Led Zeppelin is one of those bands that can be rather difficult to talk about. ‘Legendary’ doesn’t quite encapsulate their place in global pop culture; their look, feel, and ethos are inextricable from what one thinks of when they hear the words “classic rock”. Once you exhaust the torturous string of autopilot accolades and modern rock frontmen reflexively spewing libations in their honor, what are you really left with? A pretty goddamn good rock band is what.
Led Zeppelin’s eponymous first album deployed in January of 1969. It features 9 tracks and clocks in at 44:26. For anyone who would have been around listening to pop music in Britain at the time, this album did not just drop out of the sky (as the cover art so cheekily implies). Jimmy Page was a red-hot session player who had logged time in the Yardbirds with fellow session guitarist and six string hero Jeff Beck. Beck himself had already cut an album with Rod Stewart that bears more than a passing resemblance to what’s on display here.
While there is undoubtedly some strong material on Zeppelin’s maiden voyage, the real hero on this album is the strong production values Jimmy Page imparts on the whole affair. It’s hard to appreciate for newcomers, but the bright, intimate, three-dimensional atmosphere of Page’s mixing was the exception to the rule in 1969. His guitar tone is fat, fuzzy, searing, and very indicative of his future Les Paul sound (He recorded this album with a Fender Telecaster). John Bonham’s drums cause the lower register of lesser speaker systems to explode. Plant’s belted vocals often feel thrust right in your face. Recorded music was not supposed to sound this crisp for another twenty years.
Material-wise, Zeppelin understood how to kick ass from the get go. While some of the more aggressive material can be downright derivative (The cover of You Shook Me really jams the fact that Zeppelin’s members are white, British guys right up your nose), they impart a dark, foreboding vibe into other pieces like Dazed and Confused, refusing to allow the listener to get comfortable. Another trick Page and the boys employ on this album is what fancy-pants artistes call chiaroscuro, an Italian term meaning ‘light-dark’*. Pieces like Dazed and Communication Breakdown come off even harder and more metallic than they would have otherwise, because softer acoustic pieces like Your Time Is Gonna Come and Black Mountain Side offer stark contrast. And speaking of Black, Page also introduces us to his predilection for absolutely bizarre and unorthodox acoustic tunings on this album.
The Verdict: Zeppelin’s first offering is strong, solid, historic, and influential. While there are a couple bona fide rock classics contained here, it was Zeppelin’s destiny to crank out bigger, better albums as time wore on. Led Zeppelin I gets 4 out of 5 stars.
*Or, as my father would say, the subtle interplay between light and shadow.