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Many Happy Returns To...'Led Zeppelin'

Wednesday, 22 January 2014 Written by Graeme Marsh

Everyone loves a birthday, right? Well, in 2014 there are a few to keep music lovers interested. Over the course of the year, we’ll be looking back at some records celebrating major milestones, beginning with a release that changed the way we think about rock and roll. Ladies and gentlemen, happy 45th birthday to ‘Led Zeppelin’.

As years go, 1969 was a pretty big one. The space race between the US and the USSR culminated in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon with Apollo 11, Nixon took up residence in the White House and the Battle Of The Bogside saw more violence as the Troubles continued in Northern Ireland. In New York, meanwhile, the Stonewall Riots thrust LGBT rights into the spotlight.

The music world was also about to change forever. The Beatles hurtled towards their end with a 42 minute show on the rooftop of Apple Records in London. John married Yoko, while the Rolling Stones were hit by the death of Brian Jones and events at Altamont. Cream released their final record, the Stooges released their first and White Lake, New York played host to ‘An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music’: Woodstock.

When ‘Led Zeppelin’ was released in the US on January 12, the reception was meagre. Rolling Stone gave the record a particularly indifferent review, although the iconic publication has since sought to retrospectively right its wrong by including it in the upper echelons of its 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list.

Recorded at London’s Olympic Studios in the autumn of 1968, the album took shape quickly. According to Jimmy Page, who not only played guitar but also produced, it was wrapped in around 30 hours and self-financed prior to the band signing with Atlantic.

Page had recently left behind the Yardbirds, also home at one time or another to fellow guitar greats Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, as well as session bassist John Paul Jones. Following the band’s dissolution, Page recruited Jones, as well as Robert Plant and John Bonham, who had previously played together in Band Of Joy, to fulfil a few Scandinavian dates as the New Yardbirds. The band also played show at London’s Marquee, which was described by Melody Maker and the club’s manager, John Gee, as being ‘too loud’.

The first studio recordings to feature all four band members were in fact not Led Zeppelin recordings at all. As part of his session work, Jones was booked to support PJ Proby on the recording of his album ‘Three Week Hero’. Page, Plant, who played harmonica, and Bonham were taken along for the ride.

Zeppelin’s debut album introduced a far heavier sound than was common at the time, but nevertheless sprang from Page’s love of blues. A couple of blues standards were included as testament to the fact. You Shook Me, a slow, drowsy plod first recorded by Muddy Waters and penned by Willie Dixon and J.B. Lenoir, found the solid rhythm section of Jones and Bonham providing the template for Page to unleash some incredible guitar soloing, while I Can’t Quit You Baby, a track that conjures up the image of a band playing in a smoky, grime ridden bar, is another perfect scenario to showcase Page’s dextrous fingers.

Although Page and Plant were both from a blues rock background, Jones and Bonham had more soulful elements to their game. The combination of the different dynamics produced a unique musical chemistry, one that was only emboldened by their forward-thinking use of distorted guitars and Bonham’s thunderous drumming.

Good Times Bad Times, the album’s opening track, gives an indication of where the true legend of Led Zeppelin lies. Its monstrous, unmistakable two-note intro, coupled with Bonham’s iconic kick drum, produces a crackling, electric introduction, only for Babe I’m Gonna Leave You then to demonstrate how these dynamics blend together to create something truly stunning.

Gentle acoustic guitar and basic percussion form the basis of the song, but when Plant’s scream reaches fever pitch the mood changes entirely, exploding in a descending four-chord section amid a cacophonous roar of noise. Moments like this came to define the band.

At the heart of the album is Dazed And Confused, which would sometimes clock in at 45 minutes when played live. It’s more of an evolving beast than a song, bouncing between bluesy verses of torment, crushing guitars, atmospheric sections and more soloing from Page and Bonham. It’s hard to envisage it, even at its most indulgent, outstaying its welcome.

Elsewhere there’s southern rock on Your Time Is Gonna Come - which was part of the band’s Scandinavian sets but disappeared soon after - an instrumental, Black Mountain Side, the short, sharp burst of Communication Breakdown, a song that remains one of their most recognisable, and shades of Cream on How Many More Times.

Before the year was out, a follow up had already been released. The band’s hectic tour schedule, coupled with regular writing sessions and lightning in a bottle moments of improvisation during Dazed And Confused, helped catapult them further along the road to legendary status with the collection of songs released as ‘Led Zeppelin II’, headlined by Whole Lotta Love.

This year will see Led Zeppelin’s first three albums getting the reissue treatment, possibly sporting new artwork designed by American street artist Shepard Fairey and featuring ‘lost’ tapes from the sessions, while their music recently landed with a bang on Spotify.

As Neil Armstrong would describe his footsteps when he first ventured on to the moon’s surface in July 1969, Led Zeppelin’s juggernaut of a debut could be said to represent a similarly pivotal moment for the world of rock music: “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”.


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