It is utterly impossible to view Led Zeppelin without filters. Their image as quintessential ‘rock gods’ of the seventies, the bombast of the music, an incredible popularity that endures to the present… in some ways they have become untouchable.
The curation of the Zeppelin catalogue has been restrained compared to some (hello Estate Hendrix!) and has focussed on archival live material – mostly because that is all that resides in the vaults. As a result, the albums themselves have acquired the weight and permanence of architectural icons. So if Led Zeppelin II is their Stonehenge and III is their Taj Mahal, what is Led Zeppelin I?
Released on 12 January 1969, the debut album is, perhaps, their Royal Albert Hall. Host to many and varied musical events and residence of the Proms, Queen Victoria’s venue can be seen as a home of diversity. And there is diversity on Led Zeppelin I, plenty of it. In fact, one could argue that the debut album sets out the stall that the band would trade from for the rest of their existence. Heavy blues thumping, folk influences, some sly psychedelic touches, histrionic vocals, comic book lyrics… it’s all there on the album with the burning airship on the cover.
But mostly, Zepp I is a showcase for the guitar brilliance of Jimmy Page. After much work as a hired gun and a stint in the Yardbirds, Page was primed to explode with guitaristy energy: electric, acoustic, slide… it is restless and exciting.
I enjoyed listening to Led Zeppelin again. The pop touches, the blues-rock explosions, Plant’s wailing; it was fun and more satisfying than I’d expected. But what was said about Led Zeppelin I at the time?
From Rolling Stone (US) March 15, 1969:
“The latest of the British blues groups… offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago, and the excesses of the Beck group’s Truth album (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness), are fully in evidence on Led Zeppelin’s debut album. Jimmy Page, around whom the Zeppelin revolves, is, admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist and explorer of his instrument’s electronic capabilities. Unfortunately, he is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it (alone or in combination with his accomplices in the group).”
From Melody Maker (UK) March 29, 1969:
Jimmy Page triumphs! Now with his own group, the legend comes to life. He proves to be technical, tasteful, turbulent and torrid. His band is imaginative and exciting. Robert Plant is a new singer of stature, and John Paul Jones (bass, organ) and John Bonham (drums, tympani) are more than adequate. Their music does not rely on obvious blues riffs, although when they do play them, they avoid the emaciated feebleness of most so-called British blues bands. Production by Jimmy and Glyn Johns is excellent. This Zeppelin is really in a gas new bag!
As a postscript, the two LP ‘bonus’ in the 2014 re-issue is an energetic 1969 performance that amply demonstrates how, from their earliest daze, Zepp were a forced to be reckoned with in concert.
Share your thoughts; is Led Zeppelin I an ornate treasured theatre or a draughty run-down shack?