Led Zeppelin have become synonymous with rock'n'roll excess, with films such as Almost Famous romanticising their cock rock antics. In fact, Led Zeppelin are a band nobody wanted to exist, including their creator and main protagonist Jimmy Page.
As The Yardbirds were imploding circa ‘66 to ’68, Page wanted to create a supergroup with Jeff Beck, and the rhythm section from The Who, Keith Moon and George Entwistle. The supergroup was almost realised when Beck, Page, Moon and John Paul Jones recorded Beck’s Bolero in 1966. Allegedly, Moon quashed any suggestions of a permanent arrangement by mockingly suggesting it could be called Lead Zeppelin, because they’d go down like a lead balloon.
Rather it was a contractual obligation to tour Scandinavia which lead to the Led forming. The Yardbirds split in ’68 with the former members happy for Page to assemble a facsimile for that tour. Following much to-ing and fro-ing, Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham, would play Scandinavia as The New Yardbirds.
Upon returning to the UK The New Yardbirds found themselves in legal trouble of their own, with former Yardbirds member Chris Dreja demanding they drop the name. Loath to disband, Moon’s joke was resuscitated, and Led Zeppelin were born - the ‘a’ being dropped to avoid any ambiguity regarding pronunciation.
Led Zeppelin’s debut was recorded and mixed in around 30 hours in Olympic Studios, London in late September ’68. Page produced the record with childhood friend Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Small Faces) engineering. Fresh from their Scandinavian exploits the band were well versed in the material, and recording was fast and mostly live with very few overdubs.
Perhaps more by necessity than design much of the material on the album is comprised of covers, as if Page had utilised the material to help Led Zeppelin find themselves by experimenting within the boundaries of chord progressions of other writers.
And find themselves they did, with many of the covers now considered to be the definitive versions. Babe I’m Gonna Leave You receives an All Along The Watchtower level re-imagining, with Page and Plant transferring Joan Baez’s plaintive love song into a guttural explosion of lust.
Jake Holmes’ Dazed and Confused, meanwhile, is transferred almost beyond belief, with Page showcasing his innate musical ability by identifying a kernel of gold buried within Holmes’ truly horrendous original and moulding it into something special. Holmes would never be taken seriously as a songwriter but had a successful career as a jingle writer, including penning Gillette - The Best A Man Can Get.
Likewise, How Many More Times borrowed heavily from other songs, primarily How Many More Years by Howlin’ Wolf and Black Mountain Side, Page’s take on Bert Jansch’s 1966 rendering of the traditional folk song Black Water Side.
Led Zeppelin mine their Yardbirds origins further by paying homage to Willie Dixon not once, but twice on You Shook Me and I Can’t Quit You Baby, turbocharging the veteran bluesman’s compositions, the latter benefitting from the injection of Page’s powerful vocal.
However, these two tracks are very much a nod to the past unlike the other tracks on the album that point to a brighter, more luxurious future for the group.
Good Times Bad Times opens Led Zeppelin’s recording career; a track that could easily be described as the theme tune to their canon. A boisterous showcase of all four members talents with each trying to out-strut the next with bigger and more exuberant riffs.
Following Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion concert Page told Rolling Stone: "That's the hardest riff I ever wrote, the hardest to play.” It’s little wonder then that it hardly ever made an appearance in their live shows.
Communication Breakdown delivers a white-knuckle ride that signposts punk rock's future. Your Time Is Gonna Come meanwhile showcases the multi-instrumental talents of John Paul Jones as a composer and arranger, adding a nuanced, textural layer to proceedings which they would come to rely on later in their career.
Led Zeppelin would get more brazen with their slight of hand as their career progressed and many rightful claims of plagiarism would be pursued through the courts. However, many acts also got annoyed because Page had the gall to rob the same riffs as them but take them to places they could never fathom. Jealousy and bad blood often ensued, because more often than not, when Page stuck his hand in the till he came out with pounds of gold.
Led Zeppelin is far from Led Zeppelin’s best album, but it’s the sound of them slipping into their skin.