For this review of my third favourite debut album of all time, I dusted off the trusty old turntable so I could hear it as it was originally heard.
It seems that certain stock phrases must be included in all Led Zeppelin reviews. So before we go any further, here they are: primal scream, origins of heavy metal, The New Yardbirds, Keith Moon, supergroup, plagiarism.
I must declare a personal interest here. My late father knew John Bonham’s father. Dad once told me about “snotty-nosed little Johnny” running around in shorts in his dad’s garden. The man who would become the model for generations of rock drummers, the man whose sampled snare you will find on countless modern recordings, was born in the same town as myself and lived a couple of miles from where I spent my childhood. On the day of his funeral, I kept looking out of my high school’s windows to try to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession, but I never did. His grave lies about four miles north of my old home. Robert Plant is another local boy made good.
I remember as a teenager listening to this album while being driven by my brother in a Mini van at silly speeds in the dark along narrow English country lanes through that very area, and being impressed by the raw emotional power of the music and lyrics. Enough navel gazing, on with the review.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album was recorded in 1968 and released in early 1969. It shows a variety of different influences including folk, psychedelia and even world music, but is primarily a blues-rock album. To say that it was a hugely successful and influential album would be understating the obvious, so I won’t say that. Instead, I’ll give some brief impressions of the tracks.
Good Times Bad Times
This short blues-influenced rocker includes a couple of short but fine Jimmy Page solos.
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
A slow acoustic blues cover? Yes, but not just that. With Page driving the strings and Plant’s uniquely powerful yet emotional voice controlling the ebb and flow to perfection, this goes beyond the confines of traditional blues.
You Shook Me
More blues, a cover written by Willie Dixon this time, with a call-and-response section that became a live favourite. It features an interesting backwards echo production technique, where the echo is heard first!
Dazed and Confused
Another slow blues number in 12/8, this is essentially a leftover from Page’s Yardbirds days. The song contains an experimental psychedelic section with Page using a cello bow on his guitar. If listening without the aid of recreational substances (as I do), this drags on a bit. But all is forgiven when it leads into a blistering cymbal-driven guitar solo.
Your Time Is Gonna Come
At the time, this was something like a pop number, despite starting with an extended Jones organ solo. Not an outstanding track, it’s not a bad one either.
Black Mountain Side
This (arguably) stolen acoustic guitar instrumental with tambla drums is, for me, the weak point on the album. I think it would have been a better album without it.
If this song isn’t the origin of the phrase “machine-gun riff”, it should be. Simple, heavy, fast, sweet. Another fine Page solo is crammed into this short song.
I Can’t Quit You Baby
A slow blues cover, again written by Willie Dixon. The fluid bass work is a standout here, but an otherwise unremarkable track.
How Many More Times
This track was listed as 3:30 long on the original record sleeve, apparently deliberately in order to trick radio stations into playing the song. It’s actually 8:28 long, and at the time that represented quite an epic. Shuffle, riffage, soaring guitar work, buildups, wind-downs, pauses, more psychedelic bowed guitar and snare-free drumming, inserted blues covers, sexually charged lyrics delivered with gusto, this song has the lot. If you’re of the opinion that an album should finish with a barnstormer, you should be happy with this one.
The album as a whole showcases Page’s varied guitar work, Bonham’s powerhouse drumming, Jones’ precise and fluid bass work, but more than anything, this is the album that introduced Robert Plant to the world. Things were never quite the same after that. The artwork is great too. Simple, iconic, brilliant.
Criticisms? The album was recorded in a hurry (35 hours) and in places it shows. Jimmy Page wasn’t as scrupulous as he should have been in giving credit to other people’s songwriting work. A couple of later Led Zeppelin albums reached greater heights than this. Jimmy Page, for all his towering achievements as a session musician and “guitar god”, was prone to be sloppy (especially live) and was technically bettered by several contemporaries (not to mention a million unheard guitarists today: guitar standards have come a long way in 40 years). Oh, and the rear cover would have been better (if less amusing) if John Bonham had been wearing something other than a cable-knit sweater that looks like it was a gift from his mum.
None of that matters enough to knock this debut album out of my top three. It’s still a great album.
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