Trying to sum up a career as gigantic as that of Led Zeppelin in just 10 songs is, besides being impossible, really painful. Leaving out monuments on which hard rock was once built like Black Dog, and Good Times Bad Times, songs so complex and marvelous such as The Rain Song and Over The Hills and Far Away, epics like In My Time of Dying and Since I’ve Been Loving You, or personal favourites including Celebration Day and The Ocean; it is almost as painful as choosing who to save first in a shipwreck. Evidently it isn’t etched in stone, for now, this is our final selection of the 10 best Led Zeppelin songs.
Stairway To Heaven
A song which, in 8 perfect minutes, contains the best of the band, with folk and hard rock shaking hands like they have never done before, or after. A song which ascends, literally, to heaven and is good enough to resist having been listened to ad nauseum and the memes Wayne’s World style, where people are banned from playing it to try out a guitar. The guitar used in this song is not the Les Paul usually identified with Jimmy Page, but rather his legendary 1959 Fender Telecaster, which was given to him by his mate in The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck. In this masterpiece of their career, the God of Les Pauls plays an acoustic Harmony Sovereign H1260 , and a 12-string Fender Electric XII and the mentioned Telecaster. However, when Page was playing live he used another of his fabled guitars, the Heritage Cherry Gibson EDS-1275 6/12 double-neck. We couldn’t start the list with any other.
Whole Lotta Love
Edited just a few months after its debut, Led Zeppelin II was recorded and composed on the road, using various studios, both in the U.S. and in England. It’s incredible it sounds so good but Page showed that he could make magic not only on the guitar but behind the mixing table. Helped by Eddie Kramer, Page waves his wand and gives Zeppelin its definitive sound, with the epic riff on Whole Lotta Love, simple yet wild, played this time with the guitar that defined his legacy, his mythic Les Paul Standard Sunburst from 1959 that he got from Joe Walsh. It’s an outburst that requires your full attention, like an alarm blaring what will come next. Robert Plant copied the lyrics from You Need Love by Willie Dixon, and the vocal inflections of Steve Marriott, but takes it a level higher than the Small Faces singer, letting lead singer’s hair down, admitting that it was after this record when he started to enjoy his role in the band. And then comes the amazing middle part, an orgy of sounds created by Page and Kramer from which arises an awesome solo that leads back to the main part taken with a firm step by the best rhythm section in rock history.
When The Levee Breaks
When The Levee Breaks is the culmination of their lifting old blues and turning it into something truly their own and new, besides confirming drummer John Bonham as the most amazing drummer in the world and Page as a top producer. Based on old blues recorded for the first time by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929, Zeppelin make it theirs with surround sound, almost symphonic, that takes blues to another sphere. Sharp and threatening, it’s an incredible atmosphere they make with this song that closed their masterpiece Led Zeppelin IV. In spite of being one their greatest numbers, recreating it live was rather difficult, so they only played it on a few occasions, on their 1975 tour, with Page using his Danelectro 3021 from his time in the Yardbirds.
John Paul Jones is Led Zeppelin’s secret ingredient standing against the much more volcanic Page, Plant, and Bonham, his basslines on Ramble On are truly brilliant and give a much greater packaging to the song. Lyrically, Plant makes his first references to Tolkien's work with Gollum and the Dark Lord trying to steal a girl from him. Musically, it is much more interesting, playing with the dichotomy between the quiet bits, and the electric assaults with Page once again in top form, ripping a precious solo based on the psychedelic feel, with sustained soft notes that he gets from his Les Paul with an effect made by Roger Mayer, a man Jimi Hendrix described as “my secret weapon”.
Rock And Roll
One of the greatest adrenaline rushes in the history of (pardon the obvious) rock and roll. The band was trying to finish up Four Sticks when John Bonham started playing the beginning of Keep A Knockin’ by Little Richard, Page didn’t hesitate and unleashed a riff that could have been by Chuck Berry. Fifteen minutes later they had almost finished one of their most direct and fun songs, showing once again that simplicity is the key to rock and roll. The famous Bonham intro that, as we were saying, was inspired by Keep A Knockin’, gave a wink as well to Chuck Berry’s famous licks.
One of their most iconic songs and the only one that can rival Whole Lotta Love for the title of Page’s most significant riff. Of course, the blues is replaced by Arab and oriental music here, with an alternative tuning (D-A-D-G-A-D) on his 2nd ‘59 Les Paul Standard which he bought in 1973. Page takes the band on a most unusual, experimental trip, close to progressive music but with all the trappings of the Led Zeppelin brand. The main song of the essential Physical Graffiti.
Dazed And Confused
The debut of the most important rock band of the 70s is the definitive fusion between blues and rock to create something completely new. Page is grounded mostly in other songs, mainly the blues to create these pieces, but the result, once played by the 4 members of Zeppelin, is their own. Dazed and Confused is the best example, propelled by Page riffs and Bonham’s sticks, the group hardens the blues until it becomes the sound on which Heavy would grow. Based on a song written by Jake Holmes, whom Page forgot to mention in the credits, the guitarist began to play the song near the end of the Yardbirds, being one of the first songs he introduced to the band, once he recruited Jones, Bonham, and Plant, becoming one of the main ones on which Page cemented his sound, squeezing incredible sounds from his Telecaster Behind a Supro amp, with a violin bow.
Any rock fan knows how it sounds when the Vikings attack roaring the scream “Valhalla, I’m coming”. Zeppelin delivers one of its hardest songs that opens their acoustic record. The best greased machine to make rock charges into the battle spurred by Plant’s scream, the amazing riff by Page and the rhythmic precision of Bonham and Jones. Few songs have influenced post heavy metal as much.
Led Zeppelin is always mentioned as precursors to heavy metal, but hardly never as such to punk. And when the genre exploded in 1977, they were seen as those dinosaurs that had to be exterminated. Few punks knew that one of their most distinct elements, the Ramones guitar flares, came from a Zeppelin song. And that Johnny Ramone got his speeding style playing nonstop the Communication Breakdown riff. More proof of the tremendous importance of the band.
The Battle Of Evermore
Possibly the most surprising choice of the list, but, apart from being a marvelous song, you have to also select a song the captures the acoustic and most folk side that the band also knew how to cultivate. Their 3rd record had surprised their own and strangers with a twist to their acoustic side, proving they were a more versatile group than they were granted. In spite of it all, the critics kept attacking them and seizing the success of Crosby Stills & Nash, saying that the group had thrown itself into acoustic by following a trend. Nobody seemed to have listened to the various acoustic songs that were on the first 2 records, and neither did they seem to have paid attention to the fact that the influence came more from the British folk/rock of Fairport Convention, Pentangle or The Incredible String Band than from the echoes of Laurel Canyon from the Californians. So on their 4th work there was also room for this. Page composed this song after playing Jones’ mandolin for the first time, Plant wrote the lyrics, and decided to call in the very Sandy Denny herself, vocalist for Fairport Convention, to sing a duo. The result was so satisfying that Denny won her own symbol on the album and became the only singer ever to collaborate on a Zeppelin record. The blend of her voice with Plant’s seems like something from a fairytale. Check out this selection for other acoustic gems such as Thank You, Tangerine, That’s The Way, Hey Hey What Can I Do, Your Time Is Gonna Come, Going to California and so many more.