1937 – The Hindenburg airship crashes in Lakehurst, N.J., killing 36 people. A photograph of the disaster is later used as the cover art for Led Zeppelin’s first album.
Led Zeppelin is the eponymous debut album of English hard rock band, Led Zeppelin. It was recorded in October 1968 at Olympic Studios in London and released on Atlantic Records on January 12, 1969. The album featured integral contributions from each of the group’s four musicians and established Led Zeppelin’s unique fusion of blues and rock. Led Zeppelin also created a large and devoted following for the band, with their unique heavy metal and psychedelic rock sound endearing them to a section of the counterculture on both sides of the Atlantic.
In August 1968, the English rock group The Yardbirds had completely disbanded. Guitarist Jimmy Page, The Yardbirds’ sole remaining member, was left with rights to the group’s name and contractual obligations for a series of concerts in Scandinavia. For his new band, Page recruited bassist John Paul Jones, vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. During September 1968, the group toured Scandinavia as The New Yardbirds, performing some old Yardbirds material as well as new songs such as “Communication Breakdown”, “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “You Shook Me”, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “How Many More Times”. The month after they returned to England, October 1968, Page changed the band’s name to “Led Zeppelin”, and the group entered the studio to record their debut album.
Recording and production
In an interview for the Led Zeppelin Profiled radio promo CD (1990), Page said that the album took only about 36 hours of studio time (over a span of a few weeks) to create (including mixing), adding that he knows this because of the amount charged on the studio bill. One of the primary reasons for the short recording time was that the material selected for the album had been well rehearsed and pre-arranged by the band on Led Zeppelin’s tour of Scandinavia in September 1968. As Page explained:
“ We had begun developing the arrangements on the Scandinavian tour and I knew what sound I was looking for. It just came together incredibly quickly. ”
In addition, since the band had not yet signed their deal with Atlantic Records, Page and Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant paid for the sessions entirely themselves, thus there was no record company money to waste on excessive studio time. In another interview, Page revealed that the recording of the first album was entirely self-funded in order to ensure that it would be free from undue influence exerted by the record company:
“ I wanted artistic control in a vise grip, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with these fellows. In fact, I financed and completely recorded the first album before going to Atlantic. It wasn’t your typical story where you get an advance to make an album — we arrived at Atlantic with tapes in hand… Atlantic’s reaction was very positive — I mean they signed us, didn’t they? And by the time they got the second album, they were ecstatic. ”
For the recordings, Page played a psychedelically painted Fender Telecaster, a gift from Jeff Beck after Page recommended his boyhood friend to the Yardbirds in 1965 as potential replacement for Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Page played the Telecaster as his main stage guitar in the band’s early shows. He still owns the guitar but retired it after a friend repainted it to a less flattering design and it is currently locked away. He eventually switched to a 1959 Gibson Les Paul given to him by Joe Walsh. His Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty, with 3 pickups, was stolen in on the band’s Spring 1970 North American Tour. This gave him some of the distinct guitar tones on Led Zeppelin II.
Page also used a Gibson J-200, borrowed from Big Jim Sullivan, for the album’s acoustic tracks.
Led Zeppelin was produced by Jimmy Page and engineered by Glyn Johns, who had previously worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. The album was recorded on an analog 4-track machine, which helped to give the record its warm sound. Page reportedly used natural room ambience to enhance the reverb and recording texture on the record, demonstrating the innovations in sound recording he had learned during his session days. Up until the late 1960s, most music producers placed microphones directly in front of the amplifiers and drums. For Led Zeppelin Page developed the idea of placing an additional microphone some distance from the amplifier (as far as twenty feet) and then recording the balance between the two. By adopting this “distance equals depth” technique, Page became one of the first producers to record a band’s “ambient sound” — the distance of a note’s time-lag from one end of the room to the other.
Another notable feature of the album was the “leakage” on the recordings of Robert Plant’s vocals. In an interview Page gave to Guitar World magazine, Page stated that “Robert’s voice was extremely powerful and, as a result, would get on some of the other tracks. But oddly, the leakage sounds intentional.”
On the track “You Shook Me”, Page used his “backward echo” technique, which involved hearing the echo before the main sound instead of after it, achieved by turning the tape over and employing the echo on a spare track, then turning the tape back over again to get the echo preceding the signal. Page had originally developed the method when recording the single “Ten Little Indians” with The Yardbirds in 1967.
“The cover of Led Zeppelin…shows the Hindenburg airship, in all its phallic glory, going down in flames. The image did a pretty good job of encapsulating the music inside: sex, catastrophe and things blowing up.”
—Greg Kot, Rolling Stone.
Led Zeppelin’s front cover, which was chosen by Page, features a black-and-white image of the burning Hindenburg airship. The image refers to the origin of the band’s name itself: as the story goes, when Page, Jeff Beck and The Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle were discussing the idea of forming a group, Moon joked, “It would probably go over like a lead balloon”. To which Entwistle allegedly replied, “…a Lead Zeppelin!” The album’s back cover features a photograph of the band taken by former-Yardbird Chris Dreja. The entire design of the album’s sleeve was coordinated by George Hardie, with whom the band would continue to collaborate for future sleeves.
Hardie recalled that he originally offered the band a design based on an old club sign in San Francisco—a multi-sequential image of a phallic zeppelin airship up in the clouds. Page declined but it was retained as the logo for the back cover of Led Zeppelin’s first two albums and a number of early press advertisements. During the first few weeks of release in the UK, the sleeve featured the band’s name and the Atlantic logo in turquoise. When this was switched to the now-common orange print later in the year, the turquoise-printed sleeve became a collector’s item.
Led Zeppelin’s album cover received widespread attention when, at a 28 February 1970 gig in Copenhagen, the band were billed as “The Nobs” as the result of a threat of legal action from aristocrat Eva von Zeppelin (a relative of the creator of the Zeppelin aircraft), who, upon seeing the logo of the Hindenburg crashing in flames, threatened to have the show pulled off the air.
The conceptual originality of the album was displayed on tracks such as “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown”, which had a unique and distinctively heavy sound new to the ears of young music-buyers in the late-1960s. “Communication Breakdown” would become monumental in its influence: In the documentary “Ramones – The True Story”, Page’s sped up, downstroke guitar riff is cited as guitarist Johnny Ramone’s inspiration for – and basis of – his punk-defining, strictly downstroke guitar strumming. Led Zeppelin also featured delicate steel-string acoustic guitar by Page on “Black Mountain Side”, and a combination of acoustic and electric approaches on their adaptation of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”.
“Dazed and Confused” is arguably the album’s centerpiece: a foreboding arrangement featuring a descending bass line from Jones, heavy drumming from Bonham and some powerful guitar riffs and soloing from Page. It also showcased Page playing guitar with a cello bow (an idea suggested by David McCallum Sr., whom Page had met while doing studio session work). The bowed guitar in the middle section of the song brought psychedelic rock to experimental new heights, especially in extended stage versions, building on Page’s earlier renderings of the song during the latter days of The Yardbirds. “Dazed and Confused” would become Led Zeppelin’s signature performance piece for years to come.
The bowed guitar technique is also used on “How Many More Times”, a song which features a “Bolero” riff and a broken-down noise section in which Robert Plant howls Albert King’s “The Hunter” (a blues song popularised by singer Koko Taylor).
Many of Led Zeppelin’s earliest songs were based on blues standards, and the album also included three songs composed by others: “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, both by blues artist Willie Dixon; and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”. Regarding the last of these, at the time guitarist Jimmy Page mistakenly believed he was adapting a traditional folk song he had heard on a Joan Baez record, but this was corrected on subsequent rereleases after it was revealed that the song was composed by Anne Bredon in the 1950s. Dixon, on the other hand, received proper credit as the composer of his two songs on this album (although “You Shook Me” would later be additionally credited to J. B. Lenoir) but would go on to settle out of court with Led Zeppelin over partial use of other material of his on Plant’s lyrics to “Whole Lotta Love”. On “You Shook Me”, Plant vocally mimics Page’s guitar effects – a metallicised version of the “call and response” blues technique.
Jeff Beck had previously recorded “You Shook Me” for his album, Truth, and accused Page of stealing his idea. With John Paul Jones and drummer Keith Moon of The Who, Page had played on (and says he arranged) “Beck’s Bolero”, an instrumental on Truth that would be grooved into the mix of the Led Zeppelin jam “How Many More Times”. These cross-pollinizations led to a rift between Beck and Page, who had played in the Yardbirds together and been friends since childhood. In fact, it was Page who first suggested Beck for the Yardbirds’ guitarist position when he was contacted by the band after Eric Clapton’s departure.
In an interview he gave in 1975, Page offered his own perspective on the album’s music:
“ For material, we obviously went right down to our blues roots. I still had plenty of Yardbirds riffs left over. By the time Jeff [Beck] did go, it was up to me to come up with a lot of new stuff. It was this thing where [Eric] Clapton set a heavy precedent in the Yardbirds which Beck had to follow and then it was even harder for me, in a way, because the second lead guitarist had suddenly become the first. And I was under pressure to come up with my own riffs. On the first LP I was still heavily influenced by the earlier days. I think it tells a bit, too… It was obvious that somebody had to take the lead, otherwise we’d have all sat around jamming for six months. But after that, on the second LP, you can really hear the group identity coming together. ”
Success and critical acclaim
The album was advertised in selected music papers under the slogan “Led Zeppelin – the only way to fly”. It initially received poor reviews. In a stinging assessment, Rolling Stone magazine asserted that the band offered “little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago”. It also called Plant “as foppish as Rod Stewart, but nowhere near so exciting”. As was noted by rock journalist Cameron Crowe years later:
“ It was a time of “super-groups,” of furiously hyped bands who could barely cut it, and Led Zeppelin initially found themselves fighting upstream to prove their authenticity. ”
Nevertheless, the album was a massive fiscal success. The album was initially released in America on 17 January 1969 to capitalise on the band’s first U.S. concert tour. Before that, Atlantic Records had distributed a few hundred advance white label copies to key radio stations and reviewers. A positive reaction to its contents, coupled with a good reaction to the band’s opening concerts, resulted in the album generating 50,000 advance orders. It stayed on the Billboard chart for 73 weeks and held a 79-week run on the British chart. By 1975 it had grossed $7,000,000.
The success and influence of the album is today widely acknowledged, even amongst those critics who were initially sceptical. In 2006, for example, Rolling Stone stated that
“ [The album] was pretty much unlike anything else. The arrangements were more sculpted than those of Cream or Jimi Hendrix, and the musicianship wasn’t cumbersome like Iron Butterfly’s or bombastic like Vanilla Fudge’s. The closest comparisons might be to MC5 or the Stooges—both from Michigan—yet neither had the polish or prowess of Led Zeppelin, nor did Led Zeppelin have the political, social or die-hard sensibility of those landmark bands. What they did have, though, was the potential for a mass audience. ”
In 2003 the TV network VH1 named Led Zeppelin the 44th greatest album of all time. In 2003, the album was ranked number 29 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It is widely regarded as marking a significant turning point in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal.
|Kerrang!||United Kingdom||100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums Of All Time||1989||18|
|Rolling Stone||United States||The Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time||2003||29|
|Q||United Kingdom||The Music That Changed The World (Part One: 1954 – 1969)||2004||7|
|Robert Dimery||United States||1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die||2006||*|
|Uncut||United Kingdom||100 Greatest Debut Albums||2006||7|
|Rock and Roll Hall of Fame||United States||The Definitive 200||2007||165|
|Q||United Kingdom||21 Albums That Changed Music||2007||6|
* denotes an unordered list
1. “Good Times Bad Times” (Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, John Bonham) – 2:46
2. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” (Robert Plant, Page, Anne Bredon) – 6:41
3. “You Shook Me” (Willie Dixon, J. B. Lenoir) – 6:28
4. “Dazed and Confused” (Page) – 6:26
1. “Your Time Is Gonna Come” (Page, Jones) – 4:34
2. “Black Mountain Side” (Page) – 2:14
3. “Communication Breakdown” (Page, Jones, Bonham) – 2:27
4. “I Can’t Quit You Baby” (Dixon) – 4:42
5. “How Many More Times” (Page, Jones, Bonham) – 8:28 (listed as 3:30 on record sleeve deliberately by Jimmy Page in order to trick radio stations into playing the song.)
Robert Plant participated in songwriting, but wasn’t given credit due to unexpired contractual obligations.
Some cassette versions of the album reversed the order of the sides. For these versions, side one began with “Your Time Is Gonna Come” and ended with “How Many More Times”, while side two began with “Good Times, Bad Times” and ended with “Dazed and Confused”.
* Jimmy Page – acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitar, backing vocals, producer
* Robert Plant – vocals, harmonica
* John Paul Jones – bass guitar, organ, keyboards, backing vocals
* John Bonham – drums, timpani, backing vocals
* Viram Jasani – tabla on Black Mountain Side
* Chris Dreja – back liner photo
* George Hardie – cover design
* Glyn Johns – engineer, mixing
* Peter Grant – executive producer
CD Mastering engineers
* Barry Diament – original CD (mid-1980s)
* George Marino – remastered CD (1990)
Year Chart Position
1969 Billboard Pop Albums (Billboard 200) 10
Year Single Chart Position
1969 “Good Times Bad Times” Billboard Pop Singles (Billboard Hot 100) 80
Certifier Certification Sales
RIAA (U.S.) 8x Platinum 8,000,000
Country Date Label Format Catalog
US 1969 Atlantic LP (mono version) 8216
US 1969 Atlantic LP SD8216
UK 1969 Atlantic LP 588171
Japan 1969 Atlantic LP MT1067
US 1971 Atlantic LP (reissue) 7208
UK 1972 Atlantic LP (reissue) K40031
Japan 1972 Atlantic LP (reissue) P8041A
US 1977 Atlantic LP (reissue) SD19126
US 1982 Atlantic CD SD19126
US 1994 Atlantic CD (remastered) 82632
Japan 2003 Atlantic CD (replica sleeve) 208264
US 2006 Atlantic LP (200g audiophile reissue) SD8216