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The Quintessential Heavy Metal Band Plays Folk: The Acoustic Side of Led Zeppelin.
When I first listened to an entire Led Zeppelin album it was during my grunge rock period when I had become obsessed with the Smashing Pumpkins, especially their heaviest songs. Craving more gut wrenching, fuzzed out guitars I sought what many consider the quintessential heavy metal band: Led Zeppelin.
The only album I could get my hands on was Led Zeppelin IV and although it is considered by some to be their best work, amazingly when I first heard it, I thought it was "too light" for my tastes at the time. Looking back on it now I think my first reactions were kind of funny, especially because Led Zeppelin has since become probably my second favorite band of all time after the Beatles. Their unique hard rock blues and early heavy metal stays with me and I often find myself comparing new bands to the juggernaut that is Led Zeppelin.
Although definitely appreciated for their hard rock work and considered by many to by the grandfathers of heavy metal, Led Zeppelin has a significant folk side that can often be overlooked by the casual listener. Although I'll always love the bone crushing blues stomp they're known for, I also appreciate their folk music and consider a few of these lighter songs to be some of their best work.
Album by Album
On Led Zeppelin's debut album guitarist Jimmy Page played a simple instrumental folk piece called "Black Mountain Side." He would also regularly perform a song recorded during his time with the Yardbirds called "White Summer." These two songs are a great foray into the acoustic led Zeppelin. Completely different than some of the acoustic blues that also appears on Led Zeppelin (the album I mean) these songs have the feel of traditional English folk music. They're earthy and contain a ringing modal drone due to specific guitar tunings that creates a very folk and mystic feel completely unlike the heavy hard rock and blues that makes up the rest of the album. These songs hint at a depth and range that would grow to make Led Zeppelin one of the most versatile bands of all time.
With their second album, they pushed further into hard rock and blues with "Ramble On" being the closest they got to a folk song, but it still retained a hard rock kick though. That would change on Led Zeppelin III. With the majority of the songs acoustic and folk-like, they surprised a lot of people when it was first released. This album remains one of my favorite albums of all time because of its depth and range. Songs like "Friends" and "Tangerine" have an understated folksy feel that I connect more with true folk artists more than heavy metal. "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" is an acoustic folk stomp that just begs for hand clapping and "Gallows Pole," is based in an actual traditional folk song made popular by Leadbelly and others. Being Led Zeppelin though, they take it to another level turning the simple folk ballad into a bluegrass country stomp completely different from anything else they did during their career. Led Zeppelin III is probably their earthiest album with these acoustic sides and songs like "Hats off to Roy Harper," another traditional folk number, stripped down to nothing but screeching slide guitar and bellowing, "fire and brimstone" style vocals that sound straight out of the era of Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell and Son House. Although often known for their mystical influences, this earthy raw side of Led Zeppelin is distinctly different and understated, but very powerful. Where their mysticism is often grandiose, these folk tracks are rough, raw, and large, but not larger than life. Although not nearly as prominent as on Led Zeppelin III, this folk side would continue to appear on all of their albums.
With the launch of Led Zeppelin IV the band cemented itself into music history permanently with their most well known song "Stairway to Heaven." Although definitely containing folk elements in its layered parts, tracks like "The Battle of Evermore" and "Going to California" are far more folk influenced, the latter of the two being a true folk track the likes of what's seen on the previous album.
Physical Graffiti has "In My Time of Dying" which is also based in an earlier folk blues song but is transformed into an electric slide guitar mania that is anything but folk. There is both "Bronyraur" and "Black Country Woman" though. The latter is a more blues influenced acoustic number while "Bronyraur" is about as folksy as anything they did. It's subtle finger picked guitar hearkens back to "Black Mountain Side" and "White Summer" while being distinctly more traditional than either one. It is the type of song that you can imagine being played outside amongst rolling green hills and lush forests, just completely simple, earthy and effective. This album also marks the bands biggest foray into other genres leaving their folksy side behind, exploring the blues stomp and funk influenced rhythms that would become the majority of their last two major studio releases: Presence and In Through the Out Door.
I'm sure there are some folk influenced songs I missed along the way.
Looking at the Folk Side of Led Zeppelin
There is something authentic, rustic and earthy to well done folk music that recalls images of fields, dirt tracks, simplicity and true human emotions that can sometimes get lost between the guitar and the amplifier. I won't claim that artists have to play acoustic or folk material to be great, or that unplugged music has more authenticity than electric as that is simply not the case. Some artists are great folk artists and the way it is done by this band is truly amazing. Their folk tracks have a completely different feel than their hard rock tracks; an intimate feel that captures an earthy folksy atmosphere.
It is just so happens that these tracks were not from a folk rock group, but from a heavy metal group. It is still great music though, that hearkens back to the earliest roots of rock and roll, but thats not all that makes it great.
So, why do I like the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin nearly as much as the hard rock side?
They may be folk tracks, but they still sound like they came from the same band, like well... Led Zeppelin.
I think that it is rare to have a band that shines in all aspects of its work and multiple genres while still retaining their own sound. Some of these folk tracks are about as far from heavy metal as can be and yet they still sound like the same 4 musicians lending their personalities in the same way, just towards a different genre. This kind of versatility is rare and in the mark of some great chemistry between musicians. It also makes the band defy genre confinement and have a range of music not only from album to album, but even between two songs on the same album. That makes for exciting music, exciting albums and exciting performances (although unfortunately I'm too young to have seen them play).
I think this is why after my initial reaction, Led Zeppelin rapidly become my favorite band. If I was in the mood for hard rock, they had tracks to offer and the same was true if I wanted to listen to blues, roots rock and roll and folk.
I don't consider Led Zeppelin to be a heavy metal band at all. A hard rock band? Yes... A blues rock band? Yes... but not a heavy metal band. Certainly they have elements of heavy metal in their sound, but their versatility just cannot be limited to a single genre and I don't feel they are in the same genre as some of the bands I would consider early heavy metal. If I want early heavy metal I'll listen to Black Sabbath or Judas Priest.
Instead I'd call Led Zeppelin just a rock and roll band, maybe even the quintessential rock and roll band; covering the complete spectrum of rock and roll influences and offshoots from hard rock, to blues, to country, to folk, to funk. Their folksy side is just another layer to this amazing band that is often overlooked by those who aren't familiar with all of their work.
For those of you who prefer the hard rock side of Led Zeppelin, maybe their folk tracks aren't as interesting, but for us who love every aspect of this band, their authentic, earthy and rustic feel is a amazing. For those of you who have never really listened to Led Zeppelin because you though they were a heavy metal band, it's time to give them another chance. Listen to any of the tracks I've mentioned in this article and see if you can still call them just a heavy metal band.
I've been listening to Led Zeppelin for years now and every time I hear these albums, their live tracks or any song from this band on the radio, I find them becoming my favorite band all over again. Their versatility and adept ability to play folk music as well as blue stomping rock is what makes them so great.
Not everyone can appreciate the rough edged folk side of Led Zeppelin and don't get me wrong, their hard rock work is amazing. Those who do accept this band as more than just a heavy metal band though, know that some of their best work lies in their acoustic side.
References include www.allmusic.com for some biographical and chronological information and my personal music collection.