The hype for the (ugh) “Unledded” performance by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on MTV Unplugged was pretty insane. At least, that’s how I remember it; it’s possible that I was so into Led Zeppelin and classic rock radio that I just assumed everybody was obsessed with the duo teaming up again.
I wasn’t exactly let down by the results, but it made me realize that not everything is helped by a slimmed-down approach. Some songs, like the already acoustic “Thank You,” didn’t get more interesting by barely scaling back. What I did love was the revamped version of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” a gospel number that the band reworked into a scorching blues track for their record Presence, and appearing on No Quarter as a swampy stomp of a song.
I love the section that starts around 1:50 in the video below, when Plant yells, “Take it on! Take it on!” (or whatever he actually says) and the hurdy gurdy churns along (can a hurdy gurdy churn? Poetic license!). It sounds fantastic, moving the song at a just-fast-enough pace. Whereas Led Zeppelin’s version of this song seemed fueled by anger, the Page and Plant rendition is more about coming to terms with owed debts and missed opportunities. I wonder if their old age accounts for this approach (Page was 50 when No Quarter was released and Plant was 46; they were respectively 32 and 28 for Presence), or if they simply wanted to try something new.
I owe much of my musical taste to my sister Elizabeth. She’s the one who introduced me to Ill Communication, who borrowed a copy of Sgt. Pepper from someone, who had all three Hendrix albums. And, yes, she loved Led Zeppelin.
She still does, of course, because who loves Led Zeppelin and later decides it’s just not for them? Robert Plant’s banshee voice, Jimmy Page’s heavy but endlessly spry guitar, John Paul Jones’s head-turning bass runs, John Bonham’s… John Bonhamness. They could be a folk troupe, a bunch of proto-metal badasses, a band of drugged-out philosophers. I had a hard time choosing one Led Zeppelin song to write about, but I settled on “Ramble On” because it finds the band being all these things at once, beautifully.
Everybody loves IV (or ZOSO, or whatever you want to call it), but for my money, II is the one to beat. It’s lean and mean, with lots of bombast but no extraneous material. On “Ramble On” alone, there are acoustic guitars, a beat that sounds like it’s being patted out on someone’s leg, that ferocious chorus, and those dreamy solos. It’s a lot to cram into four-and-a-half minutes, but they do it, and it doesn’t sound disjointed in the least. Hell, they even throw in some Tolkein references, and it works.
I always thought of II as Led Zeppelin’s least fussy record, so I was surprised to learn that the band recorded it in many different settings, with a variety of equipment and resources. The record was a huge success, repeatedly knocking Abbey Road from the top of the charts. It’s hard to imagine the two albums sharing the same era, let alone the same sales sheet.