Greetings, Glancers! To fans of Led Zeppelin, the band have any number of opuses (opusi?) to point to and enjoy and for detractors and uberpunk fans and idiots, the band have any number of pretentious, overbearing, never-ending twaddle to suffer through. Everybody knows Stairway To Heaven, most people know Kashmir, but very few people outside of the hardcore Zep fans know Achilles Last Stand. It’s their most epic song – a mammoth tome of riffs and rock excess – and it’s a song I had no idea existed until I stumbled upon it as I worked my way through buying the Zep albums in my late teens.
I’ve always been a fan of ‘long songs’. Of course I appreciate the finer points of a skillful, three minute pop song, but I’ve always been driven to pushing the boundaries, to adding just one more instrument or lyric or melody or solo. My mind has always been fond of the epic – I’ve loved long movies for as long as I can remember, I loved when my favourite bands in my childhood pushed a song over the five or six minute mark, and I loved long novel series or stories with plots which spanned thousands of pages and multiple years or generations. I don’t know why this is – maybe it has always inspired me or given me hope in the human race’s capacity for invention and imagination, this need to create something without giving the slightest fuck to its length. If it needs to be a 24 minute song, then that’s what it’s going to be. Achilles Last Stand doesn’t quite hit that mark, but it does go over ten minutes, and it’s ten minutes of pure glory.
Where do you even start with this? The beginning seems like a good place, but then I’d be forced to go through it piece by piece and we’d be here forever. I could cut it up into its different sections – Bonzo’s earth shattering drums, Page’s urgent overlapping riffs and apocalyptic soloing, the rambling long form poetic lyrics, Plant’s return to his finest vocals, and Jonesy never letting up with the thunderous galloping bass. It’s a song that just keeps going on and on and on, yet it constantly engages. It’s just so relentlessly dense that you always find something new to draw on and constantly find yourself falling in love once more with a slight inflection or string bend or slip of the wrist by Bonham. If you’re of the sadist persuasion, it’s like jumping into a huge thistle bush and trying to climb through to the other end, hundreds of prickers jabbing your skin, causing tiny cuts, ripping your clothes, and pulling you back – dense, painful, but you love it.
Most bands might write long or complex songs or a combination of both, but few bands have the balls to actually play them live. Led Zeppelin may have had the biggest balls in the history of rock, and regularly featured this in their concerts – it’s just a shame they wrote it at the end of their career. The balls it takes as a four-piece to play something like this, especially when completely coked off their tits, is a testament to just how in sync the band was. They just don’t have bands like this anymore, and they don’t write songs like this anymore. It is an utterly ridiculous piece of music and we should all feel blessed that it was born. If you haven’t heard it, click one of my links and let your head explode.
Unsurprisingly, there haven’t been many covers of this song. Only those mad bastards Dream Theater had a crack at it as part of a medley, while the Jason Bonham band paid homage – also during a medley. I’m sure some rap dudes have probably sampled pieces of it here and there – it seems like exactly the sort of song that would be ripe for such pillaging. Until one of the young pretenders goes all out and crafts something as epic and powerful as this, they’re never going to be accepted as anywhere near the same level as Led Zep.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Achilles’ Last Stand!
Much has been said about the greatest rock band of all time, and every magazine and music blog worth 50p have given their list of favourite/best/most influential Led Zep songs. My list highlights my personal favourite 30 songs- the songs that carry the most weight for me and while some of them may not be considered the best or most influential, they all kick ass.
31. Hey Hey What Can I Do (Unreleased): Unfortunately for Zep fans there aren’t too many ‘rare’ songs, or at least ones which weren’t a result of jamming, merging, or covering. The band never released any British singles and those songs released in the US had B-sides of other album tracks so a trove of rarities was sadly never built up. When you look at the number of unreleased Beatles tracks and the high quality of some of those, it makes you wish that Zep had a few more hidden gems up their sleeves. Hey Hey is the only track worth mentioning. It could have made an appearance on any of the first 6 albums as it has that slow folk burning with the twist of a rock stomp. Classic bluesy lyrics are soothed by Plant, the song structure is as basic as the band would ever get with chorus following verse as surely as a bad 80s solo album would follow the break up of a great 70s band. Strong melodies, easy playing and some interesting backing vocals make this a highlight.
30. In My Time Of Dying (Physical Graffiti): The biggest of the big Zep songs at over 11 minutes. It isn’t as immediately catchy or memorable as Stairway, Kashmir, or Achilles, but once the main riff kicks in you know that you’re onto a winner. As Zeppelin were known to do, they took a blues standard which was in itself an old religious song, and turned it inside out. Featuring eerie, distant Plant vocals and Page’s supreme slide guitar, the song has a fairly dark tone turning the themes of religion and mortality into something much more grim. The song chops and changes throughout the entire length with some excellent jamming moments, Bonham blasts as powerfully as possible, while Page changes his sounds and guitars as often as possible without become jarring. The structure, while complex, is much more free than the other epics given the feeling that much of this was just improvised on the spot. Of course, the comic ending adds to the improvised nature with the band chatting and coughing rather than ending with a fading chord.
29. Dyer Maker (Houses Of The Holy): An oft-maligned song from an oft-unfairly maligned album, D’yer Maker features exquisite performances from Bonham and Page, while Plant leans between comically emotional to full-blown classic shrieks. A reggae/calypso style song which may have seemed unusual to some of the more die-hard fans, it was yet another sign that the band could take any style and give it the Zep taste. As usual the melodies are wonderful and there are countless moments that you will be whistling hours after hearing. And no, it’s not pronounced Dire Maker.
28. Fool In The Rain (In Through The Out Door): A similar song in many respects to the one above in that it isn’t a typical Zeppelin sounding song and is an attempt to turn a certain style into their own. It has a samba feel and even goes as far as having a carnival like breakdown halfway through with manic drumming and whistles. The band doesn’t get much credit more when they moved out of their many comfort zones, yet this is both a fun and interesting song which nevertheless highlights the extreme talents of all involved as well as their genuine love for listening to and making music.
27. Tea For One (Presence): This is one of the band’s last epics, reaching over 9 minutes and passing through a few differing stages. Opening rather jubilantly it quickly descends into a sombre blues piece at a funeral march pace. Similar in structure, style, and sound to Since I’ve Been Loving You it shows how the band had matured emotionally and explores many of the feelings they had early in their career to see what had changed. Primarily a song about loneliness and homesickness the lyrics cover the pain of an empty room, of time standing still, and of having no-one you love near. It’s a feeling even those of us who haven’t been on long tours or trips away from family or friends are aware of, and it’s one of the great Zep tracks to listen to on the road, though for a different reason to all the other ones.
26. Down By The Seaside (PG): Another unusual song by the band, and probably another unusual one for me to include on my best of list. I love those moments when a band does something that no-one expects and it totally pays off; This is one of those moments. The tremolo effect on the guitar does give that Blackpool/Scarborough/Summer holiday seaside feel, sounding at once like it is being played underwater and like a wurlitzer. This being Zeppelin, it’s not enough being different- they have to add additional twists and so we get a lively, ice cream eating main course split by a heavier, sudden middle section which seems to come from nowhere.
25. Dazed And Confused (I): The original epic saw a young, ambitious band deciding that they were going to break a few boundaries and take things up or down a notch depending on how you look at it. This is as raw and raucous as they come with vicious lyrics about love and cheating, sex and violence, all set to the sound of an apocalypse. Just listen to the way Jones and Page’s collapsing, wailing riffs merges with Bonham’s falling down drum pieces- a perfect blend. Then we get the call and repeat between vocals and guitar and the infamous bowing, demonic sounds followed by a massive breakdown jam where the band unleash some of the most manic playing ever recorded. I wish I’d been around to witness certain reactions of this when it was first released- this band of long-haired youngsters creating an unspeakable noise with abandon whilst looking and sounding posessed- brilliance.
24. Dancing Days (HOTH): Yet another unusual song from the group, this time seemingly featuring their less than enthusiastic but wholly successful take on Disco. It’s more accurate though that this was a take on Indian style songs given what the group have said and through the guitar effects employed. A kick ass riff leads the way although it isn’t one of their most famous. There is a simple structure which helps the melodies be all the more memorable and instant. It’s played at a fairly fast tempo too which is always good.
23. Black Dog (IV): The opener for their seminal 4th album is full of innuendo and powerful playing- Page gives one of best riffs, Bonzo bashes the skins to pieces, and Plant screams to the heavens. Featuring arguably the most famous breakdown in rock history it is understandably a classic of the genre and highlights the band at their most sexual, at their heaviest.
22. Whole Lotta Love (II): The opener then for their second album was a breakthrough of monumental size. Page had found the riff he’d been searching for while Plant had perfected his steaming vocals to give true prowess to the sexually provocative lyrics. Naturally Jones and Bonham let rip on the bones and bass, never highlighted more accurately than when the song was played live. The instrumental/orgasm section on record sounds fine but becomes like a frenzy, a mantra, a tribal chant when played live as each performer blasts away and everyone comes together in harmony for the final moments- ooh-er.
21. Night Flight (PG): A standout from Physical Graffiti but not one that you’ll find on many favorites lists. The lyrics concern a man trying to evade those seeking to enlist him into the military, but it’s the music which keeps this ticking over in your mind. The band sound like they are enjoying themselves and contrasting with the lyrics it sounds like a rare completely happy Zeppelin song. From it’s swirly opening with Bonham’s growing drum pieces the song gets more rawk as it moves along, and once again the band nail down the sound of the song title as the backing effects do sound like a plane taking off.
20. Over The Hills And Far Away (HOTH): From one rare happy song to another, this gentle folk number is sublime in its simplicity yet complex in it’s endearing hidden charms. A soft intro thanks to wonderful stuff from Page and Plant soon gives way to a surprisingly bombastic period. Any time Bonzo comes in with a crash, no matter how soft the song, it becomes a stomping rock piece. This is excellent guitar parts and playing throughout and some of the best melodies from the album.
19. Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (I): Of the many songs which Zeppelin turned around and made their own, this is one of best. It is a shining example of a perfectly serviceable song being ripped to shreds and becoming a unique Zeppelin hit. Thanks to the skills of each member of the group and the way each person brings their own talents to the studio it seems like this is the original and that everything that went before was a lie. It is dark, angry, and heavily blues ridden like much of the first album and it has the light and shade, soft and heavy phasing which the band used to such great effect. Like many tracks on the list this is a good one to blast out of your car stereo when passing anyone playing techno or Beyonce- just be sure to give them a good old-fashioned Plant squeal as you go.
18. The Lemon Song (II): A song about sex which sounds like sex. A seductive, sleazy riff clambers all over lyrics about trying to break up with someone whose lovin is too damn good. Zeppelin were known for their sexual antics, a lot of which may have overblown, a lot more which probably remains unspoken, but songs like this only further the legend. It’s a hard rocking blues standard with a lot of tempo changes and blazing solos thrown in to heighten the pleasure. The musicians teeter on the brink of ecstatic collapse while Plant is furious in the throes of orgasmic shrieking. Lovely.
17. What Is And What Should Never Be (II): This is another example of the light and shade dynamic which the band perfected, with quiet verses contrasted with explosive choruses. Both stages are wonderfully realised, but this being Zeppelin, a few extra are inserted- manic blues breakdowns, otherworldly vocal effects, and Bonzo going off on one.
16. The Rain Song (HOTH): Zeppelin rarely created evocative sounds which conjured up specific imagery to match the tone of the song, but Rain Song is prime example of just that. It don’t know if it’s the drip dripping guitar sounds or the overall dreary nature of the vocals which has the biggest influence, but we do get the sense of sitting and staring at the rain when we listen. Throw in some JPJ string noises, a lack of Bonzo, and some excellent smaller guitar parts and the song is one of their best, yet unusual epics. The drums do eventually come in and the song does eventually pick up pace and volume as the dark clouds pass directly overhead, and it is at this point that the song transcends it’s seemingly laid back nature in a bombastic fashion.
15. Communication Breakdown (I): Zeppelin, the original punk band. This ferocious JYD bark proved that the band could throw out a 3 minute hit if they so desired. It’s amongst the most simple song they band ever wrote, one of their fastest too, but every second has a potency that many punk bands sick of the excess of the Seventies failed to match. It is a primal showcase for each member, promoting Bonzo’s power, Plant’s insane range, Jones’s technical perfection, and Page’s wild flair. It’s a good one to play to naysayers not convinced of Zep’s metal or punk cred.
14. Ten Years Gone (PG): A contemplative epic for this huge double album is one of my standout moments. Page is King, weaving together many solemn guitar parts in the introduction which get expanded upon throughout the duration of the song and which Plant strangles every ounce of pain from with his anguished vocals. Naturally Bonzo and Jones are there to keep things thumping and grounded respectively when they threaten to get too sombre or chaotic. Few people outside of the Zep main fan base know this one- a great pity.
13. No Quarter (HOTH): Jones is permanently the unsung hero of Zeppelin, but No Quarter is largely his song, and Houses Of The Holy is in many respects his album. When played live, Jones would often turn the song into a plus 20 minute piece by splicing in classical piano pieces and improvising on the spot. It’s one of the most downbeat, moody Zeppelin songs and showcases their restraint as they refrain from unleashing the usual noise levels they would on most other longer tracks. There are a few parts where (led by Bonzo) the song threatens to explode, but everything is constantly being reigned in. With strange scales and timing employed throughout it is another breakthrough for popular music and opened a lot of doors for a lot of bands.
12. How Many More Times (I): The original jam session-cum-album track, this shows the bands prowess as musicians, but more importantly, just how in tune they were with each other- knowing what each person was going to do next and taking your next step in anticipation. It’s something which usually takes a group years to accomplish, but Zeppelin simply got it straight away, or at least it comes across as such on record. As the final song from the first album you’d hope that it would leave a lasting impression- it does thanks to its free form carelessness, super playing, and surprise surprise, epic riff.
Opening with that smooth riff on bass while Page makes seemingly demonic guitar disasters in the background, Plant yelps from a distance, and Bonzo taps away to get warmed up it all seems very jazz bar. The song quickly explodes as Page unleashes his guitar all over the riff while Plant explores his blues history by tapping into any number of past hits for the lyrics. After a frantic solo, the song slows, Page bows, and Plant becomes the hunter. This all grows with more and more overlapping of guitar sounds and tumbling drums and bass. The Rosie section grooves along and everything begins to build up once again as we head back towards the main part of the song with a few extra riffs thrown in for good measure. The song races along once more to the conclusion, which ends in a flurry of confidence and bragging and noise.
11. Livin Lovin Woman (II): This oft overlooked rocker from II is just a good time all round. It tells the infamous story of a notorious groupie the band encountered on their travels and has some hilarious lyrics befitting the tale. This one was never played live as for some reason Page never liked it, but it always seemed to me that it would have been a live favourite. Starting immediately after Heartbreaker ends on the album, this keeps up the pace of the record with its speedy verses and strong riffs. The song is just full of fun and energy, and has one of Page’s most interesting solos- wavey, almost seeming to go nowhere, it is a wacky piece. It’s a fast, basic piece, but one which I have a special fondness for.
10. Heartbreaker (II): This is one of the most well-known tracks from the second album and remains a staple of rock radio. Huge riff? Check. Bombastic bass and drums? Check. Epic solo? Double check. Heartbreaker is one of the most pure, fantastic, unadulterated, guitar songs in history. It’s another song which all players aspire to playing, although those solos will take devil’s fingers to mimic. The solo begins as an unaccompanied piece at a billion miles an hour before the drums crash in and the solo takes on a less crazy form. The lyrics are typically gritty, lifted from many blues standards and the swagger of the bulk of the song lend an eternal cool.
9. That’s The Way (III). An utterly gorgeous song brightened by hippy sentiment, darkened by the twist on innocence within and the tragic acceptance of things being unchangeable. Plant barely sings throughout the verses, gently reciting the words instead lending a placid ambivalence to proceedings, while Bonzo is completely absent. Page’s lead riffs is airy and folksy enough to catch the ear but also leave space for the flourishes to be all the more powerful. The coda is interesting, complete with tambourine and Jones’s mandolin, floating off over the horizon in a sweet dew of loveliness. The BBC Sessions recording adds a slightly more Country twist as Page slides about the fretboard, while Plant adds comedic pronunciations to certain words.
8. Going To California (IV). Another wistful, largely gentle folk love song from a band mostly famous for destroying eardrums rather than settling nerves. This apparent dedication to Joni Mitchell is another flawless example of how a heavy rock band can make a softer song. Again, the acoustic guitar and mandolin duelling over Page and Jones serves the song well. Not only acting as a hippy statement it also stands as Plant’s description of his feelings moving from a quiet life in England to the craziness of excess, groupies, stardom, war etc in the US. Free from choruses, the song has a loose feel with the words and music rambling along in an endless journey.
7. Tangerine (III). The third mostly soft, mostly acoustic track in my top 10 is Tangerine. I did one of those awful ‘Which blah blah blah are you?’ surveys years ago – Which Led Zep song are you? Apparently I am Tangerine. With more misheard lyrics than you can shake a choirboy at, Tangerine is 3 minutes of genius. A false start, a count in, and then a basic verse/chorus structure followed by a swirling, double-tracked ending is pretty much the whole song, but that would be discounting the wonderful steel pedal guitar, the touching lyrics, the prominent bass, and the weird guitar solo. It’s simple, but with a wealth of feeling and depth of emotion, it is a song which will win over romantics for the rest of time.
6. Kashmir (PG): Possibly the most covered/sampled song the band ever wrote, it is an epic which never fails to stir a crowd into a frenzy of dnacing, moshing, and appreciation when played live. That stomping, scaling riff, balanced to perfection by Bonzo and Jones is eternal -creepy, stormy, evocative, and gives Plant all the freedom he needs to stretch his cords. Plant is at turns, crisp, growling, whining, the strings lend a richness and Eastern otherness, while the lyrics are typically mystical.
5. Thank You (II): Plant’s loving, gorgeous dedication to his wife is one of the all time great underated love songs. The lyrics are at once heartfelt and unashamedly embarassing – everything a dedication of love should be. It was Plant’s first solo writing credit, Page fills in with backing vocals, an endearing progression, and sublime solo, Bonzo slaps away, while Jones gets to show off his great organ work. I love the false ending and swirling return.
4. Since I’ve Been Loving You (III): An absolutely brutal blues metal track with some of the greatest guitar ever recorded, including an extraordinary intro (accompanied by thunderously lazy drums, vacant organ, and an occassional Plant scqwuak) and one of the all time great solos. The entire song is basically 7 minutes of Page wankery, but it’s so powerfully and atmospheric, and it suits the steamy lyrics and Plant’s anguished delivery so well. The high point of an originally ill received third album, this is perfection at its most perfect.
3. Stairway To Heaven (IV): The greatest song ever written isn’t my favourite by the band, but that leading sentiment is one which I struggle to deny. Inspired and inspirational, epic and creative in every sense, beautiful, loud, gentle, with writing and playing so stunning that you wonder how four blokes from England ever created it. I don’t want to gush about it too much, as much better people than me have been doing it since the first time it was played, but it is simply put, one of the greatest achievements in music.
2. Achilles Last Stand (P): The most epic song by a band known for their epic songs, this is one that is largely forgotten and rarely spoken of, unsurprising when you have Kashmir, Since I’ve Been Loving You, and Stairway in your team. Achilles Last Stand is completely overblown in every way, absurdly mystical, and filled with ridiculous musical and lyrical moments – and it’s all the better for it. With massive over-dubbing, multi-layered tracks it is the essence of excess, but taken to such extreme precision that it becomes a frighteningly well-crafted beast with incredible depth – how many plus 10 minute songs can you listen to on repeat and never get tired of? Everyone is on top form, but it’s largely Plant’s stage, breathtaking at every turn. Oh, and that dual drumming and riffage pretty much single handedly created metal as we know it today.
1. All My Love (ITTOD): Most would consider this as one of the worst Led Zep songs, the band jumping the shark, the band at their most cheesy, the band signalling that they were about to depart, but you must remember that those people are idiots. This tearful dedication to Plant’s dead son is haunting, horrible, tragic, and I suspect that most dislike it because of that synth. I’m not sure the song would have worked without the synth, but I’d love to hear a clean piano version, or a plain acoustic version – come on, Tori, get on it. It’s easy to recognize its faults, but with some wonderful lyrics, a painfully touching chorus, and that bizarre synth solo all add up to make this my favourite Led Zep song.
As always, feel free to comment on my list and offer your own favourites.