I have been tracking this day for a long time in this countdown. As we enter 1969, we reach the debut album of Led Zeppelin. As you will quickly learn from my extensive thoughts, Led Zeppelin sits at the very top of my list of all-time favorite artists. That doesn’t mean I think they were perfect, or that I loved every song they made, but at their peak, I just don’t believe any other band has ever rocked with the impact, intensity, diversity, creativity and consistently high musical talent as Led Zeppelin. This first album, recorded in just 30 hours, roughly 3 months after Jimmy Page formed the band, has many examples of them at their early and dominant peak. This album is rated #101 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and naturally, I would probably rate it notably higher.
After Jimmy Page was left to pick up the pieces following the dissolution of the Yardbirds, he tapped into his extensive studio experience, including the sessions with Jeff Beck, inviting bassist/keyboardist and everything else-ist John Paul Jones to join his band. His search for a vocalist hit several dead-ends before he followed a tip to see Robert Plant perform. He was immediately enthralled, and listened closely to Plant’s recommendation to add drummer John Bonham.
When people ask me why I rate Led Zeppelin so favorably, it comes down to best-of-brand expertise each of the four members brought to the group. Centered around Page, his abilities to create unique riffs and maximize the sound through remarkable production and skill was a game-changer for rock of this intensity. In his earliest days, the range and vocal power of Plant was unparalleled in the rock arena, before overuse, smoking and otherwise minimal caution robbed him of his high-end range. John Paul Jones is one of the most diversely talented members of any band, who brought not only bass and keyboards to the group, but also provided effective arranging skills and he also played the mandolin, mellotron, bongos, recorder, and anything else necessary to compliment Page’s guitar. If that isn’t enough, the real discriminator in my opinion, is the drumming of John Henry Bonham. With most bands, drums are a needed support function that occasionally surprise with the unexpected fill or beat, but with Led Zeppelin that was a regular occurrence. Based on his talents and also attributable to Page’s extraordinary skills as a producer, there just isn’t any other band that sounds like Led Zeppelin. Many have tried, but nobody can match up to that lineup.
On this first album, Page and the band leaned heavily on blues standards (two songs credited to Willie Dixon), and as many know, the band was absolutely reckless and irresponsible with some of the words and music they claimed as their own in other songs. Nothing to celebrate, and they have subsequently updated several credits to properly credit sources, but this still remains one of the few meaningful blemishes on their legacy. That being said, for songs original or covered, borrowed or invented, they took almost every song on this album to a level not reached before. Just compare the musical quality and production quality of this album to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. That album, while influential, is dated with its recording quality and caliber of performance. The best songs on this album sound as if they were recorded yesterday, and done so at the highest level.
The first song on the first album is “Good Times, Bad Times”, and right there in two minutes and forty-six seconds, you get a perfect synapses of their excellence. Opening with Page’s power chords and riffs, he is quickly joined by the omnipresent bass line, remarkably clear and powerful vocals, and a drum performance that is universally celebrated to this day. They then go into a remake of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, a mostly acoustic performance that Plant still uses often to open his current solo concerts.
They then take their turn with Dixon’s “You Shook Me”, which is interesting when you consider that Jones had just recorded it recently with the Jeff Beck band as well. The hammering impact of the four-part rhythm (guitar, bass, organ and drum) are complimented by Plant at his best, including an excellent harmonica solo. Side one ends with their studio version of iconic track “Dazed and Confused”. Another of Led Zeppelin’s biggest weaknesses was to be excessive, self-indulgent and somewhat repetitive with their live material, particularly in their later years. This version has none of that… it is tight, crisp, incredibly powerful once again with one of Page’s best solos ever recorded.
Side two opens with Jones on organ and another great performance from Plant on “Your Time is Gonna Come”. I have never loved the next song, a Page acoustic instrumental, “Black Mountain Side”. I find it rather redundant and just not a terribly appealing hook. The last 3 songs finish strong, with another short and tight hard rocker, “Communication Breakdown”, another Dixon blues number “I Can’t Quit You Babe”, which I like but not as much as “You Shook Me”, and then concluding with “How Many More Times” which is essentially several uncredited and borrowed blues songs stitched together, albeit remarkable in its final state.
So yeah… I pretty much love this album. John Paul Jones once pointed to this album as the simplest and best representation of what the four of them were capable together. They first rehearsed together in early July, and by mid-October, they had this album recorded and were beginning to perform live sets. The rock and roll world, and ultimately my own appreciation for music, would never be the same.