed in a paradoxical but accurate fashion as “loose but tight,” and was critical to the development of the group’s dynamic sound—it was rock you could dance to, and elegant despite its sometimes bombastic grandiosity. And as anyone will tell you, electric blues is nothing without its “ass end,” and sure enough, Jones gave it one big ass.

If for nothing else, Led Zeppelin gave the world album-oriented rock (AOR), simultaneously free and restrictive. Though lacking the stylistic diversity of Top 40 stations, it gave programming a shot in the arm that allowed for the airing of deep album cuts and non-singles. Zeppelin refused to release singles in the UK, and in the States, eight-minute songs like “Stairway” (the most requested song of all time), which never would had the chance to have been popular on the airwaves if formatted to a spin-and-recycle method of broadcast, became huge additions to FM ledzeppelin7playlists. And in doing so, the programming of—oh my God, this is getting boring. How the hell did I make my way here, tacking off contributions and merits and, and, and talking about the damn radio!?

Man, I’ve studied Zeppelin, done the reading, listened to the songs very carefully to hear all the elements and how a bass part kicks off a new section and blah, blah, blah, but it hasn’t helped. The way I felt about Led Zeppelin ten years ago is how I feel about them now. They unearth an urge, the kind that makes me type out an inconsiderate number of rudeboy profanities (sorry about that) because more sensible words fail me. And I get angry when words fail me, f-ck it all. I don’t care if they’re being light and Celtic or sick and numbingly heavy, this shit just takes me away. If you like rock, you love Led Zeppelin. If you hate rock, you love Led Zeppelin. If you were born last week, you love Led Zeppelin. Wait, why am I even wasting my time with this? God damn, stop reading this crap and just play one of their records already. Maximum volume, please; your neighbors will thank you.

Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
Dazed and Confused
Communication Breakdown
Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp
Hey Hey What Can I Do
Dancing Days
Over the Hills and Far Away
No Quarter
Trampled Under Foot
Down by the Seaside
Achilles Last Stand
In the Evening
…and the albums Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin IV

Also endorsed: AC/DC, Bad Company, Joe Walsh

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]


Matt Medlock


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