It’s hard to play devil’s advocate when it comes to Led Zeppelin, once you’ve started exploring their musical influences. In the essay 31 Songs, Nick Hornby explains how you inevitably fall in love with Led Zeppelin as a teenager, at a time in life when the power of those guitar riffs becomes empowering – no need for the concentrated listening that other artists may require.
Yet, Led Zep are one of the biggest rock bands of all time, an essential giant that in less than a decade recorded albums that compare to The Beatles’ releases in terms of sales and legacy. It’s hard to believe that such fame was built on the smoke screen of their Marshall amps’ super high volume.
Of course, the band never concealed their admiration for bluesmen, both acoustic (the Southern Delta blues) and electric (the Chicago blues). In fact, some of Led Zep’s songs are mere covers of older songs, and one must recognize that the original authors were not always credited at the time. The majority of the lyrics from “Whole Lotta Love” are from Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love”; “The Lemon Song” is an extended variation of a musical phrase featured in Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues”; and “In My Time of Dying” sounds a lot like Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”, to whom the band also owes “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.
But Led Zeppelin are not just another blues band from the end of Great Britain’s Swinging Sixties. They also fed from the folk scene, both British (Bert Jansch’s “Black Water Side” became “Black Mountain Side” on their debut album) and North American (Joni Mitchell’s Blue is the inspiration for the acoustic essay Led Zeppelin III), and they were also attentive to the psychedelic scene (Spirit, a band they would open for, recorded “Taurus” in 1967, a song that strangely sounded like Led Zep’s “Stairway to Heaven”, composed three years later).
Lastly, there’s Jimmy Page, guitarist and undisputed pilot of the zeppelin, one of the three guitar heroes that joined The Yardbirds, after his fellow friends Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck (with whom he shared a boundless admiration for Scotty Moore, Elvis’ first guitarist). Page is at the same time one of the architects of the heavy metal’s “big sound” that you can hear in Cream and Iron Butterfly (whose oxymoronic name strongly recalls “Led Zeppelin”), but also an excellent session musician who collaborated with the likes of Tom Jones, Michel Polnareff and Johnny Hallyday.
It is this rich blend that makes Led Zeppelin’s fascinating complexity, a sound that one can not seriously summarize by big over-the-top guitar riffs, this would contain a “whole lotta” hypocrisy.