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Good Times Bad Times: The Story Behind Led Zeppelin’s First US Single
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In Depth

Good Times Bad Times: The Story Behind Led Zeppelin’s First US Single

Sharp, accessible and full of classic-rock hooks, the John Paul Jones-penned song Good Times Bad Times gave Led Zeppelin lift-off in the US.

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Placed as the opening track on Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album, Good Times Bad Times was the first Led Zeppelin song most people heard. It was quite an introduction, too: with its dynamic, staccato opening, its razor-sharp riffs and storming chorus, it sounded like a classic from the off. And it was all done and dusted in two minutes 46 seconds, proving that this remarkable new band could write tight, accessible and radio-friendly rockers just as well as they could master epic hard-rock blowouts such as Dazed And Confused and How Many More Times.

Listen to the best of Led Zeppelin here.

The backstory: “The first rehearsal was pure magic”

Astonishingly, the band laid the song (and, indeed, the entirety of the Led Zeppelin album) down in just a few weeks after they first set foot onstage together for their debut gig, at Gladsaxe, in Denmark, on 7 September 1968. At this embryonic stage, the group were still billed as “The New Yardbirds”, having yet to definitively pin down their name – but even at this point in their career, frontman Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham knew the chemistry between them was undeniable.

“The first rehearsal was pure magic,” Jones enthused in Barney Hoskyns’ book Trampled Underfoot. “I suddenly realised there’s no dead weight in this band, and it was an exciting thing to find out.”

The newly christened Led Zeppelin wasted no time it taking that same vibe into the studio following the conclusion of their initial Scandinavian dates. With guitarist and prime mover Jimmy Page producing and Glyn Johns in the engineer’s chair, the group recorded all of their debut album’s nine songs in a matter of days, with the entire studio time reputedly exceeding no more than 36 hours in total.

Led Zeppelin was created in a very crisp businesslike fashion,” Plant recalled in Trampled Underfoot. “Nobody really knew each other. The record and the jamming that developed was what it was and it was a very swift session. There were songs that began and ended cut-and-dried, like Communication Breakdown and Good Times Bad Times.”

The recording: “The sound from Bonham’s kit was phenomenal”

Hearing it cold, the listener might well assume that Jimmy Page was responsible for the sharp, no-nonsense music driving Good Times Bad Times, yet the song’s main riff was actually devised by John Paul Jones – originally on Hammond organ rather than his usual bass guitar.

“John Paul was as responsible for the success of Led Zeppelin as the other three,” producer Glyn Johns later told Barney Hoskyns. “Though it’s only the other three that people ever talk about. Why? Because nobody ever talks about the bass player. Though of course he was also a great keyboard player.”

Nonetheless, while Jones devised the riff for Good Times Bad Times, he later admitted that performing it caused him more problems than most, telling Rolling Stone, in 2007, “That’s the hardest riff I ever wrote, the hardest to play.”

From a listener’s perspective, however, Good Times Bad Times sounded seamless. Indeed, supported by Jones’ nimble basslines, the whole band was on fire. Page played a Fender Telecaster on the track, his quicksilver solo fed through a Leslie speaker to create a wicked, swirling effect. Plant, meanwhile, weighed in with a commanding roar of a vocal, while Bonham’s thunderous yet supremely funky drum barrage was simply something else.

Reputedly drawing inspiration from Vanilla Fudge’s Carmine Appice (who played a similar figure on his band’s cover of The Beatles’ Ticket To Ride), Bonham somehow had the skill and stamina to play triplets exclusively on his bass drum during Good Times Bad Times – a feat which still astounds his bandmates.

“It really knocked everybody sideways when they heard the bass drum pattern,” Page noted in the BBC’s Guitar Greats. “Because I think everyone was laying bets that Bonzo was using two bass drums, but he only had one.”

Revealing more about the way he recorded Bonham’s drums, Glyn John told Barney Hoskyns, “The sound from Bonham’s kit was phenomenal because he knew how to tune it and not many rock’n’roll drummers know how to do that.

“I only used to use three mics,” the producer continued. “The idea was to capture the sound the guy was giving you and not fuck with it. I did put Bonham on a riser, however, to try and get the maximum out of his kit. On those sessions, I stumbled, by accident, across stereo drum micing, and it made him sound even bigger. Your jaw was on the floor from the minute he counted off. It was like the meeting of the gods: Jimmy and John Paul found these guys who were as good as them at what they did.”

The release: “A blistering single debut”

Strangely, for such a brash, in-your-face song, Good Times Bad Times rarely featured in Led Zeppelin’s live set, though it sometimes featured in part as an introduction to Communication Breakdown during the band’s early shows, and it was performed as the opening song at the group’s reunion concert at London’s O2 Arena on 10 December 2007 – a gig recorded and later released as Celebration Day.

However, the song’s inherent accessibility immediately earmarked it as a single. Despite Led Zeppelin’s general lack of interest in single releases, Good Times Bad Times did sneak out in this form in several territories, not least in the US where, following its release, on 10 March 1969, it peaked at No.80 on the Billboard Hot 100 and drew praise from Cash Box magazine, which declared that the song’s “combined power of a teen-rock vocal and a solid FM-ized instrumental set give Led Zeppelin a blistering single debut”.

The legacy: “Hard rock would never be the same”

Indeed, Good Times Bad Times has since cemented its place among the best Led Zeppelin songs, with a 2016 Rolling Stone retrospective suggesting that “Jimmy Page’s guitar pounces from the speakers, fat with menace; John Bonham’s kick drum swings with anvil force; Robert Plant rambles on about the perils of manhood. Hard rock would never be the same.”

“Led Zeppelin for me was so different to anyone else that it was like a completely new chapter,” Glyn Johns enthused in Trampled Underfoot. “When I heard them on that first day, I can’t remember being quite so excited. Blew my fucking socks off.”

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