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Were Led Zeppelin the greatest band of all time?

Mr E

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Were Led Zeppelin the greatest band of all time?

Eleven million fans applied for tickets to next month's Led Zep reunion gig. Here we begin a series counting down to the big night, as David Cheal recalls just how spellbinding they were in their heyday

The year: 1971. The scene: the front room of a house in a suburb of Birmingham, heartland of heavy rock. Two adolescent boys are alone in the house, and they're doing what comes naturally to adolescent boys when they are left alone together: they're playing records. In particular, they are playing the newly released album, Led Zeppelin IV.

The opening track, Black Dog, is blasting out of a pair of cheap wood-veneer speakers, but it sounds fantastic, the notes tumbling from Jimmy Page's fingers. And then comes Rock and Roll, a rip-roaring tribute to the glory days of guitar music, Robert Plant howling, the plinking high-register piano in the last verse a throwback to Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.

The two boys dash up and down the room, or just stand and thrash their heads. They're lost to the exhilarating brilliance of Led Zeppelin. Afterwards, they look a little furtive, perhaps even embarrassed.

Of course, I was one of those boys and that was the moment when I fell properly in love with Led Zeppelin. I knew about them already: my elder brother had a couple of their albums, which I'd listened to, and their music was in the ether. But this was when I realised just how good they were, how exciting, how alive.

Theirs was physical music, music that made you want to move, shake, break free, fly, and that's what we were trying to do in that musty brown front room in 1971.

So this is the story of Led Zeppelin and me. I loved them even more over the next few years, and I still love them today, though we went through a bit of a bad patch, which we'll come to later.

My love for them reached its peak in 1975 when they released their sixth album, Physical Graffiti. By then I was living in London and hanging out with a bunch of music-obsessed boys, among them my friend Gary who had a Saturday job at W?H Smith. One evening we all met up and Gary brought with him a package which had just been delivered to his place of work: an early copy of Physical Graffiti.

These were the days when album releases were major events. So we sat in silence and played Physical Graffiti from start to finish. Afterwards my head was spinning with all that music.

Suddenly Led Zeppelin were a funk band (Trampled Under Foot; Custard Pie). No, they were a swirling Oriental orchestra (Kashmir). No, they were channelling all the great blues artists who had ever lived (In My Time of Dying). They were everything. It was their pinnacle.

Later that year, Zeppelin played a string of dates at Earls Court in London, and of course I went. And, although I came back from the show full of excitement, thrilled to have seen them on stage for the first time, there was a little voice inside me, amplified, I suspect, by the murmurings that were beginning to emerge from sections of the music press, which said: let's face it, there were times when it had been a bit… yes, say it!… boring.

John Bonham's drum solo: did it have to go on for so long? And, although Jimmy Page looked terrific when he played his guitar with a violin bow, the actual sound he made was… well, it was just a sort of banging noise.

I told no one, but I knew in my heart of hearts: they were becoming self-indulgent. It was an impression reinforced by their film, The Song Remains the Same (recently released on DVD), a mixture of concert footage and "fantasy sequences", some of which I had to admit (though again, only to myself) were just silly and embarrassing.

So, for a while we drifted apart. Also, it was hard, as I was, to be a Led Zeppelin fan and a media studies student in London in the late '70s (though I did buy and admire their gorgeously rich Presence album). But we came back together again eventually when I realised that punk's Red Guards weren't going to arrest me for listening to Led Zeppelin.

I now have ex-punk friends for whom the punk thing still seems to matter, people who would rather eat a battery-reared chicken than own a Led Zeppelin album. But me? I don't care. I could listen to them all day.

They were the best band in the world, ever. But were they the best band in the world ever, to infinity, plus one? A little voice inside me still says: maybe not. David Cheal

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Marc Lee: No, they were better than that

If there was any doubt that Zep were primarily about rampant carnality, you only had to see them performing live. Or, at least, you only had to see Robert “Percy” Plant performing live.

He was the quintessential rock god: blond leonine locks, girly blouse open to the waist, and jeans that were clearly (possibly dangerously) a couple of sizes too snug. He posed, he preened, he pouted. He strutted about the stage with narcissistic glee, repeatedly thrusting his groin in the direction of the masses gathered adoringly before him.

As for the charge that the concerts became too self-indulgent, overdoing everything was part of Zep’s appeal. As I recall, John Bonham’s drum solo at Earl’s Court lasted about half an hour – and I was transfixed. It had an irresistible silliness about it, especially when Bonham dispensed with his sticks and started using his hands.

And, if Page’s antics with a violin bow weren’t exactly melodic, the sight of him wielding it like a wand casting spells on the audience was startling. “Overdo everything” was the band’s philosophy off-stage, too, as they enthusiastically pursued the clichés of an excess-all-areas rock-and-roll lifestyle.

Except that they weren’t clichés then because Zep were the pioneers of bad behaviour on the road. They set the standard. Despite the consumption of ludicrous quantities of drink and drugs, the determined attentions of attractive young women (one mini-harem had their own private jet), and wanton rampages through five-star hotel suites, Zep also managed to find time, between 1969 and their final album in 1978, to crank out 74 of the best klaxon blasts of rock and roll ever.

The musicianship is dazzling. Bass-player John Paul Jones delivers steady rumbles of thunder and – on keyboards – summons eerie, mist-shrouded soundscapes (shiver along to the doom-laden No Quarter). Page shoots soulful lightning bolts and tooth-loosening riffs from his Telecaster or Les Paul; yet he also weaves gorgeous melodic threads through the softer acoustic numbers.

And Plant deploys his wailing-blues holler with unerring, spine-tingling precision.

Then there’s John “Bonzo” Bonham. Preposterously, he was dismissed by some critics for what they said was an unimaginative, “meat and potatoes” style. What? Were they deaf?

In fact, you could be deaf and still marvel at his astonishing power. When the Levee Breaks, the last track on the untitled fourth album, is a stupendous roaring storm of a blues underpinned by one of the most muscular and dextrous drum tracks ever recorded. It's an avalanche of sound: shuddering, relentless, unstoppable.

Led Zeppelin, too, were unstoppable for the whole of the '70s - until Bonzo downed 40 shots of vodka one night and didn't wake up in the morning.

Despite the multi-million album sales and record-breaking tours, they remained misunderstood to the end.

Page insisted that they had never been a heavy metal band. He was right: they were a blues band, albeit a fabulously loud and raucous one, who took occasional detours down folky byways.

They were innovative, inspirational, world-conquering showmen. And they played music that lit fires in the loins.

So were Led Zeppelin the best band ever? No - they were even better than that.

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Although I was too young to see Zeppelin in the 70s, I've certainly listened to and watched my share of live performances from that era and to anyone who would suggest that they could be boring, I would simply suggest that they weren't high enough. In my experience, the peaks of an extended Dazed-n-Confused can only be truely appreciated from a psychedelic perspective.

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Ah i remember dashing back from the shop with my mates after buying the 4th album on its release and being hit by Black Dog in its full glory and then everything else followed so naturally. You just didn't know what you were getting. It was such a wonderful ride of music and emotions.

And what a glorious day it was listening to that album time after time after time.

I was still only 14 then, a boy growing into a man and Led Zeppelin there at my side. each new album a new coming of age.

You can't forget those first listenings. I still get those twinges of emotions when I think about it now 36 years on.


Nice articles and I share the feelings.

Best band in the world and yes they were much better than that.

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