Formed by the unlikely alliance of two ace London studio musicians and two bar-band bumpkins from the north, Led Zeppelin went on to create the template for the modern marauding rock ’n’ roll band. Though Zeppelin is often described as “heavy,” any true fan will tell you that the band’s catalog is actually a complex amalgam of blues, psychedelia, rock, folk, and country that reflect the specific influences carried by each of Led Zeppelin’s four members.
Veteran music journalist Martin Popoff picks apart each of these 81 studio tracks, as well as a slew of non-album tracks in exquisite detail, and, for the first time ever, he analyzes the circumstances that led to their creation, the recording processes, the historical contexts, and more.
Celebrate Led Zeppelin's 50th anniversary with this veneration of the band's extensive catalog of rock music.
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The story of Led Zeppelin begins with the rapid-fire dismantling of the Yardbirds in August 1968, with their leader Jimmy Page forming the New Yardbirds to fulfill Scandinavian touring obligations (as well as the guitar legend's vaulted ambitions to take over the world).
One can divine a more detailed history of the band from countless other sources, but since our focus here is the songs, suffice to say that our history of the band per se begins and ends with the lineup of the New Yardbirds, soon to be renamed Led Zeppelin: Jimmy Page, the last standing Yardbird; session bassist John Paul Jones; and two mates from Birmingham in different bands, both essentially unknowns — Robert Plant, the hippie, and John Bonham, the loudest drummer in town.
It must also be said that the story of Led Zeppelin, and notably its rapid conception and capable assembly, is necessarily linked to the myriad blues and folk influences woven through Jimmy's career in the '60s, as well as bits and pieces of writing he had done with the Yardbirds.
The nine songs on Led Zeppelin were recorded essentially live (engineer Glyn Johns, a pal of Jimmy's from teenage years, presiding), a procedure not particularly uncommon for the time. Jimmy was inclined to keep overdubs to a minimum so that the band could reproduce the material faithfully on stage afterward. Against the norm of the day, the album was recorded in stereo only, not stereo and mono versions.
Setting the situation up for success was the fact that Led Zeppelin, just two and a half weeks old, recorded immediately following fifteen hours of rehearsal and that fourteen-date Scandinavian tour. The band hadn't even been signed to Atlantic yet, with Jimmy and manager Peter Grant financing the record. Zeppelin worked at Olympic Studios in West London in October 1968, completing the sessions in thirty to thirty-six hours over the course of about nine days, with Jimmy chuckling that he remembers the number of hours because he paid the bill, reported to be 1,782 pounds.
The record deal would come quickly and pretty much effortlessly when Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic won a bidding war, paying an advance of two hundred thousand dollars (the same amount that they had recently paid for the Bee Gees).
As for the album's iconic cover art, it portrays Luftschiff Zeppelin 129 Hindenburg moments after exploding into flames in New Jersey on May 6, 1937. The final George Hardie design replaced his original line art concept, which can be seen in miniature on the album's back cover, which is dominated by a gauzy photograph taken by ex-Yardbird Chris Dreja, soon to become a lifelong professional photographer.
With respect to the band's name, various stories exist, but it's most likely a variation of the old show biz expression "went over like a lead balloon." The most popular account has it that "Led Zeppelin" was cooked up by the Who's John Entwistle, possibly as a band name he might use when he finally had enough and left the Who. Entwistle surmised that the idea might have gotten over to Page through road manager Richard Cole, who worked for the Who before Zeppelin — Entwistle even laid claim to the idea for the album cover.
GOOD TIMES BAD TIMES
There is no better action-packed sequence of sounds in the Led Zeppelin canon with which to open the band's historic debut record than the prevocal pound of "Good Times Bad Times." "Communication Breakdown" might be the more explosive song, but the slamming stacked chords that introduce "Good Times Bad Times" included a canny statement of intent that this was going to be a dramatic, world-beating band worth watching.
What's more, with the combination of E major barre chords and licks marbled betwixt, Jimmy builds an early, proto-metal version of a note-dense riff. And before we even hear the singer, we know that his Black Country mate, John Bonham, is every bit worthy to stand shoulder to shoulder with the band's session-bred guitarist of note.
Quickly we are introduced to Plant, and not one line is out of his mouth before we realize that the veteran bassist is the equal of both Page and Bonham. For Robert's part, he doesn't join the ranks as equal until he peels off some of his patented high screams late in what is a very short song — so short that it doesn't even seem quite complete.
In fact, most of Robert's singing on "Good Times Bad Times" supports his claim that at twenty-one years old and up against two seasoned big-city studio session veterans (although neither is much his senior), he was unsure of himself, singing tentatively, not taking as many chances as he might have later, with his confidence emboldened.
Fact is, all around the horn, "Good Times Bad Times" is a hard rock tour de force for late 1968, with tasty appointments such as Bonham's quick grace note-style triplets on a single bass drum. All manner of drummers would later try to decipher how he did it, and whether in fact it can be done on anything fewer than two bass drums, as he had. Bonham apparently picked up the trick from Vanilla Fudge's Carmine Appice, who also inspired his use of very large Ludwigs, most notably a twenty-six-inch bass drum.
In any event, Bonzo waits until the second line to lay it on us, then waits until the more casual second verse and last verse — oddly, after both the break and the guitar solo passage — to bring it back, and for double the duration to boot. None other than Jimi Hendrix was impressed by Bonzo's quick right foot, likening the effect to castanets.
Then there's Jimmy's guitar solo, which finds his custom-painted Fender 1959 Telecaster (dubbed Dragon, a gift from Jeff Beck) driven through a Leslie speaker, a piece of equipment whose dizzying effect created by its rotating speaker was usually reserved for Hammond organs. Jimmy very carefully tried mics around the room, not only in front of the amps but as far as twenty feet away, to achieve an ambient live feel and reveling in the bleed between instruments (although remaining somewhat less enamored with the resulting vocal bleed).
"Good Time Bad Times" features artful fingerpicked flights of fancy from Jones during the chorus, the break, the guitar solo, and even the verse lick, where he mirrors Jimmy's notable guitar hero sequence. Jonesy, who could generally stake a writing claim to Zeppelin songs with lots of notes in them, was in his milieu here. He later cited this track as an example and one of the hardest for him to play. Indeed, Page gives Jones the verse and takes the chorus himself, also using Bonham's bass drum part for inspiration.
Lyrically, "Good Times Bad Times" is classic ambiguous handwringing of the blues variety (also signature is the call and response between vocal and lead guitar). Robert asserts his experience despite having little, reminisces about the days of his youth, and seems about to tell us how to deal with women. But he's quickly self-deprecating, relating bad times along with the good, getting into "the same old jam," getting dumped, and losing "another friend," who smartly could be interpreted as a guy friend betrayed or as a conquest who, now seduced, is something other than a friend. By the last verse, less formal than the first to the point of sounding nearly improvised, the sense of defeat is conveyed in an admission of loneliness and a longing for home — although there's also the inference that the speaker's lovemaking sessions with his latest lover are enough to drive the neighbors crazy.
"Good Times Bad Times" was issued as Zeppelin's first single (Atlantic 45-2613 in the US; not issued in the UK), backed with "Communication Breakdown," the two tidy tracks on this album touted most vehemently by those who argue that Led Zeppelin invented heavy metal.
BABE I'M GONNA LEAVE YOU
TRAD. ARR. PAGE/6:40
With "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," Jimmy Page serves notice that Led Zeppelin won't stand for being tagged yet another British blues-boom band. In polar contrast to the record's hard rock opener, this torrid folk classic is the first in an acoustic canon from Page that largely is over and done four albums later.
Since 1990, the writing credit on this track has read "Anne Bredon/Page/ Plant." American folkie Bredon wrote the original in the late '50s. Joan Baez had picked it up from one Janet Smith, who had heard Bredon, thirty years old at this point, perform the track on Berkeley, California, radio station KFPA in 1960. By the time folk boom prodigy Baez had gotten around to her ethereal version, she was erroneously crediting it as traditional and included it on her In Concert Part 1 album in 1962 (the tablature version in The Joan Baez Songbook from 1964 credits correctly). This is the version Jimmy Page had heard and liked, toying with it on six-string while playing with Marianne Faithfull. Both Page and Plant greatly admired Baez for her near magical grasp of folk's charms, especially compared to the academic vibe then coming from men operating within the idiom.
Of note, in 1968 Quicksilver Messenger Service covered the song (credited to Bredon and two others) in a manner closer to the Plebs' jaunty rock 'n' roll version from 1964 (credited "Trad. arr. Dennis"). In between is the nearly proto-power ballad version by the Association (1965), credited to Anne H. Bredon, arranged by Terry Kirkman and Bob Page(!).
Hence the credit on Led Zeppelin was later amended to include Bredon as well as Robert, with Bredon receiving substantial royalties. Now disputed is how much Robert had to do with the song and, indeed, the originals on the first album, having been left off the credits wholesale. It has been theorized this was due to Robert's contractual ties to CBS or because Jimmy still had him on "probation," unlike Jones and Bonham, in whom he was confident.
What one can surmise, given how vastly altered the song is from both the Bredon and Baez versions, is that the guitar changes are Page's and the very transformative vocal melodies could only have come from Plant. Page, for his part, has said he came up with the arrangement years earlier and played it for Robert the first time the two met, in July of 1968 at Jimmy's Pangbourne home. Plant, meanwhile, has expressed fond memories of "rearranging" the song in the studio with Page and marveling at their efficient creative connection.
In any event, in the hands of Led Zeppelin, the A minor-based song was much more structured, enforced by repetition and dramatic Spanish-style flourishes from Page, rarely to be revisited. The guitar Jimmy played here was a Gibson J-200 with heavy-gauge strings and owned by Big Jim Sullivan, perhaps the only 1960s English session guitarist more famed than Jimmy.
For that warm tone, Jimmy used plate reverb and his dual mic technique. There are also more recurring overdubs than most elsewhere on the album (including acoustic on acoustic and an eerie electric slide), and a bashing heavy section utilizing a descending bass line, constant crash cymbals, and electric guitar massaged with the ever-present acoustics. At 1:41 the famed "ghost" vocal from Robert ("I can hear it calling me") is the result of vocals bleeding into nonvocal mics.
A gorgeous track that foreshadows the light-and-shade structure of "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "Stairway to Heaven," "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" ends with a poignant descending finale made all the more special in its formality by the fact Led Zeppelin never again played the song live after the 1969 tour.
YOU SHOOK ME
Alas, how extra-spicy Led Zeppelin would have been had the band included sparkplug "Sugar Mama" from these sessions rather than tired ol' twelve-bar blues "You Shook Me," first recorded by Muddy Waters and credited to his bassist Willie Dixon and later also J. B. Lenoir. It is said that Earl Hooker should be credited as well, given the song was based on his instrumental, "Blue Guitar."
In May of 1968, the Jeff Beck Group recorded a version of the song that would show up on the Truth album, issued in August 1968, two months before the Led Zeppelin sessions. Although Jimmy claims to have been unaware of the recording, his own bassist, John Paul Jones, had played keyboards on the session, a role he would repeat on the Led Zeppelin version. The Jeff Beck version includes piano by Nicky Hopkins and is much shorter although, in the end, just as dull. Beck was crestfallen that the song showed up on Led Zeppelin, but there's been some degree of consolation in that many critics have posited that Truth, crudely stated, is the first Led Zeppelin album.
In any event, "You Shook Me" — or at minimum, the act of including it on an album at the time — illustrates all that was claustrophobic and restrictive about the British blues boom. In the pudding, especially with so much other derivative material on the record, Led Zeppelin come off as mere mortals not particularly removed from the imagination-lacking pack, in stark contrast to the excitement they would inject just a few tracks later with "Dazed and Confused" and even on a second Willie Dixon track, "I Can't Quit You Baby," which at least features Bonham modestly unchained. Chucking in a nod to Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" only goes to show how so much of this music was interchangeable and thus in need of the type of makeover Zeppelin would execute in fine fashion over the course of nine albums, though not on this track.
Bonham decides to play it sparse here, straight and uncharacteristically clunky, the band choosing a crushingly slow tempo spread over six and a half minutes. Page, Plant, and Jones make the best of a bad situation with some interesting yet small individual victories.
At Plant's end, there's torrid singing for miles, some rote call and response, and nice blends with Page's "singing" Earl Hooker-styled guitar work throughout, as well as lots of harmonica, neither exemplary nor clumsy.
Jones pulls double duty, playing bass and, in a rare move, a Hammond M-100 without a Leslie speaker, utilizing instead the instrument's built-in vibrato. As for Page, "You Shook Me" is the album's only track on which his electric is not his Telecaster — here he's using a Gibson Flying V, borrowed from someone who was trying to sell it to him. The guitar's big humbuckers caused his amp to break up a bit in the middle of the track, but Jimmy liked to hear an amp having a hard time of it. Elsewhere, Jimmy employs a backward echo technique, first unveiled all over the Yardbirds' single-only cover of Harry Nilsson's "Ten Little Indians." Here he applies this technique at the end, mostly to Robert's vocal and a bit to his guitar. The effect is a somewhat ghostlier version of feedback mixed with bleed and not loud in the mix — it's overpowered by the call and response, an idea later made more famous by Ian Gillan and Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. Jimmy had argued with engineer Glyn Johns over being able to make the effect work, winning in the end, as Johns meekly turned up the faders and accepted the sonic evidence.
All told, "You Shook Me" betrays Zeppelin as rushed (a typical occurrence at the time), unwilling, or too pressed to respect their own creative instincts and wait for more of the superlative writing that was waiting inside this band like a caged dragon.
DAZED AND CONFUSED
"Dazed and Confused" originated as a song written by Jake Holmes that showed up on his debut album, 1967's "The Above Ground Sound" of Jake Holmes. Jake had opened for the Yardbirds at the Village Theatre in New York, and Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty was struck by the harrowing song, causing him to buy the otherwise fairly upbeat album the next day. Yardbirds vocalist Keith Relf adjusted the lyrics and the lads worked up a new arrangement for full band (Jake's was sans drums), Jimmy driving a guitar stake through it, and entered the song into their set list.
The song was never recorded by the Yardbirds, but did show up on an exploitative posthumous release called Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page, notably as "I'm Confused" and without writing credit.
Holmes eventually attempted to contact the Zeppelin camp in the early 1980s. Initially he got no reply but settled out of court in 2012 after bringing suit in 2010. Recent releases of the song credit it as written by Jimmy Page and "inspired by" Jake Holmes.
By the time of the Yardbirds' nexus, the song was essentially the same song Zeppelin would record, right down to the rhythmic call-and-response section (which had occurred in the Jake Holmes version, albeit in an quieter form). Also featured on the Yardbirds version was Jimmy's famed work with a violin bow (regular bow, more tension and more rosin) and frankly each and every hammer-and-tongs section that would appear on Led Zeppelin. And at 6:47, the album version would certainly prove to be the most succinct take the band would perform.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Led Zeppelin"
Copyright © 2018 Martin Popoff.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
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Table of Contents
Led Zeppelin, 10,
Houses of the Holy, 116,
Physical Graffiti, 140,
In Through the Out Door, 204,
Over the Hills and Far Away: 16 Essential Rarities, 248,
About the Author, 282,
Image Credits, 283,