And so, in part 7 of this series, we finally come to a group that are — at least sometimes — thought of as a heavy metal band. One of the Big Three, in fact, along with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath (and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler if I say that both of those will appear in this series). Here’s the stand-out track from the self-titled debut album: Dazed and Confused.
You can read Led Zeppelin in several ways. You can say that they brought a strong blues influence into heavy rock; but it’s probably more true to say that they started out by bringing a heavy rock sensibility into the blues. Their roots are largely in the blues, as the debut album makes clear (Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, You Shook Me, I Can’t Quit You Baby, etc.)
Zeppelin’s contribution was winding up the power and drama without sacrificing subtlety — not least through Robert Plant’s howling vocals, unprecedented at the time but now accepted as the base template for hard-rock singing. Comparing Plant’s vocals on Dazed and Confused to those on any of the first five entries on this timeline, the contrast is striking: Plant sings with a conviction and commitment that’s worlds apart from the earlier vocalists. The only comparable vocal in the list up to this point is Paul McCartney’s on Helter Skelter, released just two months before: but Led Zeppelin’s first album was recorded the month before the release of the White Album, so it can’t have been an influence on Plant.
To this passion and drive, they added instrumental virtuosity: Jimmy Page’s guitar work in particular is technically sensational — unsurprisingly as he had previously played in The Yardbirds, the same stable that had given us Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton (who I think is over-rated, but let it pass). On the drums, John Bonham is equally admired and iconic — not just for his speed, power and technique but also for the unique sounds of his drums, which have been widely sampled and reused.
Dazed and Confused opens with a simple descending bass over absolutely minimal drums, complemented by tangential guitar touches. After the first verse, the guitar begins doubling the bass pattern, then switching up to a howling register.
Where the song really comes alive is in the guitar attacks at the end of the verses, and then the violin-and-vocal-groan improvisation that follows the second of these. This leads into a frenzied instrumental jam with Plant’s voice wandering in and out seemingly at random, before a repeat of the guitar attacks leads us back into the final verse. It’s an assemblage of brilliantly executed parts that go together to make up something more.
The elephant in the Led Zep Living Room is that they were outrageous serial plagiarisers, repeatedly claiming authorship of traditional songs and those written by other people. Dazed and Confused is itself an example of this: the song was written by Jake Holmes, who recorded his own version two years before. Jimmy Page saw him perform it in 1967, and added a cover version to the Yardbirds set. When he moved to Led Zeppelin, he took the song with him, and bizarrely claimed the writing credit. Admittedly Holmes’s performance is pretty weedy, and Zeppelin’s version absolutely blows it away; but that’s no reason to claim to have written the song. What’s wrong with just doing a brilliant cover version?
And there was plenty more of this kind of thing going on — a search for led zeppelin plagiarism turns up nearly 150,000 hits. Admittedly some of the accusations are far-fetched and opportunistic, but there’s a solid core of evidence regarding plenty of their songs. To my mind, this diminishes Led Zeppelin; that may be one reason why I’ve never quite been able to love them the way I love, say, Deep Purple. Still, whatever you conclude about their song-writing, there’s no denying the power and sheer conviction of their performances.