Whether you consider them the epitome of self-indulgent dinosaur rock, the greatest rock band ever or a boring bunch of self-obsessed wankers and blues recyclers who eventually turned to mysticism and folklore to hide the emptiness between their ears, it’s hard to deny Led Zeppelin was an immensely important, gifted and accomplished band, right from the start. Admittedly, Page was hardly a rookie, having played in the Yardbirds and already having made a name for himself as a session ace, while also bassist John Paul Jones wasn’t an unfamiliar face for those who were bad-ass and happenin’ at the time, but I’d say that if this were a consistent album (and it’s not), it would’ve been one of the all time greatest debut albums. There have always been quite some accusations of plagiarism, and they did borrow heavily without acknowledging it, but I’m not going to spend too much time on that, the internet will provide you with everything you want to know and more. What I do know is that they borrowed, but rarely imitated slavishly, they always turned it – whatever it was: a riff, a catchphrase, a structure – into Led Zeppelin. Even though they’d get more experimental later on (especially from the third album onwards), not always with successful results, you might argue that the essence of Zeppelin is already here, unless you consider the later excess essential as well. Robert Plant’s exalted wails and high-pitched shrieks (they didn’t call him ‘the banshee’ for nothing) are already present and the remnants of his improvisational style are hard to hide (the repetitive “baby, baby, baby” and other ways to fill the silence), but it’s all kept in check here. Sort of.
What’s extraordinary about Led Zeppelin is that they, much like The Who, were basically a band of equally fascinating musicians. Well, I don’t know if Jones was as technically versatile as Page, but he does combine heaviness with refinement once in a while, whereas Bonham is still one of the most recognizable drummers you can imagine. Seemingly not that gifted, because of his rudimentary sound that was obviously influenced by that other notorious hard-hitter, Ginger Baker, his thunderous and plodding technique sounds perfect for this kind of album. Finally, there’s of course Page, an extraordinarily gifted musician who could be both incredibly sloppy and mind-blowingly fantastic in one song and probably is one of the few who can rival AC/DC’s Young brothers’ knack for writing brick-solid riffs. The forceful attack that characterises so many of his songs is already present in the album’s opener “Good Times Bad Times,” which is basically much more accessible and poppy than the sound might make you believe. What sets it apart – besides Page’s guitar antics – is the booming drum sound. Even if it’s probably not the first hard rock album (Jeff Beck’s Truth, released half a year earlier, is indeed a good candidate, and coincidentally, Jones also played on it), but I’d say this album is where mainstream hard rock got really heavy, as in ‘pounding, menacing, evil music.’ Or check out the fast “Communication Breakdown” and convince me they’re not pre-dating their own nemesis (punk?) with some 8 years or so. Crashing cymbals, loud guitars and a rhythm section that’ll make an entire building shiver, that’s what it’s all about, or am I wrong? Anyway, those aren’t even the highlights, as I agree with the majority of people that tracks 2-4 basically define what the band was about. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is in a way already a precursor to the later folk/hard rock melting pot, an awesome marriage of acoustic parts and electrical power, as Plant moans and wails with passion (not theatre) and the band adds Spanish-sounding accents. These soft/loud-dynamics are something that not only they themselves would recycle, but the entire hard rock following during the next few decades. It also features Page’s much criticised “rock scat” (“I know I’m nevahnevahnevahnevah gonna leave you baby … ooohhhh, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, ooohhh, … woman, woman, woman,” etc.) but it actually works here and goes to show his instinctive approach to singing could work very well. Similarly instinctive is also his attitude/ pose: Plant was a horny bastard, and he’d let you know all about it as well. Whereas Mick Jagger was already your mother’s nightmare, Plant became your father’s as well, certainly if you were a female between 15 and 30 or so. But after giving few listen to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” , I think it’s more of a killer sweet pain love song. OM-GOSH!! You must have been hurt in love to know the pain. And Robert Plant certainly makes the case for it.
“You Shook Me,” for instance, which was basically copped from Beck’s version (who was pissed off), presents the band at their sleaziest, churning out perverse, over-sexed blues with an unmatched arrogance. Beck’s version was already quite extraordinary – especially because you couldn’t decide whether that distorted guitar was actually a guitar or a recorded fart – and added the piano that only enters at a later stage here (well, it’s an organ, but OK), but Zeppelin made it more accessible, overtly sexual, and, well, better. Whereas the overall sound of the album in a way kick-started hard rock, it’s “Dazed and Confused” that arguably started heavy metal in the process as well. From that bass/guitar intro onwards, the songs sounds as creepy as they come, with those loud, crashing parts directly influencing Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” But that’s not nearly everything, as the song also introduced Page’s legendary bow-technique (giving the guitar that Satanic sound) and was a showcase for the powerful rhythm section. More than anything else, however, I’d say “Dazed and Confused” was already Plant’s peak as a vocalist, as he roars, moans and wails his way through the song with one of rock’s greatest vocal performances (ever).
The remainder of the album isn’t as impressive (and that’s why I’ll never get people who claim it’s one of the greatest albums ever while admitting its flaws), but a lot better than the weakest stuff on their other albums. “Your Time Is Gonna Come” is quite enjoyable once when it’s on its way (that organ intro should’ve been shorter), but no match for those previous three songs, whereas “Black Mountain Side” is an unspectacular Eastern-tinged instrumental that’s actually a nice interlude and a great way to prepare you for the onslaught of “Communication Breakdown” (ain’t it cool how these songs segue into each other?), which was the testosterone-driven highlight of the second half. Usually dismissed as a lazy blues rendition, but in my opinion a delightfully greasy slab of blues that sounds great (dig the reverb on the guitar!), their take on Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is only slightly less impressive than “You Shook Me.” Paving the way for other extended album closers, the pummelling “How Many More Times” is mainly a great showcase for Page’s guitar, which turns this boogie into something special with extracting howlin’, cajolin’ and slashing sounds from his six-stringed weapon. Man, that guy could play a mean & dirty guitar.
Led Zeppelin I has a second half that’s a bit too weak to justify a maximum score, but its highlights are among the best the band ever did, while the faults and excess that would mar later albums is largely absent. So, what you get is a very generous dose of thunder, fire and bulging crotches, and who can say no to that?