How Led Zeppelin’s First Album Set the Hard Rock Paradigm
Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut is an album full of firsts. Released in the U.K. on Jan. 12, 1969, 'Led Zeppelin' may not match the historical stature of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it remains the prototypical hard-rock album. It also could well be named the first album of the ‘70s, aesthetically speaking -- and it’s certainly one of the first watershed albums released after the Beatles’ Technicolor masterpiece changed, well, everything.
And to think that, less than six months earlier, guitarist and Led-leader Jimmy Page was still figuring out what to do about the fast-disintegrating Yardbirds, and his career, in general. His old band’s demise, though it had in fact been coming for quite some time, was finally made official in August 1968. That left Page with nothing but the legal rights to the Yardbirds name and the responsibility of recruiting new musicians capable of fulfilling a slew of pending Scandinavian tour dates.
The sequence of events that followed in quick succession still defies belief.
In September, Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham duly took Scandinavia by storm billed as the “New Yardbirds,” simultaneously trying out new material and testing their mutual on-stage chemistry along the way. In October, the still-as-yet-unnamed group was busy recording these new songs at London’s Olympic Studios for the bargain-basement budget of £1,782. In November, and with the help of strong-willed manager Peter Grant, the newly rechristened Led Zeppelin signed a contract with Atlantic Records guaranteeing unprecedented control over their career direction. By early January, Led Zeppelin was released across Europe.
Needless to say, much of the record’s unique appeal -- then and now -- emanates from the unbelievably brisk and volatile conditions under which it was created. Therein lies the source of the raw, spontaneous energy that crackles out of its nine combustible tracks, and which determined that Led Zeppelin would become the measuring stick by which all future hard rock albums would be compared. What’s more, thanks to the unparalleled creative freedom that Jimmy Page demanded from Atlantic prior to signing on the dotted line along with his band mates, those same nine songs already revealed a band willing to adapt music of every stripe to achieve their high-decibel goals.
There’s brutish, thunderous hard rock ("Good Times, Bad Times"), sensitive neo-folk rock ("Babe I’m Gonna Leave You"), lustful Delta blues ("You Shook Me"), nightmare-inducing art rock ("Dazed and Confused"), a vengeful wish softened by hymnal gentility ("Your Time Is Gonna Come"), some percussive Irish instrumental folk ("Black Mountain Side"), euphorically heavy, post-garage proto-metal ("Communication Breakdown") and more blues of both the condensed ("I Can’t Quit You Baby") and epic variety as they cobbled spare parts from rock’s earliest roots to birth a powerful, modern amalgam ("How Many More Times").
If all this comprised the opening salvo of the hard-rock era, is it any wonder so much diversity would eventually fall under that all-too-limited heading? Or that such a small number of future bands came anywhere near to challenging Led Zeppelin’s amazing versatility and facility for mixing and hopping hop and between genres, as they please?
Led Zeppelin quickly breached the Top 10 in both the U.K. and U.S., where it was unveiled two months later. It also opened the door for countless bands, from Black Sabbath to Deep Purple, who then threw commercial caution to the wind and turned their amplifiers up to 11. Rock would never be the same. But somebody had to get their first -- and that was Led Zeppelin, with this enduring classic of a first album.