Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Led Zeppelin I (1969)


Along with King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King, this is probably the only debut album by any band I’m familiar with that far surpasses anything the band would put out since. I know that fans usually prefer III or IV, and some fans don’t even care much for this debut album at all, but they’re all nuts.

Unlike the Beatles, Led Zeppelin committed a revolution in rock only once. Since then, all they were doing was securing its results. But the beginning, and the major breakthrough, can only be found here. The heaviest album up to that point (although certainly inspired a lot by Jeff Beck’s Truth), it’s also hard-hitting and precise, if you know what I mean. All of the band’s good sides are there, and most of their bad sides haven’t even yet begun to show through.

Let’s see. Side one features the most fantastic, awesome sequence of three songs they ever managed to put together side by side. Although the album begins with the rather throwaway ‘Good Times Bad Times’, with a silly pop melody dressed in heavy chords, it’s followed by the magnificent acoustic ballad ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, an original and improvisatory rendition of some traditional ballad, where for the first time we have Plant introducing the ‘human factor’ that plagued his work ever since. What I actually mean is the way Plant sings most of his parts: stuttering, wavering, inserting lots of (quite often pointless) interjections, ‘ah-ahs’, ‘oh-ohs’ and suchlike.

In just a couple of years this would become totally unbearable, with songs ruined and my personal patience abused, but here it works out just fine. The ballad might be their finest, with Robert finding the perfect compromise between hope and total despair of his personage. The gruff rhythm work in the middle only accentuates it, and the acoustic guitars throughout are just marvellous. Strange enough, people usually quote III as the beginning of Page’s passion for folk; in my opinion, ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ is much more effective than any of the ‘folk’ tunes on that album. And the coda, with Plant’s last wailing ‘I… said… that’s when… it’s calling me… baaack… hooooooooooooooooome…’, and the plaintive little chord at the end, is stunning. Nowhere, on no other Led Zep song will you find such passion and care.

Heigh-ho! Next comes ‘You Shook Me’, a dazzling, head-spinning version of some undistinguished classic blues tune. Jeff Beck did it on his Truth album (with Rod Stewart on lead vocal), but you can see where it’s most effective. The band sounds like an immaculate, totally perfected, stone-heavy (er, ‘lead-heavy’, to be exact) machine: Bonzo’s thumping drumming and Jones’s spooky, ‘prolongated’ bass lines set the pattern, while Plant demonstrates some of the most uncompromisedly raunchy singing (for 1968, at least), and Jimmy almost mocks him by imitating every single change in intonation on his guitar. The organ, harmonica and guitar solos are breath-taking just as well, and the song closes with well-constructed vocal/guitar battle that’s sure to get you going. Again – never again would they achieve such a fantastic, meticulous level of perfection!

Without any breaks at all we segue into the classic ‘Dazed And Confused’, with some more examples of the band’s early sharp, crystal clear and immaculate sound. I like it prolongated, like on live versions; but the original is brilliant as well, and, being the heaviest track on the album, it was probably the heaviest song of the Sixties. The lyrics are hogwash, but the melody is catchy, and the instrumentation is as good as can be. And, for those of you who like the hard groove, there’s a furious fast part with Bonzo throwing in elephantic drum lines and Jimmy going like a madman.

Moreover, it’s the first (and next to last) example of the bowed guitar on a Led Zep album. The sound of bowed guitar on live versions is often unbearable (that’s the only weak point with live versions), but here it’s just weird. It’s alright. Note, though, that all of the three mentioned compositions don’t really have much to do with Led Zeppelin: even ‘Dazed And Confused’, although credited to Jimmy Page, was an old Yardbirds tune ripped off from some old blues number. So their main strength is the arrangement and the atmosphere they insert into the songs. Not the melodies.

Anyway, these three songs alone make the record such a terrific razzle-dazzle that I give it a 10 without much afterthought. None of the other songs even come close to this glorious triumvirate, but none of them are nasty, either. Even the closing ‘How Many More Times’, a rather pedestrian blues shuffle, goes down well, with more bowed guitar, Plant’s wailings and a mad mid section. ‘Communication Breakdown’ is breaknecky, ‘Black Mountain Side’ is a gentle pretty acoustic easterny suite (more folk for you folks who rave about III), ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ is yet another fine blues number, although certainly not as polished as the far superior ‘You Shook Me’, and ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ is an okay throwaway despite some mighty fine church organ playing by Jones in the beginning. All of these numbers are listenable, but they really add little to the masterpieces. Ne’er mind, though. If you’re going for diversity (like me), this is not the band you’re aiming at. But if you dig the style heartily, you’re sure to rave and rant all over the LP/CD until you’re nearly breathless.

Just bear in mind: they never got any better than this, regardless of what all ’em critics say. They had songs which came close, but albums? All rip-offs of their first record. Let’s move on!

May 19, 2013 - Posted by | Led Zeppelin I |

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