Led Zeppelin rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of the extinct Yardbirds, thanks to guitarist Jimmy Page, whose own vision was far more ambitious than that of his former band mates. With a firm eye on the American market, and with manager Peter Grant, he went about resurrecting The New Yardbirds in the autumn of 1968. First to be recruited was bassist/keyboardist/arranger John Paul Jones, whom Page had already recorded with on previous sessions. Next was Robert Plant, a relatively inexperienced singer and John Bonham, a drummer who had been banned from the odd pub or two for being too loud. After a series of rehearsals and a previously contracted tour of Scandinavia, the quartet then entered Olympic Studios in West London to cut their first record.
Recorded in a mere thirty hours, Led Zeppelin’s debut was as powerful as it was unexpected, and is an honest demonstration of the band’s extraordinary dynamic at the time. Much of the material had been carefully crafted and polished while on tour, hence the little time it took to lay down each track.
Credited to Page, Jones and Bonham, opener “Good Times Bad Times” is about as perfect a beginning as any fan of hard rock could wish for. Jimmy runs his Telecaster through a Leslie speaker, while Bonham causes a few seismic tremors on his metamorphic drum kit. With Plant’s soaring vocals, the band’s blueprint was clearly in place. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was a tune Page first heard on a Joan Baez LP and decided that it would be a perfect vehicle for the band, albeit in rearranged form. What resulted is probably the earliest (and perhaps only) example of Heavy Metal/Flamenco ever put to tape. And with Plant’s volcanic tonsils soaring into Valhalla it sounded like nothing else at the time. “You Shook Me” is a reminder of not only Led Zeppelin’s love of the blues, but also how much they relied upon it for their inspiration. Jones’ organ playing is a particular highlight, as is Plant’s white boy from the midlands harmonica. His vocals aren’t too bad either, or Page’s bottleneck guitar. As far as imitating the blues goes, this is about as good as it gets, at least from an English perspective.
“Dazed and Confused” is another proto-metal blues number carefully arranged by Page, full of atmosphere and drama. The band would famously go on to extend it out to twenty and sometimes even thirty minutes during their live sets. “Your Time is Gonna Come” begins with some lovely church organ from Jones, before the rest of the group suddenly fall in with all the subtly of the 101st Airborne parachuting into your living room. As the song fades we segue into the lovely acoustic raga of “Black Mountain Side”, an Indian influenced instrumental similar to “White Summer”, where Page plays a Gibson acoustic alongside Viram Jasnai on tabla.
The crunching crash-cymbal of “Communication Breakdown” is another dramatic example of Zep’s ability to impress the listener even if Page does reiterate the same guitar line throughout. The band lean back on the blues with a cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, on which Bonham’s drumming abilities come to the fore. The song is played at a deceptively laid-back pace, providing a perfect balance between light and shade. The album’s closing song “How Many More Times” was one of the first compositions performed by the band on their very first tour, and a befitting end to what is, or at least was, an incredible journey. Plant’s vocals are sheer magic, while the rest of the group confidently steer their way like a horde of Norsemen heading out to sea in search of new lands (sound familiar), ready to conquer the world with their own intricate medley.
Apparently the album cost a paltry £1,782 to make over nine days, something which would seem impossible today (I doubt you’ve even cover the catering). Upon release in January 1969, Jimmy Page was adamant that the record was to be a stereo only release, instead of the usual stereo or mono pressings. Such was the guitarist’s determination and vision – because as soon as this album was released, modern rock would never be quite the same again.