Top of the Pops: Led Zeppelin I


December 4, 2013 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

By 2013, as a society we’ve come to recognize that Led Zeppelin is the greatest rock band of all time.[1]  But if you were to read contemporary reviews for their albums, you’d most likely be reading a very different opinion of the band.  At the times of their release, only three of their albums were well received, while reactions to the other five ranged from allegations of being overrated to sheer perplexity.  One such album that received mediocre reviews from critics was their debut album Led Zeppelin or (Led Zeppelin I).

My biggest problem with Led Zeppelin I is purely a personal problem, as I’m unable to contextualize the album as the first Zeppelin album.  Instead, I see and compare the album to the rest of their discography which is much more expansive, experimental and explosive.  Led Zeppelin I is an album with merit, but it’s one that pales in comparison to their later works.  The biggest problem with Led Zeppelin I is that the pacing really drags down the album.  It’s only 45 minutes, but side one by itself feels like an hour.  Not only that, but it’s also a very disproportionate album as the album itself doesn’t sound like an equal collaboration, but merely Jimmy Page directing traffic.

The album starts off strongly enough with “Good Times Bad Times” which to the uninitiated introduces Jimmy Page as a guitar extraordinaire and John Bonham as a primal force of nature.  The drums break powerfully enough that by the end of the album any doubt that Bonham isn’t the greatest drummer who ever lived is squashed.

Conversely, bassist John Paul Jones, opens up side two with “Your Time is Gonna Come” a keyboard driven tale of jaded love.  Foreshadowing the presence that Jones and his keyboard skills would have, “Your Time is Gonna Come” displays a more pop driven sound that diverts from the previous side which was harder and heavier, which as a result slowed the album down.

Not only did he produce the album, Jimmy Page also controlled every aspect of the album.  The reason why Led Zeppelin I sounds the way it does, an above average, but still typical sounding rock album of the time, is because in early 1968, Page still saw Led Zeppelin as The New Yardbirds and was still trying to expand upon the sound of his old band, albeit with a completely new band trying to get a feel for each other.  Unlike every other Zeppelin album, Page also wrote the lyrics to the songs, because of some contractual obligation that lead singer, Robert Plant  owed CBS records.  As a result, knowing that he didn’t write the songs, coupled with the fact that on most songs Plant seems to be trying too hard to emulate other blues singers, makes his performance on this album not as captivating as he would be on subsequent albums.

Foreshadowing Led Zeppelin III, is the Page solo “Black Mountain Side” which brings the focus on Jimmy Page, and the notion that in all actuality, Led Zeppelin I¸ is the sound of Jimmy Page seeking credibility, both externality and internally, that he can lead a successful band after the breakup of The Yardbirds.  Segueing from the outro of  “Your Time is Gonna Come”, the two minute acoustic solo by Page is a good change of pace that breaks up the harsh and heavy nature of Led Zeppelin I.  Following this example of quick and simpler songs comes “Communication Breakdown” which is progenitor of late 70s punk music, with the simple, fast, and repetitive chord progression layered over a steady drum beat.  By comparison, it’s a pretty simple and bland song, but it’s because the rest of the album tries to be so opulent and different that “Communication Breakdown” succeeds.  As far as  songs goes, it doesn’t try and be something that it isn’t.

The finest example of blues rock on Led Zeppelin I comes on the album’s final track, “How Many More Times”.  I would argue that this, and not “Dazed and Confused” is the standout track on the album.  From the trudging guitar riff to the wailing pleads of Robert Plant to the foreshadowing of “Moby Dick” during the middle of the song, “How Many More Times” presents the band at their most focused and in tune with each other.  Even though it’s the longest song on the album at over 8 minutes, it never seems slow or drags, and that’s because the song changes forms so many times, and so often that you’re never even given the chance to be bored.  If only the same could be said for the other epics on the album.

The fact remains though that for all its effort, side two is still chained to the arduously slow pace of side one.  This comes from the fact that three of the four tracks on side one are over six minutes and they are all consecutive, one right after the other.  “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is a ballad that first experiments with hard/soft, slow/fast dynamic that the band would soon perfect.  By itself, and back in 1969 this would be a masterpiece, and that’s why it’s become such today.  But in comparison to “Stairway to Heaven” or “Ten Years Gone”, “Babe” just doesn’t get the job done.

What has been considered the centerpiece of the album is “Dazed and Confused” which is Led Zeppelin at their most psychedelic.  It’s an entertaining song, but I can’t help but get the feeling that they were just putting their own spin on what was popular at the time, instead of forging their own path as they would do for the remainder of their careers.  The sludgy bassline and Bonham’s excellent drum work especially during the bridge fit well with Page’s bluesy-psychedelic riff, but it’s Robert Plant, who in fact steals the show and annunciates himself as a force to be reckoned with.  Everything that we would come to love about him is present on “Dazed and Confused”, from the wailing, crooning, and charismatic shouting, Plant demonstrates his full vocal range in a way that compounds on his band mates instrumental mastery, without every hindering them.

Led Zeppelin I is a good album with one glaring flaw- side one feels way too long.  It’s only in hindsight that we realize this though.  For people who heard the album when it first came out, I’m sure they beg to differ, as it was Led Zeppelin I that initially gripped them.  Had I been alive in 1969, I would have loved this album; it would have blown my mind.  I just can’t refrain from comparing it to other, better albums in the bands catalogue like Zoso or Physical Graffiti.  Songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Dazed and Confused” are all expanded upon and perfected on subsequent albums.  Side one exposes early Led Zeppelin as a band that was trying to balance their own patented sound with what was popular at the time.  They hadn’t grown confident in themselves and their chemistry to just go with what felt right, but it is from their first album that you can see the seeds of greatness being sown.

In 1969, Led Zeppelin I was the perfect way to introduce the world to Led Zeppelin; 45 years later their first album wouldn’t be my first recommendation to someone who’d never heard them before.  By no means does that make it a bad album, it’s just that over the next ten years Zeppelin would make much better albums that would eclipse their debut.

[1] To be honest, we probably knew this by 1974.

3 thoughts on “Top of the Pops: Led Zeppelin I

  1. […] Top of the Pops: Led Zeppelin I ( […]

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