FEATURE: Godfathers of the Metamorphosis: Led Zeppelin’s Mighty Debut at Fifty




Godfathers of the Metamorphosis


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

Led Zeppelin’s Mighty Debut at Fifty


WHENEVER a pivotal album turns fifty...


 IN THIS PHOTO: Led Zeppelin at Chateau Marmont  in 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Jay Thompson

it is cause for celebration and reflection. Over the last couple of years, we have marked The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967/2017) and their eponymous record (1968/2018). Not only do we get to mark that album but track its influence and legacy. For Led Zeppelin, their start in music was quite modest. They would go on to release better records than their debut but few more important. If critics were not all on the same page when it was released – more on that later – one can hear Led Zeppelin in so many of today’s artists. Released on 12th January, 1969; the band’s mighty debut release contained originals and some well-chosen and rehearsed covers. Mixing Blues and Hard-Rock together, Led Zeppelin recorded the album in thirty-six hours and completed it before they had a record deal signed. The skeleton of Led Zeppelin came together when The Yardbirds disbanded. Jimmy Page with the rights to the band’s name and set about forming a new group. He approached the respected arranger and session musician John Paul Jones to join the new band as a bass player. He was keen to Terry Reid as a singer but Reid suggested Robert Plant – who was booked when Page realised there was clear chemistry between the two of them. John Bonham was the last name brought into the fold and the new line-up rehearsed together in September of 1968 before a tour of Scandinavia.

Dubbing themselves ‘The New Yardbirds’; the band performed songs that would appear on their debut album – including Communication Breakdown and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. The band’s name was changed to Led Zeppelin and the group convened to Olympic Studios at 11 P.M. on 25th September, 1968 to record their debut. Led Zeppelin was produced by Jimmy Page and engineered by Glyn Johns. It seems strange now but a lot of debuts by major acts were recorded in only a day or two. The Beatles’ Please Please Me was finished during an all-day recording session; Led Zeppelin spent only thirty-six hours in the studio and the sound one gets is a mix of slick professionalism and raw, live-sounding cuts. The fact it all came together this fast was because the band rehearsed the songs well on tour and were prepared when they headed into Olympic Studios. Page, as producer, used natural room ambience during recording and did not do what most producers did – placing microphones in front of amps and drums. Instead, he placed an extra microphone some way from the amplifier and recorded the balance between the two. The time-lag that was created (from one end of the room to the other) led to the band’s famed and true ‘ambient sound’. The songs on Led Zeppelin vary in tone and theme. Good Times Bad Times leads the record and is one of the most commercial-sounding cut. It was seldom performed live by the band but became a hit for them – showcasing a catchy chorus and the group’s inimitable and heavy style.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Although composed by Anne Brendon; Babe I’m Gonna Leave You was masterfully rearranged by Page and Zeppelin added their stamp to it. You Shook Me, another cover, took the Willie Dixon Blues number and added in Hammond organ, harmonica and guitar. Dazed and Confused - one of the most iconic songs from the album - was originally written by Jake Holmes in 1967. Page credited it to himself which led to an out-of-court settlement in 2010. Regardless of its origins, it showcases the unity, layers and colours of Led Zeppelin. It is one of the standouts from their debut and, with amended lyrics and a reworked arrangement (Jones and Bonham adapting the song to fit their style) it impressed critics at the time. Favourites like Communication Breakdown and How Many More Times would appear in their live sets and were loved by the band. Although there are only nine tracks on the album, there are some epics – Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, You Shook Me and Dazed and Confused – that are over six minutes and sharper gems that are under three minutes (including Good Times Bad Times). If the material on Led Zeppelin took a while for all critics to warm up to, the cover of the album struck a chord right away. Chosen by Page, it is a black-and-white image of the burning Hindenburg airship, photographed by Sam Shere in May 1937. (The name of the band came about through a joke after The Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle, alongside Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, talked about forming a band. Moon joked that it would go over like a lead balloon...to which Entwistle replied “a lead zeppelin!”).

The true impact and legacy of Led Zeppelin has been debated through the years. Many have compared Led Zeppelin to Cream and Jimi Hendrix and wonder whether there is much originality at play. In many ways, Led Zeppelin introduced a heavier style to the mainstream and a thrilling, harder style of music. Other bands had released Hard-Rock albums to the market but few combined the same elements as Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin took Hard-Rock and as a bedroom and laced in Blues undertones and softer elements. Many can argue that while the album itself is not the first Heavy Metal offering; Communication Breakdown’s machine gun riffing could be called the first Metal song. There were some positive reviews when the album came out in 1969 but retrospective acclaim has painted a fairer picture. AllMusic see Led Zeppelin in these terms:

As Led Zeppelin proves, the group was capable of such multi-layered music from the start. Although the extended psychedelic blues of "Dazed and Confused," "You Shook Me," and "I Can't Quit You Baby" often gather the most attention, the remainder of the album is a better indication of what would come later. "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" shifts from folky verses to pummeling choruses; "Good Times Bad Times" and "How Many More Times" have groovy, bluesy shuffles; "Your Time Is Gonna Come" is an anthemic hard rocker; "Black Mountain Side" is pure English folk; and "Communication Breakdown" is a frenzied rocker with a nearly punkish attack. Although the album isn't as varied as some of their later efforts, it nevertheless marked a significant turning point in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal”.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Consequence of Sound, when reviewing the 2014 reissue of Led Zeppelin, had this to say:

“Led Zeppelin I is a masterfully constructed debut LP that plays like the recordings of a savvy veteran band. It is Led Zeppelin’s ode to rock’s progressive metamorphosis. Its arrangements are often daring and sometimes semi-improvisational. Its orchestration delves adventurously through hard rock and heavy metal with bluesy undertones that often cause the chords to weep poignantly as if struck with malice. It’s both powerful and precise. No stanza feels out of place. Everything has a purpose. Each moment plays a role in building an ambitious sonic tapestry that is a grand sum of its parts. There is careful consideration put into each note, each phrase, each perfectly placed crescendo; the attention to detail shapes its aesthetics. The musicianship glows in an electric blue hue that radiates vibrantly even now. Whether it’s the wagon wheel feel of the stringy acoustic guitar lick in “Black Mountain Side”, the warm, slow-strumming coda in “Baby I’m Gonna Leave You”, or the wheezing, psychedelic melancholy in “Dazed and Confused”’s tumbling riffs, every majestic shift further erects this rock epic as an obelisk of the era”.

I think every album that turns fifty warrants celebration and focus. The fact we still talk about them and play them shows just how strong they are. The Beatles, of course, will always endure and inspire and I think Led Zeppelin and pivotal in the development of Metal and Hard-Rock in music during the 1960s and 1970s. They would create better-received and grander records – such as Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti – but the importance of their debut cannot be understated.

At a time when there are few genuinely decent Rock albums; I feel many artists can take a leaf from Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut and learn from it. So many are inspired by it but I long to hear a concentrated, swaggering and raw record like this now. I feel genuine Rock bands are becoming rare and people are hankering after something that gets to the core like Led Zeppelin. Despite the fact so much of the material on their debut is influenced by older Blues styles, there is no sign of ageing when you spin Led Zeppelin. It is a wonderfully rich, deep and hard-hitting record that sound brilliant after fifty years. If you can get it on vinyl then do so but, if not, make sure you celebrate the fiftieth anniversary (on 12th) and see why Led Zeppelin’s immense debut has resounded through the decades. As endless speculation regarding a Led Zeppelin reunion continues – they are always tipped to play Glastonbury – put that out of your mind and hear where their recording life began. I do not think they will ever play live together but I think, in years to come, we will see a lot of new heroes emerge that take on the mantle of Led Zeppelin. I personally prefer Led Zeppelin II when it comes to big tunes and nuance but you cannot ignore the seismic and crucial debut. Even though it has been out for fifty years, Led Zeppelin sounds as fresh and alive as...

  IN THIS PHOTO: Led Zeppelin at Chateau Marmont  in 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Jay Thompson

THE day it was released.