Zeppelin set a new standard for studio excess and power: Here’s an album-by-album guide to their incredible career.
It only takes the first two seconds of the first song on their first record for Led Zeppelin to make crystal clear exactly what they intend to do – and exactly what they intend to do to you. In the opening to "Good Times Bad Times," the band drops a two-note attack that falls like a cartoon safe, clearing the air for John Bonham’s syncopated groove, Jimmy Page's swift-sword guitar and Robert Plant's high-end howling about sex so loud it gets the neighbors talking. "It really wasn’t a pretty thing,” Plant later said. "It wasn't supposed to be a pretty thing. It was just an unleashing of energy."
When Led Zeppelin was released in January 1969, it went to the Top 10 in the U.S. and the U.K. charts, despite lukewarm reviews. The enormity of Zeppelin's innovation wasn't entirely easy to recognize. In an era of spiritual transcendence and tales of brave Ulysses, they’d flipped teenage rock & roll's sex-zonked mania into something huge and seething and mythic- bestial. Eastern mysticism and Mordor and prom-ruling radio gold would all come later. This was something purer: Zeppelin as all-id power station. It was heavy metal.
– Jon Dolan
"On the second LP, you can really hear the group identity coming together," Page recalled years after its release. While Zeppelin recorded their first album in three weeks after a single, two-week Scandinavian tour, Led Zeppelin II was cut over six months on tour in London, New York, Vancouver and Los Angeles, with the band carrying the master tapes along the way in a steamer trunk.
Released October 22nd, 1969, Led Zeppelin II went on to sell 3 million copies within six months, taking the Number One spot from Abbey Road in December. "Whole Lotta Love" hit Number Four in the U.S. in January 1970, foreshadowing heavy metal more than a decade early.
"Our whole lives changed," Plant said. "It was such a sudden change we weren't sure how to handle it."
– Patrick Doyle
"Albumwise, it usually takes a year for people to catch up with what we're doing," Page told Rolling Stone in 1975. But listeners needed at least a decade to fully absorb the stylistic change-ups on Led Zeppelin III. The elephant-balled blues rock that had defined Zeppelin's sound was now tempered down, replaced by a heady strain of wispy, mystic folk rock. Even the album cover was more laid-back, with the band's trademark down-in-flames Hindenburg imagery replaced by a trippy collage of butterflies and smiling teeth.
It would be a stretch to think of III as Zeppelin's "mature" album – this is, after all, a record that opens with a first-person tale of Nordic conquest – but, at the very least, it proved they could write songs that match the depth and emotion- al power of the blues and folk they loved and borrowed from. "The third album was the album of albums," Plant would later say. "If anybody had us labeled as a heavy-metal group, that destroyed them."
– Brian Rafferty
Led Zeppelin's fourth album is variously known as Led Zeppelin IV, Untitled, Four Symbols and Zoso, but its true title is formed by the four unpronounceable symbols chosen by each band member. Page did that to retaliate against writers, including several in Rolling Stone, who'd snubbed the band's music: "After all we had accomplished, the press was still calling us a hype. So that is why the fourth album was untitled." He also refused to give any inter- views for a period of 18 months.
Thus, one of the bestselling rock albums of all time (23 million copies in the U.S., at last count) was fueled by the bandmates' resentment; they were victors who felt like underdogs. The gatefold album design had no photos or band information, which was "professional suicide," one industry expert warned Page, but it only added to the album's – and group's – still-enduring air of high-school-hallway mystery.
– Rob Tannenbaum
When they went into the studio to begin making what would be their first album with a real title, Led Zeppelin had the specter of IV hanging over them. They'd made the biggest rock album of all time, and everyone was expecting them to come up with something even bigger than "Stairway to Heaven." "My main goal was to just keep rolling," Page later recalled. "It is very dangerous to try and duplicate yourself."
Fortunately, they also had nothing left to prove, and what they came up with is a very different sort of record than they’d made before. It was genuinely controversial at the time it was released: Rolling Stone's original review called it "puerile and rudimentary," and dismissed the band as "Limp Blimp." But it has aged exceptionally well. In place of the blues, sex and apocalypse of their first four albums, Houses of the Holy gives us a Led Zeppelin that's spilling over with love for their audience and themselves and even their kids. (The girl who won Plant's heart in "The Ocean" is three years old; over the course of Zep's performing career, he updated the song to match his daughter Carmen's age.)
Their supreme confidence in their own musical authority lets them get away with new kinds of excess. Houses is the peak of Plant's pastoral-mystical tendencies and hippie dreaminess – "I've got my flower/I've got my power" is a line from "Dancing Days," but it could have turned up nearly anywhere else here. Page's arrangements are grander than ever before, too: "The Song Remains the Same" was originally written as a fanfare to open "The Rain Song" and subsequently grew into a song of its own. And the rhythm section takes every opportunity to show off its unparalleled precision: Playing the berserk riff of "The Crunge" is the musical equivalent of foot-juggling. "There’s a hell of a lot in that LP," Page said. "It's not very easy one-time listening, and that's good. You've got to sit down and listen, think about a few things."
– Douglas Wolk
Houses of the Holy was almost the final Led Zeppelin album. In late 1973, after that year's lengthy and enriching U.S. tour, Jones was weary of traveling and wanted to spend more time with his family. He told the band he was quitting to become a choirmaster, which is pretty much the exact opposite of being a member of Led Zeppelin. Everything halted, and the band announced that Jones was ill, which may have seemed like the only plausible reason someone would resign from the band. Then Jones changed his mind, and "it was never discussed again," manager Peter Grant said.
In early 1974, the foursome returned to Headley Grange. They were the most popular rock band in the world, and they needed a document of their heft: They settled on a dou- ble album, which had become the hallmark of rock grandeur. "What we talk about is creating something as notable as Beethoven's Fifth," Plant said boldly at the time, and he imagined a record "so mammoth that it would last forever."
Plant names Physical Graffiti as his favorite Zeppelin album, and "Kashmir" as "the definitive Led Zeppelin song," because it expresses "the travels and explorations that Page and I went on to far climes well off the beaten track." On another occasion, he said wistfully, "I wish we were remembered for 'Kashmir' more than 'Stairway to Heaven.'" Many Zeppelin fans wouldn't disagree.
– Rob Tannenbaum
"It was taken from the balls, you know," Plant said of Presence. "It was a cry from the depths, the only thing that we could do." It's Led Zeppelin's most tightly focused record: seven tracks, no acoustic songs, no keyboards, just jewel-hard power – from the frantically charging "Achilles Last Stand" to "Nobody's Fault but Mine," a variation on a Blind Willie Johnson song where the band turns its firepower on itself.
They had reason to be frustrated. After the August 1975 car accident that confined Plant to a wheelchair for months, Led Zeppelin had to cancel an American tour. Unable to return to England for tax reasons, they developed the core of Presence in rehearsals at Los Angeles' SIR Studio in October, then headed to chilly Munich, Germany, to record in the hotel-basement studio Musicland. From the start, the group knew they wouldn't have long (the Rolling Stones had already reserved Musicland to add overdubs to Black and Blue in early December). So they blasted through the recording process in 18 days, with Plant often singing from his wheelchair.
Page asked the Stones if he could have a little more time to finish guitar overdubs; he reportedly stayed up around the clock for two days to get them done, with "Achilles Last Stand" occupying the first day and everything else the next. Though it didn't come with any major hits, Page called it Zeppelin's "most important album": bleak, bruised and crackling with electric fury.
– Douglas Wolk
In the summer of 1973, Led Zeppelin were winding down the biggest tour of their career, a cross-country debauch-a-thon. By July, when they arrived at New York's Madison Square Garden, the band was drained and eager to get home. To make things worse, their Manhattan hotel was robbed.
These aren’t the best conditions in which to record a live album, and The Song Remains the Same – captured over three nights – has few hardcore fans, even within the band. The two-disc document (and its accompanying concert film, a mishmash of cock-rock struts and campy dream sequences) was only released as a stopgap after Plant was injured in a 1975 car accident, curtailing the band's touring regimen.
Song does have plenty of arena-worthy moments: Page's slick, low-slung riffing on "Celebration Day," the free-range psychedelic noodling on "No Quarter" and the cosmic crunch of Bonham on "Moby Dick." In 2007, Page revamped the soundtrack, cleaning up the sound and adding in great previously deleted material (check Plant and the audience sharing some copacetic back-and-forth "unh-uhs" on "Black Dog").
Sure, Plant's cry of "Does anybody remember laughter?" during "Stairway to Heaven" is the height of golden-god self-seriousness. But, for better or worse, Song captures Zeppelin at a time when their brute force, young-stud stamina and unchecked excesses were peaking; it's as exhilarating and exhausting as the decade it came out of.
– Brian Rafferty
"It was four of us, but i don’t think it was as Led Zeppelin as it might've been," Plant said of Zeppelin's eighth and final studio album. Tax problems forced them to decamp to Sweden, where they recorded at Abba's Polar Studios. With Page addicted to heroin, Bonham a deteriorating alcoholic and Plant still mourning the death of his son Karac in 1977, the mighty band seemed like a spent force.
Page was increasingly unengaged, forcing Jones to step up as producer (it's the only Zep album where the guitarist doesn't get a writing credit on every song). The music moved away from the heavy riffs into subtler textures steeped in Jones' love of synthesizers. "I had a new toy," he said.
And, yet, while many fans found it compromised and weak, In Through the Out Door is a fascinating hodgepodge, brim- ming with intriguing, if not always fully realized, possibilities: the Latin-tinged "Fool in the Rain," the electro-rock anthems "In the Evening" and "Carouselambra" and the fun country goof "Hot Dog." Plant explored his grief over the loss of Karac over Jones' gloaming synths on the grand elegy "All My Love" – a soft moment that's, ironically, one of their most cathartic.
Page optimistically envisioned the next album as raw and stripped-down – a rebirth for a new decade that began instead with Bonham's alcohol-related death in September 1980. "It happened at the beginning of a new lease on life," Jones recalled. "So it hit us all very hard."
– Jon Dolan
After Bonham died, there was no question that Led Zeppelin was over. "It just couldn't go on because it was the four of them," their manager Peter Grant said. But they still owed Atlantic Records one more album and tax collectors a lot of money, and they were sitting on a handful of finished and semi-finished tracks. In particular, "Wearing and Tearing," "Ozone Baby" and "Darlene," three hard rockers from the In Through the Out Door sessions, had all been held over for a future release. So, two years after they had officially broken up, Zeppelin released their final (and briefest) studio album, and shut down their Swan Song imprint.
As Coda's title suggests, it's not a grand summation of their work, despite containing recordings that span most of the group’s existence. Page assembled Coda at his studio beginning in mid-1981, and as with the 2003 live album, How the West Was Won, he doctored the old tapes rather extensively, bringing in Plant and Jones for overdubs and mixing. Among other changes, Page added electronic effects to "Bonzo's Montreux," a Bonham drum solo from 1976; he also recorded a new guitar track to replace the original one from a III-era recording of Ben E. King's "We’re Gonna Groove." The album's highlight, though, is "Wearing and Tearing," a blistering, hyperspeed homage to the punk generation that suggested where Led Zeppelin might've gone if tragedy hadn't ended their story.
– Douglas Wolk