Book Review: Martin Popoff’s ‘Led Zeppelin—All the Albums, All the Songs’

Martin Popoff's Led Zeppelin--All the Albums, All the Songs

As Martin Popoff notes in his introduction to Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs, there were already not one but two track-by-track books about the group’s music when he began work on this one. Still, he decided that “I wanted to write all my thoughts about every last Led Zeppelin song: every recording detail I could hear, my theories on the lyrics—basically album review–length pieces on every song.”

As that quote might suggest, Popoff—the author of more than 50 music books, most about heavy metal—is a major fan of the group. He writes that he “couldn’t give a damn about the Beatles,” but considers Physical Graffiti “the greatest album of all time.” Still, he manages some degree of objectivity and doesn’t praise everything Led Zeppelin produced. He calls “Achilles Last Stand” “10 minutes of uncomfortably striving heavy metal,” for example, and notes that “the lyrics were kind of an afterthought” on “The Song Remains the Same.”

Popoff’s book provides song authors and track times, plus information on album producers and engineers, recording studios, release dates, sales, and chart positions. Curiously, he offers no detailed discussion of the previously unreleased material on the recent deluxe reissues that he says inspired him to undertake this project; and he includes no chapters on concert releases. He does, however, serve up extraordinarily thorough descriptions and analysis of every track on Led Zeppelin’s nine original studio LPs.

Discussing the famous “Stairway to Heaven,” for example, he notes that its beauty “is in its purposeful arrangement introduced with Jones playing four or five tracks on wooden recorders as Jimmy’s mournful and simple acoustic picking (in A minor, on his trusty Harmony, his main writing guitar through three albums and the only acoustic he used throughout III) frames the song quietly at first. Over it Robert offers a solemn vocal. At the 2:12 mark, a deft increase of activity is registered when a well-behaved electric is added. Jones is not playing bass, but rather a very low-def bass part with his left hand on a Hohner ElectraPiano direct into the console, with Andy Johns adding a lot of bottom end to emphasize the effect.”

And that’s just one paragraph of an 11-paragraph description of the song—which is followed by another eight paragraphs of discussion about it by engineer Andy Johns.

You have to be a pretty serious fan to wade through all this text, which sometimes conveys an academic tone that belies the raunchy rock it describes. But Popoff’s well-illustrated book is pretty well written (though some of his sentences run on too long), and it’d be difficult to imagine a more knowledgeable Zeppelin observer. He says his goal was “to turn you on to something you might not know well, or if you do know it, point out myriad subtleties deep inside, many of which will have you digging out those headphones you have stashed away somewhere and listening intently for squeaky bass drum pedals and ringing telephones.”

I suspect the book will have that effect, at least on the ultra-devoted fans who clearly represent its target audience.

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