Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin (I)”

Cover of Led Zeppelin's debut album

This week, I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut LP from 1969 that introduced the world to their unique blend of hard blues rock. While I’ve known their fourth album my whole life and a few of their other albums since I was a teenager, I somehow missed most of their first. Most of my punk-rock friends shrugged off Zeppelin as the hippie-rock of their parents. Yet, my parents didn’t listen to them beyond a few songs on Led Zeppelin IV like “Stairway to Heaven.” The punk rejection is kind of funny considering how album’s “Communication Breakdown” influenced much of the Ramones. Still, punk rejected what they saw as excessive moments of showy musicianship that Zeppelin were already demonstrating on this first album.

Jimmy Page formed the band after years of impressive work as a session musician and a short period with the Yardbirds. He pulled together singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, who previously worked together in the short-lived Band of Joy. Fellow session-musician John Paul Jones joined the Page’s Led Zeppelin to play bass and organ. At first named The New Yardbirds, they changed their name to Led Zeppelin after Keith Moon’s joke that they would go over like a lead balloon.

Good Times Bad Times

The album opens with “Good Times Bad Times,” which was also their first single. From the first 15 seconds of full-band double-stabs, it’s clear that Led Zeppelin intends to be big and loud. Then with the first line of vocals, the drums begin pounding, explosive and rolling. John Bonham dances all over the drums keeping a constant rocking texture going throughout. Considering his heroes included star jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, it’s no surprise that Bonham would use so many fills. This is no simple 4/4 drum pattern and, like Keith Moon, he’s not afraid to hit the cymbals. Page continues the double-stab pattern, but fills the space between with grooving blues riffs.

Page and Zeppelin build most of their songs around riffs. So, we hear usually hear a 1 or 2 bar rocking guitar riff that gets repeated throughout a verse, and then a different riff in the same family for the chorus. He frequently livens up these repetitions with variation through adding or switching a note, as well as bending notes. The bass either plays in unison or a separate riff that provides counter-balance rhythmically and tonally. Rarely is anybody in the band playing something simple. There’s lot of movement and action throughout these recordings.

Of course, I love the lead guitar that was played through a Leslie speaker. I love a rotating speaker when used on guitar, organ, or really anything else. It brings a great life to Page’s solo, that honestly it didn’t need, but help bring it forward. This is likely also accomplished through combination of the hi-mid frequency boost of the horn speaker as well as perhaps a boost pedal, which had just come out the same year.

Your Time Is Gonna Come

John Paul Jones begins “Your Time is Gonna Come” with gospel-blues-rock sounding organ. Then, Bonham kicks in the drum with a crash leading into one of his simpler drum patterns. During the coda, he kicks it up with fills every other bar and ultimately leads into pulsing patterns on the kick and toms. Page plays picked arpeggios on an acoustic guitar. Plant sings folk-blues inspired verse, leading into a soulful chorus of “Your time is gonna come.” In this song, it’s not a good time, but rather he’s warning a woman that has broken his heart that she will some day experience the same. There’s not a lot of rhyming here; they don’t shy from it, but they don’t enforce any sort of pattern.

Made up my mind to break you this time
Won’t be so fine, it’s my turn to cry
Do what you want, I won’t take the brunt
It’s fading away, can’t feel you anymore
Don’t care what you say cause I’m going away to stay
Going to make you pay for that great big hole in my heart
People talking all around
Watch out woman, no longer is the joke gonna be on my heart
You been bad to me woman, but it’s coming back home to you

How Many More Times

The longest and most epic complex song of the album, “How Many More Times” closes the second side. Throughout its 8½ minutes, the band takes us through several rounds of twists and turns. There are times it begins to feel like a freeform jam, but they know what they are doing and where they are going. The band brought together several unused song ideas that Page had written from previous years into a coherent whole. The transitions from section to section work perfectly, especially by the occasional reintroduction of the opening blues-rock riff that reminds the listener where we came from.

Page makes frequent use of a wah pedal on much of the lead guitar. Sometimes he uses it in the “half-cocked” position which causes the pedal to act as a high-frequency boost. He also creates otherworldly effects by playing the guitar with a large bow. This song, in addition to musically interesting interplay of bands as well as unison stabs.. provides a fascinating set of examples of early effects on electric guitar.

There’s a lot that I love about this album, even if the focus on blues-inspired hard rock is not necessarily my favorite. I like when they get more into psychedelic territory like Led Zeppelin III or Physical Graffiti. However, what I really love about this album is the sound of it. Rotating speakers, a variety of expert guitar sounds, the big complex drums, the rolling bass, and the occasional use of organ.

Led Zeppelin’s IV

Led Zepplin 4 album coverI’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album from 1971. Each week I devote to an acclaimed album to learn as a songwriting musician. As with “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, I grew up hearing this Led Zeppelin album often. I imagine many of us born in the 70s did. Even with all of that exposure, it’s still a great album with surprises.

The fourth track “Stairway to Heaven” pulls together the greatest qualities of the album into one song. As an unfortunate side effect of being one of the greatest songs ever, it has become amazingly overplayed. I sigh with lack of interest when the song starts. My favorite portion of the song starts at after five and a half minutes. First, the guitars signal a transition through a dramatic series of chords sounding like horns. Jimmy Page then provides a fantastic soulful guitar solo. I like that the they did not distort the rhythm guitar to get a rocking sound. They gave it a sense of being big by double-tracking with some strong spring reverb. There, I talked about “Stairway to Heaven” mostly because I’d feel foolish not mentioning it. Seriously, I skipped it many times this week.

Four Sticks” got my attention this time around. I hadn’t given it much attention in the past, so it still had a little sense of novelty. Also, the unusual rhythm of the song intrigued me. Some research revealed that most of the song is in a very unusual 5/8 time, withe some parts in a more common 6/8. I read that the rhythm of the song was so difficult that they almost gave up on recording the song. I hear a few times on the recording that they do slip up as a result. There’s a vaguely middle-eastern feel to the music. This comes from the combination of odd time signature, droning ascending scales, driving percussion, and energetically strummed acoustics. I sometimes find that songs in odd signatures will feel like they drift or ramble, but the 6/8 sections of this song give a sense of journey.

The seventh track “Going to California” is comparable to “Stairway to Heaven” while being much better. I like the collection of acoustic guitars and mandolin creating musical textures through arpeggios. They are panned mostly hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the bass and vocals. The lyrics are more relatable than the Tolkeinesque-Rumi vagueness that happens on some of the other tracks like “Stairway.” The first verse is a pair of beautifully written narrative couplets. They get the listeners attention immediately through emotional story-telling:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.

Speaking of Tolkein, my other favorite track is “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s also something unique about the rhythm of this song. The main riff of the song, which is played on both guitar and electric piano, actually starts an 8th note before the first beat of each measure and least for a full quarter. This song provides an a great example of what I first think of as the Led Zeppelin sound. There’s big loud drums, a heavy bass bottom, a blues-inspired hard grooving guitar riff, and Plant’s high-pitched vocals. The narrative lyrics describe a situation, a certain place and time, written with an ear to both blues and high fantasy balladry.

So I’ve learned a bit about the possibilities of mixing time signatures in a song. Their use of mysticism and fantasy elements is most enjoyable for me for telling real-world narrative. In addition, the way that they double-up on instruments to strengthen a riff is very effective. And you can’t deny the power of big drums.