Led Zeppelin was more than the sum of its parts
Everything is greater than the sum of its parts.
Order and arrangement create context, shadow and light. Words and musical phrases gain power through their relationship with other words and musical phrases. The parts resonate, acquire meanings they wouldn’t otherwise hold. They play off each other, they shade or illuminate one another. Same goes for personalities. Before the Beatles, bands were sidemen backing singers. Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Bill Haley and the Comets. Elvis Presley with Bill Black, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana.
But it wasn’t John Lennon and the Beatles, or Paul McCartney and the Beatles, but an integrated, alchemical unit. George Harrison and Ringo Starr might be perceived by some as junior members, but they were both essential to the group’s sound. While Ringo wasn’t in the same league as the others in terms of songwriting, his deceptively primitive, tom tom heavy, wrong-way-round approach to the drum kit (he was a lefty playing on a right-handed kit) is as determinative of the group’s sound as any other element. You could put Charlie Watts or Keith Moon in Ringo’s chair and have a very different rock ’n’ roll band from the one with which we are familiar.
It’s important to think about this dynamic when you consider Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin, the band’s first album, released Jan. 12, 1969, in the United States.
It wasn’t all that well-received by critics when it was released — Rolling Stone thought them derivative of Cream and that the Jeff Beck Group did it better. Widely perceived as the latest in a series of contrived “supergroups” — as contrived as The Monkees, albeit with the expectation they’d play their instruments — the reviews were brutal and contributed to a career-long antipathy toward critics and the press.
But people bought it, and the band’s reputation was built on its furious live act.
In retrospect, it seems impossible that Led Zeppelin was not immediately recognized as a classic. The band burst forth fully formed, psychedelic blues with hints of an exoticism to come. Each of the album’s nine songs made an indelible mark on the culture, to the point that a casual listener might take it as a greatest-hits compilation. After 50 years, there’s not an obscure deep track on the entire album.
“Good Times Bad Times” kicks things off with an edgy shuffle;
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” marries a mountain ballad to thumping hard rock; “You Shook Me” provided a boogie template for thousands of bar bands; “Dazed and Confused” is unassailable, volcanic, pentatonic rock; “Your Time Is Gonna Come” can be read as a early example of the power ballad, one graced with acoustic country filigree. The instrumental “Black Mountain Side” is pure Celtic folk infused with Indian scales; punk rock starts with “Communication Breakdown.” Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a textbook blues compulsory made all the more endearing by a rare Page fluff coming out of his solo (and the fact they left it on the record); and “How Many More Times” can be seen as the band’s Rosetta Stone, both a pastiche of its influences and a harbinger of its direction.
It was meant to be Jimmy Page’s band.
Page presided over the end of the Yardbirds, and, in the summer of 1968, after singer Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty and bassist Chris Dreja left, he found himself owning the rights to the group’s name and a handful of Scandinavian dates. He needed to find some musicians if he didn’t want to leave the money on the table.
But Page had aspirations beyond finding substitutes for various Yardbirds. He had thought for years about forming a band that would realize the “collage of sound” that was happening in his head. At 24, he was a veteran studio hand who had played on hit records by the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Donovan, Petula Clark and dozens of others. He’d gotten a taste for the kind of thing he wanted in May 1966, when he wrote and played second guitar on what would become Jeff Beck’s first single, the instrumental “Beck’s Bolero.” The track featured Moon on drums, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and session bassist John Paul Jones.
Page thought about keeping this outfit intact except
for Jones, who’d be replaced by the Who’s John Entwhistle — and adding a singer to form a “supergroup.” Entwhistle joked that the band would likely go over like a lead balloon. A “Lead Zeppelin,” Moon chirped.
In the end, everyone had contractual obligations. And who would the singer be? So Page joined the Yardbirds, where he played bass before moving over to form a potent two-guitar attack with his friend Beck. Then Beck left, and Page became one of the band’s focal points. But he bristled at the pop instincts of Micky Most, the band’s manager, producer and a firm believer in the three-minute song. Page wanted more.
In the studio, they churned out the radio-ready fare that Most preferred. Onstage, they were more expansive.
“The Yardbirds allowed me to improvise a lot in live performance,” Page told Guitar World magazine in 1993. “And I started building a textbook of ideas that I eventually used in Zeppelin. In addition to those ideas, I wanted to add acoustic textures. Ultimately, I wanted Zeppelin to be a marriage of blues, hard rock and acoustic music topped with heavy choruses — a combination that had never been done before.”
Page wanted a Mellotron in the new band. He wanted an artful drummer like Procol Harum’s B.J. Wilson. He wanted Small Faces vocalist Steve Marriott to be the singer — and if not him, maybe songwriter and vocalist Terry Reid, another Most client who looked to have hit-making potential.
But Marriott wasn’t interested in leaving his band and Reid was booked for months as the opening act for the Rolling Stones and Cream; though if Page and manager Peter Grant (a 300-pound former professional wrestler who had been Most’s right-hand man and who had joined forces with Page as the Yardbirds
splintered) would make him whole for the missed dates he’d go to Keith Richard and explain why he had to drop out of the dates.
Page (and Grant) demurred, and Reid recommended Robert Plant, a 19-year-old singer from a middle-class background, who had recently left a middling act called Band of Joy and was singing for a band called Obs-Tweedle.
Page went to see an ObsTweedle show at West Midlands College of Education in Birmingham. Plant sang the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” probably some Moby Grape, probably Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul.” Page and Grant liked him but wondered why someone so gifted was stuck playing gigs at a provincial teachers college. Perhaps he was difficult to work with?
Page invited Plant to his houseboat on the Thames to kick around musical ideas. At one point they bonded over Joan Baez’s version of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” Page and Plant got along fine. The New Yardbirds had their singer.
And Plant had a childhood pal named John Bonham, who’d played drums in Band of Joy and had allegedly been banned from certain venues
until 1969, after Led Zeppelin, includes an eight-minute album-closing blues medley which will suffice if you’re looking for the proto-Zeppelin track.)
On Sept. 7, they played their first show together in a converted gymnasium called Teen-Clubs in Gladsaxe, a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark. (Tickets to the show cost about $7 in today’s currency.) The set list mostly ignored the Yardbirds’ back catalog and included several songs Led Zeppelin would later record including “Train Kept a Rollin’,” “Communication Breakdown,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “You Shook Me, ” and “Dazed & Confused.”
In the clubs newsletter, a reviewer enthused:
“Their performance and their music were absolutely flawless, and the music continued to ring nicely in the ears for some time after the curtains were drawn after their show. Let me in particular give my praise to Jimmy Page who has made a great job with the three new men. They really succeeded and in particular the guitar solo by Jimmy Page created huge applause. We can therefore conclude that the new Yardbirds are at least as good as the old ones were ….”
The second New Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin show took place later that evening at the Brondy Pop-Club in nearby Brondy. This show was also reviewed (by a writer who has been widely quoted over the years but never identified):
“Robert Plant should face some small criticism and a lot of praise for an excellent performance. There is no doubt that he is a good singer, but he doesn’t have to twist his body like he’s having a ruptured appendix, does he? Musically, the band is super-great. Their hard disciplined beat is amazing. Of course, it was foremost Jimmy Page that was responsible for this but the drummer should also be mentioned; a drum solo so wild and good is hard to Democrat-Gazette file photo for playing too loud. Page had never heard of him, but on Plant’s recommendation he went to see him back up singer Tim Rose in a club in Hampstead and was immediately taken with his bombastic playing. The New Yardbirds had their drummer.
John Paul Jones, who became the final member of the group, was a session musician who had often crossed paths with Page over the years, not only in the recording of “Beck’s Bolero” but during sessions for Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man album in April 1968. While Jones has from time to time propagated the myth that he auditioned for Page at the urging of his wife, Page says he had several talks with Jones about being part of any new venture.
It probably helped that the bassist also played keyboards. And he had a Mellotron.
The New Yardbirds played together for the first time in a small rehearsal room in London in mid-August 1968; Jones, Plant (on harmonica), Page and Bonham first recorded together on the sessions for P.J. Proby’s album Three Week Hero in early September. (That album, which wasn’t released
find. It was so good that one almost wished that John Bonham wouldn’t stop.”
Fifty years on, it’s easy to see Led Zeppelin as the height of rock excess.
Bonham’s drum solos and tragic death by vodka, the leonine Plant’s legendary hauteur (I once heard documentary filmmaker Chris Hegedus’ recount how Plant once conducted an interview with her via an intercessory publicist; he would not allow her to address him directly); Page’s dabbling in occultism; the infamous shark incident (which you can Google; I’m not going to describe it), and maybe more than anything else their infamous problems abiding by copyright laws, inform the way we see them. Often credited with creating heavy metal (an arguable claim), their chief legacy seems to have been epitomizing the stereotype of the rock star as a vapid and entitled boor.
Yet Page is undeniably one of the most important musicians rock music ever produced, and Jones is a terrifically under-rated bassist and arranger, possessed of a deep musical intelligence. Bonham was a sui generis drummer, and so vital was his upfront vicious attack to the band that the other three agreed there could be no Zeppelin without him. And Plant is possessed of the sort of freak-of-nature voice that induces arguments about the greatest of all time.
More than the sum of their parts.
Led Zeppelin’s debut album was released Jan. 12, 1969; it first appeared on the Billboard album chart on Feb. 15, 1969.