The New Yardbirds doesn’t sound like a particularly promising prospect does it? If you plonk the word ‘New’ at the start of something, most of the time you’re setting someone up for a fall. For all you want to make it sound like a fresh start and the exciting beginning of something, it usually denotes disappointment, and something trying desperately to be something that it isn’t.
For reasons far too complex to recount here, celebrated session guitar player Jimmy Page had followed in the not unimpressive footsteps of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and had become the third iconic six string maestro in The Yardbirds, however by late 1968 Page had found himself to not only be the only member of the band left, but also be committed to a number of live dates that he couldn’t cancel.
In something of a corner Page turned to fellow session muso John Paul-Jones to see if he would be interesting in meeting these contractually obliged dates with him. With a session portfolio nearly as impressive as Page’s himself, JPJ found himself as the new band’s bass player and sometime organ player.
When recruiting a vocalist, Page initially tried to recruit Terry Reid, however Reid had just signed a deal with Mickie Most, so he pointed Page and Paul-Jones in the direction of frighteningly young shouter and future golden god Robert Plant, who knew a good thing when he heard it, and encouraged Page to recruit his former bandmate John Henry Bonham on drums. The heaviest of the heavy hitters, Gene Krupa enthusiast Bonham took little convincing to join the new band, and therefore the final piece of the musical jigsaw was in place. This newly formed quartet played the contracted tour, and even at this early stage, it was obvious that they were on to something special. Then Who drummer Keith Moon deadpanned that they would go down as well as a lead zeppelin, and unknowingly gave The New Yardbirds the name under which they would conquer the globe.
Recorded in a shockingly short amount of time, Led Zeppelin’s self titled debut is the band’s rawest and most mercurial release by some distance, and the one most deeply rooted in The Blues. Taking their cue from Cream Led Zeppelin super-amplified the blues, but also managed to make it sound considerably more dynamic than any of their stodgier blues-rock predecessors, thanks to Page’s bespoke production.
With Plant’s rock hollering already sounding accomplished beyond his years, Page’s monster riffing, John Paul-Jones’ classy musicianship, and Bonham’s supernaturally powerful drumming, Led Zeppelin’s sound meshed together seamlessly. In retrospect, probably the key thing to making Led Zeppelin sound utterly fresh yet heavy, was Page’s ability to record Bonham’s drum sound, something which he mastered even here on Led Zeppelin’s debut. The sound of Led Zeppelin was established early, although Plant’s lyrics and even Page’s tunes notoriously borrowed to liberally from Blues masters of the past, something which would land them in legal hot water down the years.
Listening to Led Zeppelin’s debut’s half a century after its initial release, it still sounds energetic and vital. From the opening riff of “Good Times, Bad Times”, to the slow and moody “Dazed and Confused”, via the short sharp shock of “Communication Breakdown”, Led Zeppelin is the sound of a young band out to prove what they can do, armed with a killer combination of ambition with all the talent they needed to back it up. Sure, affectionate parody act Dread Zeppelin would make second side opener “You’re Time is Gonna Come” their own, but it’s a measure of Page and Plant’s ability to recognise brilliance when they hear it that they were quite happy to admit that Dread Zeppelin’s version was definitive.
Led Zeppelin’s debut is not a perfect album, but it is their most energetic by some distance, and the one on which the foundation of their later success is built. While Led Zeppelin would go on to release more celebrated and consistent albums over the next five years, for some fans they never really bettered their debut, as it’s the album where Led Zeppelin were at their most pure and not trying too hard to push the envelope at the cost of their music.