It is always amazing how time can change perspective and perception. In his Rolling Stone Magazine review on March 15th, 1969, John Mendelson summed up his assessment of Led Zeppelin I this way: “In their willingness to waste their considerable talent on unworthy material the Zeppelin has produced an album which is sadly reminiscent of Truth. Like the Beck group they are also perfectly willing to make themselves a two- (or, more accurately, one-a-half) man show. It would seem that, if they’re to help fill the void created by the demise of Cream, they will have to find a producer (and editor) and some material worthy of their collective attention.”
These days, Led Zeppelin I is generally hailed as a masterpiece, and we can’t think of any of our friends that have not owned at least one copy in one format or another. Ranked number 29 on the Rolling Stone Magazine list “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003, it was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame the following year. Jimmy Page has said that it took only 36 hours to record at a cost of approximately $3500 US.
One would have to marvel at this turn of events, perhaps, unless of course one was raised on Led Zeppelin. Those that were, either passed their used LPs down to their younger brothers and sisters when they bought new copies (or CDs), or they bought them their own copies to revel in. Either way, it was a sacred bond between family members. Friends made sure friends knew who ‘Zeppelin was.
Released on January 12th, 1969 on the Atlantic label, Led Zeppelin I ran just over 44 minutes. Three of the nine songs on the album were covers: “I Can’t quit You Baby” and “You Shook Me” were both Willie Dixon songs, and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was originally written by Anne Bredon. For the most part, the music here is hard edged, loud, and heavy; extremely heavy. This was the very aspect of their music that the group was named for. Even at that, there were moments of finesse and delicacy. Indeed, this hard and soft, this Yin and Yang, was the chiaroscuro Jimmy Page had sought to achieve.
This chiaroscuro is what creates the dynamic tension throughout much of the Led Zeppelin catalog; the coiling and building, and then the release. There is a deftness to the music, and even the lighter moments show a strength of direction and conviction. The music is also primal, which is another reason it is so satisfying, as it has always been.
Another facet of the music here that is a huge contribution to its success is the level of musicianship. John Paul Jones uses the bass for so much more than timekeeping, just as Paul McCartney had begun to do in the mid-sixties. There are places where the bass line has as much import as Page’s guitar. Speaking of Page, one can say what they will but his work on the acoustic and on his Tele were confident, illuminating, inspiring, and took our breath away. Bonham’s drumming was like nothing that had been heard before. Even Keith Moon’s sticks couldn’t hold a candle to what Bonham was doing; he could play three rhythm lines at once, playing lines within the lines. His playing was the stuff of wonder, genius, vision, and an insanely gifted artist. Of course, a young Robert Plant brought the perfect voice for these proceedings, and indeed, it was every bit an instrument as much as Jimmy’s guitar, Jones’ bass, and Bonzo’s drums.
Led Zeppelin I was a glimpse of things to come, a starting point. This was the dock from which a thrilling new ship launched, preparing its passengers for the incredible ride ahead.