I discovered Led Zeppelin as a teenager thanks in part to the Legends specials on Vh1. Those specials were visual textbooks on classic rock bands. The Led Zeppelin episode convinced me that they were the greatest band on earth. I was mystified by the band’s sonic power and tales of debauchery. This really was the stuff of legend.
It also helped that Zeppelin was one of the few bands that my mother outright forbid me to listen to. She didn’t know much about popular music other than what my siblings played for her, but she knew of Zeppelin’s reputation as sexual deviants and “Satanists”.
“I don’t want you listening to Led Zeppelin!” She yelled at me once when she discovered one of their tapes in my room. “Do you play Dungeons and Dragons too?” In her mind, the two were interlocked and I was heading down a dark, dark path.
My two best friends had also seen the Vh1 Special, so I wasn’t the only one who it had a profound affect on. While watching fireworks on the 4th of July with our families, the three of us would talk about the finer details of Jimmy Page’s guitar solo on “Heartbreaker” or the sexual references found in “Black Dog”. We argued over which album was better: IV or Houses of the Holy.
The cream of the crop was “Stairway to Heaven” with its majestic intro and hard-rocking ending. To our teenage minds, it was the ultimate epic. It had everything: a soft beginning, mystical lyrics and the greatest guitar solo of all time. I used to pull my headphones closely to my head so I could hear Bonham’s drum rolls during the solo.
“Stairway” made all the other bands I listened to all the time seem small and quaint. I could totally understand why it was the most requested song of all time on FM rock radio. There was just something about it that set it apart from others.
The fantastical lyrics directly aligned with The Lord of the Rings which I was reading at the time. It was the perfect soundtrack as I read about Frodo’s trip to throw the One Ring into the pit of Mt. Doom.
One afternoon while my parents were gone, my brother caught me playing Zeppelin on my family stereo. He shook his head in disgust. “Turn that shit off,” He growled. Before I could protest, he took out a tape and popped it in the stereo. An old blues recording filled the room. “This is Howlin’ Wolf,” My brother declared. “Your beloved Zep stole tons of riffs and lyrics from him and other blues artists.”
First he played Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and informed me that the lyrics for “How Many More Years” were in fact taken from this song. Then he played “No Place to Go” and I could tell that riff from Zeppelin’s “How Many More Years” was stolen from this song too.
Taking riffs and lyrical ideas is part of the blues tradition and it’s not unique to Zeppelin. Several artists I love and admire have done it. Bob Dylan has did it numerous times with his latest albums. “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” off of Modern Times which takes its title and melody from a Muddy Waters song of the same name. Jimi Hendrix did it with “Catfish Blues” – which turned into “Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return”). The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” lifted its melody from a gospel song by the Staple Singers.
But my teenage mind didn’t know that. I wondered how they could get away with it and felt betrayed. Almost instantly, my love of Zeppelin vanished and my view of them completely changed. They were no longer thunderous gods. They suddenly became silly, bloated and excessive. I’m not sure my friends had the same revelation I did, but they also stopped listening to Zeppelin around the same time.
And with that, “Stairway” became the worst offender. What I had previously thought was a gorgeous epic became a trivial and bland piece of music. Page’s solo suddenly represented the worst of ’70s excess. Plant’s lyrics in “Stairway” with its references to pipers and may-queens seemed incredibly dorky and clunky.
There’s no shortage of people who view “Stairway to Heaven” as a cultural touchstone. It’s probably not hyperbole to suggest that “Stairway” had a huge affect on a generation’s musical tastes. But for me, it represented what type of music I don’t want to listen to: masturbatory guitar solos, long suites in songs, drum solos, etc. Many of the artists from the ’70s I now love – like The Stooges, The Ramones, Joy Division, The Clash – are the exact opposite of Zeppelin. In other words, pretty much any stadium rock band from the ’70s that’s not The Who or The Rolling Stones is not for me. I just can’t do it.
Ironically, the only Zeppelin song I still listen to is “When the Levee Breaks” which is entirely ripped off an old blues song from the 1920’s.