Much ink has been shed over the past half-century arguing which band in all the history of rock music is the greatest. Some may point to 50s rock ‘n’ roll icons like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, who help codify the genre in the first place. Some may point to the Beatles and the Beach Boys for helping elevate not just rock but also popular music in general to an art form. Others may point to the rough and tumble blues rock of the Rolling Stones and the Who that helped lay the groundwork for punk rock. And still others may invoke the names of prog rock icons like Queen, Yes, and Pink Floyd for fusing rock and roll with the artistic sensibilities of classical and jazz music.
And while all those things are certainly true, for this humble music lover, the greatest band would have to be one that really feels like it represents rock music’s past, present, and future. And that band, for me at least, is Led Zeppelin.
This band is often best remembered for its heaving blues rock tunes like those of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple that helped lay the blueprints for the genre of heavy metal. However, the band is equally famous for its eclectic influences. Their songs included influences from genres as disparate as folk music (including Middle Eastern and Indian), country, gospel, funk, reggae, and even synth-pop and punk rock in their later years. Granted, they probably weren’t as prone to genre roulette as Queen was, but their discography is still pretty diverse. Guitarist Jimmy Page has even gone on record saying that he wanted Led Zeppelin’s music to have elements of “light and shade.” That’s certainly obvious in songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “In the Light,” and others that I will cover in my top 20 list of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs. Why top 20? Because the band is just that good!
So without any further delay, let’s talk about them. I should tell you ahead of time that if you don’t see any of your favorite songs on here, that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. Indeed, I can’t think of a single Led Zeppelin song I outright hate. This is just my list, and these are the songs from their discography that appeal most to my musical tastes, starting with…
20. All My Love
I hate to start the list with such a tear-jerker of a song, but there was no way I could leave this one off the list. Indeed, this song is all about one of the most painful events an adult person can go through: the pain of losing a child.
During the band’s 1977 US tour, singer Robert Plant received the news no parent ever wants to hear: his five-year-old son, Karac Pendragon Plant, had died of a stomach infection aged only five. Perhaps it was only natural that Plant felt it necessary to include a song dedicated to his memory on their 1979 album In Through the Out Door (the last album released by the band before drummer John Bonham’s untimely death from alcohol poisoning a year later necessitated the band’s breakup).
The song is notable because it was one of only two songs on which Jimmy Page didn’t receive a writing credit (the other being “South Bound Saurez,” also from In Through the Out Door). Instead, it was up to bassist John Paul Jones to help craft the musical accompaniment to Plant’s tale of grief, loss, and acceptance. As such, Jimmy Page’s guitar takes a back seat to Jones’ sweeping and orchestral synthesizer work.
Plant’s lyrics, meanwhile, make heavy use of symbolism and mythological references in his struggle to put his feelings into words. He compares Karac’s soul to “a feather in the wind,” having become one of the soft, lighter-than-air things that a child chases while out in the yard having fun. Plant goes on to call out the Fates (possibly referring to either the Moirai from Greek mythology or the very similar Norns from Norse mythology) to weave him a thread to lead out of the labyrinth of despair he finds himself in, much like how the Cretan princess Ariadne gave Theseus a thread to find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur. In the end, though, Plant concludes that nothing, not even death, can break the eternal bond of love between a father and son.
This song caused something of a divide between the band when it first came out. Plant obviously considered it one of Led Zeppelin’s finest moments. But Page and Bonham greatly disliked its soft rock sound, thinking that it strayed too far from the band’s roots. Of course, they weren’t brave enough to voice their opinions at the time, as they knew that criticizing a song about their lead singer’s dead son would be in poor taste. Personally though, I think it’s great when a band that cultivated such a macho image can show such vulnerability. Although, speaking of macho…
19. Whole Lotta Love
What can I say about this song that hasn’t already been said? It’s the single that made them big in the U.S. and was the only song of theirs to break the Billboard Top 10 in the country. It also holds the bittersweet distinction of being the final song performed live by the band before Bonham’s death.
It was also one of several that landed the band in court when one of the American bluesmen they took inspiration from took offense to the band not crediting them. Plant decided to sing lyrics heavily inspired by the song “You Need Love” by Muddy Waters over an original riff created by Page. Willie Dixon, who wrote the lyrics for “You Need Love,” ended up suing the band over it in 1985 after his daughter introduced him to the song. The suit was settled out of court, and Dixon was given a writing credit on the song.
Genius.com has described the song as the band’s most sexually explicit track (even though the “squeeze my lemon” verse from “The Lemon Song” exists), mostly because of how obvious it is that Plant is using the word “love” as a euphemism for his…
Of course, this song would probably be just another Led Zeppelin proto-metal freak-out if it weren’t for the infamous middle section, a psychedelic free jazz-esqe sound collage produced through a combination of Page twiddling around with a Theremin as well as every dial, knob, and switch on Olympic Studios’ mixing board. I remember Ozzy Osbourne describing how freaked out the middle section made him when he first heard it, and frankly, I don’t blame him.
Cap it all off with a short but very sweet guitar solo from maestro Page, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide hard rock classic.
18. Going to California
The penultimate track from the band’s famous untitled fourth album originally started as a song about California earthquakes. Indeed, Jimmy Page even experienced a minor earthquake when he traveled to L.A. to mix the album. It ended up as an acoustic folk ballad about a lovesick man traveling to the Golden State to escape an unsupportive girlfriend, likely inspired by how both Plant and Page had a crush on Joni Mitchell at the time.
However, several oblique references to California’s tectonic instability still show up in several places, often as references to godlike entities throwing obstacles in Plant’s way in the same manner they did to Odysseus in the age of myths:
The mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake, As the children of the sun begin... to awake. Seems like the wrath of the gods; Got a punch on the nose and it's started to flow. I think I might be sinking.
Honestly though, it’s the last verse of this song that really put it on the list since it really speaks to the unshakable feelings of wanderlust, loneliness, and lovesickness I’ve been feeling, especially in the age of COVID:
To find a queen without a king; They say she plays guitar and cries... and sings... la la la. Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn, Tryin' to find a woman who's never, never, never been born. Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams, Tryin' to tell myself it's not as hard, hard, hard as it seems...
The last couplet is especially poignant for me since I have painful social anxiety thanks to being on the autism spectrum. I’m also very far left in terms of politics, which is extremely frustrating for someone living in this hyper-capitalist dystopia we call “The Land of the Free.” My dreams of an anarcho-communist utopia seem like hills compared to the mountainous walls that the 1% have built to keep them from coming to fruition. But I have no intention of surrendering them any time soon.
17. The Rover
This track (the second on the landmark double album Physical Graffiti) started as an acoustic piece before it evolved into the swaggering hard rock masterpiece we know today, boasting one of my favorite riffs in all of the band’s discography.
The lyrics tell of a person living a nomadic lifestyle, traveling all across the world to see places like London and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and experiencing the simple joys of life like firelight, purple moonlight, and “the rested rivers flow.” But there are signs of “a new plague on the land,” which the protagonist elaborates on in the third verse:
Oh how I wonder, oh how I worry, And I would dearly like to know If all this wonder, and earthly plunder, Will leave us anything to show?
However, the protagonist also seems to be on a messianic mission (“Traversed the planet, when heaven sent me; I saw the kings who ruled them all”). He warns the people of Earth:
And our time is flying. See the candle buring low! Is the new world rising From the shambles of the old?
He tells us that we can survive this apocalypse “if we could just join hands.” That’s definitely a message this soy-boy pinko commie can get behind.
16. No Quarter
The penultimate track from Houses of the Holy is definitely one of the darkest tracks Zeppelin ever put out. The band achieved the atmospheric sound on this recording through Page slowing the recorded track down using pitch control in the studio and compressing his guitar track, thus giving the instrument a smooth yet growling tone. The track’s cold tone is accentuated by John Paul Jones’ cryptic keyboard lines, played on both acoustic and electric pianos.
This greatly complements the lyrics, which seem to be told from the point of view of the wife of a soldier telling her children why their father has gone out into the cold winter night. Given the line “the winds of Thor are blowing cold,” many have speculated that the song is about a party of Vikings going on the warpath against Christian missionaries trying to stamp out the Norse religion. How else would you explain lines like “They carry news that must get through… to build a dream for me and you”? Of course, the song’s title indicates that the Vikings are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.
Sadly, some lyrics, like “The devil mocks their every step,” indicate that their mission is doomed. The line that goes, “The dogs of doom are howling more,” even seems to draw parallels between Scandinavia’s Christianization and the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok. Indeed, the “dogs of doom” could easily be referring to Fenrir, Skoll, and Manegarm (or Hati), who fulfill their roles at the last battle by killing Odin, swallowing the sun, and swallowing the moon, respectively.
Indeed, this song often puts me in mind of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, which is somewhat ironic, given that story takes place in the deserts of the American West. But still, both that and “No Quarter” are equally bleak tales about the horrors of war and the often bloody history that lies at the foundations of Western civilization.
15. The Rain Song
Believe it or not, Houses of the Holy’s resident love ballad was actually John Bonham’s idea. The idea came to him after George Harrison asked him why the band didn’t do more ballads. Page even quoted “Something,” one of Harrison’s most beloved contributions to the Beatles’ discography, on the song’s first two chords. Plant still considers this one of his favorite vocal performances.
The lyrics tell the story of a romantic relationship’s ups and downs, using the seasons as a metaphor. It starts with “It is the springtime of my loving; The second season I am to know,” referencing the blooming of love against the barrenness of winter. The verse is backed with an orchestral instrumental backing, thanks to Jones’ Mellotron keyboard and soft guitar courtesy of Jimmy.
Hints of cynicism start to cast shadows over the protagonist’s happiness in the second verse (“It is the summer of my smiles. Flee from me, keepers of the gloom”). This indicates that the singer knows that fissures are starting to form between him and his significant other as autumn rolls around. Still, though, the instrumental backing continues to be joyful and upbeat.
Things take a turn for the darkness of winter as the guitars get louder and more distorted, as the gloom that the singer was trying to chase away comes crashing down (“I curse the gloom that set upon us!”). However, the track still ends on a hopeful note, as the lyrics in the image at the top of this section will indicate, while the instruments settle back down into the more relaxed tone they kept through the rest of the song.
The song tends to put me in mind of a quote by singer-songwriter Nick Cave discussing love songs in the context of Federico Garcia Lorca’s famous essay “The Theory and Function of Duende” (Duende being a Spanish term for heightened and authentic emotion conveyed through the arts, especially of a melancholic nature):
All love songs must contain duende, for the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain… The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic, and the joy of love. For just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil- the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here- so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgment of its capacity for suffering.Nick Cave, Love Song Lecture, October 21, 2000
I think Plant does a fine job capturing the suffering that love can bring even to couples who know they are right for one another. So much so, in fact, that it brings out my own anxieties about the struggles of love. What if, if I ever do find a girlfriend, I’m not emotionally strong enough or mature enough to handle the challenges that will inevitably come to test our relationship? What if there are still some toxic elements from my conservative upbringing held within my subconscious that will drive her away? Or maybe my autism will be too much for her to handle? But still, I want to try at least.
14. Immigrant Song
Without a doubt one of Led Zeppelin’s most popular songs, this track opens up their third album with a bang, somewhat tricking the first-time listener into thinking the rest of the album will be this much of a heavy metal barnstormer before surprising them (hopefully pleasantly) with the diverse folk-blues offerings that would characterize the band’s later discography.
The somewhat tongue-in-cheek lyrics were inspired by a concert the band performed in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the summer of 1970. The band likened themselves to the Vikings that lived on the island nation in days of old, even making references to its famous hot springs (“We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow”). Of course, references to aspects of Norse mythology, like “the hammer of the gods” (i.e., Mjolnir) and Valhalla, are obligatory. Several historical references, like the bloody battlefields the Vikings left behind (“How soft your fields of green can whisper tales of gore”) and their eventual Christianization (“So now you’d better stop and rebuild all your ruins! For peace and trust can win the day, in spite of all your losing!”) also appear in the lyrics. However, that last one could also be the victorious Vikings making peace with their conquered, promising a fair rule as long as the colonized cooperated with them.
The song has since been described as one of the first Viking metal songs, even though it bears no musical resemblance to many contemporary bands often considered “Viking metal” (i.e., Bathory, Ensiferum, Enslaved, Falkenbach, etc.). Still, it’s probably the closest to true heavy metal that the band ever reached (except for another song on this list that we’ll get to later).
13. Fool in the Rain
This song is most famous for its instrumentals and the story told by its lyrics. On the instrumental side, it’s probably best remembered for John Bonham’s performance on drums. Whereas the rest of the band performs in common 4/4 time, John’s drumming follows a 12/8 meter, giving the track a polyrhythm that lends a sense of tension despite its light and upbeat tone. The breakdown in the middle, where the song doubles down on its Latin samba-inspired elements, is also well regarded, as well as the guitar solo that immediately follows it, one of my personal favorites from Jimmy.
The lyrics seem like they’re just the usual Led Zeppelin tale of heartbreak and loneliness, with a coming rainstorm symbolizing our protagonist’s heartbreak over his lover standing him up… until it suddenly isn’t. As the last verse reveals:
Now my body is starting to quiver And the palms of hands're getting wet. I've got no reason to doubt you, baby; It's all a terrible mess. And I'll run in the rain till I'm breathless. When I'm breathless I'll run till I drop (Hey!). The thoughts of a fool's kind of careless; I'm just a fool waiting on the wrong block!
Plant apparently took inspiration from a similar story told in the 1957 song “Silhouettes” by the doo-wop group the Rays. Whereas that song ends happily with the singer clearing up the misunderstanding with his girlfriend, “Fool in the Rain” ends ambiguously, with the singer still running to catch his lover as the song ends. I sincerely hope he made it, honestly.
12. Misty Mountain Hop
This song, which opens side two of the untitled fourth album, is one of several to feature references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. The song itself, however, is based more on real life events that happened to Robert Plant. From what I can gather, Plant was loitering in Hyde Park (some sources say Primrose Hill Park), possibly due to intoxication, which led to him getting arrested. Wikipedia also suggests that a police raid on a “Legalize Pot Rally” on July 7, 1968, also in Hyde Park, may have inspired the lyrics to the song.
Plant uses these incidents as a jumping-off point to discuss whether or not our law enforcement agencies, as we have constructed them, are really qualified to handle such power, and how the average person seems to ignore all the abuse committed in the name of law and order as long as they are not on the receiving end of it:
If you go down in the streets today, baby, you'd better, You'd better open your eyes! Folk down there really don't care, Really don't care, don't care, really don't, Which way the pressure lies!
In the verse before that, Plant asks the listener if they are truly happy under this flawed system:
Why don't you take a good look at yourself, Describe what you see, And baby, baby, baby, do you like it?! There you sit, sitting spare like a book on a shelf rusting (AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!) Not trying to fight it!
All the while, the jaunty riffs provided by Page’s guitars and Jones’ electric piano keep an ironically upbeat tone despite the dystopian lyrics (“You really don’t care if they’re coming (Oh oh oh!); I know that it’s all a state of mind!”). It kind of reminds me of “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads, come to think of it.
It makes the actual Tolkien reference in the last verse somewhat confusing, however, when Plant has been criticizing his listeners throughout the rest of the song for drowning themselves in drugs and escapist fantasy novels rather than confronting the horrors of the modern world. It also seems to tread dangerously close to “love it or leave it” territory, which, at least currently, is impossible considering that my country is powerful enough to squash any socialist movement in any developing nation the minute it starts hurting Fortune 500 bottom lines.
Then again, maybe the protagonist has been captured by the dystopian government portrayed in the song and tortured until he’s so insane that he thinks he’s become a character in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Or maybe he’s just using the Misty Mountains as a metaphor for a socialist movement powerful enough to finally challenge the capitalist status quo, come hell or high water. I would definitely prefer the latter.
11. Over the Hills and Far Away
This is one of the best songs to demonstrate the band’s “light and shade” approach to several of their songs. The song is famous for its shift between an acoustic intro and a hard rock middle section before ending with a soft harpsichord solo courtesy of Jones. It also may be another Tolkien song, as the title is similar to the poem “Over Old Hills and Far Away.”
The lyrics are yet another tale of heartbreak and loss. But unlike, say, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” or “Dazed and Confused,” where the singer wallows in despair over losing their lover, here the lyrics take a more introspective and optimistic outlook. The first verse, where the singer proclaims that the love his girlfriend has is “maybe more than enough,” seems to take place many years before the second verse, where the singer has become older and wiser (“Many times I’ve loved, many time been bitten; Many time I’ve gazed along the open road”).
The narrator continues to describe all the things he’s learned over the years, with the second verse and part of the third taking the form of several aphorisms:
Many times I've lied, and many times I've listened. Many times I've wondered how much there is to know. Many dreams come true, and some have silver linings. I live for my dreams, and a pocketful of gold.
In the third and final verse, after the narrator has decided he has lived his life to the fullest (“Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing; Many, many men can’t see the open road”), he proceeds to ponder the philosophical implications behind the word “many”:
Many is a word that only leaves you guessing. Guessing 'bout a thing you really ought to know!
From then on, the song gradually quiets down, presumably symbolizing the narrator growing old and making peace with his youthful mistakes as he lays himself down for his final rest. I wonder how relatable this song is to the surviving members nowadays?
10. What Is and What Should Never Be
The second track from the band’s second album seems to be a tale of forbidden love. It is another light and shade track, with soft verses with lightly picked guitars alternating with crushing hard rock choruses. Plant sings the chorus in a way that almost seems to predict rapping, with lyrics inspired by an affair Plant had with Shirley Wilson, the younger sister of his then-wife Maureen.
The song has got a lot going for it: the poetic lyrics describing castles and sailing away high up in the sky on wings of passion, the epic riffs (including one at the end of the song that alternates between stereo channels), and one of my favorites John Paul Jones basslines.
I’ll admit, though, that the whole lyrical theme of “forbidden love” kind of sours the experience since it reminds me a bit too much of Jimmy Page’s infamous fling with Lori Maddox, a groupie who was only 13-14 when their relationship started. This, sadly, was a common practice back then, as I’ve found out. Maddox even claims to have lost her virginity to David Bowie before she even met Page. This hasn’t ruined my appreciation for their art, but it’s still important to remember that these people were humans, and discussing where they went wrong in their personal lives is important if we want to avoid making the same mistakes they did.
9. Gallows Pole
This song is kind of similar to “Misty Mountain Hop” in that it combines dark lyrical subject matter with an infectiously groovy instrumental track that takes normal folk instrumentation, turns it up to an almost punk rock level tempo, and ends with one of my favorite Jimmy Page guitar solos.
The song is an adaptation of an old English folk ballad named “The Maid Freed From the Gallows” that became especially popular after folklorist Francis James Child collected it in his Child Ballads collection in the 1880s. Knowing Led Zeppelin’s influences, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if they took inspiration from Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s version, recorded in the 1930s as “The Gallis Pole.”
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this song, besides how the instruments build on a crescendo as the song gets faster and faster, is how the story ends. You see, in the original folk ballad, the protagonist would usually end up being released from their punishment, the hangman satisfied with their bribe. In Led Zeppelin’s version, the hangman receives gold and silver from the condemned man’s brother and sexual favors from his sister. How does he respond?
Your brother brought me silver And your sister warmed my soul, But now I laugh and pull so hard! See you swinging on the gallows pole!
Yeah, it’s not exactly a happy ending. It gets darker when you remember this quote from the first verse where the condemned man asks his friends if they have anything to offer the hangman:
I couldn't get no silver, I couldn't get no gold. You know that we're too damn poor To keep you from the gallows pole.
That opens up the disturbing possibility that the condemned man is in this situation because of his poverty rather than being an unrepentant serial offender. It’s certainly not hard to read this song as an anti-death penalty tract in that light, something that is sadly still relevant today, especially in America where systemic racism in the criminal justice system means that black people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people.
8. Ten Years Gone
I think Robert Plant explained the song best in a 1975 interview:
I was working my ass off before joining Led Zeppelin. A lady I really dearly loved said, “Right, it’s me or your fans.” Not that I had fans, but I said, “I can’t stop. I’ve got to keep going.” She’s quite content these days, I imagine. She’s got a washing machine that works by itself and a little sports car. We wouldn’t have anything to say anymore. I could probably relate to her, but she couldn’t relate to me. I’d be smiling too much. Ten years gone, I’m afraid. Anyway, there’s a gamble for you.Robert Plant
Remember that duende that Nick Cave was talking about earlier? This song has it in spades. It’s difficult not to empathize with Plant’s dueling emotions here. On the one hand, choosing the music over his girlfriend allowed him to be hailed as a god of rock and roll and gave him, in Freddie Mercury’s words, “fame and fortune and everything that goes with it.” But on the other, Plant still clearly feels a lot of regret at how the affair turned out and still often thinks about how it would have worked out if he had stayed with her.
Of course, Plant was seventeen in 1965, and lasting relationships don’t usually form in your teens. But the connection is still there, which Plant compares to the flow of rivers (“Though the course may change sometimes, rivers always reach the sea”) and eagles who always come back to the same nest (“We are eagles of one nest; the nest is in our soul”).
Greatly complementing Plant’s conflicting emotions is Page’s guitar work, which used up to 14 different tracks on some of the harmony parts. While it’s greatly effective in embodying the complex emotions evoked by the track, it made the song difficult to replicate in a live setting. John Paul Jones had to have a three-necked guitar built for him to help recreate the song live.
7. In the Evening
This track, which opens In Through the Out Door with quite a bang, is notable in that Jimmy Page forgoes his stalwart Gibson Les Paul guitar in favor of a Fender Stratocaster. This allows him to pull off some pretty unique stunts with the guitar’s tremolo arm, including depressing the strings low enough to create a unique metallic scraping sound by letting the strings rub against the pick-ups before launching into a truly epic guitar solo. It also introduces the orchestral stylings of John Paul Jones’ newly acquired Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer.
Plant’s lyrics follow a simple theme: a man who is unlucky in love trying to figure out what he’s doing wrong. He appears to spend much of the track arguing with someone else, either a friend, family member, psychologist or even himself. After spending the first verse declaring that he needs to assert dominance (“So don’t let her play you for no fool. She don’t show no pity, baby. She don’t make no rules.”), the outside party steps in, telling the protagonist he can’t force a woman to sleep with him if she doesn’t want to (“So don’t you let her get under your skin. It’s only bad luck and trouble from the day you begin.”).
The outside party tells the protagonist that it’s his wallowing in despair that’s keeping him from seeing a way out of his situation (“I hear you crying in the darkness; don’t ask nobody’s help. Ain’t no pockets full of mercy, baby, because you can only blame yourself.”). Indeed, a lot about the lyrics seem, at least to me, to represent a member of the incel community trying to pull himself out of his nihilistic downward spiral (which I know is a bit of a stretch considering the word wouldn’t be invented for another fourteen years, but still…). I especially like the message presented in the last verse:
Oh, whatever That your days may bring, No use hiding in a corner Because that won't change a thing! If you dance in the doldrums, One day soon its got to stop, got to stop, When you're the master of the off-chance, When you don't expect a lot.
Maybe that’s the reason this song speaks to me so much (or maybe it’s just the “twilight majesty” of the instruments, as AllMusic puts it). As a person on the autism spectrum, it is tough to be assertive, which I feel is a good quality to have when trying to get a date. Autistic people also tend to find comfort in routines, and it takes a lot to get them to break those routines. (Let me be clear, though; I am not an incel, and I find their views on women and sexual assault to be truly sickening). But I’m not giving up hope just yet.
6. The Battle of Evermore
Coming to us from the untitled fourth album, this track (as well as the next song on this list) is probably the most overt flirtation the band ever made with Celtic folk music. It is also one of several to feature references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work and even throws in some Arthurian references for good measure. Plant claims the lyrics were originally inspired by a book he read about Scottish warfare, however.
The song is backed by acoustic guitar and mandolin courtesy of John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, respectively, even though the latter had virtually no experience on the instrument before recording the track. As he explained in a 1977 interview with Trouser Press, “I just picked up John Paul Jones’s mandolin, having never played a mandolin before, and just wrote up the chords and the whole thing in one sitting.” He would later describe his fingerpicking style as “sort of a cross between Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, and total incompetence.” Maybe it’s just because I don’t know shit about how the mandolin is actually played, but I definitely can’t tell the difference when listening to the track.
As for the lyrics, that’s where this song’s other unusual feature comes in. It is the only Led Zeppelin song to feature a guest vocalist, namely Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. She and Plant perform a call and response vocal throughout the song, with Plant as a narrator and Denny as a town crier:
R.P.: The Dark Lord rides in force tonight And time will tell us all! S.D.: Oh, throw down your plow and hoe! Rest not to lock your homes!
All of this combines to create a song that breeds an atmosphere of pure mythological majesty. The numerous references to The Lord of the Rings certainly help with this (the “Queen of Light” aka Galadriel, or “The drums will shake the castle wall; the Ringwraiths ride in black, RIDE ON!!!”), as does the passage that refers to King Arthur (“I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon, waiting for the eastern glow”). The song overall seems to refer to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields outside Minas Tirith, which served as the centerpiece of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Return of the King.
It overall shares the same melancholic yet hopeful atmosphere that I feel whenever I rewatch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and one that I hope I can replicate if I ever get The Divine Conspiracy off the ground.
5. Ramble On
This article was originally just going to be about this song before I remembered just how obsessed with this band I was. It’s another song dealing in Tolkien references (their first, in fact, as it was released on their second album).
The instrumentals are notable for Jimmy Page’s violin-like guitar solos (produced through cutting the treble on the neck pickup of his Les Paul and putting the signal through a specially produced sustain-producing effects unit) and by the unusual percussion utilized during the verses, which John Bonham played on an unknown object (a guitar case? An upside-down garbage can? His drum stool?).
Several references to Tolkien’s writings show up again, as Plant sings about trying to find a girl. Although “girl” might be a symbolic term here, as there are several indications that the “girl” may actually be referring to the One Ring:
'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair, But Gollum and the evil one Crept up and slipped away with her!
Then again, the Tolkien references may be allegorical, and the singer is comparing his girl to the One Ring because he knows she’s not good for him, yet he just can’t bring himself to let her go. No matter what you think, though, one cannot deny that this song is a beautifully ethereal masterpiece. The editors of Rolling Stone magazine apparently agree, as they listed this song as the 440th best of all time.
4. Stairway to Heaven
This is the song that first got me into Led Zeppelin. I had remembered hearing a few of their songs on the local classic rock radio station and eventually decided to look up “Stairway to Heaven” on YouTube. I expected it to be a hard rock banger like the others I’d heard. What I found instead amounted to nothing less than a religious experience, and nothing was ever the same.
Much like with “Whole Lotta Love,” this song has been discussed and analyzed so much that it’s hard to know where to start. Of course, everyone knows that the instrumental track is gorgeous, with the vaguely Celtic folk-sounding intro, the angelic twelve-string guitar riffs, the sweeping guitar solo, and the triumphant hard rock conclusion. But what do the lyrics mean? Do they even mean anything at all, or was Plant just using words like another instrument, like Jon Anderson of Yes was often apt to do? I can’t pretend to know the definitive answer, as this song seems to be one of those “death of the author” type deals, but I can offer my own interpretation… or rather, talk about why I agree with Genius.com’s interpretation since it’s the one that makes the most sense to me.
What we know for sure is that it starts with a materialistic woman who has somehow attached spiritual meaning to her worldly possessions:
There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, And she's buying a statirway to heaven. When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed, With a word she can get what she came for.
In an interview with Total Guitar magazine in 1998, Plant himself summarized the lady in the first verse as “a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration.”
The verse continues with the lady seeing “a sign on the door,” which may be a reference to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which (among other things) condemned the Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences, which was a very literal case of buying a stairway to heaven. The “you know sometimes words have two meanings” portion could be a reference to the Doors of Durin in Moria from The Lord of the Rings, or it could just be a cheeky reference to the cryptic nature of the song itself. Then it takes a turn toward the natural with the couplet that seemingly criticizes the lady’s self-absorption in not noticing the natural beauty around her:
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings; Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
From then on, the song takes a turn toward the more spiritual as the narrator wonders how he can earn himself a stairway to heaven the right way. He references going west, which may be a reference to the Undying Lands in The Lord of the Rings, the Native American belief that the human soul travels west after death, or the popular Old West colloquialism “Go west, young man!” The “rings of smoke through the trees” line could refer to psychedelic drugs or Gandalf and his fondness for tobacco.
Plant’s assertion on the Song Remains the Same recording of “Stairway” that “I think this is a song of hope” is demonstrated especially well in the next two verses, the fourth verse starting with a metaphor of spring bringing new life:
If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May Queen.
And ending with this truly inspiring message:
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, There's still time to change the road you're on.
Throughout this section, though, there is a new antagonist in the form of the “Piper,” who seems to be trying to lead our hero astray and has already got the lady in his grasp. He tries one last time to get the lady to listen to his words that money only has power because we believe it does:
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know, Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?
A shade of darkness casts itself over the lyrics as the hard rock section kicks in, with the narrator singing about how “our shadows [are] taller than our soul.” This could be a reference to Carl Jung’s conception of the shadow archetype, which is all the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and try to keep hidden, or it could be a commentary on legacy. The lady comes back, but this time as a figure shrouded in light, seemingly having finally realized the futility of her materialistic existence and realized that “the tune will come to you at last when all are one and one is all.”
In all, it would seem to me that the song is a story about a holy man (Jesus? A bodhisattva? An aboriginal shaman? Just some spiritually-minded everyman?) trying to save a woman he loves (platonically or otherwise) from being consumed by the horrors of the 20th-century capitalist system by showing spiritual truths from a simpler pre-Industrial pagan age.
Then again, maybe this comment on “Stairway to Heaven’s” Genius.com page sums it up better:
This all happened in 1970. It’s fair to assume they were pretty high. As in 1970 Led Freaking Zeppelin high. So, yeah… deep, meaningful Biblical allegory, or some hippies trying to rhyme, often unsuccessfully, bits of Tolkien-style mythology in between coughs and giggles? You decide.Genius.com user SSL9000J
3. When the Levee Breaks
Moving from the closing song of side one of the untitled fourth album to the song that closes out the album as a whole, we come to probably Led Zeppelin’s darkest song, both musically and lyrically. The song features several parts where Jimmy Page slowed down the already heavy and droning guitar riffs and harmonica solos during recording. The result was probably the closest that Page’s guitar work came to the heaving proto-doom metal of contemporary hard rockers Black Sabbath.
Lyrically, the song retains the same subject matter as the 1929 country blues classic by Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie that inspired it. In 1927, the Mississippi River burst its banks in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, inundating 27,000 square miles in up to 30 feet of water. Around 500 people drowned, and 630,000 were left homeless, including 200,000 African-American farmworkers, many choosing to join the Great Migration to northern industrial cities. It remains the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States.
The original song and the Led Zeppelin cover both use this tragedy to illustrate the dark place that black people in America were in at the time. The flood came toward the tail end of what has often been called “the nadir of American race relations,” which, depending on who you ask, started with the end of Reconstruction or with Northern Republicans fully abandoning the Jim Crow South in 1890 and lasted until either the 1920s or World War Two.
Of course, this period also saw the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the end of the American Indian Wars, with the Natives being imprisoned in reservations and their children getting their indigenous heritage beaten out of them in boarding schools. Indeed, listening to this song in 2021, it’s hard not to think about how things still haven’t changed in terms of how people of color are still discriminated against in this country, even though legal discrimination is a thing of the past.
The sludgy and echoing instrumentals (including John Bonham’s much-beloved drum intro) provide a perfect complement to Plant’s wailing vocal delivery as he grants us this peek into the darkness at the heart of American history. It’s not for nothing that AllMusic critic Steven Thomas Erlewine calls it “an apocalyptic slice of urban blues.”
This song, which closes out disc one of Physical Graffiti, has been described by all four band members as Led Zeppelin’s crowning achievement. Even though there’s no guitar solo, I find it hard to disagree. Everything about this song just comes together so well; the guitar riff and how the orchestra echoes it, John Bonham’s underplayed yet sill bombastic drumming, the subtle polyrhythms (the guitar is in triple meter while the vocals are in quadruple). Everything’s flawless!
The lyrics are in a class of their own. Much like “Stairway to Heaven,” the lyrics tell of a journey. Unlike the quasi-religious lyrics of “Stairway,” however, the story told by “Kashmir” seems to be more of a metaphor for the journey of life itself. As Plant explains:
It was an amazing piece of music to write to and an incredible challenge for me. Because of the time signature, the whole deal of the song is… not grandiose but powerful. It required some kind of epithet or abstract lyrical setting about the whole idea of life being an adventure and being a series of illuminated moments. But everything is not what you see. It was quite a task because I couldn’t sing it. It was like the song was bigger than me. It’s true: I was petrified, it’s true. It was painful: I was virtually in tears.Robert Plant, radio interview with Richard Kingsmill, 1995
As with many other Zeppelin tracks, possible references to mythology and Tolkien abound. Some have suggested that the “elders of a gentle race” might refer to Tolkien’s elves, although others suggest that it’s a reference to the Book of Revelation. The “father of the four winds” may refer to the Greek god Aeolus and his four children (Boreas (north), Zephyrus (west), Notus (south), and Eurus (east)). It could also refer to Vayu, the Hindu god of wind and breath, and his three avatars (Hanuman, Bhima, and Madhvacharya).
Of course, the verse that begins with “All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground” is a reference to the real life journey that first inspired the song: a trip Page and Plant made through a road in southern Morocco after the band’s 1973 tour that traveled for miles in a dead straight line, with sandstone ridges surrounding it all the while. It was apparently named after the Kashmir region of the Himalayas because Plant had wanted to visit the region for a long time and apparently still hasn’t.
But in all the annals of rock history, I think we can all agree that Plant’s fifteen-second howl at around the fourth minute is in the top ten greatest moments in rock and roll history, even in the 2007 performance at the O2 Arena. The old man’s still got it!
1. Achilles Last Stand
This is another travelogue song with mythological elements which opens up the 1976 album Presence with a bang. Their far more metalized answer to “Kasmir” describes Robert Plant’s travels in Morocco, Spain, and Greece. The references to Greek mythology were inspired by Plant likening his heel, broken in a recent car crash, to Achilles, killed by an arrow to the heel during the sacking of Troy. The opening lyrics (“It was an April morning when they told us we should go”) even refer to how the Illiad describes the Greek fleet leaving for Troy on an April morning. Of course, it also describes the carefree nature of travel itself and the excitement of introducing new songs like “Achilles’ Last Stand” to their screaming fans once Plant is recovered (“Oh, the songs to sing, when we at last return again!”).
Of course, though, the most famous lyric to come out of the song is this immortal line: “The mighty arms of Atlas hold the heavens from the earth.” While mentioning Atlas here is appropriate considering the Greek mythology theme, it more likely refers to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Further references include “Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again,” which is outwardly a reference to English poet William Blake’s prophetic works. However, I wouldn’t blame anyone who took it as another reference to King Arthur.
The music manages to replicate “Kashmir’s” orchestral magnificence with Page’s copiously overdubbed guitar work. It’s another song that inches very close to bona fide heavy metal territory over its ten-and-a-half-minute runtime. It even includes the so-called “heavy metal gallop” that would become a staple of Iron Maiden’s discography. Indeed, John Bonham’s rapid-fire drumming reminds me of Lars Ulrich’s drumming in the thrash section of Metallica’s “One.” And of course, we can’t forget to mention Jimmy Page’s epic guitar solo, which he himself has described as the best he’s ever done.
With a driving groove that never gets boring even over ten minutes, soaring vocals complemented by an equally soaring guitar solo, and wonderfully evocative lyrics that speak to my own sense of wanderlust, I feel very confident in rating as my favorite Led Zeppelin song of all time.
Well, that was much bigger than I expected it to be. It was a lot of work, but probably the most fun I’ve had working on this blog in a while. Stay tuned for updates on what to expect in the next two months. I promise you that May will be a particularly eventful month for this website, as my birthday is that month, and I’m going to be doing a retrospective on a work of fiction that this blog very likely owes its very existence to. I’ll see you then, guys.