Today in 1969 Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album was released in the US (UK fans would have to wait until March 28 for theirs). This is the recorded statement of their first few weeks together, and it’s their most raw and blues-based recording. Guitarist Jimmy Page’s ideas, concepts and effects dominate the album, as he introduced sounds that hadn’t been heard before; sounds that have since become part of the language of rock. Page has said that very little double-tracking was used; they were deliberately trying to record what they could actually reproduce on stage.
The front sleeve artwork is a photo of the 1937 Hindenburg crash. Countess Eva Von Zeppelin, whose ancestor had designed the airship, initially had been flattered that the band were using her family name. However, she was horrified when she discovered that they were using a photo of the burning airship on their album cover. “They may be world famous,” she declared, “but a couple of shrieking monkeys are not going to use a privileged family name without permission.” However, her attempts to stop the band from playing live in her hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark failed.
The album was advertised in selected music papers under the slogan “Led Zeppelin – the only way to fly”. The back cover photos were taken by former Yardbird Chris Dreja, who quit Page’s new post-Yardbirds band early on to take up a career in photography. Bet he seriously regrets that move now…
The album was recorded in October 1968 in only 30 studio hours over a period of 9 days, at Olympic Studios in West London. The group had only been together for 2-and-a-half weeks. The album cost only £1,782 ($3,200) to make, and has sold over 10 million units to date.
As for securing an initial record contract, band manager Peter Grant negotiated a massive 5-album deal with US-based Atlantic Records for $200,000; a princely sum at the time. This deal allowed Grant and Zeppelin to retain virtually complete control on all artistic matters. It was also agreed that all Led Zeppelin records would appear on the famous red/green Atlantic label, as opposed to its less-distinguished Atco subsidiary which had been used for Atlantic’s non-soul and R&B acts in the past. This gave Zeppelin the distinction of being the first white UK act on the Atlantic label.
Good Times, Bad Times – At 2:43, this is a perfectly compact overture to set the scene. Bonham and Jones lay down a powerful rhythm section, then Page flexes the Telecaster through a Leslie speaker. This track was at one time considered worthy of release as a single, but manager Peter Grant squashed the idea (in the UK, anyway).
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You – Page came to like this song after hearing Joan Baez cover it. He rearranged it to fit both acoustic and electric modes, with great results. Originally credited as traditional, it was later co-credited to 60s folk artist Anne Bredon (who received retroactive royalties).
You Shook Me – A reminder of just how heavily early Zeppelin relied on the blues for inspiration. Written by bluesman Willie Dixon and previously recorded by Muddy Waters, the track is real low-down dirty blues. The Page-Plant back-and-forth that leads out of the track is a masterful production technique, and one that would be further emphasized onstage.
Dazed And Confused – The Yardbirds performed this as I’m Confused, with different lyrics. Page employs a violin bow here, with great results. The guitar solo following the bow section is Page’s solo from the Yardbirds’ Think About It. The song became a staple of live shows and was frequently extended into a 40-minute showcase.
Your Time Is Gonna Come – This gives Jones a chance to show off his skills on the church organ, while Page makes use of a Fender pedal steel guitar. The fade-out chorus is sung by all four members.
Black Mountain Side – Jimmy plays an acoustic Gibson J200 on this 2-minute instrumental that’s influenced by the Yardbirds’ “White Summer” (which he recorded with them) and folk singer Bert Jansch’s “Black Water Side”. Page often played it live in an acoustic medley, when he would sit down on a stool onstage.
Communication Breakdown – Taken at breakneck speed, this is pure rock ‘n’ roll built around hammering guitar; a brilliant example of Page’s ability to create a whole song around a repeated guitar riff. It’s become one of the true all-time greats of the Zeppelin catalog.
I Can’t Quit You Baby – This interpretation of another Willie Dixon tune is one of the highlights of the album, and of many a Zeppelin show. It showcases Bonham’s laid-back drumming, showing that he was also capable of restraint and good taste.
How Many More Times – A lengthy, high-energy exit to the first album. As with “Dazed and Confused”, this song has its origins in the old Yardbirds’ catalog; there’s a brief tribute during the long instrumental section, where the band plays part of the Page-written Beck’s Bolero. Coming in at 8:30, the track is intentionally shown on the label as timed at 3:30 (to gain more radio airplay).
Additional material rehearsed and prepared around this period included a version of the Garnett Mimms tune “As Long As I Have You”, Elmer Gantry’s “Flames”, The Band’s “Chest Fever”, Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage”, and The Yardbirds’ treatment of “Train Kept A Rollin”. Some of these numbers formed the basis of early live sets, and may have been under consideration for recording when the time came to enter the studio.
Notable album variations:
The very first UK issues have turquoise lettering on the jacket. These were printed during only the first few weeks of release and are highly sought-after collectibles today.
Some January & February 1969 US pressings mistakenly used a purple/tan Atco-style label. Again, highly sought-after collectibles today.
The Japanese 1st pressing has a different back cover design, with different photos of the band members; but all photos except for Page’s have the incorrect band member name beneath them. Highly collectible.
The Japanese 3rd pressing (1973) came with a poster and lyric insert.
The Australian and New Zealand 1st pressings have a back with a band bio and no photos, and green/silver Atco-style labels.
Certified Gold July 22, 1969
Certified Platinum (x 10) March 2, 2001
Certified Diamond (10 million) March 2, 2001