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How Led Zeppelin’s Debut Album Paved The Way For Heavy Metal
In Depth

How Led Zeppelin’s Debut Album Paved The Way For Heavy Metal

Super-charging the blues with a sound as heavy as their name, Led Zeppelin’s debut album continues to send shockwaves around the world.

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Led Zeppelin’s debut album is now widely accepted as a significant milestone in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal, but when it first landed, its impact was truly awe-inspiring. “It just leapt out at you,” Melody Maker’s Chris Welch told Classic Rock in 2014. “It really did feel like a great leap forward in terms of the sound you could actually get on a record!”

Hard-headed professionals such as Welch weren’t the only ones floored by the seismic shockwaves emitted from Led Zeppelin’s debut album when Atlantic first released it on 12 January 1969. When the record initially hit the racks, the band were busy wowing new fans on their first North American tour, and by the spring of 1969 they were headlining major US venues such as The Winterland in San Francisco and the Rose Palace in Pasadena.

“Every night, new things were happening”

It’s something of an understatement to suggest Led Zeppelin’s rise was meteoric, though the band were hardly an overnight success, either. Indeed, their founder member and prime mover, guitarist Jimmy Page, had been pursuing the dream since he joined The Yardbirds in 1966.

Established as one of London’s go-to session guitarists, Page rapidly amassed an enviable CV, appearing on classic early singles by acts such as The Who, Them, Joe Cocker and many more from 1962 through to 1966. During this time, he’d also picked up valuable experience watching producers such as Shel Talmy and Joe Meek weave their magic in studio settings.

Initially appearing alongside Jeff Beck, Page joined The Yardbirds as their trail of UK hit singles was drying up. However, the band attracted widespread critical acclaim for their visceral live shows in the US during their latter days. As Page later told Classic Rock, “It could have been better than the Stones.”

Instead, the band split during the summer of 1968, with Page laying much of the blame for their disillusionment at the door of their manager-producer, Mickie Most, who largely chose the material The Yardbirds recorded, and hustled them through their studio sessions. In response, Page was determined to assume artistic complete artistic control with his next band, which was initially dubbed The New Yardbirds before morphing into Led Zeppelin.

“Collective energy made this fifth element”

Page personally selected his new bandmates. Bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, another highly-respected sessioneer on the London scene, was recruited alongside powerhouse drummer John Bonham and (on the recommendation of singer Terry Reid), vocalist Robert Plant, both of whom had previously been part of Birmingham psych-rock outfit Band Of Joy.

The guitarist felt he was onto something, but even he was amazed how good the band sounded at their first rehearsal, which took place on 19 August 1968, in a small room below a record shop in London’s Chinatown. The band plugged in and performed Johnny Burnett’s Train Kept A-Rollin’ and were astounded by the results.

“It was unforgettable,” Page told Classic Rock. “Everybody just freaked. It was like these four individuals, but this collective energy made this fifth element. And that was it. It was there immediately – a thunderbolt, a lightning flash – boosh! Everybody sort of went, ‘Wow!’”

“I had a mountain of riffs and ideas”

A short Scandinavian tour followed in September, during which the fledgling band worked up a killer live set, including covers of Willie Dixon’s blues standards You Shook Me and I Can’t Quit You Baby, as well as a clutch of highly promising, freshly-penned originals. “I’d already come up with such a mountain of riffs and ideas,” Page enthused, “because every night we went on there were new things happening.”

Keen to capture the magic, Page ushered his new charges into London’s Olympic Studios after they returned from Scandinavia, where, in just a few days, they laid down the nine tracks that make up Led Zeppelin’s debut album – completing all recording and mixing duties in little more than 30 hours of studio time.

It was the ideal approach, as the album exuded both rawness and a still-thrilling urgency. A nigh-on perfect statement of intent, its explosive opener, Good Times Bad Times, blended the heft of hard rock with the economy of radio-friendly pop, while the spiky Communication Breakdown was a short, sharp blast of proto-punk energy worthy of The Stooges or MC5.

“Heavy metal still lives in its shadow”

Elsewhere, Page and company stretched out on their lengthy and imperiously heavy versions of You Shook Me and I Can’t Quit You Baby, before enjoying a further dalliance with the blues on How Many More Times: a barnstorming original incorporating snatches of Albert King’s The Hunter and The Yardbirds’ reworking of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning.

In sharp contrast, Page’s bucolic, Bert Jansch-inspired Black Mountain Side and the stirring, organ- and pedal steel-assisted hymnal, Your Time Is Gonna Come, revealed that Led Zeppelin had more than merely muscle and volume in their armoury. However, they rapidly built the tension back up with their volcanic version of Anne Bredon’s folk standard Babe I’m Gonna Leave You and pulled out all the stops during their epic repurposing of Jake Holmes’ witchy ballad Dazed And Confused, which was fast becoming the centrepiece of their early live shows.

Issued in an iconic album cover featuring illustrator George Hardie’s adaptation of Sam Shere’s photograph of the 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster, Led Zeppelin’s debut album looked as classic as it sounded, and strands of its DNA can be detected in virtually every hard rock record that’s followed in its wake. Though the sheer strength of its sonic onslaught alienated some contemporary critics, the record simply bulldozed everything in its path.

The album’s multi-platinum performance ensured Led Zeppelin’s stellar career rapidly took flight. As Rolling Stone later declared: “Heavy metal still lives in its shadow today.”

Led Zeppelin’s Debut Album, Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Good Times, Bad Times

Short and sharp, yet oozing with swagger, Good Times, Bad Times was the first Led Zeppelin song many people heard, and it’s still as exhilarating an entry to their work as any. Strangely, despite its catchy chorus and feel-good factor, this breezy rocker rarely featured in the group’s live sets, but it was the ideal showcase for each member’s talents, and their dynamic ensemble performance ensures Led Zeppelin’s debut album begins with a bang.

Babe I’m Gonna Leave You

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were alerted to Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’s potential through hearing the song on Joan Baez’s 1962 live album, Joan Baez In Concert. Baez learned it from her folk contemporary Janet Smith, but the song was actually penned by another US folkie, Anne Bredon, during the late 50s, and also covered by acts including The Association and Quicksilver Messenger Service during the 60s.

Babe I’m Gonna Leave You has a central role in Zeppelin’s early history, as Jimmy Page played the song for Robert Plant when the two first met at Plant’s home in Pangbourne, Berkshire, in July 1968. The singer was suitably impressed, but Zeppelin radically altered the song’s arrangement before they nailed it for their debut album. Indeed, the near-seven-minute recording more than doubled the length of Baez’s version, and its vacillation between angsty semi-acoustic sections and thunderous hard-rock interludes creates a tour de force rife with dynamism and tension.

You Shook Me

As with Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, the blues standard You Shook Me had a convoluted passage through the world before it appeared on Led Zeppelin’s debut album. The story goes that Muddy Waters recorded an instrumental penned by another Chicago bluesman, Earl Hooker, in 1962, but then added lyrics by Willie Dixon, with You Shook Me emerging from that Frankenstein-esque experiment. Jeff Beck, Page’s former bandmate in The Yardbirds, then recorded a blistering take of the song for his 1968 album, Truth, before Zeppelin again reworked it – their intense reimagining sprawling over six minutes and featuring wailing harmonica from Plant and a Jimmy Smith-esque Hammond organ solo from John Paul Jones.

Dazed And Confused

Arguably the centrepiece of Led Zeppelin’s debut album, the ultra-heavy, shape-shifting Dazed And Confused was omnipresent at the band’s early concerts, and it remained in their live set for most of their career – often becoming a vehicle for improvisation which could stretch to almost 30 minutes on stage. By comparison, the six-minute 26-second studio take of Dazed And Confused is lean and hungry, with Page famously playing the song’s eerie guitar solo with a violin bow.

Though initially credited solely to Page, Dazed And Confused was originally written by US singer-songwriter Jake Holmes; Page, however, diligently honed his arrangement of the song through playing it live with The Yardbirds during their final days, and then at Zeppelin’s early concerts during the autumn of 1968. Page’s source material was later acknowledged, and Holmes was awarded a writing credit on the song in 2011, but by then Dazed And Confused had long since been claimed as one of the best Led Zeppelin songs – and it’s unlikely to have been held in such high esteem had the group not recast it in their own image.

Your Time Is Gonna Come

Your Time Is Gonna Come offers some much-needed respite after the drama and intensity of Dazed And Confused. Indeed, sitting in stark contrast to the previous track, it sees Zeppelin lean towards the light, with Jones’ churchy organ fugue giving way to an insistent folk-rock framework dominated by Page’s acoustic textures and further embellished by his intricate pedal-steel guitar. However, while its slow-burn start morphs into a full-blown anthem come the chorus, the song’s title proved erroneous, for its time never truly came in Zeppelin’s live set. In fact, the only live version the band are known to have delivered came during a 1971 show in Tokyo, when they performed Your Time Is Gonna Come during an extended medley with Whole Lotta Love.

Black Mountain Side

A brief, bucolic instrumental, Black Mountain Side bears a Page writing credit, but it’s effectively the Zeppelin guitarist’s adaptation of Bert Jansch’s version of a traditional Irish folk song, Down By Blackwaterside, with tabla added for atmosphere. Choosing his words carefully, the late Pentangle guitarist and British folk trailblazer told biographer Colin Harper, “Let’s just say he learned from me. I wouldn’t want to sound impolite.”

Communication Breakdown

It’s ironic that Led Zeppelin were targeted for eradication by the UK punks, for Page and co did their best to imagine the genre with Communication Breakdown. A staple of the band’s live sets during their earliest days, the song’s thrilling amphetamine rush was captured to perfection in the studio, Led Zeppelin performing it with a snarling intensity redolent of The Stooges and tearing through it in under two minutes and 30 seconds. Some future punk figureheads were listening, including Ramones’ frontman, Johnny Ramone: “Johnny loved Jimmy Page and he also liked Communication Breakdown,” Joey Ramone’s real-life brother, Mickey Leigh, wrote in I Slept With Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir. “He said, ‘That’s how rock’n’roll should be played. All of it. Everything should be played with down strokes.’”

I Can’t Quit You Baby

Unlike reimagined hybrids such as Babe I’m Gonna Leave You and Dazed And Confused, I Can’t Quit You is a straight-up cover of the Willie Dixon-penned blues standard, previously recorded by Chicago blues star Otis Rush in 1956. Despite its troubled, adultery-based lyric (“Well, you messed up my happy home, babe/Made me mistreat my only child”), Zeppelin’s recording of the song is both respectful and imperiously mellow. The call-and-response routine between Page’s guitar and Plant’s vocal is particularly inspired, with the languid atmosphere only occasionally disrupted by Bonham’s increasingly impatient drum fills.

How Many More Times

As we’ve already seen, several of Led Zeppelin’s most seminal tracks had their antecedents in specific blues or folk songs, but the song that closes Led Zeppelin’s debut album, How Many More Times, drew upon a medley of influences. Jones’ opening bassline had its roots in The Yardbirds’ live cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s blues standard, Smokestack Lightning, while later verses in the song borrowed from Albert King’s The Hunter and Jimmie Rodgers’ Kisses Sweeter Than Wine. How Many More Times was, however, ultimately far greater than the sum of its influences, and the energy inherent in the band’s live-in-the-studio performance ensures that, while the song sprawls across eight minutes, it never feels bloated or excessive – and it still captivates the listener today.

Buy Led Zeppelin vinyl and box sets at the Dig! store.

Original article: 12 January 2021

Updated: 12 January 2023

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