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Led Zeppelin’s Debut Live Gig: “There Was Special Chemistry”
In Depth

Led Zeppelin’s Debut Live Gig: “There Was Special Chemistry”

Officially billed as The New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin’s debut live gig saw the rock legends take flight in Gladsaxe, Denmark, in 1968.

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In rock’n’roll history, the Danish town of Gladsaxe’s name is rarely writ large. Indeed, this suburban borough just outside the nation’s capital, Copenhagen, is probably better known for having sired former international footballer Peter Schmeichel than for its contribution to the global music scene. Nonetheless, on the evening of 7 September 1968, Gladsaxe had a direct run-in with the zeitgeist when future rock legends Led Zeppelin played their debut gig, at the town’s Teen Club.

Listen to the best of Led Zeppelin here.

Who were The New Yardbirds? “It was only Jimmy Page from The Yardbirds who played that night”

With hindsight, it sounds like a truly seismic event, yet the reality was all rather low key. Indeed, the group weren’t even officially known as Led Zeppelin when they touched down in Denmark for the first time in September 1968. Advance publicity had informed local music fans that revered English rock outfit The Yardbirds would be playing, yet that evening’s audience – which reputedly totalled around 1,200 people – only got to see one former member of that band.

“It was sometime in the evening that I heard a band called The New Yardbirds would perform,” local photographer and audience member Jorgen Angel later told Rave magazine. “I thought maybe that has nothing to do with The Yardbirds. Maybe there’s just one person left from The Yardbirds, which turned out to be right, it was only Jimmy Page from The Yardbirds who played that night. The others I had never seen or heard of.”

Angel – whose photos of that night’s gig are widely believed to be the earliest shots of Led Zeppelin in performance – came to exactly the right conclusion. The Yardbirds’ other three members, Keith Relf, Jim McCarty and Chris Dreja, had quit the group barely two months earlier, leaving guitarist Page and manager Peter Grant with the rights to The Yardbirds’ name and a series of scheduled gigs in Scandinavia.

Forming Led Zeppelin: “We only had about 15 hours to practice”

Quickly recruiting three new musicians over the next few weeks, Page was determined to fulfil his obligation to play the shows, which began in Gladsaxe on 7 September. Bearing in mind his new group had barely coalesced, the guitarist was winging it, yet encouraging early rehearsals suggested that Page had made exactly the right call in hand-picking vocalist Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones as his new bandmates.

The Gladsaxe gig thus offered The New Yardbirds their first opportunity to prove their mettle on the boards, though it was hardly in a standard rock-club setting. The venue was actually a gymnasium at the local Egegård Skole, which was converted into the Teen Club on Saturday nights. However, the band were determined to give their first ever gig their all and – after just a few days in rehearsal – they’d worked up an impressive set of songs.

Led Zeppelin’s debut gig: “Their performance and their music were absolutely flawless”

No recordings of the Gladsaxe show are believed to exist, though the surviving setlist shows that Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham were already putting together music of depth and quality. They opened with the first song they’d rehearsed together, Johnny Burnette’s The Train Kept A-Rollin’, and followed up with several of the songs that would shortly grace Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album – I Can’t Quit You Baby, the psych-blues workout How Many More Times and the proto-punk of Communication Breakdown – along with an already epic-sounding Dazed And Confused, for which Page was already using a violin bow to play the spectacular guitar parts that would define one of the best Led Zeppelin songs of all time.

The band had also worked up a dynamic new arrangement for the folk standard Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, and they rounded out their set with a couple of The Yardbirds’ hits (White Summer, the Graham Gouldman-penned For Your Love), in addition to covers of Elmer Gantry’s Flames and the soul standard As Long As I Have You, popularised by Garnet Mimms.

The aftermath: “It was obvious that there was a chemistry”

Following the Gladsaxe show The New Yardbirds quickly travelled to nearby Brøndby, where they had another engagement that same evening, at the Pop-Club, where they would appear on a bill will with Keef Hartley Band, Ham and an appropriately named local group, Made In Sweden. However, while all concerned were happy to have survived their first gig, the fledgling Led Zeppelin were unsure about the reaction or how they felt about their performance.

“They don’t cheer too madly, you know?” Jimmy Page said in a December 1968 interview with Melody Maker. “We were really scared, because we only had about 15 hours to practice. It was sort of an experimental concert to see if we were any good, I guess.”

“In Scandinavia, we were pretty green,” Robert Plant later recalled in a 1990 interview with Q magazine. “It was very early days and we were tiptoeing with each other. We didn’t have half the recklessness that became for me the whole joy of Led Zeppelin.”

Other insiders, though, had little doubt that they’d witnessed the birth of something exceptional during what was, to all intents and purposes, Led Zeppelin’s debut gig.

“Standing by the side of the stage it was obvious that there was a chemistry,” Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant later said. “It was a tentative start, but we knew we had something.”

The official name change: “The thing had quickly gone beyond where The Yardbirds left off”

Jorgen Angel agreed with Grant’s observations. “When they went onstage, it was something very special, different and spectacular,” he told Rave magazine, while adding elsewhere, “I was very impressed with their energy and the vitality and the whole sound, I was so captivated that I used a roll and a half of film on them – and that was expensive for a schoolboy!”

The Teen Club’s newsletter also enthusiastically reviewed the Gladsaxe show, saying, “Their performance and their music were absolutely flawless,” before concluding, “The new Yardbirds are at least as good as the old ones were.” However, while these endorsements spurred the band on, they also encouraged a decisive change following the group’s Scandinavian dates. Just weeks later – with their killer, self-titled debut album already in the can – the band performed their first show using the name with which they would soon conquer the world; on 25 October, at University Of Surrey’s Great Hall, they were Led Zeppelin.

“We realised we were working under false pretences,” Jimmy Page later explained. “The thing had quickly gone beyond where The Yardbirds left off. We all agreed there was no point in retaining the New Yardbirds tag, so when we got back from Scandinavia we decided to change the name. It was a fresh beginning for us all.”

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