Stop the presses – In the last post, I mentioned that Zep had done an early gig in Denmark. What I did not know is that it had been filmed for TV. So I went back and inserted it in that post. I’m inserting it here too so everyone can see it who already read the previous post. I’ll take it out of this one later but for now, enjoy:
Led Zeppelin is the eponymous debut album by English rock band Led Zeppelin. It was released on 12 January 1969 in the United States and on 31 March in the United Kingdom by Atlantic Records.
“They may be world-famous but a couple of shrieking monkeys are not going to use a privileged family name without permission.” – Countess Eva Von Zeppelin who threatened to sue the band. They tried to make nice with her but she wasn’t having it. So one time when they played Denmark they instead called themselves the Nobs. And then played their usual set anyway.
Wikipedia: “In November 1968, Zep manager Peter Grant secured a $143,000 ($1,000,000 in 2018 money) advance contract from Atlantic Records, which was then the biggest deal of its kind for a new band. Atlantic was a label with a catalog of mainly blues, soul, and jazz artists, but in the late 1960s, they began to take an interest in British progressive rock acts.
Record executives signed Led Zeppelin without having ever seen them. Under the terms of their contract, the band had autonomy in deciding when they would release albums and tour and had the final say over the contents and design of each album. They would also decide how to promote each release and which tracks to release as singles. They formed their own company, Superhype, to handle all publishing rights.”
The eagle-eyed among you will note that this post is being published on January 12, 2019, exactly 50 years to the day from the US release of this epochal work. (A few bloggers have advised me that Mr. James Page just turned 75. That doesn’t seem possible. Fake news!) Now some of you who weren’t around at the time might think this album somehow stood out from all the other albums and that everyone was clamoring to get it.
Well, yes and no. It might appear that way in hindsight. But there was so much quality stuff being released that it was just one more album to throw on the pile. For evidence, the following is a partial list of albums that were released between August of 1968 and June of 1969:
Wheels of Fire, Cream; Cheap Thrills, Big Brother; Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Byrds; Crown of Creation, Jefferson Airplane; Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix; This Was, Jethro Tull; The Beatles (White Album); The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society; Astral Weeks, Van Morrison; Beggars Banquet, Rolling Stones; Bayou Country, CCR. Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan; Uncle Meat, Frank Zappa; Chicago Transit Authority; Crosby Stills and Nash; Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart; Aoxomoxoa, Grateful Dead; Beck-Ola, Jeff Beck Group, Soul ’69, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Winter; Tommy, The Who; Electric Mud, Muddy Waters.
So you see it wasn’t like anyone was waiting for an album from a band that frankly, no one had ever heard of. I suppose the blues aficionados knew who Page was and fanatic album cover readers might know who Jones was. But Led Zeppelin? With a picture of the Hindenburg disaster on the cover? (Page saw it as representing the explosive nature of the music inside.)
The first track “Good Times Bad Times” – as it was meant to do – made a statement. Chris Welch of Melody Maker said on hearing an early pre-release, “(I) played it on the office stereo – and it just sort of leapt out at you! … I’d never – never! – heard anything so loud and overpowering coming off a record before. It really did feel like a great leap forward, in terms of the sound you could actually get on a record.”
“It’s got quite a complicated rhythm,” said Page. “which Jonesy came up with.” (JPJ is Zep’s underrated secret weapon – ME.) “But the most stunning thing about it musically is Bonzo’s amazing kick drum. He’s … playing with one kick drum and making it sound like two.” Bonham’s drum sound is legendary and in later years, Page and his engineers captured it even more brutally by sticking him in stairwells at Headley Grange and hanging microphones down. Bonham’s “When the Levee Breaks” sound is widely sampled by rappers:
FM radio stations here in the States started to pick up on this album and play it. Music lovers – especially the post-Woodstock-generation generation – loved it. And the critics? They absolutely loved it. Not. Some then 21-year old guy named John Mendelsohn – doubtless an expert in all forms of music, blues and otherwise – blew this gem out of his ass for Rolling Stone:
“The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago, and the excesses of the Beck group’s Truth album (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness), are fully in evidence on Led Zeppelin’s debut album.”*
In response, WBCN Boston DJ Charles Laquidara famously wrote to RS and told them that if he listened to their advice he’d have the most fucked-up record collection in history.
Actually, Mendelsohn’s review was a pretty common response to the album and marked the beginning of Zep’s tenuous, prickly relationship with the rock press. And at least in part due to the fact that both Beck’s Truth and this album covered the old blues standard “You Shook Me,” Page especially caught a lot of heat for supposedly mimicking Beck’s style.
But truthfully if you listen to both albums back-to-back, the only similarity is a heavily blues-based guitar-drenched style. But that was what was in fashion in those days and did it occur to anybody that Beck and Page were friends? And that they’d both come out of the equally blues-based guitar-drenched Yardbirds?
I make no bones about the fact that to this day this is my favorite Zep album. No bad tracks, thunderous power, moody, mysterious, bluesy as all hell. To me, it’s the blueprint for everything they did thereafter. As much as I still loved them later, I always thought that Plant’s voice got whinier and that they drifted far from the blues.
Let’s talk here about the good news and the bad news. The good news is that “Dazed and Confused” is a great, epic song. Again, mysterious, kinda bluesy, great lyrics, exciting playing. To me Page always sounded like he was playing his solos on the edge, just barely keeping up with himself. Sloppy sometimes, but in a really good way. He is one of my favorite guitarists ever, even more so now that I can play some of his stuff.
The bad news? Well, there’s that whole plagiarism thing that has hovered over the band since Day One. (Which, if you weren’t paying attention, would be 50 years ago today, recording-wise.) When the first album was released, “Dazed and Confused” was attributed to Page.
But in fact, it was written by a singer/songwriter named Jake Holmes who released it on his debut album in June 1967, almost two years prior to the release of Zep 1. As it happens, the Yardbirds saw Holmes play this live and it had been incorporated as part of their set since August of 1967. (Zep and the Youngbloods were on the same bill as Holmes.)
You can hear it on an album called Yardbirds ’68 which was released in November of 2017. Here’s a live version from some French TV show, La Plume de Ma Tante, or something. (Page is here playing guitar with a bow, an idea he got from actor David McCallum’s violinist father who was also a session player.)
After hearing the song on the first Zep album Holmes said, “Stupidly, I never followed up on it. In the early 1980s, I did write them a letter and I said basically ‘I understand it’s a collaborative effort, but I think you should give me some credit at least and some (remuneration).’ But they never contacted me.” In 2010, the incredibly naive, laid-back Mr. Holmes filed suit. But Page settled out of court and now the credit says, “Page, inspired by Jake Holmes.” (Whereas it should quite simply say, Jake Holmes – ME.)
Continuing a time-honored tradition of gaining fans by doing live shows, Zep toured the US and the UK four times each in 1969.** A legendary concert at the now-defunct Boston Tea Party is detailed not only in the Zep book I consulted but also on their website. The audience went insane and would not let the band leave the stage. (A great early Fleetwood Mac was recorded there as well. Alas, the club was gone long before I moved here.)
John Paul Jones: “As far as I’m concerned, the key Zeppelin gig, the one that put everything into focus, was one that we played on our first American tour at the Boston Tea Party. We’d played our usual one hour set, using all the material for the first album and Page’s “White Summer” guitar piece and by the end, the audience just wouldn’t let us offstage. It was in such a state that we had to start throwing ideas around, just thinking of songs that we might all know or that some of us knew a part of and work it out from there.
So we’d go back on and play things like “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Please Please Me,” old Beatles favorites. I mean, just anything that would come into our head and the response was quite amazing. There were kids actually bashing their heads against the stage – I’ve never seen that at a gig before or since, and when we finally left the stage, we’d played for four-plus hours.
Peter (Grant) was absolutely ecstatic. He was crying if you can imagine that, and hugging us all. You know with this grizzly bear hug. I suppose it was then that we realized just what Led Zeppelin was going to become.”
The guys were touring so much that they pretty much had to put Led Zeppelin II together on the road. Whereas maybe the first album was for the deep track crowd, the second album – another great blues-drenched one – put Zep firmly and forever on the map. It was their first album to reach number one in the US and UK and not only got all the kids jacked up but probably was the inspiration for about 8 million mostly lesser bands.
“Whole Lotta Love” has the world’s simplest riff – Page is a super riff-intensive player – but nobody had done exactly that before. “When I played the riff for the band,” says Page, “the excitement was immediate and collective. We felt the riff was addictive like a forbidden thing.”***
I could post just about any song here as there’s a lot of good stuff but I’ll go with “What Is and What Should Never Be.” It not only has all those light and shade elements it’s also one of the first where Plant received writing credit. Supposedly this is about an affair Plant had with his wife’s younger sister. (Nice guy, eh?)
Some say these first two albums were the beginnings of heavy metal. But clearly, bands like the Yardbirds, Beck, and Cream paved the way for that genre. And let us not forget that Black Sabbath and Deep Purple were performing and recording around this time. So it seems that in this blogger’s view it was a combination of events and no one album or performance from which heavy metal grew. (The expression ‘heavy metal’ was first used in the 1968 song “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf.)
Next up – The biggest, most excessive band in the world fills with hydrogen and soars.
*I read an interview with Mendelsohn not too long ago where this fuckwad still couldn’t admit that there was anything good at all about this album. In fairness to them, in an RS retrospective issue, they talked about their early reviews – even as I recall, reprinting Mendelsohn’s – and admitting their reappraisal.
**As if by Crowley magick (see next post), while researching this series I discovered a somewhat crappy sounding if historically important bootleg of the group (billed as Len Zefflin) playing at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington on Dec. 30, 1968.
***Page goes on to say that “some say that “Whole Lotta Love” was based on Willie Dixon’s ‘You Need Love’ and the Small Faces’ ‘You Need Loving.’ But my riff sounds like neither of them. Robert had referenced the Dixon lyrics but if you take out the vocal, there’s no musical reference to either song.” Methinks either Page doesn’t fully understand copyright law or is just being a douchebag. Because if you look at the song now, it is also credited to Dixon and again Zep settled out of court. And frankly I think it would have just made sense to change the band’s name to Settled Out of Court and be done with it.
I found this really cool 1970 TV interview with mates Plant and Bonham. As one commenter said, it’s surprising how charming Bonzo is given our later knowledge of him and his wild behavior.
Sources: When Giants Walked the Earth, Mick Wall. St. Martin’s Griffin Press; Wikipedia, Classic Rock Magazine, Led Zeppelin website.