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By Martin Popoff

The idea for this feature coalesced from a few sources. The most recent inspiration has come from going on Pete Pardo’s Sea of Tranquility YouTube channel and having these great chats with Pete falling into a couple of his different formats, one being a top 10 songs of a band in reverse order. Basically, I realized how fun it was ranking songs and then talking about them, with each working as a jumping-off point to say something about the band at hand.

Also, however, I’ve done hundreds of reviews of songs throughout my Top 500 and Top 250 books, and I realized then—surprised at first—how fun it was to write about songs. One of the reasons—and this is a subtle point, I suppose—is that a song is such a short work of art, as well as an invisible one: four minutes of sound waves. Following, I think the abstractness of a song versus an album (which might have a physical wrapper, while most songs don’t) allows for more reflection, and even the injection of autobiography, a looksee into how a song fits into your life.

Now, one of the issues with this that I realized from the start was what happens when a swaths of a band’s career, be it the really early stuff for the really recent stuff, or some bad spell in-between where you weren’t happy that the lead singer had left, causes one not to pick anything from that bunch of albums in a row? I decided to not let that get to me and just be honest with this. I wasn’t going to force the issue and pick things from a large variety of records, just because.

Another issue arises with the idea of songs by bands that are classics that you are just completely sick of and never need to hear again. I tried to look through and past that toward the viability and validity of that song as a great song. I’m really, really trying to be blind to a song’s hit status as well as how bored I am with it because I know it inside out—that’s my problem and shouldn’t be yours.

But really, I think you are going to see some level of a contrary character here. After all; I have been accused of being contrarian with my choices for best album by a band just in general. Although it really isn’t that true: many, many times I’m picking the consensus choices. But having said that, 20 songs by any band is going to cough up a lot of contrarian choices, and I hope that doesn’t upset you. Like I say, I’m being completely honest here.

And here’s the funny thing, if a whole bunch of songs come from one album, I wonder if somehow there is this cumulative synergistic effect of good vibes from that one album that is just falling in upon itself, coughing up more and more songs until I’ve picked most of that album. I don’t know, hard to explain, but I guess what I’m doing is setting you up for the fact that sometimes across this exercise, there are going to be a lot of songs from one album!

Something else I want to add. I endeavored not make these mini song reviews, receptacles of trivia and factoids. I get told time and time again that the introductions that I write to my books are people’s favorite parts of the whole book. And I think that’s because I’m just speaking to emotion, nostalgia, reminiscence, true feeling and macro-universals rather than trying to be an encyclopedia or Wikipedia entry, which gets sort of taken care of elsewhere in my books. So yeah, I hope the spirit of what you are about to read is just a little more conversational, sort of shoot from the hip, expressing a rainbow of emotions rather than being the history of each of the songs. This is basically me telling you why I like them, and some of that is objective and descriptive of what’s actually going on in the song, and some of it is subjective, maybe along the lines of where it hit me in my life and why that song might’ve been a soundtrack to that moment in time. So yeah, this is about honesty and not anything that is at all trying to mirror a democratic poll of what might be this act’s “best” songs. These are my personal—very personal— picks. 

Let's see if you agree with them.

20. “Sick Again”

Crunching closing track on my favorite Led Zeppelin album (Physical Graffiti), “Sick Again” always reminded me of Queen’s “Sweet Lady,” both songs sounding like The Rolling Stones trying to be really heavy. But yeah, this is really one of Zeppelin’s most swaggering, Aerosmith-like songs, guitars slung low, riffs just having its way with the song uncaring about time signature until a violent implosion at the end. Plus, that title is just nasty, isn’t it? But not as nasty as John Bonham just smacking the hell out of his drum kit, while Robert Plant loses his voice trying to be heard above the punk rock mayhem.

19. “Ozone Baby”

I’ve always dug this In Through the Out Door outtake due to its roiling rock and roll-ness, which really achieves a Rolling Stones vibe, mixed with this new persona from Jimmy Page that will carry over into his 1980s work. I’m also amused by the title and all the stops and starts, punctuated by Robert’s spirited “my own true love” vocal. It’s everybody really, because Bonzo propels the song with a great groove (I can listen to that ploipy bass drum all day), accompanied by a novel walking bass line on the chorus from John Paul Jones, who lays off the synths (only “Hot Dog” on the intended record, features no keys). Just a fun track, which, along with the other two In Through the Out Door outtakes here makes me wish the guys would have risen to the challenge of a second Led Zeppelin double studio album. Imagine.

18. “Down by the Seaside”

It’s strange, I know, but I almost see the likes of this song, along with “Ten Years Gone,” “Bron-Yr-Aur” and “In the Light” as the sort of dreamy middle suite of Physical Graffiti, before we get to the punch of the five-track closing side. The cool thing here is that this is a ballad, unlike any other in the canon, with its beautiful lilting shuffle rhythm, its tremolo-heavy country-western guitar, but then also a weirdly dark and rocking middle section before we fall back into the plush recline of the Stonesy Exile on Main St. core of what we heard earlier. Again, something dizzyingly different from all the other acrobatic things Zeppelin do across this strident, confident double album.

17. “Nobody’s Fault.”

I love how this song is playful, Aerosmith-like, but also holds down the side of heaviness on a pretty guitar-centric album, while also providing some middle Eastern drone, triple-tracked and phased. It’s also another that builds on old blues, in this case Blind Willie Johnson’s “It Nobody’s Fault but Mine” from 1927 as filtered through Nina Simone, 1969. As well, past the Joe Perry funk of the verse, I appreciate the long, powerful groove, leading up to the stop, after which Robert delivers the punch line, which may or may not speak ruefully to all manner of regret. Then we’re back into the drone, a geometric one, surprising that it’s placed in a song like this and surprising where it’s placed in a song like this. We also get a joyous harmonica solo from Robert over bashing music and a particularly boisterous Bonzo, in creation of a totality of a track that just sounds freer than what we got across the last album, a better album, but not as bar-room-rocking as this one. A bonus to the fun: Robert’s “My Generation” stutter, and a guitar solo out of Jimmy that sounds like the mimic of a harmonica solo. One last note, I’ve always had it a little bit in for “Achilles Last Stand” on grounds of contrivance, which I don’t hear in this song at all: this is Led Zeppelin giving us exactly who they were in 1976, warts and all.

16. “Night Flight”

The band thought well enough of this song (recorded way back in ’71) to put it as the lead-off track on the most immediate side of Physical Graffiti, the only side with five selections, the others going three, then three again, then four. It’s a really odd one in the canon, kind of pop, kind of aimless and amiable New Orleans boogie woogie, almost like The Band, with those old-time keyboards dominating—this is really a Jones joint, and he’s using a Hammond C3 through a Leslie to give it a bit of bite. Bonzo plays some nice fills, and Robert keeps things interesting with rapid-fire vocal phrasings, half sung, half spoken, closing things out show-biz comedically with some grunts over the goofy false finishes. Over in a flash, Jimmy doesn’t even do a guitar solo, but he brings some distinction to what he does, also putting his parts through a Leslie. “Night Flight” was never played by the band live.

15. “Wearing and Tearing”

I always loved how Coda came on strong with three In Through the Out Door outtake tracks that could’ve made that album significantly rockier. Well, this by far would’ve been the heaviest song on that record, with its romping Jimmy Page riff, no keyboards, the cool stop-start format (harkening back to “Black Dog”) and, overall, just the driving ascending and descending violence of the thing. Plus this is Jimmy really establishing that sort of wry, world-weary chord-patterning that would ramble on through The Firm and into Outrider. And doesn’t John Bonham sound furious and feverish during the close, goaded forth by this furtive and final expression of the obscure Jimmy Page production ethic? And what could have been? The idea was to issue this sort of rejoinder to punk as a single in time for the band’s Knebworth stand, to show the world that they still got the fire.

14. “The Battle of Evermore.”

This blustery acoustic track demonstrates Led Zeppelin’s ability to raise the stakes on the British folk boom, adding mysticism, with Robert dovetailing in and out with Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny over furtive, uneasy acoustic guitars and mandolin, interestingly, with John Paul on the acoustic and Jimmy on the mandolin. At prettier points, Robert and Sandy harmonize with each other, but most of the time the mood is darker and almost foreboding of violence to come, the sum total being a timeless Renaissance music treasure, a quite (if tense) respite by the babbling brook before resuming our journey through Led Zeppelin IV, which is actually quite a heavy and even noisy record.

13. “Out on the Tiles”

This is arguably the heaviest song on Led Zeppelin III, a bit of a throwback to something like, say, “Moby Dick” or “Heartbreaker” from II with its geometric riffing. But the chorus is pure, gorgeous and magical stadium rock, taking us away from Page’s note-dense verse riff into a groovy proto-metal mindspace. After a few oscillations of this, we’re into a darker and jammier close, the sum total creating a song that always struck me as a predecessor to Aerosmith’s “Round and Round.” And I love, again, something that happens a lot with Zeppelin and also with Robert Plant as a solo artist, namely that the repeated words of the chorus—“All I need from you is all your love”—is not reflected in the catchy and novel titling of the track.

12. “Wanton Song”

This tight and rocker is an example that feeds a theory I have, namely that those who don’t ascribe to being called heavy metal can sometimes create novel forms of the genre, songs that seem to exist outside the rules. To us as 12-year-olds in 1975, “The Wanton Song” was the most modern hard rock Zep had ever done, and so beautifully presented over that simple Bonzo beat rife with pregnant pauses. This is in fact one of Jimmy’s favourite riffs of his, and as tribute of sorts, he felt there was no need to give the song a chorus (he does, however load it up with effects, like Leslie, backwards echo and wah-wah). In two short years, we would have Rainbow’s “Lady of the Lake,” and then up into 1992, Black Sabbath’s ‘Master of Insanity” and likely others that builds upon this exquisite structure.

11. “Over the Hills and Far Away”

What I love about this one is that it’s pretty much the most complicated performance we get out of Jimmy on acoustic guitar, where he rises to the levels of Nick Drake, reinforcing the pageantry with use of both six- and 12-string doubled, and also 12-string doubled with another 12-string track. When Robert starts singing, it’s pure magic, and then to hold attention things get punchy real fast, Robert, turning to his golden god shriek, yet still whimsically musing on his surreal life. The rhythm behind Plant and a vigorously strumming Page is locked tight, John Paul and Bonzo playing muscularly, as the band move into a complicated and slightly darker solo section, before we return to an ideal and idyllic horizon-scan of the Welsh countryside, all misty and moorish. The closing sequence offers a whole new trip to ponder once the song’s over, with echoey guitar played against clavinet, synth and some distant and lonesome gentle picking from Page.

10. “Black Dog”

This is the ultimate early showy Led Zeppelin track, a song that absolutely lit a fire under us as kids, being one of the earliest heavy metal songs I ever heard, hitting me right between the eyes at eight years old. The magic of this one is achieved by the confounding geometry of that riff set against a beat-dropping rhythm out of Bonzo, as well as the dead-stop so Robert can shriek his lungs out, establishing him as the greatest histrionic singer of the day. And there’s no doubt that this is pure proto-metal, built with smarts, but always dangerous, on the edge of chaos, on the edge of falling apart, a genius foil track to “Rock and Roll,” which also is chaos personified, but at a much faster tempo. Fun memory for myself is sitting there backstage at Massey Hall, while John Paul Jones told me about working out this riff on the train, inspired by the train itself.

9. “Custard Pie”

There’s nothing more exalted than being the opening track on the greatest album of all time, and therefore “Custard Pie” deserves a look-in. And then it wins me over effortlessly, sounding almost like the happy, humpy version of “Celebration Day,” which is my favourite Led Zeppelin song ever. Here we get a similar funky and complicated riff out of Jimmy, which dovetails with equally smart John Paul Jones Hohner D6 clavinet over a mosh pit rhythm from Bonzo while Robert sounds almost exasperated at the edge of his waning range, wearing and tearing himself out through the advancing years, offering us some harmonica for old time’s sake. Weirdly, the band never played it live, despite it being rehearsed. Might have been a tough one vocally, and one can envision the subtlety of its arrangement being lost amidst the dreadfulness of hockey barn acoustics.

8. “Going to California”

Led Zeppelin did a bunch of things, and mid-‘60s folk boom folk was one of them, and “Going to California” is one of the greatest examples of this, all gauzy, forward-leaning, with a complex vocal melody on top of multi-tracked acoustic guitar in drop-D tuning and nothing else, other than mandolin from John Paul, of course, and also a bit of an effect on Robert’s voice for the “tense” break section. But yes, nothing else significant, i.e. no rhythm section. Oddly—and this is just me—but I’d rather not think about the cognitive dissonance of Led Zeppelin in California. Rather, I picture this around the fire in a stone cottage on the side of a mountain in rural Wales. But sure, here’s the driving credo of Robert’s solo career writ large, this torrid thirst for checking out the music of the wider world.

7. “Dancing Days”

The band got a lot of stick for the Houses of the Holy album, but this ersatz title track (the actual title track would show up, amusingly, on the next album), finds Jimmy, really, exploring this, Egypto, Moroccan, Turkish middle eastern tonality, inspired by a song he heard in Bombay—cue the Ritchie Blackmore, and Michael, and Yngwie—really, for only, what, the third time, after “Dazed and Confused” which isn’t even really his, and then, I suppose, “Immigrant Song.” To be sure, we’d hear more of this on Physical Graffiti, but this snaky riff hits you straight between the eyes, before collapsing into an elegiac, sublime hippie verse riff and attendant hippie lyric from Robert. Even more exotic and enjoyable than the opening riff is when John Paul Jones accompanies Jimmy with a harmony, enrapturing us with the most exquisite and bizarre keyboard tone (a Farfisa VIP-255, only time on a Zep song), at the 1:40 mark. This is where we start hearing about tadpoles in a jar and things get weird. Forget Robert’s romanticism with the San Francisco sound; I always think of Stonehenge and the summer solstice when I hear this song. And man, once the singing stops, somehow, Jimmy, John Paul and Bonzo manage to keep the listener on the edge of his seat, following every subtle change to the close—and this on a song that is not that long.

6. “Kashmir”

“Kashmir” is of course the first song that comes to mind when people speak in hushed tones about Led Zeppelin’s Moroccan melodies, which emanate not only from Jimmy’s ascending MC Escher riff, but also Robert’s dreamy vocal melody and John Paul Jones’ orchestrals as applied to a Pakistani orchestra in Southall, London. And credit to the guys for keeping us interested on this hot desert march, for nearly 10 minutes, which is achieved through the unfolding drama of different parts, most more Moroccan than the last (even though we’re in the Himalayas!), with applied use of phase-shifting keeping us alert for marauding nomads. The value of the song is lifted further, at least in my personal structuring, by its presence at the end of a second side of music with “Houses of the Holy” and “Trampled Under Foot,” mirroring a side one with three songs that closes with “In My Time of Dying,” an equally legendary epic.

5. “The Rover”

“The Rover” does its share of the heavy lifting with respect to making Physical Graffiti quite a hard rocking record, with its slow propulsion beneath a gnarly jet engine of a Jimmy riff. But then there’s that gorgeous descending chorus, which lends an air of epic importance to the song, which actually resonates as longer than it is, perhaps sent toward that sentiment by it being on a side with only three tracks. John Paul plays uncharacteristically simple—teenaged eighth notes, as Roger Glover would say—and John Bonham joins him in serving the song while it’s left to Jimmy and Robert to play rock gods at high volume, Robert yelping and preening, Jimmy with Les Paul slung low.

4. “Friends”

So yeah, I’ve got Tobias Churton’s books on Crowley in America and Crowley in Berlin, but he’s also got one on Crowley in India, and this sounds like the soundtrack to that book, which I’m sure is a big thick thing once again. And I gotta get it, right? But to be sure, this is why Led Zeppelin III is my second favourite album by the band, this and my love for “Celebration Day,” which begins after an uneasy Moog drone that ends this song. But yes, I just love the furtive urgency of this song despite it being made up of essentially acoustic guitar (using an Eastern Open C6 folk tuning) and haunting vocals, along with pretty light, non-intrusive percussion, the totality arranged by Jones. So yeah, whatever, I envision Crowley on his various travels, but this just as easily could be the soundtrack to a ceremonial magic ritual at Boleskine House, in Crowley’s time no less, given the song’s timeless non-electric-ness, or a similar rite conducted by a lonely stoned Jimmy Page, isolated, reducing the chill through endless cups of tea and a roaring fire. Missed opportunity for collective crowd madness, “Friends” was only played live once, in Japan in 1971.

3. “Carouselambra”

Angry metalhead that I was, call me horrified by this album when it first came out, although it very methodically and rapidly became one of my favourite Led Zeppelin albums. And “Carouselambra” is far and away my favorite track on it, progressive, even somewhat spirited and heavy compared to the rest of the album. The bass line is a joy to behold, and John Bonham’s steady, muscular rhythm, with perfect fills, helps create a juggernaut from the rhythm end of things. Jimmy just sort of kerrangs around his heroin problem, creating the perfect parts, and that incessant, almost obsessive keyboard part is perfect. Robert sounds wise, mature, using his newly limited range, as the band, on a sort of victory lap, work through beautifully melodic, progressive rock movements, down-winding at the halfway point toward a murky and mysterious blues, wholly unexpected and enchanting. This lasts quite a while—three minutes—before the band return to an increasingly percolating and funky version of the verse premise. The close-out features John pounding away to a bunch of Devo from John Paul Jones. Indeed, the visionary keyboard work on this record would set up bands like Rush and Van Halen toward bringing lots of this kind of thing to hard rock.

2. “In My Time of Dying”

If Physical Graffiti is the aircraft carrier of all rock and roll albums as I’ve posited in the past and still believe—indeed the greatest album of all time—then “In My Time of Dying” is the microcosm of that concept upon this strident double album of panoramic magnificence. I love that the beginning sounds more like Joe Perry than Jimmy Page, and secondly, that it gets going pretty much immediately. The pointed riffs and the passages are legion, presenting an exercise in Led Zeppelin’s original raison d’être, this idea of taking the British blues boom further, by transforming old songs into a raw and rootsy form of heavy metal—here we get an update on a Blind Willie Johnson song from 1927 called “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed.” John Bonham is transcendent throughout, pushing and shoving as Jimmy slips and slides around him and Robert turns in one of his greatest vocal performances. It’s 11 minutes that never gets dull because it basically sounds like one’s life flashing before one’s eyes (the song is in fact the longest the band ever did, followed by “Carouselambra”). The key is in its screenplay-worth narrative, for fter all the slide rule heavy metal-making, we’re into this grand epic close with an intense jam and then this sort of grand recline into retirement. There’s riffs, there’s military rhythmic punches, there’s down-the-elevator-shaft fills, there’s Robert howling away, but more than anything, this is a romp for Jimmy, and again, furtively “borrowing” from old blues songs, but in this case, giving one of the greatest lectures in building gorgeous new art off the foundations of the masters.

1. “Celebration Day”

I’ve been known to call Aerosmith’s “Draw the Line” the greatest song of all time, and I basically consider “Celebration Day” as the predecessor, the building blocks to that 1977 classic. And the reason is because both songs ramble on effortlessly on the back of a complicated snaky riff, or what in fact sounds like a couple competing, chattering back and forth the each other like old friends catching up—Jimmy says there’s one guitar in standard tuning and a slide tuned to open A. Aside from that, this is one of Led Zeppelin’s grooviest, funkiest tracks, in terms of rhythm section interacting with a novel, counterintuitive vocal melody. And I love that it sounds so heavy yet the guitar is not particularly distorted, and Jimmy isn’t really all about chords. Perhaps that’s aided by the fact that there are only really three heavy songs on this shockingly acoustic album, which got the band into all sorts of hot water with the critics. But yes, I love when a band rises to the challenge of writing a short song that sounds so complicated and progressive rocking yet also this heavy and danceable.

  

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