Led Zeppelin’s first contact, 50 years later
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Fifty years ago today, an album by the third guitarist from the Yardbirds, two teenagers from the English midlands and a session bass player was released on Atlantic Records to minor fanfare and mostly snarky reviews.
It didn’t sound in step with the vanguard of the fading 1960s, didn’t offer much in the way of political opinion and didn’t seem like anything approaching high art, at least to Rolling Stone and the like. So it sat lurking on shelves, waiting for listeners to take a chance on its disaster-scene artwork and let it take over their collective hi-fis.
I can only imagine what that must have been like at the time, to buy that record on a whim or recommendation, or see the band open for some lesser act in a small theater. Because contained on that poorly reviewed artifact was Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album, an album that swung like a hammer and landed like a meteor. It must have been devastating in all the best ways. It was almost 30 years later when I began my trek through all things Zeppelin, and it left me shaken in a manner that’s never been resolved.
Their impact on me was just about immediate when cashing in free and profoundly discounted CDs via the BMG club turned into hunting out their entire catalog. Led Zeppelin IV was first, followed by Physical Graffiti, then Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin in the same package. If I recall, the rest went: Led Zeppelin III, Houses of the Holy, In Through the Out Door, Presence, Coda and finally The Song Remains the Same. 10 albums spread out over 12 discs, but an obsession had begun well before the shelf was filled.
I had a solid base by the time Led Zeppelin arrived, and when I played it, I liked it. I liked everything. I was still new enough to the process that I was hung up on “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir,” but the fact was that just about everything that came out of my little CD player from these guys was mind-blowing. So I latched onto the most recognizable stuff and let the rest slowly drip into my veins.
And it all did eventually. If I was dared to sing “We’re Gonna Groove” or “Out on the Tiles” karaoke without a lyric monitor, I could just about pull it off. This obsession eventually led to studio bootlegs, live recordings, inevitable burnout and, finally, reconciliation and recognition that, frankly, this shit rocked like nothing else.
If one thing still surprises, it’s just how much the first album resonated with me, and how it might be my favorite album of all of theirs if you asked me today. Tomorrow, the answer could be Physical Graffiti, or III, but it’s always on the shortest of short lists. There’s no one reason why that is, but there are factors.
It could be the urgency. The band spent about the equivalent of one working week to record and mix the album, thanks to Jimmy Page’s methodical detailing of Zeppelin’s every move in the early days, including how he wanted the first album to be recorded. Doing it on their own dime allowed Page to choose the setting and plot the course as producer. Selling the results to the highest bidder amongst interested record companies turned out to be a solid business decision, too, in addition to its impact on the music itself.
Page’s urgency was pragmatic, but that’s not where Robert Plant’s and John Bonham’s energy came from. They were younger than Page and John Paul Jones, and were effectively set loose on the material. Page charted the course of the delicate quietLOUDquiet dynamic on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” but it’s Plant’s wailing that takes that song to its unholy level. Page had “Dazed and Confused” in mind as a set centerpiece, with its bowed guitar histrionics, but listen again to when that song takes off — it’s when Bonham comes crashing in as no drummer before him had. If Keith Moon was a howitzer, Bonham was a tank — thundering, booming, relentless. The sound that came off his drums still doesn’t sound like it belongs of this world. What to think, then, when this shuffled into record stores in January of 1969?
And that leads to another fascination. Hearing and devouring and obsessing over all this music in 1996 or ’97 was enough to flatten me for the next two decades. But that comes with context — I was already aware of all the hair metal bands that tried their best to be a dolled-up version of Zeppelin, and there were other bands I already loved — Soundgarden, for one — who had been clearly influenced by them and turned their experience into real art.
In its time, though, this had to have been a stunner. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, one Jeff Beck album and a few heavier, albeit less recognizable, bands out of San Francisco had begun blazing a path towards heavy music. Still, this album blew those heavy doors off its hinges. It starts with the twitching, opening shot on “Good Times Bad Times” and exits with the unhinged, collective howl of all four musicians on “How Many More Times.”
Underscoring that heaviness is, again, how delicate they could be. Page owes a lot to Bert Jansch on the instrumental interlude “Black Mountain Side,” and those open-tuning guitars and tabla drums showed that they weren’t just volume-dealing hooligans trying to crash the record industry. It also set up a perfect juxtaposition by leading directly into the delirious “Communication Breakdown.”
Those moments are all over the record. Jones’ organ haunts and then gradually floats at the beginning of “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” only to crash into a Bonham-propelled introduction proper. Both blues numbers, “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” see the band playing with dynamics in a live setting, bringing it down only to rip it back up again. And they bring it on home with “How Many More Times,” which blended everything together in one last mission statement for the album in micro and band at large. Through eight and a half minutes, the band marches through every weapon they have — muted jazz intros, thundering riffs, wailing vocals, marching drums, crashing stop/starts, bowed guitar mayhem, blues tropes, tales of conquest and woe, more drums, more bass, more guitars...
And there it is. It’s not hard and likely not even incorrect to campaign for the fourth album or Physical Graffiti as the band’s apex, or perhaps a singular track, like “Achilles Last Stand” or “Immigrant Song,” as the one that best illustrates the band. But nearly everything was there on their first album, even if it was just a seed for what was to come.
Fifty years ago today, the near totality of Led Zeppelin — or at the very least, a better-than-average blueprint of what would be — was unleashed on the public. Nearly 30 years later, I found them. And 20 years after that, they’re still crashing through speakers. There’s a weight to the best music that never dissipates or weakens. Grab a copy of Led Zeppelin and play it as loud as you can, and then play it again, and then try to walk away the same person. The four young men who made the album didn’t walk away from that music the way they walked in. It only stands to reason that the world would still be reeling all these years later, too.
Jan. 12, 2019
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org