This is the ninth in a series of posts that feature analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums and artists.
In 1966, Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck gathered some of his favorite musician friends to help him record a track he was working on for an upcoming solo project. He invited fellow Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page, and drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle from The Who, and veteran session musicians John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins.
This assemblage produced the recording “Beck’s Bolero,” based on Ravel’s classical 1928 masterpiece, and when someone mentioned it sounded so good they should form a supergroup together, Moon’s response was “Ha! Right. That’d go over like a lead balloon!”
Two years later, as Page was forming a new group following the demise of The Yardbirds, he recalled Moon’s comment. “A lead balloon is a metaphor for certain failure,” Page recalls. “I took it a step further and thought of a lead zeppelin, which is even more of a contrast. It strikes a balance between heavy and light, or between combustibility and grace.”
And with that, Led Zeppelin was born.
(It was manager Peter Grant who suggested the group use “Led” instead of “Lead” to prevent fans from mispronouncing it as “leed.”)
Page, after several years honing his skills in London recording studios as a guitarist and producer, and then as a touring member of The Yardbirds, was ready to realize his vision of a new band that would incorporate heavy blues-based rock with occasional elements of more delicate folk-based melodies and arrangements (the “balance between heavy and light” he had referred to in discussing the group’s name).
Page was certain he wanted Jones to be his bass/keyboards guy, and he had his sights set on promising new vocalist Terry Reid to be the singer, but Reid declined the offer and instead suggested Robert Plant, singer in a Birmingham-based group called Band of Joy. Plant, in turn, recommended Band of Joy’s drummer, John Bonham.
Even at the foursome’s first rehearsal in August 1968, within minutes after they took a stab at the Yardbirds’ explosive version of the ’50s blues chestnut “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” they knew they had a wicked chemistry. They soon headed off to fulfill a few remaining Yardbirds gigs in Scandinavia (booked as The New Yardbirds) before settling into the studio to lay down nine tracks that would become their monumental debut LP, entitled simply “Led Zeppelin.”
Cut to February 1969. A small record shop in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. I wasn’t yet 14, but I had begun buying albums (instead of 45s), and I was already scanning the popular music bins looking for new and interesting groups. This was a pretty conservative store, with clientele that favored classical music, film soundtracks, show tunes and Sinatra-type crooners, so the pickings were slim.
One bin in the back, though, was labeled “underground rock” and included LPs by bands with strange names like Blue Cheer, The Electric Prunes, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Fugs. My eyes fell upon an album cover that featured an artistic treatment of the famous 1937 photo of the Hindenburg explosion, with two words: Led Zeppelin. The back cover was a faded photo of the four band members, and a listing of the song titles and times. I don’t know what persuaded me to plunk down four dollars for this record. I hadn’t heard a note of it, not in the store nor on the radio. I guess I was intrigued by the album cover and name.
Anyway, I took it home, cranked up the volume, and was instantly stunned by the power of the opening track, “Good Times Bad Times.” Less than three minutes long, it grabbed me by the throat with its thunderous mix of guitar, vocals, drums and bass. Wow! But it was the second song, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” that really hooked me. Here was truly
“the balance of heavy and light.” The opening passage featured Page fingerpicking an acoustic guitar as Plant gently, sensuously, sang lyrics about a doomed relationship. Drums entered briefly, hinting of what was coming, then subsided. By the 2:20 mark, the band kicked in with a relentless rock beat that took the song to another level entirely, as Plant’s low-key vocal became a delicious howl.
The album includes Jones’ organ-dominated piece, “Your Time is Gonna Come”; Page’s acoustic instrumental standout, “Black Mountain Side”; inventive covers of serious blues standards like Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Babe,” dominated by Page’s workouts on his Les Paul electric.
The game changers, however, were “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times,” lengthy tracks which gave the band room to stretch out, borrowing snatches of other songs to enhance the extraordinary arrangements. “Dazed and Confused” marks the first and best example of Page playing guitar with a violin bow, which became a crowd-pleaser in every concert appearance the group did thereafter.
Surprisingly, in retrospect, most critics weren’t kind to the “Led Zeppelin” debut album. In a slap at Page’s producing, arranging and songwriting, Rolling Stone writer John Mendelsohn wrote, “If they hope to fill the void left by the demise of Cream, they’ll have to find a producer, editor and material worthy of their collective talents.” But the band toured relentlessly, earning oustanding word-of-mouth raves for their live shows, which helped the album go gold and reach #10 on the US charts. Years later, it is rightly singled out as the progenitor of blues-based heavy metal, and metal bands have been living in its shadow ever since.
But Page had plenty more up his sleeve. He said this in the summer of 1969: “It’s a good period for guitarists. I think every guitarist has something unique to say musically. My only ambition now is to keep a consistent record product coming out. Too many groups sit back after the first album, and the second one is a down trip. I want every new album to reach out farther. That’s what I’m trying to do here.”
The group toured so much that they had to fit in their recording sessions on the fly, laying down basic tracks in one city, adding vocals in another studio on the opposite coast, writing new material in a hotel room in a third city, with Page overseeing it all as producer. The result was the phenomenal “Led Zeppelin II,” arguably stronger than the first. The sonic inventions found on the single, “Whole Lotta Love,” reached a much broader audience as it ascended to the #4 slot in the US charts, and the album reached #1, knocking “Abbey Road” from its perch. Although it wasn’t public knowledge yet, The Beatles were done, and Led Zeppelin was taking over as the world’s top rock band.
I was fortunate enough to see them in concert during this initial period, in October 1969, just two days after the release of “II,” and I’ve never quite gotten over it. They performed just about every song from those two records, and that evening became the jumping-off point for my infatuation with rock concerts and blues-based rock.
In my bedroom at the time, I had a nook with a huge chair, and two speakers mounted on the wall facing each other. When I cranked up the volume, the effect was like wearing headphones without the headphones. My friends reminisce about how they “saw God” when they sat in that chair and listened to “Whole Lotta Love” when the sound would travel back and forth between channels, first slowly, then more rapidly, as Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham did their thing.
“Led Zeppelin II” also included “Heartbreaker,” which featured what many still feel is one of the most incredible guitar solos ever recorded. It’s also the first inkling of Plant’s way with words on tracks like the majestic “Ramble On,” where he showed his affection for the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the lovely “Thank You,” a touching love song of gratitude to his wife.
And let’s not forget “Moby Dick,” where Bonham demonstrates why, more than three decades after his death, he is regarded as one of the best drummers ever, and why the band chose to call it quits in 1980 after his death. Drum solos are notorious for being self-indulgent and non-musical, but this track proves the exception to the rule, and it dovetails perfectly into the closing track, “Bring It On Home,” yet another Willie Dixon tune reworked with original material in its midsection.
Led Zeppelin went on to become legends in their own time and, sadly, in their own minds. They made plenty of earthshaking music like “Kashmir” and “No Quarter,” sprinkled with some of that lightness Page and Plant seemed to favor (“Going to California,” “The Rain Song”), but in my mind, they never quite matched the impact of their first two albums. They developed a reputation for unbridled ego, refusing to speak to the press, as their manager and road crew routinely threatened and assaulted people who got in their way. Bad karma started to follow the band, cursed with injury and death, which some blamed on Page’s fascination with the occult, although I think that’s probably hogwash.
Every album they released from “II” on went straight to #1 and sold many millions of copies. The group broke attendance records and enjoyed the fierce loyalty of fans worldwide. And of course, “Stairway to Heaven” remains one of the most played songs in the history of rock radio. But for me, the group’s work in the latter half of the ’70s (1975’s “Physical Graffiti,” 1976’s “Presence” and 1979’s “In Through the Out Door”) wasn’t even remotely in the same league as their initial efforts.
It’s truly rare and remarkable when a visionary (Page) happens upon just the right combination of talent and personalities (Jones, Plant, Bonham) in just the right time period (late 1968) to create a revolutionary sound and get it all down on vinyl.
So when you’re tired of hearing classic rock radio trot out the same half-dozen songs to represent the canon of Led Zeppelin (“Black Dog,” “Immigrant Song,” “Dancing Days,” etc.), I recommend you return to “Led Zeppelin” and “Led Zeppelin II,” when they were young and hungry, and not at all sure yet how the world would react to the magical music they were coming up with.
The Spotify list includes all 18 tracks from the group’s first two albums, plus a few early tracks that show Led Zeppelin has unquestionably been guilty of lifting riffs, melody lines, and song titles from other artists over the years, and unwilling to give proper songwriting credit until challenged in court. To wit: “Whole Lotta Love” is derived from Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love” and Small Faces’ “You Need Loving”; “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is not an LZ original but a 1962 song by Anne Breton, sung here by Joan Baez; and “Dazed and Confused” is a 1967 song written and recorded by Jake Holmes.