The Essential Led Zeppelin
A four-piece that far exceeded the sum of its parts, Led Zep created the blueprint for the modern rock band, and sold a whole lotta albums in the process. Gary Tipp rambles on…
It could easily be argued that Led Zeppelin’s influence on popular music in the 70s is the equal of e Beatles’ in the 60s. By adding cochlear-crushing volume to the primal, sexual drive of their live performance, founder Jimmy Page and his golden-god cohorts ushered in and subsequently de ned the heavy metal and rock music genres. By stubbornly refusing to release multiple 45s from their LPs, they turned a generation on to album-oriented rock and, as a consequence, changed the way radio stations broadcast (particularly in the US). Plus their swaggering, lawless lifestyle near enough defined the archetype for how a band should look and behave.
A quick look at Led Zeppelin’s full discography reveals nine studio albums (if you are in the mood to count Coda, ostensibly an odds-and-sods round-up of unreleased tracks put out a couple of years after the group disbanded), four live albums – and nine compilation albums. There are also singles carrying their name, but as previously mentioned, the band steadfastly released only one pre-release 45 per album in the States and not a single one in the UK.
This, along with their reticence to be interviewed in the music press, only added to the sense of mystique surrounding the band, and certainly helped to sell a truckload of albums.
Without wishing to disappear too far down the spreadsheet rabbit hole, the amount of vinyl Led Zep have shifted over the years is remarkable. Various sources estimate the group’s record sales at way over the 200 million mark, and they’re the second-best-selling band of all time in the US behind The Beatles. In the UK, they achieved the no mean feat of eight consecutive No. 1 albums.
How many more sales?
With 37 million copies sold and counting, Led Zeppelin IV is one of the best-selling albums in rock music history (more than 23 million of them were shifted in the US alone). All this from an album that was released without an official title, with the band’s name absent from the cover… this was a group who did things their way.
Our Essential releases are listed in reverse chronological order. We’ve priced the ‘rarest’ vinyl in terms of UK first presses, but, of course, the 45s here are US releases – so while it’s unlikely you’ll find them sitting in crates in your local charity shop, you can still track them down if you dig deep enough online.
HOW THE WEST WAS WON (2018)
Culled from legendary gigs at The Forum and the Long Beach Arena during the band’s 1972 US tour, this majestic triple (originally out in 2003, but not on vinyl) pays a fitting tribute to Zeppelin’s reputation as a live act without peer. Here’s a four-piece captured at the very height of their coruscating creative powers. As Page himself notes: “That 1972 gig is pretty much a testament of how good it was.”
Rarest: 2018 Swan Song Super Deluxe Box Set – £128
19. MOTHERSHIP (2007)
Released to coincide with the 2007 reunion gigs, the tracklisting of this comprehensive trawl through the back catalogue was selected by the erstwhile rock gods, Page, Plant and Jones, themselves. The songs represent the eight studio albums (Coda is not included) and it runs through in strict chronological order. Not a bad place to start for newbies.
Rarest: 2015 Swan Song – £60
18. CELEBRATION DAY (2012)
On 10 December, 2007, the ageing supergroup took the stage at London’s 02 Arena to headline a tribute concert for Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. With Jason Bonham, son of John, on the drums, the old boys rolled back the years and scorched through a set of landmark classics. The album exists in part for the 20 million applicants who missed out on tickets.
Rarest: 2012 Swan Song – £60 | Latest: 2013 Swan Song, boxset – £110
17. BBC SESSIONS (1997)
Led Zeppelin’s early days (1969-71) are captured on vinyl across five mesmerising BBC sessions and a blistering full live performance. The recordings encompass the first four albums and document the band’s rapidly evolving chemistry. The album was re-released in 2016 as The Complete BBC Sessions across five LPs, with even more rare material for Zeppelin completists to drool over.
Rarest: 2016 Atlantic – £65-£75
16. CODA (1982)
Regarded as the ninth and certainly the final studio album, Coda was released two years after the band had officially disbanded following John Bonham’s death. It is a collection of previously unused tracks spanning the band’s 12-year career and neatly ties up the loose ends. As is to be expected, this posthumous release is hardly the most coherent fare, but still serves as a fascinating postscript.
Rarest: 1982 Swan Song with embossed lettering – £40 | Latest: 2015 Swan Song – £15-£20
15. IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR (1979)
With Bonham and Page downed by their respective addictions (booze, heroin) the band’s eight studio album was left in the steadier hands of Plant and Jones. Recorded at ABBA’s Polar Studios in Stockholm, the two of them soldiered on to deliver a synth-heavy approximation of a Led Zeppelin album.
Rarest: 1979 Swan Song – £20-£35 | Latest: 2008 Swan Song – £20
14. THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (1976)
The live soundtrack album of the concert film of the same name was recorded over three nights of concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden, during the band’s 1973 North American tour. There is more than just a whiff of rock-star entitlement about the whole thing, but as a historical document, it still manages to pass the test of time.
Rarest: 1976 Swan Song – £35 | Latest: 2008 Swan Song – £20-£25
13. PRESENCE (1976)
After a run of spectacular success, the cracks began to open. In a rapidly shifting musical landscape, Zeppelin were now regarded as dinosaurs by a new generation of bands. To compound matters, Plant had suffered a serious car accident and was confined to a wheelchair throughout the sessions. Despite these setbacks, Presence has its moments, with Achilles Last Stand and Candy Store Rock the highlights.
Rarest: 1976 Swan Song – £50 | Latest: 2015 Swan Song – £20
12. PHYSICAL GRAFFITI (1975)
As befitting Led Zep’s mid-70s juggernaut status, this sprawling double album is monumental in both its ambition and scope. The sonic sculptures carved out for this magnum opus include the mighty Kashmir and the epic In My Time Of Dying. Immediately prior to its recording, John Paul Jones was toying with the idea of becoming choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral.
Rarest: 1975 Swan Song – £60 | Latest: 2015 Swan Song – £35
11. TRAMPLED UNDER FOOT (1975)
The relentless semi-funk riff that dominates this US single, the first on newly formed label Swan Song, was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s floor-filler Superstition. Plant’s smutty lyrics pay tribute to Robert Johnson’s blues classic Terraplane Blues. Further proof that if you’re going to lean on your influences, it’s best to have good ones.
Rarest: US release – £8-£10
10. HOUSES OF THE HOLY (1973)
Houses Of The Holy was an attempt by the band to move away from the blues-driven rock format in order to broaden musical horizons. It was only semi-successful, as alongside such essential tracks as The Rain Song and No Quarter sat the not wholly successful cod-reggae of D’yer Mak’er and dodgy funk of The Crunge.
Rarest: 1973 Atlantic, with obi, unlaminated sleeve – £150 | Latest: 2015 Swan Song – £25
9. OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY (1973)
The slow-building, semi-acoustic Over The Hills And Far Away is the third track on Houses Of The Holy and was released as a single in the US, with Dancing Days popping up on the B-side. It’s one of Led Zep’s lighter, poppier moments on vinyl, which may explain why the single failed to dent the Top 50.
Rarest: US release – £8-£10
8. LED ZEPPELIN IV (1971)
Led Zeppelin IV was the album where it all came together for rock’s newly appointed golden gods. From the fierce primal energy of Black Dog and Rock And Roll to the mystical The Battle Of Evermore featuring Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, the band’s heavy rock-blues leanings mesh seamlessly with their mystical folk ramblings to create a pitch-perfect statement of their immense talent.
Rarest: 1971 Atlantic – £250 | Latest: 2014 Atlantic – £25
7. BLACK DOG (1971)
It was John Paul Jones and not Lord Of The Riffs, Page, who summoned up Black Dog‘s signature guitar part. Story has it the hypnotic riff to this US 45 came to him while on a train and was scribbled down on the back of his ticket for safekeeping. The title was inspired by a randy black lab that used to hang around the recording studio at Headley Grange in Hampshire.
Rarest: US release £10-£15
6. LED ZEPPELIN III (1970)
For the third album, guitarist and vocalist retreated to Bron-Y-Aur, a remote country hideaway near Snowdonia. With pastoral tracks such as Gallows Pole and Tangerine, the resulting album is a more folk-orientated affair than the previous two. This change of course in musical direction flummoxed many members of the band’s hard-rocking fanbase at the time.
Rarest: 1970 Atlantic, first pressing – £200 | Latest: 2014 Atlantic – £25
5. IMMIGRANT SONG (1970)
Ah-ah, ah! After a trip to the land of the ice and snow – Iceland – Robert Plant was sufficiently inspired to tap into his inner viking and deliver a howling tale of war-making and Valhalla. First pressings of the US single have a quote from Aleister Crowley inscribed in the runout groove: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
Rarest: US release – £10-£15
4. LED ZEPPELIN II (1969)
Led Zeppelin II appeared on the racks a mere nine months after its predecessor. While the former was a replication of the band’s raw live sound, this sophomore release ups the studio sophistication and showcases Plant’s growing influence as a songwriter. The electrified blues standards remain (Whole Lotta Love, The Lemon Song) and are complemented by a touch of Tolkien (Ramble On).
Rarest: 1970 Atlantic, first pressing – £450 | Latest: 2014 Atlantic – £30
3. WHOLE LOTTA LOVE (1969)
The unmistakable riff that propels Led Zeppelin’s first hit single in the US was written on Jimmy Page’s houseboat on the Thames at Pangbourne. Robert Plant’s lyrics, however, were written by Willie Dixon in 1962, and after an out-of-court settlement in 1985, the Chicago bluesman received a (presumably) hefty cheque and a co-writing credit.
Rarest: 1969 Atlantic, misprinted label – £25
2. LED ZEPPELIN (1969)
After the implosion of the Yardbirds, it was time for Jimmy Page to unleash his new musical vision. The result was a thunderously spontaneous debut that spectacularly fused together borrowed blues and big rock riffs. With monster tracks such as Communication Breakdown, Dazed And Confused and Good Times Bad Times, the legend began here.
Rarest: 1969 Atlantic, first pressing – £1,500 | Latest: 2014 Atlantic – £30
1. GOOD TIMES BAD TIMES
The bluesy fuzz of Led Zeppelin’s debut US 45 was a fearsome opening salvo of intent from a band openly flexing its muscles. With Robert Plant’s visceral vocals and Jimmy Page’s staccato riffing coupled with John Bonham’s skittering drums and John Paul Jones’ vibrating bassline, world domination was a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.
Rarest: US release – £20
Collector’s items in the Led Zeppelin catalogue
As we’ve touched on, Led Zeppelin were well and truly an ‘albums band’ in the UK and the clamour for vinyl with their name on it has meant there’s been a levee-breaking number of pressings. Obviously, collectors are keen to get their mitts on the early ones – so here’s a quick guide to first pressings:
A first pressing with red/ maroon Atlantic label, turquoise sleeve lettering and ‘Superhype’ publishing will set you back £1,500
Led Zeppelin II
A first pressing with red/ maroon Atlantic label, with ‘Living Loving Wreck’ miscredit, light-brown gatefold sleeve with blue-green edge comes in at £450
Led Zeppelin III
A first pressing with gatefold rotating-wheel sleeve, ‘Do What Thou Wilt‘ in runoff, ‘Produced by Jimmy Page’ and ‘Executive Producer Peter Grant’ on the label is £200
Led Zeppelin IV
A first pressing, gatefold sleeve, with Peter Grant credit, ‘Led Zeppelin’ at bottom, ‘Pecko Duck’ etched onto runout groove on Side One and ‘Porky’ on Side Two, matrix numbers A3 and B3 is £300