45 Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Release Their First Album
This may seem obvious, but Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut, which arrived in U.K. record shops 45 years ago today, is an album full of firsts, beyond the ‘I’ frequently tacked onto its title nowadays.
It may not match the historical stature of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (nothing in rock does), but Zep’s introductory platter is the prototypical, and therefore “first,” true 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 that 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. That other great band’s demise, though it had in fact been coming for quite some time, was finally made official in August of ’68, at which point Page was left with naught 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!
Follow along with us now: In September, Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist/organist John Paul Jones and drummer 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 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 struck a historic contract with Atlantic Records guaranteeing unprecedented control over their career direction. In December, Father Christmas came a-calling. And, come January 12, 1969, ‘Led Zeppelin’ — the album — 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 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, and one need only review them in sequence to recognize this…
So, shall we? 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’), vengeful wishes softened by hymnal gentility (‘Your Time is Gonna Come’), 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, cobbling spare parts from rock’s earliest roots to birth a powerful, modern paradigm (‘How Many More Times’).
Clearly, 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? Maybe these acolytes, as well as simply lacking the four Zep members’ sheer, undeniable talents, simply didn’t FREE themselves enough to get the job done?
In any case, from a practical standpoint, ‘Led Zeppelin’’s unqualified sales success (which saw it breach the Top 10 in both the U.K. and U.S., where it was unveiled two months later), proved just as pivotal, as history would show. In one fell swoop, it swiftly silenced early critics and revealed the massive existing market for heavy music, opening the door for countless bands — from Black Sabbath to Deep Purple — to throw commercial caution to the wind and turn their amplifiers up to 11. Once those musical floodgates gave way, 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.