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The most intriguing thing about early Led Zeppelin was how hard Jimmy Page had to work to put the group together. First, Page was a leading session guitarist. He left that job to become a last great Yardbirds' guitarist, following Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. But the original Yardbirds called it quits leaving the small matter of a Scandinavian tour up in the air. Page decided to form, with Yardbirds' bassist Chris Dreja, the New Yardbirds to fulfill the remaining obligations. Page asked the Who's John Entwistle and Keith Moon if they wanted to join. Both were tempted but figured that working with one guitar prima donna was probably they same as working with another. So they stayed put. Shortly thereafter, The Who's fortunes turned around dramatically. Also, Moon had a term for disaster. He would comment "that went over like a lead zeppelin." Page liked the phrase and dropped the 'a" out of lead.
Page also asked Terry Reid and B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum to join. They too declined but Reid suggested Page check out a young singer named Robert Plant. Plant made the cut and suggested fellow band mate, drummer John Bonham.
Following the New Yardbirds' tour Dreja decided he'd rather be a photographer than a bassist. He took the back cover photo on "Led Zeppelin I." In short order another session veteran, John Paul Jones, was recruited. So instead of starting a supergroup with known musicians, Page was starting from scratch. That certainly kept expectations low.
Led Zeppelin I: The album bares more than a passing resemblance to Jeff Beck 's "Truth." However, with "Communication Breakdown," "Good Times, Bad Times" and "Dazed and Confused" this album had more of a Rock, rather than Blues edge. There were famous touches like the blending of acoustic and electric instruments on "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You." This would be developed. There were a couple of Blues covers, "I Can't Quit You" and "You Shook Me" (which also appeared on the Beck album). You could also count "How Many More Times" though credited to Page, Jones and Bonham, actually contained portions of well-known Blues songs. The guitar work was great but Plant's Chicago Blues imitation was a bit wanting. Otherwise, a pretty hot debut. Especially considering it was nailed in approximately fifteen hours.
On January 31st, '69, Led Zeppelin opened for the Iron Butterfly, still riding high on the strength of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" at the Fillmore East. So enthused was the audience by Zeppelin's performance the Iron Butterfly refused to follow them.
Led Zeppelin II: "Whole Lotta Love" rode a riff lifted (stolen) from Willie Dixon. He sued and he won. Aside from the riff (and Zeppelin freely "borrowed" from Blues songs), the guitar solo during the break was awesome. The rumbling "Heartbreaker," with Page's blazing solo, segued into the economical "Livin' Lovin' Maid" for a perfect change. The album also contained "Moby Dick," an instrumental with lengthy drum solo. Bonham needed his moment of glory too.
Led Zeppelin III: Often referred to as the "acoustic album" with "Gallows Pole" and other acoustic guitar driven songs. Critics seemed to take note on this album, even though acoustic arrangements had appeared on both the previous albums. "III" had the Rocker "Immigrant Song" featuring Plant's siren voice. It was the same sort of one-bar riff that powered "Whole Lotta Love" only the song was much shorter (no guitar solo). The record also had the descending riff of "Out On The Titles." While not as focused as its two predecessors "III" was still good but it wasn't great. Great would come next.
Untitled or Led Zeppelin IV: Over time and touring Plant had grown in vocal confidence and attack. This was the album where he became an equal contributor with Page. "Black Dog," "Going To California" and "When The Levee Breaks" are all classics. But the two songs that really stood out were "Rock 'n' Roll" and "Stairway To Heaven." "Rock 'n' Roll" was simply one of the all-time great Rock songs. No question. No argument. Hands down. Double tracked guitars, a burning solo, passionate vocals, powerful rhythm section, this song had it all. There's even a Little Richard style piano shooting through.
"Stairway To Heaven" started slower than an Elton John song but built toward an incredible, almost orgasmic, guitar climax. It remains THE most popular Rock song of all time. Never released as a single it has been played to death anyway.
By this time Led Zeppelin was so popular that they had their own touring plane.
Houses of the Holy: Nothing could reasonable follow "Untitled" but Zeppelin gave it a shot. "Dancing Days" was a great opening track with inventive multi-tracked guitars. Plant does his part with his lyrics about "tadpoles in a jar." Also, "The Ocean," with its churning, slashing rhythm that suddenly shifted to a boogie during guitar solo, was another incomparable track. The song was about how a concert audience looked to the group. But nobody's perfect, on the down side "D'yer Maker" was a lukewarm attempt at reggae. And wouldn't you know, it was released as a single.
Led Zeppelin started their Swan Song record label.
Physical Graffiti: A double album and the first to show the band straining, though it held "Kashmir," "Trampled Underfoot" and the fun "Boogie With Stu."
Through the late '70s Zeppelin continued to record and tour. Fans bought records. "Presence" went to #1 on the album charts. They also produced a live album and film "The Song Remains The Same." As a live act, Zeppelin was a bit past their prime. As a film, the best parts are the concert pieces. And that was the problem. "In Through The Out Door," another commercial success, contained the very pop "Fool In The Rain."
By the time Bonham KO'd himself with drink, Zeppelin was in decline. When he died the surviving members decided to call it quits. "Coda," cleared the shelf of unreleased Zeppelin material after the group had ceased.
Plant and Page have toured and recorded together. Jones and a substitute drummer, occasionally Bonham's son Jason, have been included in Zeppelin appearances for charity (Live Aid) and other events (Atlantic Records anniversary).
Another Coda: As digital technology was coming into existence Page was asked if he'd take this opportunity to re-master Zeppelin recordings. He said no insisting the albums sound the way they sound and there won't be any re-working or re-packaging of Zeppelin material.
So all the Zeppelin fans went out and bought the CDs in their original configuration. Some time later Page reversed himself and decided to re-master all those recordings. So the Zeppelin faithful went right out and bought the new versions as well. Talk about marketing!
Generally thought of as Heavy Metal founding fathers (if there is such a thing), Led Zeppelin, even in its earliest days, mixed acoustic and electric instruments with "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Your Time Is Gonna Come" from "Zeppelin I."
"Led Zeppelin IV" or "Untitled" has been often heralded as the band's greatest achievement with the acoustic/electric "Stairway To Heaven." The follow-up "Houses of the Holy" is nearly as strong with Led Zep expanding its sound. The double album "Physical Graffiti" has its moments but not enough of them. After that, the group's output and quality drops off significantly.
Led Zeppelin II 1969
Building on the "Hammer of the Gods" guitar style of "Led Zeppelin I," the follow up was hugely popular, thanks largely to the single "Whole Lotta Love," featuring a riff copped from Blues great Willie Dixon. The "Heartbreaker" guitar solo is fantastic. It starts with Page playing by himself, and has he reaches a frenzy with notes shooting out in all directions, the rest of the band joins in taking the solo to a climax.
With no covers and all four members contributing songs there's not a weak track on the album, not even "Moby Dick." which had Bonham's obligatory drum solo. This album also marks the emergence of the Plant (words) and Page (music) songwriting partnership.
After the somewhat disappointing "Led Zeppelin III," they bounced back with their strongest album to date. It took some doing but the rest of the group was on Page's level. "Stairway To Heaven" is the most recognizable song on the album, if not in Rock history. But there's also the rousing "Black Dog" and the searing "Rock and Roll." "Rock and Roll" is a total band triumph. Bonham's drumming is riveting while Page's guitar blazes the way. Plant's vocals are powerful and driving. John Paul Jones adds a piano track on the third verse that makes the song complete. The group is on top of its game.