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Taking off and ready to catch fire
Led Zeppelin I - Led Zeppelin
Member Name: JOHNDMR
Led Zeppelin I - Led Zeppelin
Advantages: One of the first great British blues albums
Disadvantages: None, really
The stars of what was often referred to as the British blues boom of the late 1960s were John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac (long before their re-invention as a transatlantic pop-rock outfit), Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Led Zeppelin came in at the end with the release of this debut album, at the beginning of 1969. The music on it had been rehearsed and road-tested by the group on a brief Scandinavian tour, and it was recorded in around 36 hours, paid for by guitarist Jimmy Page and their manager Peter Grant before their record deal with Atlantic had been signed, so there was no self-indulgent getting it together over the space of several months. Though it has nods to what might be considered more commercially acceptable pop-rock and even hints of acoustic folksiness, much of it was knee-deep in the blues, and not short, sharp, sweet two-minute tracks either.
The first track is deceptively mainstream rock. 'Good Times Bad Times' was one of two short tracks which would have fitted neatly into daytime radio. It was commercial enough to have been recorded by other bands, though a magnificently furious yet concise guitar solo by Page, allied to Robert Plant's gutsy vocals, John Paul Jones's bass runs and John Bonham's no-nonsense drumming remind us that this was no mere pop group.
Then comes the real blues deal, with three numbers all clocking in at over six minutes each. 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You' is a showcase for Page's acoustic guitar work, sounding almost like a folk number at first before the chorus and an all-out attack by the others two minutes later turn it into something harder-hitting altogether. Blues meets hard rock, although the acoustic makes its presence felt enough to provide the light and shade that would burst forth to such marvellous effect three years later on 'Stairway To Heaven'.
'You Shook Me', from the repertoire of veteran bluesman Willie Dixon, is a slow yet very intense number with Page's guitar, Jones's organ and Plant's harmonica taking it in turns to solo, eventually culminating in a remarkable call-and-respond routine at the end of the last verse where Plant's controlled scream is answered by Page mimicking him note-for-note on guitar. No sooner is it over than a majestic bass run and some nifty touch of Page playing guitar with a violin bow lead into the epic 'Dazed And Confused', another slow blues with some extraordinary experimentation on the interplay between guitar effects (with and without violin bow), bass and drums.
For those of us who remember the vinyl album (which by the way was the first rock album to be issued in the UK only in stereo - in those days, punters also had a choice of buying their long-players in mono as well), that was where side one ended. Next up comes 'Your Tme Is Gonna Come', a plaintive slowish rock epic which opens with church-like organ for the first minute or so. (Cue memories of Joe Cocker's 'With A Little Help From My Friends', a No. 1 single of the same era, on which coincidentally Page also played lead guitar). Then Bonham lets loose on the skins, and the song itself culminates in an anthemic chorus.
It cross-fades with the album's shortest track, a pinch over two minutes of the acoustic guitar instrumental 'Black Mountain Side'. Page is on his own here, almost in George Harrison sitar mode, apart from table drums by guest musician Viam Jasani.
Therer couldn't be a greater contrast between this and the almost equally short, all-out punkish charge of 'Communication Breakdown'. Simple but merciless pummelling guitar riff, a hammering on the bass and drums, and Plant's larynx being spared nothing, it wouldn't have sounded out of place in a Sex Pistols or Clash set list eight years later. This would have made a perfect single, and indeed was briefly released as such, then withdrawn after an angry Peter Grant (a giant of a man, plus temper to match, with whom one did not argue) insisted that 45 rpm records were made by pop groups for teenagers, and any punter who wanted to buy the song could go out and buy the album.
'I Can't Quit You Baby' is another Willie Dixon number. Perhaps it's not as effective as 'You Shook Me', and being in similar vein, the impact is less this time round, but no matter. Finally comes the eight-minute marathon 'How Many More Times', which is more or less a blues jam with each getting a chance to strut their stuff, more violin bow guitar, one or two shifts in tempo, and Plant even breaking into old blues standard 'The Hunter' near the end.
The front is based loosely on an iconic photograph of a zeppelin airship catching fire. Perhaps it was meant to suggest that the group were about to catch fire - but certainly not crash and burn. My CD reissue, which is dated 1994, just has a basic four-page inlay, including the basic posed group shot as per the back of the LP sleeve, and track listing plus personnel credits, but no additional notes. There may be a subsequent issue with booklet notes which I have yet to see.
The world maybe wasn't that ready for Led Zeppelin, and though the album sold steadily, it rose no higher in the UK chart (where it stayed for 79 weeks) than No. 6.
The first few times I heard this album, when some of my peers were insisting this was the next big thing, I just didn't get it at all. (They were right, I later had to concede). Rather like the Blind Faith record of about the same time, I had to come back to it many years later to appreciate it. While I probably prefer 'Your Time Is Gonna Come' and 'Communication Breakdown' to the rest, I can enjoy hearing it all the way through in its 41-minute entirety, with the changes in pace and the shifts from tightly-controlled aggression and concise arrangement to the looser extended jamming passages. It may be less varied than their later work, but there are those who say that this was the freshest and arguably the best album they would ever make in their eleven-year history. Quite ahead of its time, it's never really sounded at all dated.
[Revised version of a review I originally published on ciao]
Summary: The debut album from the unit who were probably the biggest grossing band worldwide in the 1970s