WHITE LIGHT, WHITE HEAT
Led Zeppelin Record their Debut Album
It’s the summer of 1968. Jimmy Page and the bassist Chris Dreja are about to play some concerts in Scandinavia to fulfil contractual obligations for The Yardbirds, who now exists as a band in name only. They want Terry Reid to sing, but he declines, suggesting instead a young vocalist from West Bromwich: Robert Plant. Plant in turn recommends a thirsty drummer from Redditch. John Bonham’s now on board, and when Dreja drops out to become a photographer (more of that in a sec), Jimmy’s session circuit pal John Paul Jones steps in.
On the one hand, it seems like a few random connections had to come off, on the other, that everything moved smoothly and implacably and inevitably, like the workings of some perfectly designed machine. Whatever: this perfectly balanced band were soon together in a Gerrard Street rehearsal room and playing their first song as a foursome: ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’.
“As soon as I heard John Bonham play, I knew this was going to be great,” said JPJ.
The played together on sessions for PJ Proby’s Three Week Hero album, whose ‘Jim’s Blues’ is the first recording to feature all four together; and their first gig at Gladsaxe Teen Clubs in Denmark on 7 September 1968 is not long after. Photographed by our own Jorgen Angel, of course.
As any fule kno, or at least as the story goes, it was Keith Moon and John Entwistle who came up with the Lead Zeppelin name – and Peter Grant who insisted on dropping the ‘a’ from Lead, in order to “to prevent thick Americans from pronouncing it ‘leed’.” You didn’t argue with Peter.
The first tour of America followed soon after, and by October of 1968, they were back from the States and ready to cut their first album.
It’s one of the greatest of all debut records. Every bit of the craft and expertise that Page had picked up from his years as a session muso was brought to bear, and all the pent-up longing to be running his own show, too. Recorded and mixed in just 36 hours of studio time – Page and Grant paid for the studio – it has the energy and production of a live album.
It’s extremely well produced: Page placed mikes further back from the amps, giving the sound a depth and a warm ambience. He used reverse echo, by flipping tapes over and creating the effect of having the echo hit the ear before the “actual” note. He found that Plant’s voice was leaking over onto the other tracks, but kept this anomaly.
The album also showed the variety of styles and influences that would shape the band’s career: the tripped out blues of ‘Dazed and Confused’; the heavy metal of ‘Communication Breakdown’; the English folk tradition of ‘Black Mountain Side’; the mastery of light and shade on ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’. Also, on ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’, ‘You Shook Me’ and ‘Babe…’ it showed Page’s willingness to, erm, incorporate the songwriting of others with his own unique take, shall we say, transforming them into classic of the rock genre.
It also set a trend that would continue throughout the band’s career: huge sales and public adoration on one hand; press indifference and hostility on the other. Reviews were mixed, yet the record was a monster hit: the £1,800 that Page and Grant spent on it yielded a worldwide gross of £3.5million. They released no singles from the album, another career-long policy, nor did they do much press for it. The result was this record that seemed to have come from on high, from another world. The mystique had incalculable impact. In these days where everyone knows everything about everyone, it’s hard to overstate what a landmark event your favourite band releasing an LP or even, red letter day, playing near in your city. And especially when it was a record like this. Led Zep, maybe more than any other band, could simply let their records and shows do the talking.
On the debut album itself, the playing is tight and heavy. Various career-themes are already being established: the simple riffs and the heavy, heavy, heavy bass; the drum virtuosity; the use of the voice as a genuine lead instrument; the call-and-response between singer and guitar on ‘You Shook Me’. Four geniuses harnessed.
But even if this record did not set the template for one of rock’s greatest careers, even if it did not basically invent heavy metal; even if it did not influence anyone who has ever picked up a guitar since: if it had been the only thing Led Zep had ever recorded, it would still unquestionably, in and of itself, be a great record. From that shuddering, smack-in-the-face chug of ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ and the opener’s first wailing solo; to the epic, bowed guitar blues jam of ‘How Many More Times’ that closes it, this is a work of consummate vision, technique, heart and soul.