Rock & Roll Feature: Led Zeppelin, Birth of the Legend

This is the thirteenth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

For this month's feature I thought I would celebrate the current band of the hour, the one with their first reunion show in years scheduled for December 10th (perhaps the biggest announcement of the year) and the one I, and so many other fans are hoping to hear the confirmation of a full fledged tour from. Of course, the band is the legendary Led Zeppelin. I debated for quite some time which album I wanted to discuss as the first six are incredible to say the least and even the more varied releases from their later career contain some stellar tracks. Eventually I decided that the best way really to celebrate the at least partial return of Led Zeppelin in concert format would be to discuss where they started, way back in the late 60s, rising from the ashes of the Yardbirds, with their very first studio album: the self titled Led Zeppelin or Led Zeppelin I if you prefer.

Released in early 1969, very early I believe, like the second week of January, with it's trademark Hindenburg cover art, these songs mark a major part of the beginning of what would become heavy metal, as well as the establishment of the Led Zeppelin sound. The band had already been through a tour as the New Yardbirds before, the songs were well rehearsed, and so in a mere 30 hours, a unique mix of bombastic hard rock, blues, psychedelia and folk that would change rock forever, was committed to tape.

Most people probably know these songs backwards and forwards, but it's still interesting to take a look at them individually, as they've obviously stood the test of time.

It starts out exactly as you'd expect the first Led Zeppelin album to start: with a hard hitting rocker. "Good Times Bad Times" has a simple driving rock style and a killer solo, both done with the huge, overdriven guitars that remain one of the most identifiable aspects of their sound. For people who came to this track perhaps as their first real experience with Zeppelin, it sets the tone perfectly. From the very first chord you know this is going to be some heavy rock and roll. Other bands might have continued that trend right into the following tracks but here things take a different route. "Babe, I'm Going to Leave You" is both folksy and bluesy, but also dark and slightly mystic with it's layered guitars. It's not hard to see this track as the roots of "Stairway to Heaven" in the way it builds towards massive riffs. The pieces are all there, but the result is more blues based than epic grandeur. Side by side with the opening track, this one also serves as a good counterpoint adding depth and immediately demonstrating that the band had far more on their creative horizons than just the killer rock and roll of "Good Times Bad Times".

The band's cover of Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me" goes in another, slightly different direction as well. It's bluesy, soulful and cranked to the max until the emotions (and the sound) reach a bombastic level of intensity. This song also plays an interesting role in some of the context from which this album emerged, but more on that later. By the time you reach "Dazed and Confused" you're not really sure what to expect, and they deliver again with their first masterpiece. This noisy psychedelic explosion of mystic flavors, killer riffs and dynamic changes still sounds huge and larger than life even up against much heavier sounds... and I'm talking about the album version. When ballooned into a 30 minute epic live, complete with extended violin noise solo and interwoven, improvised riffs from other songs, it truly is a rock and roll monster.

The larger than life feeling continues, nix some of the more psychedelic experimentalism of "Dazed and Confused", with "Your Time is Gonna Come". This is actually one of my favorite Zeppelin tracks because it's soulful, but huge, with a great overall feel from the more subtle, even folksy guitar work, to the huge, soaring, sing along chorus. It's just a whole package that works really well together and as the song fades out, it even transitions well into Jimmy Page's purer folk guitar work on "Black Mountain Side". Here's a song that also really shows the band's depth and appreciation for some of genres like mountain music and true folk. Even when played electric, interwoven into Page's eastern flavored stomp "White Summer", it still sounds earthy and authentic. Lets not forget that this track also demonstrates a bit of Page's ability on guitar proving that not only can he tear through rock riffs, but he can also create more subtle, but intricate and complex textures acoustically, something that would be a major part of the band's sound throughout their entire career.

Another one of the instantly recognizable tracks and perhaps the one that really separates Zeppelin from some of their compatriots of the time, "Communication Breakdown" is an almost punk-like, high energy, no holds bar, rocker. Although many people might associate this track with much of what would later become heavy metal there's a stripped down feeling to it as well that also gives it a bit of a punk feel... kind of ironic seeing how the early punks were so against the excess of bands like Zeppelin. Still, I definitely feel a bit of the punk spirit in this song, and there's no denying it's connection to metal either. A listen to Black Sabbath's "Paranoid", and a few other songs is enough to confirm that in my mind.

The band closes the album with another killer blues jam, "I can't Quit You Baby", and another one of my favorite songs, "How Many More Times". The first is in the heavily pushed blues rock mold of the time, but still has plenty of standout moments including some excitingly spontaneous guitar work from Page. The latter starts off with touches of wah guitar before surging into the pounding, swaggering riff. What I find most interesting about this song though, is the way it progresses and hints at much of what Zeppelin would experiment with over the course of their career. As the song plays, it goes through several stylistic changes, including extended solo, psychedelic break and a majestic, march like stomp before building and pushing towards one of the greatest rock and roll riffs of all time and then finally returning to the original groove again. The band was known to stretch this song out into an extended medley, weaving in bits of blues songs etc, something that would become a huge part of their live shows for their entire career. That feel of improvisation, spontaneity and shifting styles really comes through even in the studio track. It's a great song, and a great close to the album.

As a complete work, this album definitely gets the Zeppelin sound across on all fronts whether it would be driving rock, heavy blues, psychedelic/mystic flavored tracks, or folksy numbers both in stripped down and layered formats and hints at the directions they would pursue in the future. Plus great musicianship combines with a massive sound and plenty of creativity makes for some killer rock and roll.

It does mark a turning point in the changing sounds of hard rock and the very beginnings of heavy metal, but where that turning point actually is, is debatable. By looking at the context, you can argue that the band was not the first to pioneer this kind of rock, and therefore these songs are not as groundbreaking as perhaps it is often perceived. I personally wouldn't argue that, but you could make a point if you chose to do so.

The context I'm talking about actually involves another band from right around the same area and time period, and one that was especially close to Page: The Jeff Beck Group. Their sound is in the same vein as Zeppelin (heavy, bombastic blues) and the album Truth even has a version of "You Shook Me" that sounds compellingly similar to Zeppelin's on first listen, right down to the interaction between the guitar and vocals. The difference is of course that Beck's album debuted at least a year earlier than Zeppelin's. Some sources hint that Jeff Beck might have been a little put out by Page "stealing his sound", while others seem to indicate that Page was actually involved in some of the Truth recordings during and might have even written the majestic chord progression of "Beck's Bolero". Others still state that neither Beck nor Page knew the other was recording "You Shook Me" until after each was released. There is definitely some hearsay involving these two albums, which makes the complete picture hard to see, but the stories are interesting and seem to add to each of their subsequent legends, causes certain people to rally behind one or the other as the true turning point of hard rock blues and engage in lengthy arguments as to the merits (or lack of) of each.

I won't get into that debate as I think both are stellar albums. The actual facts will probably never be known and in my mind, there isn't too much of a debate to be made for one stealing the other's sound, or one being more/less influential.

Although the similarities are definitely noticeable, I hear a distinct difference between the two albums that actually points towards each guitarist's respective direction. Both are incredible, but Truth is far more R & B flavored with keyboards etc, and also more angular and rough around the edges to my ear, seeming to hint at more progressive things... which would be the direction that Beck would follow. Led Zeppelin though is more pointed towards very grand compositions and harder rock sounds, but still staying somewhat rooted in traditional rock and roll and blues ideas while experimenting... which is the direction they would take. It's as if these two albums form a fork in the road. Page and Beck knew each other for a long time before they played together in the Yardbirds, and came from similar backgrounds, were part of the same music scene etc, and so the fact that their musical tastes would at least initially develop in parallel makes sense, (Eric Clapton was involved in the same scene too, which could explain why Cream hinted at hard rock and heavy blues as well). Like I said though, I see these albums like a fork in the road, each starting in the same place, but pointing in slightly different directions and bound to end up following different courses. In this view, neither work has their contribution to hard rock and heavy metal diminished as they each contributed slightly varied flavors, and the bands that would follow each would continue to push in different, but similar, directions.

I do think this contextual information is important in really understanding where the debut Led Zeppelin album lies (where both albums lie actually) within the history of rock and roll as well as where this music came from by providing a little insight into the atmosphere and influences that spawned it and what other artists were doing at the time. I don't think it warrants a debate, but I also don't think that some of the historical confusion and debating detracts from the music either as both works easily stand up on their own or side by side. The context of music is important, but when you throw all that away, what you're left with is just some of the best rock and roll ever recorded.

That's what's really important, not which album was the most ground breaking or influential, but the music. In the case of Led Zeppelin, you not only have the birth of a legendary band and the roots of heavy metal, but you have just some amazing songs to listen to, start to finish, with equal parts bombastic hard rock guitars, intricate folk, powerful blues and trippy psychedelia.

If you've never really listened to Led Zeppelin... first I'm appalled, and second, this is the place to start. Favorite album preferences range (I'm partially to Physical Graffiti myself... and all the rest), but you can't go wrong with starting at the beginning. If you're a long time Zeppelin fanatic like me, crank it up and rock out to the album that established them as one of the biggest bands of all times.

You can pick up this album from Amazon directly here: Led Zeppelin 1

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