The first five Led Zeppelin albums (through Houses Of The Holy) are beyond legendary, but I feel the later material does not receive nearly enough love. So I'm going to express some thoughts on the music contained on their last three records, much of which shaped my youth and made me want to create music for the rest of my life.
Physical Graffiti to me is Zeppelin's creative peak. Trampled Underfoot, Kashmir, In The Light and Ten Years Gone are exquisite compositions. These tracks reveal a maturity that is hinted at in previous material like Stairway To Heaven and The Rain Song, but they seem to take their craft a step further here. Older unused songs were thrown in to stretch it to a double album, and some are magical, like The Rover and Down By The Seaside. To me they are the perfect representation of the whole of Zeppelin being far greater than the sum of its parts. There is an element of mystique, a fifth force that united the four of them musically and spiritually, and these two songs best exemplify it. This kind of connection is ever so rare, and only shows up occasionally in even the best of musical collaborations. The solo acoustic guitar piece, Bron-Yr-Aur, also bears mentioning, having an ethereal quality that most sensible guitarists with 100x better chops than Jimmy Page would kill to embody.
Presence, with the exception of the grand Achilles Last Stand, is a "back to basics" album. The band return to being a four piece with very little studio trickery. But it has its flaws. Robert Plant's voice is chewed from years of drugs and touring, and John Paul Jones is barely involved. But the songs themselves are great, particularly Nobody's Fault But Mine and Hots On For Nowhere. Both Page and Plant reveal all in Tea For One. But the grand champion of Presence is Achilles Last Stand, the last true Zeppelin masterwork in my eyes. I may even go as far to say it is Page's supreme contribution to the evolution of rock music.
Page was pretty messed up by 1979, so Jones had to take over much of the operation for In Through The Out Door, as evidenced by the new keyboard-driven sound. In The Evening and I'm Gonna Crawl are great tracks (Page bears his soul in the latter), and Carouselambra is a sensational musical adventure. One may see Carouselambra as what Zeppelin might have built upon in the 80s had they survived. It's John Paul Jones in exploration mode and Zeppelin is the vehicle. He's searching. And finding. Finding wondrous things. And who can't love the groove of Fool In The Rain? This record is undoubtedly John Bonham at his peak. But I see much of the record as being largely un-Zeppelin. Many would argue that Zeppelin died after the 77 tour when Plant's son suddenly died. Plant was never the same. It's a miracle they even managed to make one more record.
I'll be seeing the Zeppelin movie from the 2007 reunion gig next week, and I'm sure I'm going to love it. But it's not Zeppelin. It's not even 3/4 of Zeppelin. It is far, far less. But it's the closest 20,000 people ever got to seeing Zeppelin again, and I can't possibly express how envious I am of every one of those lucky people who got to see the greatest band of the 70s for one last time.
Except perhaps Paris Hilton. That leaves me with befuddlement more than envy.