The Poetic Nature of Led Zeppelin

We often think of Led Zeppelin as hard rock and roll, the Gods of Rock, Robert Plant with his golden bravado and Jimmy Page with his cocky virtuosity, and the understatedly brilliant John Paul Jones and his effortless basslines. Their antics were as famous as their music, though John Paul Jones remarkably managed to stay free of trouble. The death of powerful drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham cemented their place as legends, legends who, like in any Greek tragedy, live a heroic life but face tragic mortality, paying a price for their hubris. But there was more to Zeppelin than outrageousness; their music speaks volumes even today, and is truly legendary. These late 60s-early 80s bards could be incredibly tender when they wanted to be and elegant, poets in their flowered shirts and flowing hair. Even under their thundering rhythms and powerful guitars, there is a lot of beauty in their music that we can still appreciate today.

It would almost be too cliché to talk about Stairway to Heaven, but it does beg a brief mention in that the beginning opens like an old English ballad, arpeggiated with a guitar and then a flute. Plant’s plea, “There’s a lady who’s sure…” at the beginning could be from a roaming minstrel during Shakespeare’s time. The equally-well-known “Immigrant Song” with its delightfully discordant, violent opening recounts history, the Viking invasions of Iceland, and there is memorable rhyme in the forceful opening lyrics: “We come from the land of the ice and snow/ from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…” Plant then croons the next lines softly, in that line from which she derives his nickname, “The hammer of the gods/Will drive our ships to new lands.”

One of the most tender and beautiful songs by the band is “Ramble On,” inspired by Tolkien. The strumming guitar at the beginning, muted bass guitar, and rhythm that is beat on some still-unknown object (possibly but not certainly the drum) lead the way for Plant’s introduction in a tender, slightly scratchy voice, “Leaves are falling all around/Time I was on my way…” Perhaps he is Bilbo Baggins or another character about to embark on a hero’s journey through the English countryside. “Mine’s a tale that can’t be told,” Plant continues. “My freedom I hold dear.” This wandering narrator is the man by the roadside, the itinerant Traveller, the poetic vagabond.

But it is not just their lyrics that are poetic; their music is also particularly lyrical and complex. Think of the guitar lines in “Over the Hills and Far Away”: Robert Plant’s invitation to his lady intertwines with Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar, and when the song breaks into full out rock, there are two guitar lines and the bass doubles one of them. The piece diminishes into the air in an ethereal fashion, a graceful diminuendo of sound and emotion. On the tragic “All of My Love” (written for the death of Plant’s son Karac), bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones’s gets to showcase his prodigious talents with a fugal, almost Bach-like solo that is beyond the usual scope of a rock song. Even the animalistic Bonzo knew when to hold back and keep the beat in a quiet fashion, and when to let his drums speak as a whole symphony unto themselves as in “Bonzo’s Montreux.” (Bonham, some may be surprised to know, grew up listening to the great jazz drummers.)

A discussion of Led Zeppelin’s music is endless, and so we must conclude with the poetic nature of the musicians themselves. Long-haired and sometimes flower-shirted, the men of Led Zeppelin were in touch with their feminine and poetic sides, not afraid to be soft and emotional while still being brash, aggressive, and wild. They were at the tail end of the hippie era, yet they could also be blues musicians, proto-punk rockers, heavy-metal men, folk singers, and so much more. They loved the black culture of the American South’s Delta, the folk traditions of their own land, musics of the non-Western world (“Kashmir” was actually inspired by a trip to Morocco). Robert and Jimmy were the most poetic of them all, in terms of appearance: the former with his long flowing golden hair, like a flower child, and the latter with his dark, silent, Byronic personality and interest in the occult.

With rings on their fingers and bells on their toes, they screamed and riffed and captured the attention of audiences everywhere. Like the heroes of the Greek myth, they flew high and close to the sun, indulged in wine, women and song, these traveling troubadours who are immortalized in music history. However, the band ended up crashing and burning like Icarus when John Bonham was found dead, due to his drunken excesses. The other three musicians could not imagine continuing without him, and thus concluded Led Zeppelin. An unnecessarily heartbreaking, dreadful ending–but perhaps a grimly poetic one, as would happen in any great tragedy.