Classic Rock Review

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Led Zeppelin I (1969)

untitledFrom sfloman.com

After tinkering with a new version of The Yardbirds, legendary session ace and band leader Jimmy Page and another session veteran John Paul Jones teamed together with a couple of younger unknowns who knew each other from previous (unsuccessful) bands, Robert Plant and John (“Bonzo”) Bonham.

The band’s chemistry was immediately and spectacularly apparent, and the rest, as they say, is history, as the mighty Led Zeppelin (allegedly named because The Who drummer Keith Moon suggested that they would go over with audiences “like a lead zeppelin”) was born. And yeah, they did rip off old blues artists, sometimes without according the proper credit, but they did so brilliantly. Besides, that was just a small part of their recorded legacy, and I’ve yet to hear any of the old bluesmen sound half as majestic or as powerful as Led Zeppelin does on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” or “Dazed And Confused,” to name but two of this album’s classic songs. Recorded over a sweat soaked 30 hours and featuring nine songs that basically comprised their set list at the time, Led Zeppelin I is the band’s rawest and most blues-based studio recording.

Page’s guitar is on fire throughout, Bonham’s drums thunder away in awe-inspiring fashion, Jones plays some terrific bass guitar and keyboards, and Plant’s high-pitched vocal wail, with many a “baby baby” lyric, became the template for all future hard rock singers (though it should be noted that some find his vocals to be an acquired taste and Plant himself has been critical of his somewhat hyper and over-the-top theatrics on this album; I can see where everybody is coming from but on the whole I still think he’s magnificent). Yet for all of their individual excellence, and they do all take spectacular solo turns here (particularly Page), it is the band’s ensemble playing that remains most mind-blowing all these years later. As for the songs, the album starts strongly with the short, catchy “Good Times Bad Times,” which is notable for Page’s savage soloing and Plant’s charismatic vocal as he uses his lower register.

“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” a radical folk-blues-rock reworking of a Joan Baez cover (though unbeknownst to the band it was originally written by one Anne Bredon, who got belated credit and financial restitution for her efforts), is even more impressive. Years before the Pixies were given credit for creating the soft-to-loud dynamics that came to define alternative rock in the ’90s, Led Zeppelin were doing just that right here, and once again all band members shine, particularly Plant who is nothing short of spectacular. Even better is “Dazed and Confused,” the band’s first (of many) epic-scale tracks, which took hard rock to a whole new level of heaviness. The song, which was actually an uncredited cover (albeit with different lyrics) of a psychedelic folk song originally done by the largely unknown Jake Holmes, is almost unbelievably powerful at times, especially during its frenetic jam-packed mid-section and dramatic symphonic ending.

The song is also notable for being their first on which Page unleashed the eerie sonic possibilities of taking a violin bow to an electric guitar; though the Creation’s Eddie Phillips was the first to do so, Page is most synonymous with this technique, and this song is probably his signature piece with it. Showing the versatility and subtlety that so many of their subsequent followers would lack, “Your Time Is Gonna Come” is a beautiful sing along country-gospel-pop ballad led by Page’s acoustic guitar, Jones’ Hammond organ, and another inspired vocal from Plant (his phrasing is impeccable), while “Black Mountain Side” is a short Page-led acoustic instrumental that nods to Bert Jansch and shows the influence of Eastern music while offering a lighter respite from the draining intensity elsewhere. Another classic comes in the form of the short but ultra-adrenalized “Communication Breakdown,” which features yet another great Page guitar solo and flies along at a breakneck speed. Most future punk rockers would cower in the face of such a relentless assault, making their snobbish comments a decade hence about Zep being outdated “dinosaur rockers” all the more laughable.

But I digress; this album ends with another epic in the multi-sectioned “How Many More Times,” another exceptionally strong take on the blues, and one of several songs here (“Dazed and Confused,” “Black Mountain Side”) that had its roots from back in Page’s Yardbirds days. Loosely based on Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and featuring vocal ad-libs from Plant, who also “steals” from Albert King’s “The Hunter,” again the song may borrow too liberally from old blues sources, but again to reiterate it does so brilliantly, and the end result is 100% pure Led Zeppelin. For one thing, Plant’s vocal ad-libs, borrowed or not, are inspired, and the song’s pulverizing riffs, violin bow treatments, and wah wah effects are all Page, whose sparring with Bonham is breathtaking.

Ironically, the two Willie Dixon covers, “You Shook Me,” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” are arguably the album’s weakest songs (least great songs is more like it; these are fine performances but slow blues simply isn’t my favorite Zep style), proving that Led Zeppelin were at their best when unleashing a fury (or a beauty) all their own.

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February 22, 2013 - Posted by | Led Zeppelin I |

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