The greatest debut rock album of all time: ‘Led Zeppelin’
Today marks the 52nd anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s groundbreaking eponymous debut album, released in 1969. Led Zeppelin’s front album artwork was designed by George Hardie and depicts a picture of the Hindenburg airship going down in flames, as photographed by Sam Shere. The artwork is symbolic of Led Zeppelin’s birth and origination. Born from the flames of The Yardbirds breaking up, Led Zeppelin was created in a furious flash of a short span of time; the band was formed in May of 1968, and the album was recorded in October of that year, within 36 hours, over a span of a few weeks.
Jimmy Page, who in 1968 faced the disintegration of his then band, The Yardbirds, was left as the sole member of the group and still had contractual obligations for a tour in Scandinavia. The birth of Led Zeppelin, who were initially known as “The New Yardbirds”, happened quickly. By the late ’60s, Page was very well known around London as a studio musician and had played with other future megastars such as the likes of Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds. Page, although disappointed but fresh from a tour in the US, already had a preliminary idea of what musical direction he wanted the Yardbirds to move in.
The black magician of a guitar player had been stifled in the Yardbirds under the imposing tutelage of their manager and producer, Mickie Frost. While Frost had wanted to mould The Yardbirds into the three-minute long pop song hit-making machine, Jimmy Page was being drawn into another direction altogether. He had a glimpse of the future and, in an interview with David Fricke of The Rolling Stone, Page described what could be argued as the seedling of inspiration behind Led Zeppelin. During a recording session, he had found himself back in 1966, that would produce ‘Beck’s Bolero’, Page details the featured band and the session: “The band was John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and myself and Jeff on guitars,” he told Fricke in 2012.
“This session was absolutely magnificent, like a force of nature. Keith was having troubles in the Who. He’s going, ‘We should form a band with this.'” While they were passing around ideas about what they might call themselves, Moon came up with a tongue-in-cheek idea. “We can call it Led Zeppelin’,” Page remembered the drummer saying. “‘Because it can only go down, like a lead balloon.’ I thought it was a great name, and I didn’t forget it,” he added.
From the particular selection available from this session, Page would recruit John Paul Jones on bass guitar. He also wanted to recruit Keith Moon for drums, but Moon would ultimately turn the offer down due to other prior engagements. While Steve Marriot from The Small Faces, was a contender for vocal duties; the runner-up contender, Terry Reid, unable to do the job, was on tour with the Rolling Stones at the time, but would introduce Page to the then 19-year-old Robert Plant. Jimmy Page, recalls the time he first heard Robert Plant perform with another group, stating: “Robert was fantastic and having heard him that night and having listened to a demo he had given me, I realised that without a doubt his voice had an exceptional and very distinctive quality.” Along with Robert Plant came John Bonham who, like Plant, was a bit of a nobody at the time.
Things moved very quickly for the four rockers. Led Zeppelin’s material for their debut album was developed and refined through these early gigs, especially during their trip through Scandinavia. In an interview with Cameron Crow of The Rolling Stone in 1975, Robert Plant cheekily stated: “Everything was fitting together into a trademark for us, we were learning what got us off most and what got people off most, and what we knew got more people back to the hotel after the gig.”
With the new material largely locked and loaded and ready to go, Jimmy Page, acting as the band’s propeller, was determined to keep the momentum up. With help from Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, Jimmy Page paid for studio time to the tune of £2000, which today equals around thirty grand. Part of the success of the debut album can be attributed to the fact that Jimmy Page wanted complete and utter creative control of the production. “I wanted artistic control in a vice grip because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the band. In fact, I financed and completely recorded the first album before going to Atlantic,” Page told Brad Tolinski in the book Conversations With Jimmy Page. Incredibly, the whole recording process took only 36 hours, spread across a few weeks.
Page was in charge of engineering and enlisted his childhood friend, Glyn Johns, for mixing. This recording session would be one of the first to utilise a technique that created natural reverb by way of placing one microphone, in typical fashion, directly in front of an amp or drum, but, in addition, by placing another microphone around twenty feet behind the first. This then captures the room’s ambient sound. Through this method, Jimmy Page was able to create a reverse echo effect, specifically utilised on ‘You Shook Me’. By turning the echo track from a specific instrument or voice over, then re-recording it and turning it back around, Zeppelin we’re able to place the echo effect in front of the main track as recorded by the primary microphone, as opposed to after it.
One of the first songs that Page approached Plant with was an idea for a different arrangement of ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’, originally written by Anne Bredon as it appeared on a live album by Joan Baez.
Much of the album can be defined as coming from a place of familiarity but also containing an element of otherworldly mystery as well. Led Zeppelin has a sheer force which I would claim, takes the cake as the absolute best debut album ever released by a band. The album has brutality but elegance, the tried and true but also originality, Western pop sensibilities along with experimental and slight Eastern guitar influences (of which would make more of its presence known in later Zeppelin albums). The band made an album in the way that any band should, as if it was their last chance ever to do so, as if the next day would not exist. Led Zeppelin did not wait for the right moment; they made their album from their own resources and took the masterpiece straight to the gates of hell – more specifically – Atlantic Records. The record’s success spread like wildfire, selling millions across the globe.
Although, initially not intending to release singles from the record, ‘Good Times Bad Times’ would serve as the lead track. However, the band would rarely play the song live. ‘Communication Breakdown’ planted the framework for metal musicians to lay more layers on top of in years to come. ‘Black Mountain Side’ is an instrumental; Jimmy Page used a Gibson Acoustic guitar and tuned it to open D tuning. The song features Kenyan musician, Viram Jasani (whose main instrument is the sitar) on the tabla.
While definitely known as a true rock legend, Jimmy Page has a highly regarded artistic side to him. Famously known to have studied the black magician, Alistair Crowley, Page stated in an interview with The Rolling Stone: “So many people are frightened to take a chance in life and there are so many chances you have to take,” the guitarist told Crowe at the height of Zeppelin’s commercial and cultural zenith.
“I’m attracted by the unknown, but I take precautions. I don’t go walking into things blind.” In the early seventies, Jimmy Page had an interesting encounter with the famous beat writer, William Burroughs, who would have a suggestion for Page and the boys in Zeppelin. Page recalls: “I did a joint interview with William Burroughs for Crawdaddy magazine in the early Seventies, and we had a lengthy discussion on the hypnotic power of rock and how it paralleled the music of Arabic cultures. This was an observation Burroughs had after hearing ‘Black Mountain Side’, from our first album. He then encouraged me to go to Morocco and investigate the music first hand, something Robert [Plant] and I eventually did.”
While the album would eventually be rightfully recognised as the pioneering rock album that it is, the majority of critics did not share the same enthusiasm that many do now. In an infamous review, John Mendelsohn for The Rolling Stone, wrote: “The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago, and the excesses of the Beck group’s Truth album (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness), are fully in evidence on Led Zeppelin’s debut album.”
Music critic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine said it the best – albeit simple it is the most poignant review: “A significant turning point in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal”.
Not many rock ‘n’ roll bands have come close to outplaying Led Zeppelin, let alone recording a dynamite of a debut album as Led Zeppelin. To say the least, in my mind, Led Zeppelin will always remain the greatest rock band to have ever existed.