This series will be in five parts, not because I think Zep is THE band but largely because there’s so much to say about them as well as the British blues/rock scene and that era that it warrants that kind of coverage.
“When I grew up there weren’t many other guitarists … There was one other guitarist in my school who actually showed me the first chords that I learned and I went on from there. I was bored so I taught myself the guitar from listening to records. So obviously it was a very personal thing.” – Jimmy Page.
A blogger hardly knows where to begin when starting a series on a behemoth such as the mighty, mighty Led Zeppelin. Know this though – while their story is filled with tales of debauchery, plagiarism, magick and occasional violence, this blog is about music. And so I’ll touch on those areas because with Zep you can hardly avoid them. But if you want those stories in greater depth, well, you can find them.
It begins where one would expect it to, with a British session guitarist named James Patrick Page. No, rewind. It begins with the Yardbirds, a band I wrote about a while back. You know the story – great R&B/blues band from London which, in turn, astonishingly had Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck, then Jimmy Page AND Jeff Beck as guitarists. (If Peter Green had played with them, I would have no choice but to immolate myself on the front steps out of deep, deep respect.)
Page had been playing guitar since he was 11 years old, initially getting into rock and roll through skiffle. Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” and Elvis’ “Baby Let’s Play House” (both released 1955) had a powerful impact on the 11-year-old Mr. Page.
Our kid – all of 14 years old – made his way to a then-popular BBC children’s TV show called All Your Own. There MUST be a clip of that somewhere you say. Well, of course there is. Check out young Jimmy playing and singing and revealing his career ambition which is about as far from rock god as you can get:
“The record that made me want to play guitar was ‘Baby, Let’s Play House,” he said. “There was just so much vitality and energy coming out of it.” Scotty Moore on guitar.
As you might imagine, some of this was great stuff, some not so much (Muzak.) And even on the gigs where you think he’d have fun (Kinks, Who), he sensed resentment from those bands. (To this day, he and Dave Davies can’t agree on who came up with the distorted sound on “You Really Got Me” although we all know it was Dave.)
So by the mid-’60s, Page was on the horns of a dilemma – unwilling to give up his lucrative session work while at the same time being approached by the Yardbirds. He eventually did join them (initially playing bass) and for a brief time was twinned on guitar with Beck. But this period was closer to the Yardbirds eventual demise than its future.
By 1968, the Yardbirds well had run dry. They had been traveling around the US and Europe with new manager Peter Grant but the handwriting was on the wall. However, Page wasn’t ready to throw in the proverbial towel. He had spent his formative years stuck in a studio watching bands such as Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience make their mark on the world and he wanted a piece of that action.
The Yardbirds played their last show in July 1968 and in regards to Page, the eight-month-old publication Rolling Stone said that he “intended to go into solo work.” (Spoiler alert – never happened.) But what Page did do was to negotiate playing the Yardbirds’ last few Scandinavian gigs as the New Yardbirds, largely in the hopes of capitalizing on an already established name.
With Beck, Page had previously (1966) recorded a tune called “Beck’s Bolero” which featured Keith Moon on drums, Nicky Hopkins on piano and Page’s fellow session-mate John Paul Jones on bass. (Jones was also a gifted arranger, working on songs as diverse as the string arrangement for the Stones‘ “She’s a Rainbow,” as well as tunes by Donovan, Tom Jones, and Cat Stevens.)
There was some talk about this lineup fulfilling the Yardbirds’ commitment but Moon was The Who’s drummer and Pete Townshend – who was pissed when he found out – figured Moon was just doing it as a ploy.
“Beck’s Bolero” was released initially as the B-side to Jeff’s single “Hi Ho Silver Lining” but made its way two years later to his debut album Truth. That album is worth a listen not only in its own right but also as an early version of what might have been Led Zeppelin. (The YouTube version is the flip side of the single and has some little-heard backward guitar at the end):
In any event, needing to fulfill his commitment to do a few gigs as The New Yardbirds and lacking a band, Page had to find one – and fast. (From my reading, Page’s head was bursting with ideas about where to take the Yardbirds music and the band broke up just when he thought they were getting somewhere.)
Page’s first choice for lead singer was Terry Reid who was also managed by Peter Grant. (Robert Plant has gone on record as saying Reid was probably the best singer of that period in England.) Reid has a nice high-pitched voice similar to Plant’s and one can only imagine what that might have sounded like. (Reid is still plugging away and per his website is playing a few dates in the US in 2019.)
But Reid had already-established gigs lined up and wasn’t about to take a chance with the sinking Yardbirds. And so he suggested Page check out a Birmingham-based singer, the aforementioned Robert Plant. (Page also at various times considered Steve Marriott and Steve Winwood as vocalist. Marriott was still in Small Faces and Jimmy received a message from Steve’s management asking how he’d like a band with broken fingers.)
Unlike Page and JP Jones, Robert Plant was not a Londoner. In fact, he came from the West Midlands, west of Birmingham, the so-called “Black Country.” (A heavily industrialized area, the name Black Country comes from the soot from the heavy industries that covered the area or possibly the coal seam.) Plant had been singing in a variety of bands and by 1968, at the ripe old age of 20, was almost ready to pack it in.
One fateful night, Page and Peter Grant took a ride up to Birmingham – Brum as the locals call it – to catch Plant singing in a band. Echoing the seemingly endless ‘everyone from north of London is a hick’ theme I always read about, Page wondered why he had to go North when there were so many good singers in London. Rod Stewart? Paul Rodgers? This guy better be good. And he better look good. “Like a Greek god,” said Terry Reid.
Plant was singing at a teaching college with a band called Obs-Tweedle which sounds like a name Tolkien rejected. Per Wikipedia, “In front of Page, the 6 ft, 1 inch tall Plant sang Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” leading Page to the end of his search. (Plant was into the whole San Francisco scene big-time.) Per Plant, “I was appearing at this college when Peter and Jimmy turned up and asked me if I’d like to join the Yardbirds. I knew the Yardbirds had done a lot of work in America, which to me meant audiences who would want to know what I might have to offer. So naturally, I was very interested.”
Page says, “When I auditioned him and heard him sing, I immediately thought there must be something wrong with him personality-wise or that he had to be impossible to work with, because I just could not understand why, after he told me he’d been singing for a few years already, he hadn’t become a big name yet.”
Plant, who was the furthest thing from a cosmopolite as you can get, went down to Page’s place in The Smoke to hang out and listen to some music. Page’s village of Pangbourne didn’t necessarily take well to hippies. According to one account, “soon after Plant exited the train station, he was scolded by a pensioner about his scruffy appearance. ‘Desperation scene, man,’ Plant later said, ‘but I had nowhere else to go.’
Now bear in mind that these two blokes had never really met before. Plant was nervous, especially around this well-traveled session guy. He was just a kid from the sticks. But things really started to settle in once they listened to records – blues, folk, Incredible String Band.
And in folk, Joan Baez. Both guys liked folk and according to legend, Page played Baez’ version of the tune “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” for Plant. (I did a One Song/Three Versions post on this tune a while back.) “I’m obsessed – not just interested, obsessed with folk music,” said Page.
He loved Joni Mitchell’s work as well. The line, “Someone told me there’s a girl out there with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair,” from “Going to California” references Joni. Both Plant and Page were so in awe of her that Plant reportedly had a hard time on first meeting her, he was so shy.
According to the website CuePoint, “For Jimmy, the song exactly represented all that he wanted to achieve with his new group, its undulating structure providing the opportunity to weave between moments of musical calm and savage bursts of instrumental power (“Scream to a sigh and back again,” said one critic. Light and shade, said Jimmy.)
Equally, the song gave Robert a chance to demonstrate both his vocal range and gift for inhabiting a lyric — in this case, switching the protagonist’s gender to add an extra emotional dimension.”
Page had his singer. And then some. Now he just needed a bass player and a drummer. He already knew the bass player but didn’t know if the guy was available or for that matter, interested. And Plant knew the perfect drummer, a mate from the Black Country.
Sources: When Giants Walked the Earth, Mick Wall. St. Martin’s Griffin Press; Wikipedia.