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Starting Point

Led Zeppelin—9

 

Released: 1969

1) Good Times Bad Times  2) Babe I'm Gonna Leave You  3) You Shook Me  4) Dazed and Confused  5) Your Time Is Gonna Come  6) Black Mountain Side  7) Communication Breakdown  8) I Can't Quit You Baby  9) How Many More Times

 

Often known as the band’s blues album, “Led Zeppelin” is a raunchy, foretelling, forceful debut; perhaps Jimmy Page’s most impressive achievement of his entire career.  His pent-up frustration of being cooped up as a session man is mercilessly released on each track and he is, without a doubt, the star of this record and the starpower the band was banking on to lead them to fortune.  Page’s guitar solos were faster and more furious than most anyone had recorded to that point, but somehow he still kept them amazingly melodic.  Besides his brilliant playing, he also is unquestionably the leader of the group, writing or arranging every song and acting as producer for the album.  Bassist John Paul Jones receives co-composing credit on four of the tunes, drummer John Bonham on three, but lead singer Robert Plant is significantly left off.  It seems that Page was still unsure if Plant was the right man for the job, and as a result, the still teenaged singer puts every ounce of energy, sexual innuendo, and cocksure strutting that he can muster with each performance.

 

It almost goes without saying that this record is a monster.  For some reason, it doesn’t get the credit that “Led Zeppelin II” does, but its highpoints might just be the band’s career highpoints.  The surprising thing is how well this album displays the band’s future output and overall direction.  That “heavy and light” music that Page was so intent on flaunting, the sound he knew would get those American teenagers riled up—that “Zeppelin” sound… is already exhibited, and at full strength. 

 

Black Mountain Side” demonstrated the pure light side of Zeppelin, “Communication Breakdown” the heavy, and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” elegantly combined the two extremes.  As regal as “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was, “Good Times Bad Times” was just as sophomoric and rowdy, while the frightening “Dazed and Confused” was the first ever heavy metal song.  You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” were as effective and straightforward interpretations of the blues as white English kids could ever achieve, while “Your Time Is Gonna Come” brought the mysterious organ and mystical fog.  And the closing, “How Many More Times” showed Zeppelin to be truly visionary, turning blues music into something else entirely.   

 

What made this album so groundbreaking was as much the way Page produced it as it was anything else.  Being the session veteran, he understood distance and spacing while recording and was thus able to capture each instrument individually, while still maintaining cohesiveness.  As a result, the bass and drums are never really the background, instead they are equal to voice and guitar and each track either created a wizardly aura or a physical presence  (or managed to do both).  Not bad considering the whole thing was finished in less than thirty hours of recording time, and with hardly any overdubs so the band could recreate the sounds on stage. 

 

 Good Times Bad Times” begins the album with that acne, goofiness all teens can relate to…I mean, there is a damn cowbell on it (“I got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell”).  Still it comes storming in and although it sounds more dated than most of Zeppelin’s other material, Jones’s bass is insanely punchy, Robert’s voice is fantastic on the “Sixteen, I fell in love…” section, and Page’s solo comes flogging in, plowing you over.  The harmony vocals really are a little cheesy, but Bonham’s drumming is incredible.  I’ve never heard fills like he does here, with that double beated bass kick, although, to be fair, I might be paying more attention because of his reputation.  Overall though, for late 1968, it is a tremendous rock song, with a shade of pop consciousness.  

     

The next three tracks on side one are something else though: more drama, more focused, and more compelling, with each lasting over six minutes.  It doesn’t matter that the band fails to credit the song’s author, Anne Briggs…“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is Zeppelin’s tell-all, goosebumps inducing number, capturing both the heavy and light technique on a single song, rivaled only by “Stairway to Heaven” as the definitive Zeppelin sound.  With that beautiful guitar beginning, Plant’s emotional crooning, that sonic wash in the background, and that intense middle section, sounding like a runway train exploding into an organized wreck, this is perfect.  Loud, heavy, scary, but gentle and calming at the same time.  A man on the brink of losing it.  This is powerful…this has meaning…this is emotion…this is Zeppelin. 

 

With no time to breathe, Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” comes crawling in, all Chicago, all swagger, all deliberate strut.  Robert’s voice and Jimmy’s guitar soar and fall in unison, making it impossible to tell where one starts and the other ends.  During the tremendous, gospely organ solo by Jones and bawdy harmonica solo by Plant, Page knows enough to stay out of the way… waiting for his chance to shine.  And when he turns it on, he shows that Clapton might only be Jesus.  It doesn’t matter that Jeff Beck did the same thing on the same song for his album the year before, because Page’s version absolutely comes across more powerful, purposeful, and full of awed gloom. 

 

That gloom was only just scratching the surface though as “Dazed and Confused” immediately enters, closing the first side, bowling you over with its sinister bass line, horror filled shrieks, Page’s bowing of the electric guitar technique, and woman hating lyrics.  It doesn’t matter that Jimmy stole the entire tune from an underground American folky named Jake Holmes and never gave him credit (even to this day)… it doesn’t matter that Jimmy wasn’t the first to use a violin bow on electric guitar strings to make those unsettling noises (it was actually Eddie Phillips of the Creation)…it isn’t honesty he was after here, it is sheer terror.  And let me tell you, when the band erupts into that horrifically grotesque solo section where all band members are at full throttle…Jones’s bass pulsating, Jimmy’s solo killing, Bonham’s drums thrashing things together, and Robert roaring, screaming god knows what…whatever it is, wherever they stole it from, I agree.  You can’t not, as this is the most menacing, heavy, evil track ever recorded by anyone to that point, and catapults this debut album to be one of the most shocking ever released.

 

The less gripping second side opens with an unexpected church organ solo played by Jones as an introduction for “Your Time Is Gonna Come.”  It is almost Disneyish, but is impressive and cathedral-like, creating more of that heavy and light atmosphere Page craved.  It slowly transforms into another Chicago blues piece, more fun than “You Shook Me,” with playful lyrics, and a pop feel.  The chorus, like the album’s opener, is filled with harmony vocals (but not nearly as cheesy), and it really is hard to believe that this is the same band as the first side.  Despite its quieter ambiance, Jones’ bass in the coda really sounds amazing, and Page’s pedal steel fills are perfect.  Continuing the light feel, the track melts directly into the acoustic instrumental “Black Mountain Side.”  It doesn’t matter that Page stole this arrangement from Bert Jansch…the tune is elegant, peaceful, and just flat out brilliantly played. 

 

Interrupting the grace and delicate guitar picking is “Communication Breakdown,” punk before there was punk, slitting your ears with its crunge.  Take out the solo section and this is Punk.  It might be anyway.  Like Zeppelin’s other (completely) originals here, the band adds cheesy harmony vocals to Robert’s voice that haven’t aged well, but this is the best Zeppelin song on the album.  It is clearly the band’s most heinous song of their entire career, and two-minutes and twenty seconds of as hard rock as the 1960s produced.  Another slow Willie Dixon blues, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is next.  The bass really hammers this tune home, with Robert sounding hurt and abused, but not yet ready to give up hope.  Listening to this tune it is obvious Page is a ridiculous virtuoso.  His guitar yelps and cries and moans and sings and just tells the whole story and Bonzo’s drumming, where he sneaks in an extra thump on the bass drum, just rules. 

 

The closing, “How Many More Times” is where Zeppelin showed that they were capable of transcending traditional blues tunes into something more than blues…  With that bass riff, building tension, finally climaxing when Page joins Jones’s menacing run, hitting you over and over again until you give up and start bopping your head up and down…when the band seems to fall apart but is called back together with Bonzos marching pattern before Jones’ bass brings them to a standstill…when Page takes everyone on his forbidden backroads of Satanic moans and “Dazed and Confused” bowed wallows…HARD ROCK is born.  Here, it finally really doesn’t matter at all that they stole various portions of this song from Howlin’ Wold and Albert King because they finally did something original with it.  This song, more than any other on their debut album, showed the rock potential of old blues songs (potential that took until the next album to fully realize).

 

Yes, it’s true that Led Zeppelin only actually wrote three of these songs (although credited themselves with writing seven)…yes, they stole their entire idea of “heavy and light” music from Jeff Beck…yes, they never even paid for the copyright to use the Hindenburg on the album cover…but you have to overlook all of that and just listen to the music.  Led Zeppelin” features the band at its most open, without its legacy getting in the way, without its antics and mysticism overplaying the music…this is Zeppelin before their audience actually got a hold of them, and this is Zeppelin at their absolute most rocking. 

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