When the British band The Yardbirds split up in 1968, guitarist Jimmy Page was left with contracts to perform shows in Scandinavia but no band to play them with, so he had to put one together quickly. Page admired session bassist John Paul Jones, so he was an obvious first choice. Finding an available singer was harder, but a friend recommended a guy named Robert Plant, who then recruited drummer John Bonham. And off they went on tour, calling themselves The New Yardbirds.
The name was soon ditched for legal reasons, but the quartet was destined for the rock and roll stratosphere.
Their debut album, Led Zeppelin, was released in January of 1969. The band hadn’t been together long when they started recording tracks in 1968. Still, they’d done a fair amount of rehearsing and performing as a quartet on the tour. They wrote some new material and filled out the balance with covers of blues and folk songs. It was a strong start, featuring numbers that are still revered like “Communication Breakdown” and “Dazed and Confused.”
Page produced (as he did all their albums), and their musical comfort with each other allowed them to play live in the studio and take advantage of that particular ambiance. Some overdubs were added later.
Despite the heavy rock tracks that made them famous, Zeppelin has legit folk roots, and Plant has always been able to sing with a delicacy that brings out the beautiful acoustic melodies. Page was a great fan of folk guitarist John Renbourn, and he pays tribute on this first album with the haunting track “Black Mountain Side.” They brought in guest artist Viram Jasani to play the Indian tabla drums. (One problem, though, is that Page’s playing bears a suspicious level of resemblance to Bert Jansch’s original guitar part on his version of the folk song “Blackwaterside,” recorded in 1966.)
1969 was a busy year for the new group, with another album, Led Zeppelin II, coming out in October. This effort featured a much heavier sound (exemplified by the huge hit single “Whole Lotta Love”) and a stronger blues influence.
“Ramble On” was by Plant, inspired by the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. The band never played it live until they regrouped for a special concert in 2007, but Plant has always liked performing it in solo shows. It opens with a typical Zeppelin paradox: The verses are intricate and light, almost lacy, but by at the chorus it explodes into a thunderous roar. Yet somehow it’s a convincing transition every time.
Led Zeppelin III came out in 1970, introducing the world to “Immigrant Song” and “Gallows Pole.” The latter was a folk song they’d learned from the singing of American singer and guitarist Fred Gerlach, and it was a favorite when Plant and Page toured together in the post-Zeppelin days.
“Hey Hey What Can I Do?” did not appear on the album, but was used as the B-side for “Immigrant Song.” The mellow, strolling style has echoes of Southern rock. But once in a while, when Plant kicks it up to the next octave, you know it’s Zeppelin for sure.
For an album that originally had no title at all, Led Zeppelin IV (1971) sure had a massive impact. Imagine a world without “Stairway to Heaven.” Amazingly, this song was not released as a single. Its eight-minute length was impractical (not impossible) for a seven-inch 45 rpm. Besides, record executives assumed no radio would play something so long and complicated. (This was four years before Queen won the battle to make “Bohemian Rhapsody” the first single from A Night at the Opera.) How wrong they were!
A lesser-known track from IV is “When the Levee Breaks,” borrowed from a 1929 recording by Mississippi Delta blues duo Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy. Here’s the original:
Zeppelin recorded their version in the lobby of the recording studio because Page wanted a reverb on Bonham’s drums that he couldn’t capture in the studio itself. As you’ll hear, the drums make this track, which slows the song down to a train-like rumble:
While the band focused on their heavy sound for Houses of the Holy (1973), they continued to be stylistic chameleons. A dissonant headbanger called “The Crunge” was the B-side to the folk-like “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Could they have picked two more different songs to send out together?
“The Crunge” was a group effort, developing out of a jam session where the band was trying to mimic the funk style of James Brown. [Where’s that confounded bridge? – Ed.] Usually they performed only sections of it, as part of extended medleys of their songs that could last up to 25 minutes.
The album Physical Graffiti (1975) marks the first Led Zeppelin album released by their own label, Swan Song Records. (It was not, in fact, the label’s first release, since it had put out records by Bad Company and Pretty Things the previous year.) With complete artistic freedom over their own work, they made the decision to expand the eight-song Physical Graffiti into a double album that included unreleased tracks from some older sessions.
One of those outtakes was “Down by the Seaside,” originally intended for Led Zeppelin IV. The most striking feature is Page doing a faux Hawaiian steel guitar sound on his Fender. It’s an unusually laid-back number that fools you into wondering whether it’s a Zeppelin recording at all. But just after the 2:00 mark, the drums and guitar take a heavier turn. That’s just a brief nod to the Zeppelin sound, and in less than a minute we’re back on the beach with an umbrella in our drink.
Plant was still in a wheelchair following a serious car accident when they recorded Presence (1976). This is the only Zeppelin record with no keyboards and with acoustic guitar limited to one track (“Candy Store Rock”).
The album did not land well, getting torn apart by the critics while not selling many copies by Zeppelin standards. Still, there’s some good stuff to explore on it. My favorite is the album closer, “Tea for One,” with its time-signature-defying guitar riff. Along with most of the songs on the album, it’s credited to Plant and Page. Given the depth of sound, it’s no surprise that this nine-minute number was chosen for an orchestral backing on a later Plant/Page tour.
In through the Out Door (1979) was Zeppelin’s last album. They recorded it quickly, over a three-week period, and used it as a means to express the various levels of angst all of them were feeling. Plant, in particular, was overwhelmed with emotion, has survived two traumas over the previous few years: the car accident followed quickly by the death of his son from a stomach infection.
Again, much of the album is credited to Jones and Page, including “South Bound Suarez.” This high-energy number uses rockabilly-style chords to drive it along, but with a more frenetic drumbeat than you’d hear on, say, a Jerry Lee Lewis single, which lets the piano dominate the rhythm.
The end was brought about by the death of Bonham in 1980 of alcohol poisoning and asphyxiation. The surviving band members got back together occasionally for special appearances (including Live Aid in 1985 and the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert in 2007).
Plant and Page recorded and toured as a very successful duo act in the ’90s, and they are still actively recording and performing solo artists today. Fans have never stopped hoping for a Led Zeppelin reunion.
Header image: Led Zeppelin, 1975. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/tony morelli.