Led Zeppelin are a band that go way back for me, somewhere around middle school. And many people double (perhaps triple?) my age could probably say the same. Thing is, those that fit the “triple” bill could probably recall this record’s actual release. That’s right, the debut Led Zeppelin record is coming up on fifty years old, dropping back in the formative days of heavy metal and hard rock in 1969. Led Zeppelin are also a band that some will say they were metal, and some won’t. To me, every disc out of the first four self-titled records are musical endeavors of their own with different formulas, and while Led Zeppelin II is probably the one that I would call metal, Led Zeppelin is very much a heavy blues rock album.
Due to this one’s less accessible nature, I didn’t get into it until long after, as I started with Led Zeppelin IV, the most radio rock-oriented album. But Led Zeppelin takes everything about 1960’s psychedelics and blues rock and added a heavy edge to them. For those unfamiliar, Jimmy Page put Led Zeppelin together after the disbandment of The Yardbirds, something of a “pre-supergroup” to which none of the members became famous until after leaving the band. When Robert Plant joined, bringing his friend John Bonham and later John Paul Jones, realizing that they had great musical companionship, they renamed themselves The New Yardbirds. Shortly before recording the debut record, they changed their name to Led Zeppelin; the rest is history.
First and foremost, it was common around this time period to litter early albums with covers to gain attention. The Beatles made that popular in the early sixties, and others such as Zeppelin as well as Deep Purple would follow this trend. Thus, we were given “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “You Shook Me,” “Dazed And Confused,” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Of course, many of these were tweaked by Page, and made heavier as well as amping up the guitar solos. Other artists also brought renditions of these songs, including the folksinger Joan Baez, which makes sense since a lot of them had folk origins. No matter how heavy the riffwork might get, there’s an obvious whiff of bluesy chord progressions and transitions that tend to run from slow, dreary moods to fast aggressive shredding. Jimmy Page’s ability to do this has always fascinated me.
On the other hand, you had hard rock songs that were a bit more radio-friendly, such as the classic album opener “Good Times, Bad Times.” For those that have a harder time with higher levels of weirdness involved, this is a good tune to start with. They also manage to include a long epic at the end known as “How Many More Times,” leaving the listener wondering what the hell they just experienced (remember, this is 1969). “Black Mountain Side” is a short instrumental lick used to bridge right into what I’d call the one full on metal song on the disc, “Communication Breakdown.” The rhythms in this are heavier than ever, and without a doubt as metal as it can be; just without any crazy distortion. Plant’s vocals here also have more oomph to them, delivering a very hard and jamming chorus. So there’s a fun amount of juice to squeeze from this historical piece of fruit.
It should go without saying that this was a monumental album for rock ‘n roll and heavy metal; the real question is, why? Well, let’s start with the final track “How Many More Times.” Yes, songs like The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” existed by now, but long songs were not common. This tune would help the big push that would create longer songs in the 1970s, giving influence to the already brewing epic and over-the-top tracks alongside bands like Iron Butterfly and Pink Floyd. This would leak into progressive rock bands for the most part, but as we all know, heavy metal adapted this as well.
Likewise, “Communication Breakdown” should be another obvious one, with how heavy it is. Here the band embrace their love for loud and proud guitar chugs, which undeniably had an influence on Black Sabbath. When Ozzy and Iommi would first hear this, Ozzy would then express how heavy he thought it was, to which Tony said “we’ll be heavier”; and heavier they were. Think about this for a second; Black Sabbath is also basically known as a heavy blues rock album. The only difference is, that one had a much more dark and evil undertone to it, whereas Led Zeppelin didn’t. So really, every metalhead owes this album some appreciation for bridging that gap between the heavy and the dark.
Lastly, the immense number of guitar solos and the breaking of musical “rules” per se would push heavier music in the ‘70s to a new level. Alongside Zep, artists like Jimmy Hendrix, The Kinks, Cream, and others would build the foundation for this. There is no denying the immense level of influence that this album had on music to come for decades. Even today, young people can spin this record and get as much out of it as those who remember it coming out back in the day. Fifty years, and this is still extremely relevant. What an album!
Led Zeppelin came out on January 12th, 1969 through Atlantic Records, and there are a variety of physical releases available on all formats. First pressings of this (blue lettering) are extremely rare and can go for hundreds, maybe even thousands. There are other common pressings from this year, as well as re-releases on CD and 180-gram vinyl. All are available here, so make your pick!