Album Review: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1969)

When The Yardbirds finally fell apart in the summer of 1968 Jimmy Page, along with bassist Chris Dreja, was told to fulfill the bands commitments using other musicians. Page firstly approached vocalist Terry Reid but he declined and suggested a singer he knew from the Black Country by the name of Robert Anthony Plant. After a great deal of deliberating Plant eventually accepted the gig and suggested he might bring along his old Band of Joy drummer John Bonham. Dreja, with a burgeoning interest in photography and becoming tired of touring then decided to opt out leaving them without a bassist. John Paul Jones was known to Page from the session they had done on Beck’s Bolero and at his wife’s suggestion called Page and offered his services.

The new line up had their first jamming session under a record shop in Gerrard Street and quickly gelled into a tight unit. They made their first public appearance in Denmark on 7th September 1968 by which time they had changed the name to The New Yardbirds and appeared on a session for the P.J Proby album “Three Week Hero”. Upon completion of the short tour Page booked them into a studio at his own expense to record an album which was basically to be just their current live set recorded in a studio setting. Before the album could be released they were forced to change their name after Chris Dreja claimed they had only been sanctioned to use it for the Scandinavian tour. Rock folklore suggests that the new name came from a conversation with Keith Moon and John Entwistle who claimed the group would go down like a ‘Lead Balloon’. This subsequently metamorphasised into Led Zeppelin primarily to avoid pronunciation problems with lead being spoken as leed and the fact that a Zeppelin was a far more suitable image for a rock band than a balloon.

With the album recorded and a new name chosen manager Peter Grant somehow managed to secure the group a massive deal with Atlantic Records which included a £200,000 advance, a massive amount at the time for an unknown band. Even more incredibly it was secured without Atlantic even hearing Zeppelin play and allegedly was in no small part down to the recomendation of Dusty Springfield !

“Led Zeppelin” or “I” as it has come to be universally known was recorded at Olympic Studios during October 1968 and took only thirty six hours of billed studio time scattered over nine non consecutive days of the month to complete. This was due mainly to the fact that the material was well known to the band and the main body of the tracks were recorded live but is also almost certainly as much due to the fact that Page was footing the bill from his own pocket.

The album kicks off with ‘Good Times Bad Times’ a track which is based around a riff written by Jones and is typical of his complicated riff structure. He later claimed it was the most difficult one he ever wrote. The vocal structure of the song is unusual as it is still using sixties pop melodies for the opening verse and the chorus before transforming into a more gritty bluesy delivery in other places. Despite Plant’s dexterity the star of the track is undoubtedly Bonham who delivers a drum track that had many a people scratching their head at the time. I am no drumming expert but I am reliably informed that it should be physically impossible for anyone to get the sound of a double bass kick out of a single bass kit ….. but that is what Bonham does here as well as keeping the hi-hat going for virtually the entire song. Something which Page later described as “superhuman”. The swirling guitar sound was created by feeding Page’s Telecaster through a Leslie cabinet. Something which was more usually used for keyboards. Page used this technique with the Leslie cabinet throughout his time with Zeppelin although on later albums he used the Telecaster less and favoured the Gibson. Despite being criminally short it is a perfect start to the recorded career of one of the biggest bands ever to grace the planet

‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ is a cover of a folk song by Anne Bredon that had been recorded by Joan Baez, who was a favourite of both Page and Plant. It has been stated that this was the song that Page initially played to Plant to persuade him to join forces but both men have different recollections of the events. The track itself features some great intricate jazz runs from Page and the first real example of Plant’s powerful, yet in places delicate, emotional delivery. It became a part of the blueprint for almost every blues based rock vocalist that followed. 

The Willie Dixon penned ‘You Shook Me’ is the first out and out blues cover and is a good early example of Page and Plant using the call and response technique. As with many old blues tracks recorded by Zeppelin it was not without controversy. Not because of any doubts as to the authorship but because Pages’s old friend Jeff Beck had only released it a few months earlier on his “Truth” album. Beck was said to be distraught and particularly angry with Page especially as the Zeppelin version was considerably superior. Page’s talent as a producer gave the track a distinct edge over the Beck version, as did the fact that Page had better supporting musicians and a better vocalist. Page plays an Elmore James style slide guitar and also used a backwards echo technique on his guitar and Plant’s vocal. 

Whilst ‘Dazed and Confused’ is as synonymous with Led Zeppelin as any track it is also one of the many of dubious origin. Originally penned and recorded by little known songwriter Jake Holmes, Page had heard it when Holmes opened for The Yardbirds in 1967 and had been so impressed with it that they began to play it live themselves although in a much different way to the way in which Holmes had perfomed it. By the time The Yardbirds disbanded it was an integral part of their live set. According to Jones, Page played it at their very first jamming session in Gerrard Street and stated it was something he wanted them to do.  Page simply re-wrote the lyrics and played around with melody enough to declare it his own composition. Holmes disagrees and the matter is to this day not resolved. Things were further confused when a Yardbirds version was released in 2000 and credited to “Jake Holmes Arr Yardbirds”. The track itself is a bluesy epic which became the centrepeice of many a Zeppelin performance. From the slow menacing bass rhythm which starts it off it quickly explodes into a brooding cauldron of anguish and despair courtesy of Plant’s emotional vocal and Page’s atmospheric guitar. The wails of Plant being echoed by the bow on Page’s guitar whilst the bass of Jones provides a menacing backdrop. Add to this some typically dextrous and thunderous drumming from Bonham and you have a five star ten out of ten rock classic no matter who wrote it. In fact it is so good you could put up a decent argument that Zeppelin never actually got any better than this.

‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ is an amalgam of styles with hints of rock, folk and blues all being evident if you listen closely. Plant’s vocal harks back to the sixties melodies again whilst still incorporating some standard blues techniques. Bonham’s drumming is still hard and fierce in places despite the intricacies of the track and Page’s guitar manages to lay a folk feel over the instrumental passages. Page also used an out of tune ten string steel guitar on parts of the track despite never previously having played one. Another significant fact about the track is that it features no bass guitar and all the bass parts are played by Jones on the pedals of his organ.

‘Black Mountain Side’ fades in as the previous track fades out and is a short instrumental peice which Page played on a Gibson J-200 he borrowed from Big Jim Sullivan. Based on the traditional Irish folk song ‘Down By Blackwaterside’ it is here credited to Page and features Viram Jasani playing tabla. No other members of the band perform on the track.

The third and final sub three minute track ‘Communication Breakdown’ is the fastest and most powerful as well as being the closest in sound and structure to the pure rock tracks of later years. It is one of Zeppelin’s best known tracks and as well as featuring some of Page’s most frenetic riffing he also provides backing vocals !

The second Willie Dixon track on the album ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ is the purest most straight forward blues track on the album. Despite a couple of obvious mistakes it is still one of the most dynamic and pleasing tracks on the album. It was a regular part of the live set until it was replaced by their own composition ‘Since I Been Loving You’ on the tour to promote “III”. It still made brief appearances in the ‘Whole Lotta Love’ medley and was regularly used as a soundcheck one of which surfaced on the “Coda” album.

The final track ‘How Many More Times’ is the lengthiest track clocking in at eight and a half minutes. However in a time when radio stations regularly played album tracks Page deliberatly wrote the track length as 3:30 when providing the sleeve information. He knew that no radio DJ would play a song over eight minutes long and hoped the mistake would lead to some radio airings. There is no evidence to suggest this ever actually worked though. The track itself is a prog like blues workout during which all the members both individually and collectively get the chance to shine. Although the song is credited as a band composition it borrows heavily from the Howlin Wolf track ‘How Many More Years’. So much so that eventually he was given a songwriting credit. The lyric also incorporated a huge part of the Albert King track ‘The Hunter’ towards the end after the heavily improvised “Oh Rosie” section. For the second time on the album Page used the bow to good effect on his guitar. The track ends in a frenzy and a thud of Bonham’s drum.

The much anticipated “Led Zeppelin” hit the streets in early 1969 with the American release coming out in January to coincide with their ongoing tour and the UK issue following in March. It wasn’t exactly recieved with open arms though on the American side of the Atlantic and initial reviews were scathing. The band were basically disregarded as another English supergroup with ideas above their station, a poor mans Jeff Beck Group and pretenders to the crown of Cream. Plant was described as foppish and not as exciting as Rod Stewart whilst Page’s production and the choice of material was considered sub standard. However, fortunately for Zeppelin this didn’t prevent the record buying public snapping it up in huge quantities. Over 50,000 were pre-ordered in America alone on the strength of radio play and the early gigs. It soon climbed the charts, where it stayed for 73 weeks peaking at number 10. In the UK it fared even better chart position wise rising to a heady 6.

Sometimes overshadowed by the later albums which play host to the more widely known Zeppelin tracks the importance of “Led Zeppelin” should not be under estimated. Whilst it is clearly their bluesiest album it also laid down the foundation for the heavier rock tracks of their career and that of a whole generation of rock bands. There are also elements of folk and jazz evident in the arrangements although there is still a good argument to be made that this was the heaviest album released by a British band at the time. To date “Led Zeppelin” has grossed over £3.5 million for an initial outlay of £1,782 making it one of the most profitable debut albums of all time. Not bad for a bunch of pretenders with ideas above their station !

© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM March 2012.

About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
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