I wanted to start a “throw-back-Thursday” style column (I know today’s not Thursday, but there was very little for January 14th!), where I review an album released on this day in music history. So today, I was looking, and I’ve got two main options, I could go for Britney Spears‘ debut album “…Baby One More Time” from 1999. I remember this being a big deal back when I was 7, she was all the hype, everyone went mad for it. However, that wouldn’t really be in keeping with the blog, so instead, I’ll review Led Zeppelin‘s debut, self-titled album, released January 12th 1969!
This album marked the beginning of a glittering career for the band, but was initially poorly received by critics, despite it’s impressive commercial success. Rolling Stone Magazine described Jimmy Page as “a writer of weak, unimaginative songs”, which caused the album to suffer as it’s mostly written by him. (It’s worth noting that Rolling Stone changed their opinion following the band’s success, and rank the album 29th in their top 500 in 2012) I’ll be looking at the music, more in-depth to look at what it does well, and if there was any reasoning behind the critics’ opinions.
Led Zeppelin was not originally the name for this line-up for this line-up of musicians, who were recruited to Yardbirds by Jimmy Page, as the sole remaining member. They went on tour together performing some Yardbirds tracks, and some new songs that featured on this album. It was only in the studio that that name was changed to celebrate the new line-up. The two bands obviously have similar styles, both heavily rooted in blues, and Page even said a lot of the songs were constructed from leftover riffs from The Yardbirds, but with Jon Bonham, John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant adding their creative input, the album is a lot heavier than many of The Yardbirds’ work.
As a fond lover of heavier music, the tracks that have Jones and Bonham on are probably my favourites, Good Times, Bad Times, and Communication Breakdown are two of the shortest tracks on the album, but they’re energetic, direct and in your face! The riffs are fast, catchy and excellently accented by the heavy hitting drumming of Bonham, which drives the whole band forward. Even on songs where Bonham isn’t given writing credits, his drumming is what makes the songs have that standout quality that gives them that extra dimension preventing it from being an entirely blues record! His drumming, and restraint is what makes the huge contrasts all the more impactive and emphatic! In Babe I’m Gonna Leave You it’s the switch from the single steel strung acoustic guitar, to the full band entering that really hits home. As good as the guitar and vocals are in that beginning section, the song is particularly memorable and outstanding because of what happens after 1 minute to shock the system and really grab you.
Of course there are undoubtably some weaker tracks on the album. Tracks like You Shook Me and I Can’t Quit You Baby, while fine songs, would have been nothing standout or new to the music scene at the time. The slow tempo, and rooting in more traditional blues genre, with the vast amount of lengthy pentatonic improvised guitar solos, means that they fail to really grab the listener.
The fact that these two songs were picked out for criticism is worthy of note, as they were not written by the band themselves, but by renowned arranger and writer Willie Dixon. The other tracks on the album have a lot more variation in dynamics, and texture throughout; featuring at least some heavy sections or distinctive Zeppelin moments. Dazed And Confused is like a masterclass in building tension; that repetitive sinking bass line takes the song as far as it can go without losing the listener, before finally giving you that exciting, fast paced riff, to make the whole thing worth listening to.
Overall, I definitely couldn’t slam this album in the way that it was initially by Rolling Stone Magazine, but this is a different era, and I’ve had 12 years of listening to it, rather than 2 months. That said, I think nowadays the album’s high rating is more based upon how well the band have done following this as a starting platform. There are some absolutely outstanding songs on there, and moments that really show what Led Zeppelin are really capable of, their control textural and dynamic techniques is laudable. However, the band had definitely not really hit their song-writing stride in this album (even Page said so), and there are sections of songs, as well as whole songs that display this. Maybe if the band had taken more time, and written all the songs that appear on the album, it could have been the masterpiece it’s now perceived to be. However, this takes little away from an album that has very much stood the test of time, and propelled Led Zeppelin to be one of the successful and influential rock bands ever.