So, Led Zeppelin seems the perfect choice for my first attempt to capture a single band’s history in chart form. Not only were they an obsession of mine in my teen years, but their music has remained remarkably relevant decades after it was created. Some consider the band the greatest in rock and roll band and while that is arguable, there’s no arguing the joy their music has brought to millions of fans or the influence the band had on generations of musicians and music listeners.
A couple house-keeping notes:
- All charts can be clicked to see a full-scale version
- I use a ratings system I’ve developed for my purposes. It’s not very complex but it does account for the difference between a really great 3-minute song and a really great 25-minute song. Read the link if you’re interested.
- You’ll also see something call “Prog Arch” or “Prog Arch Rating”. This is Progressive Archive’s rating for the same item; gives you a sense of how my rating compares to the masses. The site is user-generated and I’ve found it to be an excellent reference; the contributors are clearly big fans of music in general, progressive music in particular and, in aggregate, are a highly informed, conscientious source of music knowledge. Their ratings usually make sense to me and don’t suffer outrageously generous scores like those found on Amazon or the flattened scores (with nothing ranking too high or too low) found on Rate Your Music.
This career summary chart below highlights several things:
- Most of what people think of as Led Zeppelin is found in their studio catalog but they were always a live band at heart. I consider their live output to be just as noteworthy and so I’ve included their live material in these charts.
- Led Zeppelin generated about 7 hours of studio-recorded music. That’s not a huge amount; however, maintaining an average score of 84 across those 7 hours is nearly miraculous. It’s a consistently super-high level of quality virtually unmatched in my own personal collection.
- The band’s library of live music is more than double the volume (15+ hours) and also has an amazingly high 85 overall score.
- Combining really high quality studio output void of any duds along with a vast library of high quality live music…..there’s a reason Led Zeppelin are legend 35+ years since their break-up.
- There’s very little “bonus” material to be found in the band’s catalog; more on this later.
One signature aspect of Led Zeppelin is the consistementcy of the band’s lineup. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham have, are and always will be Led Zeppelin. In fact, the only time Led Zeppelin has performed or recorded without those four was the historical, one-off Ahmet Ertegun Tribute concert in 2007 when John Bonham’s son occupied the drum stool.
While live music is a passion of mine the heart and primary legacy of any band’s career is their studio output. Led Zep was almost preternaturally consistent; their first six albums ranged from a low of 85 to a high of 88. Again, I can’t stress this enough….maintaining this level of quality without a single deviation or drop in performance is one reason the band is revered by so many. We’ll see in some future charts that even many legendary bands suffered signficant declines at various points in their history. Below is the table and chart of the band’s studio output:
Another way of looking at it, taking album length into account (and I apologize to all Jimmy Page fans, including my wife, for blocking his face; someday maybe I’ll figure out how to fix that).
A couple notes:
- Physical Graffiti is a double album, and to capture the extended length I created the chart above.
- The 2nd disc of Physical Graffiti contained a grab-bag of unused songs from previous releases. Today these would be known as “bonus songs” but LZ used them to create a double-album.
- Similarly the post-breakup release of Coda contained unreleased songs. This accounts for the lack of much “bonus” material from the band’s catalog.
- I find it hard to choose a favorite album. Depending on my mood I could choose either I, II, III, IV or Physical Graffiti. Many band’s have a single defining release. Ask a Zep fan their favorite album, however, and you’re never sure what the answer will be.
- Most, however, agree the later material (especially Coda) are subpar compared to the rest of the catalog.
The following chart looks at the band’s studio output song-by-song. What’s noteworthy here:
- The virtual absence of any background yellow; none exists below the 60 rating (or 3 on a 1-5 scale). This means there’s not a single song I rate as low as 2-stars over their 81 officially released songs. A 3-star rating means “good song” to me so every Led Zeppelin studio song is at leas “good” in my opinion.
- Starred albums are recommended by me to anyone who enjoys rock music. I was going to start putting qualifiers like “hard rock” or “prog rock” or “acoustic rock” but then I realized there’d be about a dozen of those so….if you like rock music and have somehow completley missed out on Led Zeppelin check out any of the starred albums.
The following is my favorite chart. It shows for each album what percentage of the album (in terms of time) I’ve ranked as 5, 4, 3, 2 or 1. Remarkably, there is no red (1) or orange (2) to be found; mostly a lot of blue (5) and green (4) with just a smattering of pink (3). This single image captures the band’s history as succintly as possible, in my opinion. Seriously, I could just stare at this image for a long time; so awesome!
As noted above, I like to compare my ratings to those found on Progressive Archives; it’s a nice alternative perspective. What you’ll see is I tend to rate LZ higher than the average Prog Archive contributor. This isn’t surprising; Led Zeppelin isn’t really a prog band though they do have prog elements to their music. Still, even the PA crowd rates almost all of their albums at 75 or higher.
I also like to look at a band’s output over the years which the following chart illustrates. It’s not unusual for a band to start strong and then fade in the latter stages; it is unusual to maintain the strong start for 7+ albums over 8 years.
Finally, a couple images that simply provide another way of looking at the band’s studio history. I made these on a whim but find them, in aggregate, to be very compelling:
So, I like to organize my live music by show, so the charts below don’t correspond to offical CDs and such. Also, I convert all my live DVDs to music files so I can listen to the songs while driving or whatnot; so you’ll see “live albums” that are really ported over from the band’s DVD library.
Anyway, for a long time, if you were a Led Zeppelin fan the pickings were slim when it came to live material. Up till 1997 the only option was the original The Song Remains the Same soundtrack. Nine songs spread over four LP sides, lasting about 100 minutes. That was it for LZ fans for a long, long time. If you were a die-hard like me you knew every note of every song over those 100 minutes (well, every song other than the 14-minute drum solo found on Moby Dick).
Finally, the double-CD BBC Sessions was released in ’97, featuring a ton of great material from their early tours. Then the triple CD How The West Was Won in 2003, featuring a full show from the band’s prime. Then an expanded re-release of The Song Remains the Same in 2007. Then the double-CD Celebration Day in 2012. Add it all up and throw in the Plant/Page No Quarter release from 1994 (featuring mostly re-worked Zeppelin tunes) and now we’re literally drowing in live Led Zeppelin material.
Amazing it’s almost all high quality. Only the Knebworth portion I transferred from the LZ DVD features a band struggling a bit. Also, the Albert Hall show (also transferred from the LZ DVD) is mostly excellent but is downgraded a bit because it features two rather dull, extended solo sets (that make up more than 20 minutes of the 75-minute set).
The following chart better illustrats the differences between the shows in terms of time (or length, if you will). How the West Was Won and the extended The Song Remains the Same both log in at over two hours, while some of the other shows are barely an hour long. So while Celebration Day and No Quarter have nearly identical scores (77 and 76 respectively) in my mind a 2-hour set with a 77 score is more valuable than a similarly scored 75-minute set.
Making sense of the vast library of live music can be difficult, especially to someone newly exploring the band. I’ve made the following to help in that area. It shows each song and which live release it appears on with my rating. Bolded ratings are what I consider to be the best version of the song. Though critically panned upon initial release the aforementioned The Song Remains the Same contains the best version of a number of quintessential live Led Zep songs:
- Dazed and Confused – for my money the best guitar workout in rock history
- No Quarter
- The Rain Song
- Whole Lotta Love
- Rock and Roll
- The Song Remains The Same
- Both The Song Remains The Same and How The West Was Won were culled from the same tour (1973’s Houses of the Holy tour). As such, the largely feature the same setlist; the key difference being HTWWW features the 3-song acoustic section and leaves out No Quarter, The Rain Song and Moby Dick.
- I broke up the BBC Sessions into two entries because the two discs differ significantly. The first is culled from a number of different shows or live in-studio sessions. The second is from a single, widely bootlegged broadcast during the band’s tour just prior to the release of their fourth album (and features an unfamiliar audience reacting with polite applause to their first exposure to Stairway To Heaven).
- The Albert Hall show pulled from the LZ DVD is outstanding for the most part, however the overall score (74) reflects two extended, rather dull solos from Jimmy Page and John Bonham.
- The Knebworth show was captured at the somewhat infamous concert of the same name in support of In Through The Out Door. It was Zeppelin’s first major show in several years at an outdoor festival in front of several hundred thousand fans. The band was not in good form and it shows (and yet the scores, while not up to the usual Zep standard, are still respectable showing even bad Zep is still good).
Luckily for Led Zeppelin fans there’s also a plethora of live video (almost 10 hours!). Much of it corresponds to the live music grid and much of it is jaw-droppingly good. The best can be found on the Led Zeppelin DVD and the music parts from the Song Remains the Same video; but even the Page / Plant Unledded material is terrific and the Celebration Day video captures a unique, powerful moment in the band’s legendary history. Hard to go wrong with any of it.
Again, some shows are lengthier than others. However, the Led Zeppelin DVD is the best, most comprehensive catalog of the band’s live video material. It contains the entire Albert Hall show and extended sessions from their prime, including a stunning acoustic set from the Earl’s Court show. And unlike their recorded material, there’s significant bonus footage.
Finally, every studio album in detail; remember, click the image for a full-scale version.