By Martin Popoff
Whether you mark the genesis as the death of The Yardbirds, the Scandinavian tour by The New Yardbirds or the band’s first show under the new name, Led Zeppelin’s birth, however gradual, takes place in 1968, on way to its crowning moment, the release of the band’s self-titled debut not two weeks into the new year, January 12 of 1969.
Charting events, the story arguably begins back in 1966, when Jimmy Page joins The Yardbirds, first on bass as replacement for Paul Samwell-Smith, but then switching to guitar, where he shares those duties with Jeff Beck. But with Beck soon to depart, in October that year, Jimmy’s thoughts wandered of bigger things, a supergroup of sorts, while he bides his time for nearly two more years with an act proving to be somewhat directionless. The Yardbirds would play their final show, a Bedfordshire gig, in July of 1968. At this point Jimmy is already in possession of most of the riffs and song ideas he would need in his next, bolder incarnation.
“We were a vehicle for what Jimmy wanted to do when he came in,” explains Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty. “He had a pretty free rein, as all the guitar players did and he pushed The Yardbirds sound into more of a heavy metal context. He really was the master of the riff.”
And people far and wide were already paying attention to the band’s star axeman. Recalls Steve Lyman, of legendary Michigan rockers SRC, who caught the band just before their demise, “The first British group that I actually saw perform live was The Yardbirds, and that was not at the Grande Ballroom. It was at a club in Ann Arbor, Michigan called The Fifth Dimension. I already had two albums by The Yardbirds at the time, so it was a real thrill for me to see a British group performing live. Jimmy Page was the guitar player at the time, because The Yardbirds went through various incarnations. Eric Clapton was their first guitar player, Jeff Beck and then Jimmy Page. I was mesmerized by that Yardbirds show. I was the lead guitar player inThe Fugitives, which became the SRC, so seeing Jimmy Page play became a real thrill for me because I had been devouring these Yardbirds records on my record player and trying to figure out what they were playing.”
But in the summer of ’68, The Yardbirds, now busted up, are nonetheless still committed to a Scandinavian tour. A new lineup to fulfill these dates was called for. After Chris Dreja bows out to begin a career as a photographer, session stalwart John Paul Jones is recruited. In the all important vocal slot, Jimmy had wanted on the team Terry Reid, but Reid demurs, suggesting a young Birmingham singer named Robert Plant. Robert is the one who brings along local hard-hitter John Bonham. Before the new foursome would hit the road, they perform a session for the P.J. Proby album Three Week Hero. A track there called “Jim’s Blues” would live on as the band’s first session together, on the technicality that Robert is present blowing some harmonica.
Original Judas Priest vocalist Al Atkins happened to be there to watch the formation of what would be called The New Yardbirds, the makeshift name the band would use to fulfil the Scandinavian dates.
“I used to know Robert,” says Atkins. “We used to go for a beer together, and sometimes he’d borrow my microphone because he couldn’t afford one, if I wasn’t playing. We had one mic between the two of us. I had the best one. And a buddy of mine, ‘Are you playing tonight?’ ‘No, oh go on.’ It was great times. Robert’s roots have always been blues. He’s a very intelligent guy when you’re talking to him about the blues stuff. He knows everything about that. You can’t argue with him about anything on that subject. But I saw him before Zeppelin, when he was playing at Henry’s Blues House and Alexis Korner was playing on his own, a solo gig he got there, like a one-man band thing or something, and Robert got up and played harmonica and sang along with him.
“And then with Jimmy Page, they formed The Yardbirds, went over to Europe, come back, and next thing they were called Led Zeppelin. I went to see them play at Mother’s. They were backing Blodwyn Pig, and I think they got 75 quid or something. But when I saw him with Jimmy onstage that night I was totally blown away. And Bonham was absolutely out of his head. He was drunk, I think. And they did a set, and it was very mixed, including a lot of stuff that was going to be coming on the new album. They were loud, but they were brilliant. Robert’s voice had just changed overnight. I couldn’t believe the difference in his voice. Fantastic vocalist. And yeah, John Bonham, he couldn’t come back onstage. They did an encore and the drummer from Blodwyn Pig came on and played this blues thing with them and they just jammed the encore. The good ol’ days.”
“Jimmy had made his mind up that they were going to blow everyone off the stage,” adds (now deceased) engineer Andy Johns, soon to be working closely with the band. “That’s what my brother told me. This is when Jimmy still had The Yardbirds thing going. Glyn said, ‘I was with Jimmy the other day, and Jimmy said, I’ve got this new lineup now, and we’re going to blow everyone offstage.’ So that was an intentional thing, to be as dramatic and as riff-conscious as possible. And Jimmy was a fabulous writer, and had a lot of great ideas in the studio, and was just wonderful to work with.”
But in August of 1968, even before the band’s dates in Scandinavia, Jimmy’s Yardbirds mate Jeff Beck would issue his album Truth, which many a rock historian debate as the blueprint for what Led Zeppelin would become.
“Well, it was right around the same time,” explains Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. “I was on the Jeff Beck album and Jimmy was with The Yardbirds, so my influence on the Beck album would probably be similar to my influence on the Led Zeppelin album, just like Jimmy. I don’t know, I suppose. You can come to the same conclusion with any number of blues-based rock bands. But it soon took off from there. Most of the songs we had done on the first album had been done by Jimmy and The Yardbirds as well. It was only things like “Good Times Bad Times,” which was a riff I brought in, that I wrote in the studio. That’s got John’s famous drum part, of course. John never used double bass. He did in fact bring in a double bass drum for rehearsal, and we played a couple of songs with it, but then we hid it when he went for lunch. When he came back it was gone.”
“We loved Zeppelin,” says Nazareth guitarist Manny Charlton, also there to watch the band being born. “They were just an extension to what was going on with the guitar bands like The Who, on from The Beatles. It went from The Beatles to The Who and then into that blues boom thing, with the Jeff Beck Group. The Yardbirds and Cream, really, initially, were doing the electric blues thing. The Yardbirds moved from that blues thing to another area, where they kept the same sound but they started writing what you would call riffs, and in some cases, like pop songs. A pop song but played with that power-trio lineup. Because initially when Cream started, they were doing ‘I Feel Free’ and stuff like that, basically writing pop songs to get away from the blues, to get away from ‘You Shook Me.’ But the Jeff Beck Group took it to another level, and then Led Zeppelin obviously did as well. But their first album was basically electric blues songs.”
Into the fall, The New Yardbirds would play their first date, September 7, 1968, at the Gladsaxe Teen Club in Gladsaxe, Denmark, following up with another 10 days around Scandinavia. Significantly, the band have in their set proto-metal construct “Communication Breakdown,” which is recorded as soon as the band get back, in October of that year. It’s a small thing, but one might also call the recording of this bedrock Zeppelin track as the birth of the band. Indeed the song is a step up in intensity, away from other songs in the set at this time such as “Hush,” “The Hunter,” “Somethin’ Else” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
In any event, 1968, as it pertains to the birth of the band, is next marked by the first show on British soil, October 4 at the Mayfair Ballroom, Newcastle upon Tyne. Conducting a brief British tour, the next benchmark is the band’s first show under the new name — Chris Dreja had issued a cease and desist order on the use of The Yardbirds moniker — on October 25, at the University of Surrey in Battersea. And for the record, as the story goes, the band chose for its new title Led Zeppelin, because John Entwistle had suggested to Jimmy that his new “supergroup” would go down like a lead balloon. Into November, rough and tough manager of the band Peter Grant negotiates a $143,000 advance for his boys from Atlantic Records and the hype machine lurches into operation, never to wane across a full decade of dominance.
“We didn’t move into a style; I think we kind of created it,” muses John Paul Jones, on what the band brought into being over the nine-day burst of creativity in late 1968 that would result in the band’s debut album. “And if you would have asked me in 1969, as people did, what sort of band I was in, I would have said a progressive rock band. But then that became to mean something else. There you go banging up against categories again. That came to mean something else entirely. And then it was just sort of like blues rock, because the band was quite blues-orientated. And it was just the style, the way the members of the band played together. But in terms of actual riffs, well, anything with notes, lots of notes, like ‘Black Dog,’ ‘Good Times Bad Times’… those were my riffs. And anything that was kind of lurchy and chordy were Page’s riffs. That’s how you tell them apart.”
The impact of the band’s first album would be felt far and wide. “Led Zeppelin had just come out,” remembers Blue Cheer’s Randy Holden. “They were doing something entirely different. I went to see them at their gig at the Whisky, which was their first gig in California as far as I know. I liked their album; I thought they got a really heavy sound on the album, but then live they used these Rickenbackers and they’re the most god-awful sounding amps I ever heard, which really surprised me. But the record really came off great.”
Adds Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, “Led Zeppelin influenced me a lot because I was in a pop group called Episode Six and we were trying to get heavier and weren’t making it because we were just playing the same music but louder. When the album first came out, you could tell it wasn’t the loudness so much as a feeling, what you felt about the music rather than how they played it. Episode Six, as we were, weren’t the right combination of people to be heavy, and I gradually gained the impression that heavy music wasn’t for me because I didn’t like what we were playing — loud pop music. And I decided for a time to go into folk music. I’ve never been so struck by an album as I was by Led Zeppelin. It really left me open-mouthed. What they were playing was very simple stuff, loud and exciting, and it moved me. I suddenly wanted to be in a club playing that music — loud, straightforward, with simple guts. And by pure coincidence, just about that time I was offered a job with Deep Purple! But for Zeppelin, I might never have been in Deep Purple.”
“I remember Jimmy played me the first Led Zeppelin album,” chuckles Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty. “There was ‘Dazed and Confused’ and there was a Howlin’ Wolf-type thing, ‘How Many More Times” which is very similar to the stuff we’d been playing; it was similar to ‘Smokestack Lightnin’,’ I thought. And then there was another one which was similar. It was very well done, the first Zeppelin album; I thought it was very good. You can see the links, how easy it was to go from us to them.”
And like so many others that were there to bear witness to the birth of this great band, Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones also found himself impressed with what Jimmy had put together. “At the time, I was cutting my teeth in France,” explains Jones. “Don’t ask me how, but I’d become sort of the musical director and producer of Johnny Hallyday, who you’ve probably heard of. He was sort of the French Elvis, as it were. And so we would go over to England to record, and we ended up with an engineer named Glyn Johns, who at that time, he worked with Steve Miller and later the Eagles. I think he had been working with the Eagles even before their record came out. But he had worked a lot with John Paul and Jimmy when they were session musicians.”
“And they happened to be session musicians on the stuff that I was doing for Johnny Hallyday. And so I was fully aware of who they were. And every time I was playing with Jimmy Page, he blew me away every time we went into the studio. I had so much respect for him as a guitar player. So that’s where our friendship developed. He would even come over to Paris with Glyn Johns and cut tracks over there. In fact, some of the music that we were doing with Johnny Hallyday provided the opportunity for Jimmy to work closely with Glyn Johns in preparing the first Zeppelin album. And I remember the day that Glyn took me into the studio, the back of Olympic Studios in London, and he said, ‘I’m going to play you a couple things on Jimmy’s project.’ And he sat down and played me ‘Communication Breakdown’ and it just blew me away. Just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard anything as mean and powerful in my life. It just left me staggered.”
Millions across the planet were soon to feel equally staggered, but again, the groundwork and indeed so much more, was set in 1968, and really, much of it packed into the back half of the year. The breakdown in communication that caused the demise of The Yardbirds to the recording of “Communication Breakdown” takes no more than an astonishing four months, and by the end of the year, in the hopper is a record that will forever change rock ‘n’ roll. Fully 50 years later, the impact of both Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin is still reverberating.