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Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin (illustration by Andy Friedman)

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A tour de force of testosterone, galvinized by deep, almost scholarly appreciation of the blues, Led Zeppelin was a supernova of a band that emerged in 1968, conquered the '70s, and then folded in 1980. The group existed for just a dozen years, officially three years longer than the Beatles' nine-year juggernaut, but like their forebears, Led Zeppelin drew up a rock 'n' roll blueprint for generations of musicians to follow. The quartet — singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer (and force of nature) John "Bonzo" Bonham — built heavy, complex rock songs that were muscular and lusty, but also musically sophisticated. It was a tricky feat, but the band pulled it off with masterful prowess, from its assured, self-titled debut in 1969 to its true final bow, 1979's In Through the Out Door (1982's Coda, which came out two years after the band's demise, was a collection of unreleased recordings).

The foursome's keen, vituosic musicianship was paramount: the swagger and bravado of Plant (one of the best rock vocalists to ever wail into a microphone), Page (Zep's engine and a undisputed guitar hero), Jones (an underestimated master) and Bonzo (arguably the most powerful drummer to ever smash a pair of sticks) coalesced into a tight unit, swiftly elevated by the music press as hedonistic rock and roll gods. To this day, not many bands can command a stage (or a studio) quite like Led Zeppelin did. But beyond their reputation as a thunderous hard rock band, Led Zeppelin wrote beautiful, fragile melodies too, like the Joni Mitchell-inspired "Going to California," the labyrinthine "Kashmir," the delicate, Irish latticework of "Black Mountain Side," and even that epic, sometime-litigious warhorse "Stairway to Heaven."

Yes, Led Zeppelin was an iconic hard rock band, but they were also steeped in folk, blues, pop, and world music. Their songs, brilliantly produced, are often visceral, unpredictable journeys: the trajectory of the temperamental and gorgeous "Over the Hills and Far Away," from Houses of the Holy, is akin to gamboling down a grassy, Welsh mountain path — all chiming acoustic guitar, Tolkien metaphors, and lyrical bluebells — and then turning a sharp corner and falling into the gaping mouth of an erupting volcano. By the end, wrung out by the Plant's anguished howl, Bonzo's turbulent drumming, Jones's chugging bass, and Page's lava-hot slash of a guitar solo, the song gently eases to a murmur, sweetly beckoning the listener home. It's an astonishing five minutes.

There are few bands, from Foo Fighters to Queens of the Stone Age to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, that don't owe some debt to Led Zep. Like any band with too-few albums — just nine studio releases, including Coda — their songs have been played so much on classic rock formats that some standards, like the orgasmic (and also litigious) "Whole Lotta Love," can be hard to hear with fresh ears. Rediscovering Led Zeppelin — and appreciating the quartet's transcendent genius — likely falls to another generation, less saturated with their songs.

On September 16, 2016, a revamped collection of recordings surfaces via the reissued The Complete BBC Sessions, including eight "new" songs, like 1969's "Sunshine Woman," a song which Page told Mojo was "basically made up on the spot." Likely no other band has been cajoled to reform as much as Zep (and half of that dialogue seems to be between an eager Page and the ever-reluctant Plant), but unless devout Zep fans were lucky enough to catch the band at London's O2 Arena in December 2007 for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute concert, it's wise to abandon all hope for that improbable dream. Aside from seeing the band's surviving members tearfully and joyfully react to Ann and Nancy Wilson's 2012 Kennedy Center Honors cover of "Stairway to Heaven," or wandering out of a courtroom, there's little chance, it seems, to experience Plant, Page and Jones playing live together again as Led Zeppelin.

Had Bonham not died in 1980, a seismic shock which led to the band's dissolution, would Led Zeppelin have continued? Possibly not. Plant, having suffered the tragic loss of his son in 1977, was already looking beyond the boundaries of the band. His restless ears have led him down an expansive solo road that has recently included his Americana classic with Alison Krauss, 2007's Raising Sand (which won a Grammy for Album of the Year), his exploration of desert blues with current bandmate Justin Adams, and his spellbinding 2014 album of heartache and homesickness, Lullaby and ... The Ceaseless Roar.

As Plant looks ahead, Page continues to be Led Zeppelin's chief historian with almost wistful dedication. Since the band's demise, Page has ricocheted from collaborations with The Firm, Black Crowes, and David Coverdale, and has worked with his former bandmates too: Page and Plant collaborated on at least six post-Zep albums, including 1995's No Quarter Unledded, and he worked with Jones on 2000's Lovin' Up a Storm and Rock and Roll Highway.

But perhaps the worst thing to ever happen to Led Zeppelin was consultant-driven classic rock radio. The repetition of a mere handful of songs, played repeatedly until neutered of their sensual thrill, restricted the full scope of Led Zeppelin's impact and artistry. And so we're resurrecting the great Led Zeppelin — and Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham — as FUV Essentials.

More on Led Zeppelin:

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