Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
How successful bands form is interesting to me, because there’s no set formula. Some were created when their members were kids or very young adults, and they maintained most if not all of their core (Beatles and Stones as obvious examples). At the other end of the spectrum are groups who came together less organically or not organically at all, such as the Monkees and Supertramp. One characteristic shared by all of them regardless of their level of success or fame is that their best material came when the core group was still intact.
It would seem to take a heavy dose of respect by a musician for what his or her band had accomplished, as well as an awareness that what might lie ahead may not be as good as the past for those groups to call it quits when, for whatever reason(s), they are no longer a whole unit. Led Zeppelin is one such example of a group who knew when to move on, but today we celebrate their auspicious beginning.
The group formed as a vehicle for Jimmy Page to complete the legal (touring) obligations of the Yardbirds late in 1968, and Robert Plant wasn’t even his first choice as vocalist (that was Terry Reid). Page recruited John Paul Jones, and Plant brought in John Bonham. They realized very quickly they had good chemistry and decided to forge ahead, changing their moniker to Led Zeppelin after their brief Scandinavian tour as the New Yardbirds in September of 1968. They entered Olympic Studios shortly thereafter, and 50 years ago today their eponymous debut was released in the US (March 31 in the UK).
The album is a mix of originals, covers, and rearrangements of contemporary blues and folk songs whose performances by the likes of Joan Baez, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf inspired Page. The sessions lasted roughly 36 hours over a span of a few weeks in September and October of ’68 before the group even had a recording contract. It cost Page and manager Peter Grant less than £2,000 out of pocket to record the album. Page produced it and Glyn Johns engineered. Recording Led Zeppelin took such a short amount of time because most of the tracks had been well-rehearsed on the New Yardbirds tour preceding the sessions.
Contemporary reviews were all over the board, apparently depending on what pill the reviewer had taken when listening to or writing about the album. John Mendelsohn in Rolling Stone ripped it as failing to do what the Jeff Beck Group had already failed to do: fill the void left by Cream. Melody Maker and the Village Voice were much kinder. Today it is rightly viewed as an essential British blues rock recording. This is one of those albums for me which contains no particular favorite tracks; they’re all good, whether on this album or live.
Random personal notes about the Led Zeppelin album:
- The descending chord riff in Babe I’m Gonna Leave You always sounded familiar to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until one day it hit me: That’s Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4! (Of course, the Chicago song came after.) It turned out I wasn’t such a genius for noticing it – a music editor for LA Weekly made note of the similarity as well as that of the descending chord of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Maybe it’s just obvious and not all that interesting.
- My uncle Chris, whom I’ve described elsewhere in these pages as the one who is, in a way, responsible for me starting this blog, is also the source of some current confusion for me. The “story, ” which I’ve “known” for about 35 years, goes something like this: He keeps his original copy of Led Zeppelin around for posterity. He no longer plays it because my aunt cannot stand Led Zeppelin, and, you see, one side of the vinyl was covered with ice cream during a wild party at his rented beach house in Virginia Beach where he lived during the summer of ’69 or ’70 while working as a lifeguard. Younger, more impressionable me: Right on! A heavy party at a beach house in 1970 with Led Zep cranked up on the turntable – I can DIG it! And of COURSE there was ice cream, wink wink, nudge nudge… Fast forward to a few days ago when I reached out to my uncle to confirm some details of the event, and the air was let out of the party balloon. In 2019 the only fact that remains is that ice cream was splattered on the vinyl. But now I learn that it was a relatively innocent birthday party held in the garage of my grandparents’ Hampton, VA home, and that it wasn’t Led Zeppelin, but the White Album. This is a very disappointing development. Though I love my late grandparents as well as the White Album, it’s just not the same. My uncle told me to go with what I thought the original story was if I wanted to, so I will. It coulda happened, man, it coulda happened…
- This past summer, about a month shy of the 50th anniversary of the actual recording of this album, my now 18 year old son had a chance encounter with Robert Plant (and James Hetfield) at a resort in Colorado. I was pleased to hear that Robert was nice to my kid. He declined to be photographed (understandable in today’s over-selfied social media world), but he was pleasant and chatted about how amazed he is that yet another generation is being turned on to this music. Good stuff.
- Good Times Bad Times
- Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
- You Shook Me
- Dazed and Confused
- Your Time is Gonna Come
- Black Mountain Side
- Communication Breakdown
- I Can’t Quit You Baby
- How Many More Times