Back when Led Zeppelin made their maiden flight, rock critics expected them to land with a thud. But fifty years ago today (Jan. 12), Led Zeppelin unleashed their self-titled debut, a perfect storm of gonzo drums, banshee wailing and mystical ballads that remains a tentpole of 1970s rock.
Today, Led Zeppelin has been codified into rock mythology as a classic — but rock critics weren’t so sure at the outset. “No special appeal in sound,” concluded a Denver review of their 1968 live debut. “Weak, unimaginative songs,” scathed Rolling Stone in an infamous hatchet job.
It’s worth considering the context: Led Zeppelin began hastily, almost accidentally — and in an era of supergroups churned through the hype machine. Their roots lay in the Yardbirds, the British blues band that acted as an alma mater for future guitar heroes Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
When the Yardbirds split in 1968, Page was partially left with the rights to the name. A seasoned session vet by his early twenties, he’d befriended the young bassist and arranger John Paul Jones on the studio grind. Determined to keep the brand humming along, the two began to devise a spinoff act: “The New Yardbirds.”
Their first choice of singer, Terry Reid, bowed out and suggested his friend Robert Plant instead. John Bonham, a friend of Plant’s, was picked as the drummer — which almost didn’t happen when they “didn’t have the petrol money” to pick Bonham up.
There was also the issue of their name. After a Scandinavian trek as “The Yardbirds,” the band’s original bassist Chris Dreja threatened litigation. When it came time to cut their debut, they entered London’s Olympic Studios under a self-deprecating name: Led Zeppelin.
In 36 hours of studio time, their debut was in the can — and the energy of Led Zeppelin had little precedent. From the gut-punching opening chords of “Good Times Bad Times,” listeners were treated to an utterly new style of rock, one that took British blues and blew it up to IMAX scale.
Bonham, dismissed in a live review as “uninventive,” makes his critics eat crow with a dizzying flurry of kick drum and hi-hat. Jones plays in a sinewy jazz style that blows away the average 12-bar plucker. And Page’s opening chords, courtesy of a Gibson Les Paul into a Marshall amp, seem to weigh a million pounds.
In their hands, their version of the folk standard “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” becomes a thing of feral beauty. “Dazed and Confused” and “Your Time is Gonna Come” are abetted by eerie, magisterial drones. And on the viscerally exciting “Communication Breakdown,” they outpunked punk before it began.
Led Zeppelin would go on to make even bigger, grander gestures during their legendary ‘70s run, but their self-titled debut contains the DNA of all their future moods. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin, here’s a track-by-track retrospective.
“Good Times Bad Times”
For any late-night debates on the best opening track on a debut album, “Good Times Bad Times” should be within spitting distance of the top of your list. Bonham’s superlative footwork, Page’s hair-raising solo, a very nervous Plant puffing himself up as a hard-luck bluesman — it’s a guidepost for the entire post-Beatles era of heavy rock. If “Good Times Bad Times” is less a song than a shameless showcase of its players, then what a show.
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
For all the heavy sounds Zeppelin connote — colossus riffs, Marshall stacks and extended drum solos — it wouldn’t mean much without their abundant softness. On their cover of Anne Bredon’s folk song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” Page picks out dramatic flamenco arpeggios as Plant gulps and sobs as a leaving lover. Just when this traditional ballad threatens to tip over into goopiness, Bonham becomes the exclamation point, throwing down anxious fills that shatter like glass.
“You Shook Me”
At this point, the narrative about Zep being musical plagiarists is more than tired: it misses the whole point. On their cover of Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me,” they gave the blues an evolutionary step: slow it down to a doomy crawl, play just ahead of the beat and, most importantly, crank up the amps. Plant’s vocal style was sometimes an overwrought liability to the band; on “You Shook Me,” he’s absolutely riveting. Listen to how he follows the word “long” into the center of the earth.
“Dazed and Confused”
In 1967, the Yardbirds went on French television and performed “Dazed and Confused,” a folky breakup tune originally by jingle writer Jake Holmes. Evidently hearing more in the song, Page brought “Dazed and Confused” to Led Zeppelin’s very first rehearsal and asked them to give it a go. The result doesn’t just transcend the eminently forgettable Yardbirds version: it wipes it off the face of the Earth.
On Zeppelin’s rendition of “Dazed and Confused,” Plant howls like a usurped king, Bonham’s drum sound is like a cannonball in the pit of your stomach, Jones’ bass purrs like a cat and Page smears everything in pitch-black, hallucinogenic noise. This is how you play it.
“Your Time Is Gonna Come”
An autumnal deep cut underpinned by a holy organ part from Jones, “Your Time is Gonna Come” was only performed live once — but is still one of Zeppelin’s most rewarding deep cuts. Lyrically, it’s one-note blues fare about a cheating lover; musically, it’s a potent brew of light and dark.
“It’s like the drums are playing a big rock song and the guitars are playing a gentle folk song,” marveled the legendary producer Rick Rubin. “And it’s got one of the most upbeat choruses of any Zeppelin song, even though the words are so dark.” He’s right: with every listen, “Your Time is Gonna Come” reflects new shades and nuances.
“Black Mountain Side”
During Page’s session days, he sat in with the folk musician Al Stewart, who taught him how to play an Irish folk tune: “Down By Blackwaterside,” as arranged by Bert Jansch. Sounds like the guitar lesson stuck: Led Zeppelin contains a brief guitar raga called “Black Mountain Side.”
This track has a slight problem, though: although credited to Page, it’s almost a note-for-note rip of Jansch. Authorship issues aside, it’s a lovely respite in the middle of Led Zeppelin’s abundant thunder.
Not much more than four power chords and some attitude, “Communication Breakdown” can be easily picked up after one or two guitar lessons — and inspired an entire new genre of music. Johnny Ramone learned his quick-downstroke guitar style from woodshedding “Communication Breakdown,” kicking open the door for disaffected amateurs from the New York Dolls to Black Flag.
Best of all is Plant’s vocal tic before Page lets his solo rip, like he prepared a word to yell but mangled the delivery: “Ahhhhh… sha!”
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”
For all the blues deconstructions on Led Zeppelin, the guys keep it pretty close to the chest on “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” the second Willie Dixon number of the program. Although it doesn’t contain much venturing outside its traditional 12-bar formula, Page’s octave-leaping leads and Bonham’s Brontosaurus-sized fills have plenty of appeal.
“How Many More Times”
Clocking in at a whopping eight minutes and change, “How Many More Times” caps off Led Zeppelin with another thrilling band showcase. It begins as a pounding blues-metal riff before venturing into spacier territory. “It was made up of little pieces I developed when I was with the Yardbirds,” Page told Guitar World about the track. “It was played live in the studio with cues and nods.”
Until the song suddenly drops off in the middle. “Oh, Rosie!” screams Plant. The band slams out a chord in response. And the track builds and builds on layers of Page’s bowed guitar, heading further and further out, then slamming back into the groove right on cue.
It’s the sound of a bunch of English kids leaving the orbit of the Yardbirds, of the 1960s, of rock ‘n roll as anybody traditionally knew it. On Led Zeppelin, they defied the odds and achieved liftoff.