Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs'

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Martin Popoff's 'Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs.'
Martin Popoff's 'Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Martin Popoff's Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs begins with the requisite modest acknowledgements. Popoff notes that he's not the first writer to undertake a book-length consideration of the Led Zeppelin oeuvre on a song-by-song basis. In fact, he's not even the second. This is fully the third volume to take readers/listeners along this journey.

But who cares? As Popoff also acknowledges, Led Zeppelin have gone way, way past being overrated. "How can you not be overrated when you are 'rated' the way Led Zeppelin are rated, as gods who walk the earth?"

Popoff has the distinction of having written more record reviews than "anybody ever throughout all space and time," which is a comically bold way of staking the claim, but I can understand how you might feel that way after hearing and reviewing 7,900 albums.

From that perspective, the interesting thing about this book is that it's a series of track reviews, which cast the Led Zep catalog in a different light than album reviews. Popoff convincingly argues the deconstructed method is especially important with this band, whose albums have always eluded easy encapsulation. A great Led Zeppelin album — and go ahead, I'll stay right here while you argue about exactly how many of those there are — always continues to surprise, because the band were never dogmatic about what they would and wouldn't do.

From 10,000 feet, the story of Led Zeppelin is the birth of heavy metal and hard rock from the British appropriation of American blues. That story gains texture at the track-by-track level, and Popoff is careful to include not just the names but the faces of the African-American musicians Led Zep were copping from.

Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Bukka White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Boy Fuller...all of these and more are unambiguously evoked on sides from throughout the Led Zeppelin catalog, particularly on the more conventionally bluesy early LPs. One of Popoff's contributions is to again remind us that this is where the music came from, before it crossed over to Middle Earth.

Yes, Middle Earth. Another thing Popoff reminds us is just how suffused Robert Plant's lyrics are with direct and indirect references to Tolkien — not that the fantasy author makes it into the book's woefully inadequate index. The Nazgul get name-dropped in "The Battle of Evermore," the stone-giants' preferred terrain is referenced in "Misty Mountain Hop," and Gollum makes it into "Ramble On."

As Popoff is a drummer, All the Albums, All the Songs is particularly articulate when it comes to parsing the contributions of John Bonham — and it's here that all those battle references start to make sense. As Popoff notes, it was Bonham who turned the drum kit into an artillery. Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos is quoted by Popoff: "When you look back on, like, 1980s rock drums, where it sounded like cannons going off and guns getting shot, that's all John Bonham come to fruition."

A track-by-track consideration also serves to elevate John Paul Jones, both as a bassist and as a songwriter. As Popoff notes in his essay on "Achilles Last Stand," Plant's "suitably epic lyrics" are "set to a galloping bass that would become the trademark of Geddy Lee, Lemmy Kilmister, and especially Steve Harris, who essentially would rewrite this song fifty times and pioneer an entire genre called power metal based on it."

For the fan who's about the music and not the B.S., All the Albums, All the Songs is the perfect book. You get both thoughtful critiques and detailed explanations of each song, as well as fun trivia like the fact that "How Many More Times," the eight-and-a-half minute closer on the band's debut, was listed on the album cover as coming in at 3:30 — to trick DJs into playing it.

The question of borrowing isn't incidental to the controversial genius of Led Zeppelin, whose modus operandi was to build new creations out of both fresh inventions and existing parts. Case in point: "Stairway to Heaven," which opens with an acoustic guitar hook that sounds a lot like one heard on "Taurus," a track by the band Spirit, who shared a couple of bills with Led Zep. When Spirit sued Led Zeppelin, decades later, Page and Plant swore they didn't deliberately steal, and they were probably being honest.

Still. Sounds pretty similar. Popoff's take on this is a good example of how he evaluates Led Zeppelin's various acknowledged and alleged borrowings.

I refer to "Stairway" as having many parts to underscore the concept that the supposedly appropriated part is a fairly basic spot, along with the fact that Jimmy ends the acoustic lick at a different place than Spirit guitarist Randy California. In fact, the chord sequence in question is centuries old, and "Taurus" is a short instrumental distinguished by harpsichord while "Stairway" is an eight-minute song with vocals punctuated by two hard rock sections. Still, one can't be surprised that a lawsuit was brought, given the commercial enormity of "Stairway," not to mention the fact that the four measures of acoustic guitar in question and the melody they create are the song's bedrock.

"Enormity" could describe Zeppelin's entire catalog — not in quantity, but in scope and impact. Giving each song a close listen seems not only worthwhile, but essential.

The Current's Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs giveaway between 8 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, October 4, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, September 10, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $30.00

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, October 11, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, October 12, 2017.

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