This is a seminal work, it really is. The debut from Led Zeppelin – can you imagine even being in a world without Led Zeppelin? To be sitting around in 1969, listening to the music of the day, hearing British Blues get dark, with the Yardbirds, Free, Black Sabbath. Hearing rock get psychedelic, with Hendrix, Cream, The Grateful Dead. The very beginnings of prog were starting to spread roots.
Yet, the world must have seemed empty. Where was the monumental riffing? Where was the powerful, high pitched, wailing? Where were the complex rhythms and pounding backings? Where, in essence, was every metal signature, soon to be every metal cliché? I tell thee, disciples of rock – in Jimmy Page’s head.
This is distilled perfection. Powerful smacks of the guitar, pounding drums and complicated, almost delicate fills in between this nearly funky blend introduce the disc, with one of the hardest cuts on the album, Good Times Bad Times. A master class in dynamics, complexity and overarching catchiness for metalheads everywhere, as well as containing the first of many, many, blistering guitar solos that rear their heads throughout “Led Zeppelin”, this is a tightly controlled ball of fury, longing, anger, lyrical cliché and blues posturing. In short, the dawn of the Seventies and the most contradictory decade in music (prog and punk, funk and disco, singer-songwriters and glam).
As an opening gambit, it’s audacious, but to slap Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, a folky, dark, menacing, cover right behind it defies all the rules – 2 or 3 straight up, hard hitting, breath-defying songs to sweep the listener in – and that switches between brooding verses and pummelling choruses, where the Bonham and Jones join forces to blast the bottom end out of your speakers and the acoustic guitar has never sounded so HARD.
Another cover (the album has 3 officially, and in the last track, a few choice selections from various blues standards) follows, which is just a show-off. You Shook Me contains a solo for every band member bar Bonham, who gets to build the complexity of his drum patterns behind the shuffling squall of the others, culminating in headphone panning drum rolls, a production technique usually reserved for guitar blips (parabolic ones!). Plant gets to solo on the harmonica, and to duel with Page, whilst Jones plays organ in the most sublime solo he’d produce until No Quarter. Page here rips out the first of the two outstanding guitar moments on the other, in the final solo of the instrumental, an echo laden odyssey of blues.
Finishing off side 1, the third six minute long track in a row, is Dazed and Confused, much more powerful on record, than live; sacrilege to the stereotypical fan, but come on, once you’ve listened to the 26 minute version once, and you don’t want to hear the Crunge shoved into the middle of the freak out, you tend to settle with this little slice of genius. Influenced by a Jake Holmes track this is the moment when you fully realise that this band is going to go somewhere, probably the stratosphere. Taking a violin bow to his guitar for the middle section, Page then leaps into the second of the albums 2 outstanding guitar moments, as previously exulted over. Probably the best of the album’s lyrics, too, are sung with wild conviction by Plant, who’s vocal duties here really lift the slower moments of the song. Climaxing with a bang, the best side one in history closes and the listener is exhausted. Muster your strength, turn over the record, let the needle drop and usher in the happy sounds of Your Time Is Gonna Come.
Organs are a big part of gospel music, and the blues, but rock tends to underuse them, but not Zeppelin. Despite being known as the boring one, John Paul Jones was as great a musician, if a slightly more esoteric one, as Page – his bass playing is sublime, the mandolins and keyboards that you hear on every Zep platter are, of course, his and they often lift songs beyond their guitar-bass-drums-vocals pattern. Almost churchy at the start, the organs become a lot more funky when the rest of the band pitch in, complete with proper backing vocals by the band, giving this anthem status, even though much maligned in the broad sweep of Zeppelinistics.
Under the last wails of organ, three strummed guitar chords usher in the song that would be quadrupled in length live, as part of Page’s White Summer excursions – Black Mountain Side, featuring the only guest musician, Viram Jasani (tabla drums) is an English/Indian folk fusion piece that has some of the most incomprehensibly quick (well, to me, anyway) acoustic work I’ve ever heard, and is the only non-vocal track present, giving a slight rest between the anthem and the pound – that pound being Communication Breakdown, possibly the first song to ring true as a punk track, even before punk had excess to trim back! The riff is nasty and brutal, the soloing is not excessive in the least, the bluesy insistence of the vocals and the attack of the rhythms are exhilarating, and provide the last moment of power and force on the album.
The pace slows down with I Can’t Quit You Baby, the second Willie Dixon cover on the album, and one where the band is messing around, almost – Page’s constantly changing licks are ushered in by Plant’s moaning and the shuffling groove of Bonham and Jones. In much the same spirit as You Shook Me, the rhythms change subtly, and the tones aren’t too different – then again, as a fellow cover of a Dixon tune, is this surprising?
It all ends with the long, slow jam of How Many More Times, an early concert closer, incorporating elements of The Hunter, a tune done by Free a couple of years previously, and when this finally dies, you can’t help but wonder how this could get better. Then when you put on Led Zeppelin II … ah, but that would be telling!