A vitally important band in the history of rock & roll was the Yardbirds, which at different points in its history featured three of the greatest guitarists ever: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Clapton quit the Yardbirds in 1965 over creative differences, since he wanted to remain a blues man and disagreed with his fellow band members’ commercial aspirations. Clapton was replaced by Beck, and Page joined as a bassist a year later, although eventual Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones started filling in as Beck became increasingly more absent, with Page switching to guitar. Beck was eventually fired, but he went on to make the first hard rock record, Truth, in 1968 with Page, Jones, Rod Stewart, Who drummer Keith Moon and some of his other friends making appearances on it. (Stewart sounds eerily Robert Plant-like in hindsight, it’s worth noting.)
Meanwhile, Page tried to reform the Yardbirds with Jones, drummer John Bonham and singer Robert Plant. Initially the group was called the New Yardbirds, but after some legal action on the part of former Yardbird Chris Dreja, they dropped that name and decided to go by the name Led Zeppelin. (I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not imagine a world where we refer to Led Zeppelin as the New Yardbirds.) And in January of 1969, they delivered one of the most stunning debuts in history. I’d only rank Hendrix’s Are You Experienced above it. (Other candidates: Pearl Jam’s Ten, The Doors and The Velvet Underground & Nico.) A lot of things were coming to an end in 1969: the psychedelic era was drawing to a close, giving way to progressive rock; overt blues-rock would soon be replaced by the more articulate (but less elastic) album rock of the ’70s; and I suppose it’s worth mentioning that the Beatles recorded their final album, as well.
Times were a-changin’, and Led Zeppelin’s debut is different from their subsequent records in that it collects all of these disparate elements and makes use of them and says goodbye to them at the same time. An appropriate analogy is a train leaving a station: people get on board, taking things with them from the surrounding area, and by the time they get to the next station, the previous station has faded but certain aspects that made it on board remain a part of the train’s makeup. Led Zeppelin was the biggest train leaving King’s Cross station in 1969, incorporating psychedelia (“Dazed and Confused”), folk (“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Black Mountain Side”) and blues (“You Shook Me,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby”) into their sound. Well, and some good, loud, distorted hard rock (“Good Times Bad Times,” “Communication Breakdown,” “How Many More Times”). (The only one I’ve left out is one of their more underrated tunes, “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” which is one of their early epics.)
Led Zeppelin was one of rock & roll’s most pivotal bands, taking music in a bold new direction. It’s impossible to overstate their importance, and their influence on me personally has been pretty massive. Most would probably say Led Zeppelin IV is their favorite, but I have always liked their first one the best. Their first six albums are all great, but Led Zeppelin is the most “down home” and earthy of them, which I have always really loved. Led Zeppelin II‘s a great album, too, but I have never been able to see it as more than just a continuation of the sound they pioneer here, so it’s always been less interesting to me because of that. A final note about Led Zep: “How Many More Times” is my favorite Zeppelin song. Yep, if I had to pick just one Led Zeppelin song, I wouldn’t pick “Stairway to Heaven” or “Whole Lotta Love” or “Kashmir.” I’d choose “How Many More Times.”