‘Greatest’..?

I am wont, over a drink with either fellow aficionados or indulgent people possessed of too much politeness to tell me to shut up, to bore on about (the music of) Led Zeppelin. Its continued signposting of the soundtrack of my life is (unlike many other bands from my (mal-)formative youth) not merely nostalgia. Whilst a lot of the other stuff on my collection shelves drifts in and out of my fickle attention – in fact much of it has not had the figurative dust blown off in years – I still, three-and-a-half decades after slowly getting it, listen to Led Zeppelin frequently. (Slowly, yes; because, in my early teens in the mid-seventies, it didn’t come easy: I was initially disappointed by the second album – I didn’t like the singer; that borrowed poor quality tape copy of the fourth album sounded like impenetrable mud; perhaps I was influenced by some of the reviews of gigs on the ’77 US tour – a live ‘lumbering blimp’ in need of a rhythm guitarist – when, unbeknownst to me at the time, the wheels were falling off.) Whilst the more immediately appealing soon drops down my playlist, the less accessible stays with me longer. And I continue to find something ‘new’ to appreciate; still re-opine on songs and albums; still enjoy learning of the influences and influenced; still marvel at the drummer…

Hence, it was with interest that I recently discovered this Rolling Stone compendium of ‘The 40 Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs of All Time. (I’ve deliberately linked to the 40th page, so you can, if you’re interested, work up gradually, if you can resist hurrying along to No. 1 to see if it tallies with your prediction and/or own favourite.) ‘… of All Time’? What is that qualifier for? Regardless of my hopeless hope that we will never have any more to consider, my own fluctuating preferences mean I find this as nonsensical a term as, say, ‘The Very Best…’

It is not a reader’s poll (there was one done separately tabling ten songs, two of which don’t make the 40 list), but, presumably, a cobbled together homage by RS‘s journos – full circle for a magazine that slated the band in its early years. But that doesn’t make it any less subjective, or any more meritorious, than the numerous contrary contributions it sparked in the ensuing comment thread. And it wasn’t just my own multiple disagreements with this listing that roused me into giving it my displacing two-penneth-worth here. I wondered at trying to apply some sort of (more appropriate?) metric.

One of the reasons I find this kind of treatment pretty meaningless is because Led Zeppelin was… an album band. Eschewing singles (in the UK at any rate, and very few in the US), the albums were its statements. With the talent and bravura, and the clout of a fearsome managerial entourage, they were able to quickly engineer themselves full artistic freedom, and acquired an enigma borne of unwillingness to explain themselves to a (then) largely unappreciative music press. Audaciously defying expectations, each album was its own, distinct from its predecessor. And it is the albums by which Led Zeppelin should be measured.

This RS listing selects tracks from those official studio albums; with the exception of ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’, a BBC session recording included on the first remastered box set (and the 1997 BBC Sessions official release). This inclusion suggests the other ‘extra’ songs and combo tracks on that and the subsequent box set (‘Hey Hey What Can I Do‘, ‘White Summer/Black Mountain Side’, ‘Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreux’ and ‘Baby Come On Home’) must also have been in the frame, despite not being on those albums (in those forms). Similarly, the omission of anything from Coda, the post-split compendium of previously unreleased tracks, indicates, not exclusion from consideration, but (more likely) that RS deemed none of the songs on it worthy of Top 40 status. So, although this RS policy does consider tracks not on the studio albums, it apparently limits itself to official releases. Live albums, official or otherwise, or the multitudinous other versions and covers obtainable out there are not considered. Which is a good policy, as, like much of live Led Zeppelin, it would get difficult and lengthy and (even more) opinion-dividing.

So, what does the RS listing say of those official studio albums? The number of tracks varies between albums and so a simple count of the number of representative tracks is less informative than scoring them as a fraction of the total number of songs on that album. The higher the proportion of tracks deemed worthy for inclusion suggests a higher regard for the parent album. (Not very ‘scientific’ I realise: converting small numbers into percentages is always pretty worthless when those numbers are less than 100; and an album with a few long tracks is at greater subjective risk than an album with more shorter tracks.) So, if we are to evaluate an album according to the proportion of its songs considered ‘great’ enough for inclusion in a list removing them from the context of that album (though it is much more biographically complicated than that), then the RS tabling of Led Zeppelin’s albums might be thus:

1.  ‘Untitled’                                         8/8          100 %
2.  Houses of the Holy                    7/8             88 %
3.  Led Zeppelin II                             7/9             78 %
4.  Led Zeppelin                                 4/9            44 %
5.  In Through the Out Door        3/7             43 %
6.  Led Zeppelin III                           4/10          40 %
7.  Physical Graffiti                         5/15           33 %
8.  Presence                                         1/7              14 %
9.  Coda                                                 0/8               0 %

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Led Zeppelin album deemed the ‘best’ – with all its eight tracks included in the RS 40 – is the ‘Untitled’ one. (You can have ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, ‘Four Symbols’, or ‘Runes’; whichever you prefer; though none of these are official titles: the band, in response to being labelled a ‘hype’, released this album with neither title nor band name on the cover. Enough unsaid.) Which all makes sense then, doesn’t it? Because it’s the one that often tops polls and/or similar lists. Because, after all, it’s the one with ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on it. Must be the best, then? Well, it doesn’t satisfy me.

There’s another way to score this: as RS has listed these in order, then applying a points system according to where on the list a song is – ie, 40 points for No. 1, down to one point for No. 40 – and we end up with:

1.  ‘Untitled’                                      231 pts
2.  Led Zeppelin II                          151 pts
3.  Houses of the Holy                 136 pts
4.  Led Zeppelin                              117 pts
5.  Physical Graffiti                        86 pts
6.  Led Zeppelin III                          67 pts
7.  In Through the Out Door       20 pts
8.  Presence                                        18 pts
9.  Coda                                                  0 pts

The problem with this is that, even though it takes into account the relative weight of each song as opposed to merely its inclusion in the list, it is even more subjective. And further inaccuracy entails due to no knowledge of the subsequent ranking of the excluded 46 (41 album) tracks. A shorter or longer list likely yields a different outcome (try it; I can’t be bothered, much as it’s not worth double-checking my scoring here). However, it’s reasonably fair to assume that more songs from one album predominantly higher up the list suggests that RS’s journos deem them part of a stronger album, as opposed to several songs placed mostly lower down. And it’s pretty tight with the first table: Led Zeppelin II and Houses of the Holy swap second and third spot; Physical Graffiti and In Through the Out Door exchange fifth and seventh. Which makes me a little more satisfied.

We might also consider scoring for average points per album (ie, total points in table above divided by number of that album’s songs in the list), which does this:

1.  Led Zeppelin                            29.25 av. pts
2.  ‘Untitled’                                   28.9
3.  Led Zeppelin II                        21.6
4.  Houses of the Holy               19.4
5.  Presence                                    18.0
6.  Physical Graffiti                    17.2
7.  Led Zeppelin III                      16.75
8.  In Through the Out Door     6.67
9.  Coda                                              0.0

But this is, I reckon, (even more) nonsensical: the first album, fourth in both previous tables, leap-frogs the top three to assume prime spot; Presence leaps from lowly 8th to mid-table on the strength of one song. And it makes me a little more dissatisfied.

Whilst there is not one Led Zeppelin song I don’t like (seriously; not something I can say for most other artists I admire), I will not (you might be relieved to learn) labour you with my own Top 40. For one thing, I would find it very difficult, because, as I said above, my preferences continually shift: I was never that (relatively) keen on ‘Trampled Under Foot’, until I got it for what it is – a glorious James Brown-ish funk workout; my liking for ‘Black Dog’ undulates like its riff (‘a farmyard chicken trying to fly’, was how one reviewer once described it); and I used to love ‘Stairway to Heaven’ when I was young, until its ability to move me was supplanted by, say, ‘Kashmir’, or ‘The Rain Song’, or (Yyyess!) ‘Ten Years Gone’ (the dropping of which from the second Knebworth gig still miffs), such that I now consider it (relatively) somewhat stale. (And it was for me the worst performed number at the 2007 concert. But I write that to provide a marker of just how follicle-erecting-ly good that performance was.)

We can make another (?) interesting (if you’re into Led Zeppelin) comparison here. When Jimmy Page embarked on the remastering of the entire catalogue, he polled Plant and Jones for their collective preferences for inclusion on the first box set, released in 1990. How many of the 54 tracks they compiled tally with the RS list? Err, 36. Which kind of pisses on where I might have been taking this. Except any significance is tempered by the fact that the track-listing on the box set was not set according to order of ‘greatness’. So, what do those extra ten album tracks (ie, 14 minus the four songs/combos previously unavailable on album) on the band’s own, in effect, ‘Best of…’ compilation tell us about how (back in 1990) Led Zeppelin rated its own album catalogue?

1.  =  ‘Untitled’                                      7/8          88 %
=        Houses of the Holy                 7/8          88 %
2.       Presence                                      5/7          71 %
3.       Led Zeppelin III                        7/10        70 %
4.  =  Led Zeppelin                              5/9          56 %
=        Led Zeppelin II                          5/9          56 %
5.       Physical Graffiti                      8/15       53 %
6.       In Through the Out Door     3/7         43 %
7.       Coda                                              3/8         38 %

Good to see material from Coda getting recognition. And Presence receiving proper due acknowledgement. (I mean, come on, RS‘s omission of ‘Achilles Last Stand’ suggests its writers do not comprehend the meaning of the word ‘great.’) Yet still, despite the band rating it higher than RS, my crowbar-ing attempts to get my own favourite album at the pinnacle are futile. Again, I won’t bore you with my own song list. But when I tried, and scored it as per above, the outcome informed me that my favourite is apparently Presence – which (though damn near) it isn’t. (“But Lee, surely you have to accept the data.” Shurrup.) It might also suggest that, were Physical Graffiti shorn of those tracks I might not (today) include in a meaningless list, I would score it even higher?

No, it wouldn’t.

Especially as I equivocate on many of my favourite tracks (and so cannot score as per the second table above). And why try and force it? I have long imagined that, were I to be marooned somewhere with just one album for company, Physical Graffiti would be it. How do I know for certain it is my favourite album? Not only because it includes more of my favourite songs than any other, but because, despite including tracks rejected from previous sessions (including the mooted title track of the previous album), it works as a seamless, cohesive whole.  Because in ‘Night Flight’ it features one of Plant’s best vocals. Because of the controlled chaos of ‘In My Time of Dying.’ Because of its overall sound and intensity. Because it exemplifies a great synergistic band at the peak of its eclectic prowess.

I can neither imagine Physical Graffiti minus any tracks, nor alteration in its running order. It is why I don’t usually like ‘Best of…’ compilations. But a live set list… that’s a different matter.

LZPG 001

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