Forty five years after the release of Led Zeppelin I, some elements still stand out. There’s a sense of urgency and danger bouncing off a compelling mix of disciplined experience and nervous sloppiness. “The first album is really roaring, the four members came together and created this fifth monster!” Jimmy Page told Uncut magazine in May 2005.
Page always had a strong vision for Led Zeppelin – the music, the approach, even marketing ideas like no official singles. Years of doing sessions had taught him the right and wrong ways of making great music. It was to be a heavy blues trio, with a powerful drummer and a singer who used his voice as another instrument.
But what made Zeppelin I compelling was that the lineup that made it was a far cry from the experienced players that Page initially considered. Page had considered singers as Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott (the Small Faces’ manager Don Arden reportedly sent a message back asking how Page would feel about playing guitar with some of his fingers broken), drummers like Keith Moon and Aynsley Dubar, and bassists as The Who’s John Entwistle and Chris Dreja of The Yardbirds.
Page was enchanted with Terry Reid’s voice on his River album. But he turned down the offer and suggested an unknown teenager Robert Plant from Birmingham. Page, Dreja and manager Peter Grant journeyed up to see him with his band Hobstweedle. They knocked on the backstage door. A big made teenager in a University of Toronto sweatshirt let them in. Page whispered to his manager, “Crikey, they got a big roadie!” It turned out to be Plant.
There’s no doubt that 19-year old Plant was mesmerized by Page. The guitarist had recorded with US bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.
Three years before, Plant went to see Williamson at Birmingham Town Hall and sneaked backstage afterwards to steal one of his harmonicas. Plant wanted his buddy John Bonham in. Bonzo was reluctant as he was making £35 a week playing with folk singer Tim Rose. But Page dug him as soon as he checked him out “He plays so loud, promoters won’t want to book him!” Page cackled. Page knew John Paul Jones distantly from the session circuit, when he played on Rod Stewart and Lulu records and arranged the strings for The Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’.
Jones recalled Zeppelin’s first rehearsal in August 1968, in a small room in London’s Soho filled with dusty old amps. Page asked Jones, “Do you know ‘The Train Kept A-Rolling?’ He didn’t. Page said, ‘It’s easy, just G to A.” Jones remembered, “He counted it out and the room just exploded, and we said, ‘Right, we’re on, this is it, this is going to work!’ And we just sort of built it up from there.”
So what Led Zeppelin I had through its nine songs lasting 44 minutes and 26 seconds was a group that locked in, and lucked in, in sheer chemistry. Page said, “The thing about Zeppelin (I) was that we always played as a band.”
They’d already worked in the song list and arrangements during a tour of Scandinavia in September 1968 as The New Yardbirds. As soon as they returned, they changed their name and went into Olympic Studios.
The sessions took 36 hours over a six week period. Page’s and Jones’ discipline from sessions meant recording went quickly. They had still not signed a record deal, so Page had to pay the studio costs of £1,782 himself.
Page: “The first album is a live album, it really is, and it’s done intentionally in that way. It’s got overdubs on it, but the original tracks are live.”
Plant and Bonham were at that stage no more than country bumpkins. Plant remembers being “petrified” in the studio, overwhelmed by the size of the control room and the volume of the music booming out over the huge speakers. But it was also an exhilarating experienced for him. “When we listened to playbacks, it was unbelievable, fantastic, to hear what we’d done in the rehearsal room develop a different perspective and sound, like we know it sounds. It was the most amazing sensation.”
By Led Zeppelin II, he’d start to work on what he’d call the “blue shadow stated” effect. Bonham on the other hand was providing some great work at this early stage, admittedly precise but without the imagination that went into the later records.
Page was in control, using sound innovations as backward echo on ‘You Shook Me’. He used the ambience of the studio room and used techniques as placing additional mics as far as 20 feet from the instruments rather than the traditional approach of putting them right in front.
He drew on an array of guitars for the wide array of styles. Much of the record was done on a Telecaster which Beck gave him. He liked it because it sounded like a Les Paul; with proper mic placings and different amps (in particular the Supro amp) he found that he could get more tones than most. That’s a Leslie on the solo for ‘Good Times Bad Times’. For the acoustic sounds on ‘Black Mountain Side’ and ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ he borrowed a Gibson J-200 from English bluesman Big Jim Sullivan.
“It was a beautiful guitar, really great. I’ve never found a guitar of that quality anywhere since. I could play so easily on it, get a really thick sound; it had heavy-gauge strings on it, but it just didn’t seem to feel like it.” ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ features an out-of-tune Fender 10-string steel guitar.
For ‘Communication Breakdown’, he opted for a small room and miked the guitar from a distance. He agrees that the solo on
‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ is sloppy. “There are mistakes in it, but it doesn’t make any difference. I’ll always leave the mistakes in. I can’t help it. The timing bits on the A and Bb parts are right, though it might sound wrong. The timing just sounds off. But there are some wrong notes.”
Peter Grant was in the meantime negotiating with record companies. The British ones like Pye and EMI laughed him out of their offices when he asked for an advance of £17,500. But Atlantic Records in America, who had Cream on their books and knew that audiences were turning for heavier sounds, trumped up $100,000, the highest amount ever given to an unknown act.
Led Zeppelin I was released in the US on January 12, and in the UK two months later. It initially got bad reviews, especially in America where critics accused the band of ripping off Beck’s Truth from six months before. Both albums shared ‘You Shook Me’. There was also annoyance that Page claimed writing credits for ‘Black Mountain Side’ when it was similar to Brit folkie Bert Jansch’s version of the traditional folk song ‘Black Water Side’.
But audiences lapped up the album, especially after Led Zeppeln began touring behind its release. The shows stretched out some songs to epics, much to the crowd’s delight. ‘Dazed And Confused’ crept up to 20 minutes, incorporating the violin bow and a call’n’response between Plant and Page.
‘Communication Breakdown’ had a lengthy jam midway while ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ clearly was a crowd favourite. Little wonder that Zeppelin became the most bootlegged act in the world. Of the bootlegs from shows around that first album, Live On Blueberry Hill, Twinnight/Fillmore West 1969, Plays Pure Blues and Intimidator are recommended.
The cover of Led Zeppelin I, of an exploding zeppelin, also brought attention to the album. It went Top 10 in America, the UK and Australia (where it was certified double platinum) and worked through Europe and Japan. In financial terms, Page’s £1,782 investment made a heavy return. The record grossed US$7million by the mid-70s.
Since then, Led Zeppelin I has gone through appraisal by critics. They now appreciate how good the arrangements were, the subtle inventiveness of Page’s production, and how the playing complemented the style. In 2003 it ranked #29 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time (and #7 on Uncut’s 2006 list of great debut albums).
It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004. It is also remembered for being the first record to be described as “heavy metal.” A US critic used the line “heavy metal thunder” from Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ to convey to his readers the atmospherics of the heavy blues and rock fusion of Led Zeppelin I.
By Christie Eliezer