Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin.
1969, Atlantic. Producer: Jimmy Page.
Home bootleg, 1988. Purchased 1997.
IN A NUTSHELL: Debut album from one of the most iconic bands of the rock era. It’s a record of heavy guitar blues, quite different stylistically from the sound that would come to define them later. The musicianship is incredible on both the slow, thick, oozing songs and the upbeat, hard-charging ones, and they all serve as a basis for laments about Robert Plant’s love-life. This record is one of the seeds of Heavy Metal.
One would think there are very few “once in a lifetime” situations in life. The very name – Once In A Lifetime – seems to imply there would be very few. It seems unreasonable to expect that someone would, say, return from space on a Monday, catch and land a 350-pound tuna on Tuesday, stumble upon a new dinosaur species on Wednesday and finish off the week experiencing all that goes into the first few days of being identified as the 15th Dalai Lama. No, Once-In-A-Lifetime events are special and rare!
However, a different perspective reveals that you likely experience several Once-In-A-Lifetime situations each week, and possibly (depending what kind of job you have) dozens per day! Every time you meet another person for the first time, you have had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll never meet that person for the first time again.
As that old shampoo commercial used to say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The value of a good first impression is understood by most everyone; the fear of making a bad first impression is part of what is reportedly the third most common psychological problem in the country, Social Anxiety Disorder. There are thousands of tips out there for overcoming fear of first meetings; for making good first impressions at work, during a job interview, and on your first day at a job; for making good first impressions on dates, both for women and for men; even for making good first impressions on a new pet!! It is clear, we as humans – social animals that we are1 – value first impressions.
First Impressions cut two ways. On the one hand, you want to make sure the other person thinks positively of you. But you also want to be sure you’re accurately assessing the other person. I’ve fumbled both of these objectives at various times. There were the innumerable times, for example, that others’ first experience with me included some kind of drunken, ridiculous, perhaps-borderline-illegal actions on my part, characteristics that are hard to forget. I’ve also completely discounted people upon meeting them, only to find out later that I was completely misguided.
It wasn’t just the booze that kept me from making a good first impression. I used to be really unsure of myself while sober, and lack of confidence is a real first-impression-killer. First dates were very difficult – but I had very few because it was even harder to ask women out! Typically, I’d ask someone out while I was inebriated – probably not wasted-drunk, as it’s unlikely a woman would’ve said yes to someone in that state. But I’d be a little tipsy, a little more charming than usual, and the invitee would usually also be a little tipsy, a little more amenable than usual, and somehow we’d agree to go somewhere together. Then I’d get to the restaurant, for example, and I’d … eat!
You see, I was a nervous, quiet, shivering mess at first meetings. I often chose not to say anything. I’d just smile and nod in response to even the most innocuous direct questions. I barely asked others questions and I avoided eye-contact. Meeting me was like meeting Boo Radley: unless some “Scout” figure vouched for me, you were left rattled and bewildered and shooed me off your porch. Worst of all, I clung to those first-meeting symptoms for second, third, etc, meetings as well. Such were the depths of my affliction, the family of my good friend Dr. Dave thought I was a Selective Mute for the first three years I knew them!
I eventually overcame my problem by becoming a professional standup comic. See, the booze had tricked me into thinking I had a certain … “something.” I didn’t, but that certain “something” would magically develop within me after just a few years of grimly trying to get the attention of strangers2 in the sad cafes and empty bars of entry-level comedy work. That “something” is this: a high baseline comfort level among people I don’t know. The excellent comedian Tim McIntire has spoken of the “Jedi mind-trick” that comedians develop to convince a room full of strangers that they should listen. And although I learned the trick, I can’t explain the trick; but it definitely has something to do with confidence. And it is probably the only real transferable skill from stand-up comedy to the real world3.
As a child of the 70s and a teen of the 80s, I can’t remember when I wasn’t aware of Led Zeppelin. Before I ever knew any of their songs, I saw their posters at carnivals as prizes for games of chance – typically featuring a flying man or a creepy old dude in a cape holding a lantern. When I reached middle school, I saw their t-shirts on the tough, scary 8th graders who looked like they’d beat me up. By my teen years, each school year began in Zep-tember, and they were one of my “most important bands.” The writer Chuck Klosterman, in his book Killing Yourself to Live, opines that “…every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” He then goes on to hilariously, and believably, make the case that they are the only band for which this is true. For me, it was as a high-schooler, when I listened to Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin “IV4,” … Nearly all the Led Zeppelin. About the only Zep I didn’t pay attention to was the first one, which many of my like-minded friends had assured me was not rockin’ enough. I took them at their word – I never explored.
Sometime in 1988, my friend Dr. Dave sent me a cassette tape in the mail. I was learning to play bass, and was making plans to travel to Dr. Dave’s house to play music with him and his brother, the beginnings of the world-famous5 band JB and The So-Called Cells. On one side of the tape were a few songs that he, on guitar, and our drummer friend, Chris, had recorded in hopes I could learn the bass parts: Heart’s “Barracuda;” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting;” perhaps AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” He had recorded the songs on a cassette that was blank on Side 2. But the cassette case indicated, in Dr. Dave’s unmistakeable handwriting, that Side 1 contained “Led Zeppelin: Their First. (And their best.)” I ended up listening to Side 1 far more than Side 26. It immediately hooked me. The first song was like nothing I’d heard before.
I was explaining earlier that feigned confidence, the ability to “act like you know,” has been a valuable life lesson. When you are in a new situation, just act like it’s part of your regular routine, and you’ll place yourself ahead of the game. For example, if you’re a rock band and you’re going to release a debut rock record, you’d do well to start off with a song that assures every listener that, indeed, you are fully in command of the situation. Maybe a song like “Good Times, Bad Times.”
“Good Times, Bad Times” is the first song off of the first album by Rock behemoths Led Zeppelin, and it is likely my favorite “Side 1, Track 1” from any debut album, and certainly Top-5 for all albums. It presents the type of First Impression that everyone strives for, announcing the band as confident, able and interesting – someone I’d definitely like to hear again soon. What makes it so special for me is the fact that the individual players – drummer John Bonham, bassist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant – display such astounding gifts on the song, but their virtuosity doesn’t overshadow it. The song is a powerful statement, and it retains its direct, visceral feeling throughout: I noticed its power long before I considered the individual components. And the individual parts are stunning.
Let’s first consider John Bonham’s drums. Run the googles on “good times bad times drum lesson” and you’ll get pages of people trying to explain how he did what he did. The song begins with two simple notes repeated a few times, with musical tension built by his cymbals and cowbell. Then, at 15 seconds, Bonham throws in a really cool fill to herald Plant’s first verse, going directly into a pulverizing back beat, with an astonishing kick drum pattern. The drumming is solid and heavy and awesome throughout, and that kick drum pattern is so astonishing that there are several web videos devoted simply to it, and even the wikipedia page for the song mentions it. I defy you to name another bass drum part from a debut album first track with which Wikipedia concerns itself.
I believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said that to make a really great first impression in life, you need to have a terrific rhythm section7. And he was absolutely correct. If you don’t want to be known as the new band with the drummer who’s too good for it, you need a bassist who’s just as sparkling. And John Paul Jones is that. He gets to show his cool, savvy playing in breaks after the chorus – such as 0:58 and 2:04. And if you focus your ears on his bouncing, fluid playing through the entire song, you’ll hear how he anchors Bonham’s playing to the guitar work of Jimmy Page while never sounding boring. As a bass player myself, this is the kind of playing I love – something that isn’t too flashy, but isn’t simple, either. It makes listening enjoyable, but holds the song together, as well.
Jimmy Page is by most accounts the mastermind behind the band Led Zeppelin, having founded the band, written most of the music8 and produced all the albums. “Good Times, Bad Times” introduces everyone to Page’s main style: Riff Rock, in which he plays a melodic phrase (a “riff“) over and over while the singer sings. What’s cool about Page, is that he changes things up. There’s one riff for the first verse, beginning at 0:20. But for the second verse, at 1:00, he plays a completely different riff, keeping the song from getting boring, and also better supporting singer Robert Plant’s lower register. This change is the kind of subtlety you’ll find throughout Page’s songwriting and playing. Plus, his solos, at 1:29, atop the furious attack of Bonham and Jones, and after 2:06, answering each of Plant’s verses, are excellent and interesting and air-guitar-inducing.
Regarding singer Robert Plant, there’s little to be stated. If there’s ever been a better voice in rock, I’m unaware of it. His ability to both scream and purr effectively are top-notch, but equally impressive is the fact that he can carry a melody while doing either, AND do so expressively. He’s an emotional, interesting singer: his half-speaking, half-shouting, half-singing (which I’m aware is three halves, but Plant is that good!) through the last verse is excellent. His lyrics tend to lean heavily on the “my woman done left me” theme on this album9, but he’s singing the blues so I guess it makes sense. It’s true he became the blueprint for every screeching, girly-haired, hyper-sexualized hard-rock belter for the next 20 years, but he did it first: it was HIS first impression. And I think he nailed it.
Plant gets his chance to really shine immediately after, on the quiet/loud heavy blues of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”
The song opens with a sweet acoustic guitar – a frequent stylistic choice for Led Zeppelin’s entire 10-year recording career, and one that would be hijacked by every goofy hair-metal band throughout the 80s. The song is a showcase for Plant, whose indecisive lyrics explain that he has to leave, but that he’s never going to leave10 … The band shines as well. For example, I love that Bonham comes in strong at 1:02, and 2:02, but that he holds back a little bit, so that he has a little extra explosiveness remaining at 2:27 when the band comes in with full power. The ending of the song is nice, too. Page is not just a screamer on guitar, and songs like this one and – obviously – “Black Mountain Side” show off his subtle and moving acoustic work, as well. (By the way, that’s Viram Jasani playing tabla on “Black Mountain Side.”)
John Paul Jones’s versatility is on display alongside Page’s acoustic guitar on the terrific “Your Time Is Gonna Come.”
Jones plays the organ, along with bass pedals11, and immediately creates a dark, chilling atmosphere. Page strums away on acoustic guitar, while Bonham kind of pounds away on the drums, almost like he’s playing a different song. However, it works fabulously, and Bonham knows when to ease back and allow Plant the space he needs to lament about one more woman who’s bringing him down. For a guy who supposedly got laid a bunch, Plant sure seems to have been predisposed to choose ladies who treat him badly. The sing-along chorus is great fun, especially during the outro, where Page wails away to the end.
Jones shows off his organ skills on the traditional blues cover of Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me,” too. Plant displays a talent for harmonica on it, as well, as the band trades solos between the verses about an unforgettable woman. The song ends with Plant and Page mimicking each other after 5:37 in what was surely one of their most popular on-stage routines. The slow blues also carry the day on “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Like all of the songs on this album, this one is perfectly suited to Plant’s vocal talents – even though, once again, he’s chosen a woman bound to break his heart. It’s also perfectly suited to Page’s soulful blues guitar. At 1:52 he begins a two-minute solo that must be one of the all-time greats in recorded rock music. It includes furious runs, long-held notes, wide-open spaces, and continues behind Plant on the final verse, in which he throws in great licks, such as the one at 4:19 that sounds like he’s laughing. Note also that during the solo, Bonham tosses in some more of those kick-drum triplets.
My friends told me back in the day that this album wasn’t rockin’, and that’s probably due to all the slow blues jams on it. But the song “Communication Breakdown” is a crunching rocker, which totally stands up alongside the band’s Heavy Metal output in later years. By the way: Plant again is having problems with his lady. The band is on fire throughout, and even gets to contribute backing vocals en masse at the end. But what’s awesome about Led Zeppelin, and this album in particular, is that fact that they don’t have to play fast in order to sound metal and bad-ass. The song “Dazed and Confused,” probably my favorite track, is as slow as any they’ve cut, but the power of Bonham’s drums, Jones’s bass, Page’s guitar and Plant’s vocals create a sound that is the essence of Heavy. Just listen to the first minute.
I love the extended, controlled rolls that Bonham fills in throughout, for example at about 1:22. It must be pointed out that for most of his career, Bonham played mostly four- and five-piece drum kits, meaning that he didn’t have scores of finely-tuned equipment encircling him, creating a fortress of batterie within which he sat12. He limited himself, and this limitation elicited creativity and interesting performances. For example, listen carefully, and you’ll hear his toms repeating Jones’s bass line throughout the song. Plant sings about … what else, this time claiming it may be the devil’s fault for his women-problems. Page takes an extended solo, beginning with a spooky section at 2:09, in which he uses a violin bow to create his demon sounds, and then crashing into something else at 3:31. Bonham goes nuts, about 4:58, calling the band to transition back to the main riff, about 5:07, and that change is where I tend to get chills. This song is amazing.
The closing track on Led Zeppelin is a close second for favorite on the album. It starts with a simple, memorable exceedingly cool bass line from Jones – perhaps the coolest bass line in Classic Rock.
It’s a strange, multi-part song that starts off as a straightforward blues riff rocker, and Plant again lamenting yet ANOTHER woman who done him wrong. But then, about 2:09, Page plays a sort of fanfare solo13 that seems to end the song. But Plant has more to say about his problems … At 3:39, against another spooky violin bow section, Plant blames his women problems on his immaturity – although it’s hard to see how immaturity alone could lead to eleven children. He seems to state that all those kids give him a lot of joy, but then reveals, after another break in the song at 5:30, that his joy is actually due to a schoolgirl(!) named Rosie who he’s going off to see!! Bonham plays a shuffling beat, and at 6:09 the song shifts again as Plant proclaims that he is going to get Rosie because he is, after all, “the hunter,” and his wail at 6:57, celebrating his “gun,” is among the most fabulous screams in rock history. I think the fact that he views himself as hunter, implying these women are his prey, really sheds some light on his love-life problems: perhaps when these women find out he’s still out hunting, they’re prone to leave? Or to do a little hunting of their own? Just a thought. As the band returns to the main riff, I believe his final yearning for his woman to come home (I don’t think he means Rosie, by the way, I think it’s the woman he was singing to in the first verse) is likely to fall on deaf ears. But that could lead to another terrific song on Led Zeppelin II about her leaving him!
By the end of Led Zeppelin, the listener is fully comfortable with this new acquaintance and ready to deepen the relationship. It wasn’t weird or objectionable, there were no awkward silences or boorish actions. The new visitor just let you know that it knew what it was doing and that you could look forward to more interactions in the future. Sure, Robert Plant may have dwelled a bit too much on his problems with women, but he was charming enough that it wasn’t an issue. This was a perfectly executed First Impression.
“Good Times, Bad Times”
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
“You Shook Me”
“Dazed and Confused”
“Your Time Is Gonna Come”
“Black Mountain Side”
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”
“How Many More Times”