Led Zeppelin’s debut album turns 50
In all the pantheon of rock and roll lore, there are three bands that have achieved a level of success so completely overwhelming and otherworldly that they’ve seemed to abandon humanity and exist only in legend: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
While the Beatles evolved from four mop-tops to psychedelic musical masterminds and The Rolling Stones sealed their fate as the bad boys of rock ’n roll, Led Zeppelin remained masked in mystery. They were hard to pin down, elusive, fronted by the golden god of rock himself, Robert Plant, and laced with dark intrigue. There were rumors of the occult, of secret messages recorded in iconic songs, the infamous stay at the Chateau Marmont, and inescapable tragedy.
But before all of that, there was Led Zeppelin.
The debut recording of the newly formed Led Zeppelin, featuring Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham, took less than three days and £2,000 to record, according to Page. A blend of heavy metal, hard rock, and twisted blues, the humble recording project resulted in nine of Led Zeppelin’s most loved tracks: “Good Times Bad Times,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Communication Breakdown.” It hits hard, John Bonham’s signature pounding style steamrolling the scathing guitar riffs and rumbling bass lines while Robert Plant wails above the cacophony. It’s the ultimate hard rock album.
In January 1969, however, critics disagreed. Panned as an attempt to fill the hole left behind by the demise of Cream, or the less interesting twin of Truth, a Jeff Beck record released only three months prior, Led Zeppelin met poor reviews and stinging criticism at every turn, to the point that the band avoided talking to Rolling Stone throughout most of their career. Yet the fans who flocked to their shows in droves told another story, building their reputation as one of the most electrifying live bands around.
Fifty years later, there’s no doubt that Led Zeppelin is loud, heavy, or blatantly sexual. Its transformed blues and folk standards are bombastic, screaming, and — according to Rolling Stone in 1969— overdone. It’s self-indulgent, a chance for Page and Plant to put their remarkable talent on full display. It’s gritty and dirty, swinging from the hardest hitting rock riffs to delicate folk flavorings, and it changed the fate of rock ’n roll forever.
What followed Led Zeppelin will go down in rock history: Led Zeppelin II, featuring “Ramble On,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “The Lemon Song.” Led Zeppelin III opens with one of the the most recognizable guitar-and-vocal riff combinations of all time. Then, Led Zeppelin IV, the record that even the most casual rock fans can sing word for word: “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” “Going to California,” and “When The Levee Breaks.” Physical Graffiti, arguably the best double album in hard rock to this day, and How The West Was Won, a breathtaking, earth-shattering live record that transformed the definition of what a live album should be. And, of course, there were the countless bands who attempted to recreate a sound that a relatively unknown band wove together in a London studio in less than thirty-six hours, from Whitesnake to the White Stripes to, most recently, the much ballyhooed Greta Van Fleet.
Some might come close, grasping at the title of “the next Led Zeppelin” with manic pride, but the ingenuity and crashing depth is untouchable, claimed only by the legendary foursome who created — and achieved — the impossible.