Thursday, October 31, 2019

Zeppelin V. Cream

On January 12th, 1969, Led Zeppelin released their eponymous debut album. Spearheaded by Jimmy Page, Keith Moon said the band would "go down like a lead balloon." 

Led Zeppelin did not succumb to their predicted fate. Instead, they became rock music pioneers. Led Zeppelin was unlike anything of its time, cultivating a blues-rock sound with a crisp heaviness. Perhaps it was the combination of Page's swift blues guitar playing in conjunction with the unusual and bluesy falsetto of Robert Plant. (Interestingly, Page's style was the antithesis of fellow Yardbird, Eric Clapton, who was nicknamed "Slow Hand.") The new sound, the first real 70s band, was rounded out with the insanely brilliant drumming of John Bonham and the stellar musicianship of John Paul Jones.

50 years later, Led Zeppelin's debut withstands the test of time. From the opening chords of "Good Times Bad Times" to the closing notes of the blues saga "How Many More Times," there isn't a single dull moment on the album. Song genres bounce from hard rock to deep blues to folky; three eclectic styles the band would embrace throughout their career. Transitions like "Black Mountain Side," a steel-string acoustic guitar ballad, into "Communication Breakdown," a fast-paced rocker, showcase the band's extraordinary talent.

No discussion of Led Zeppelin is complete without a mention of "Dazed and Confused." With its slow, descending bass-line, the song lingers in the mysterious before punching its way into hard rock legend. Add in a guitar solo played with a violin bow, and you have yourself an instant classic.

Keep in mind, though, that Led Zeppelin is far from a 10 on the AM scale. The LP is a mixed bag, a bit too quirky at times and flawed on a myriad of levels – doesn't matter. With little exception, this is the LP that transformed the 60s into the 70s. Rock 'n' roll transitioned into rock when Keith Richards laid down the opening riff for "Satisfaction" in 1965. Led Zeppelin was the next real turning point. There are better LPs from the era, dozens of them, but none are more influential.

And no, by the way, it's not amnesia. There is little doubt that the genre was more essentially created by Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker with the power trio Cream. It was Cream who fused rock, blues and jazz in a very heavy and unheard of way beginning in 1966 and made a host of other contemporary musicians take notice. Cream fought with Atlantic Records early on because their style was not yet bankable but gradually convinced the bigwigs that a song like "Sunshine of Your Love" could win over the musical public. Cream was the seed, but today remain sadly unnoticed and underrated. With that in mind, Led Zeppelin is far more influential than Disraeli Gears (a far better LP).

The bottom line is, there was a tight knit ensemble of friends and colleagues who created a sound that Led Zeppelin brought to the forefront. Here's the recap: Eric Clapton was only 18 when he joined the Yardbirds in 1963, just after the group took over for the up-and-coming Rolling Stones as the house band at London's Crawdaddy Club. Like many English musicians of his generation, Clapton was primarily interested in American blues, and quit the Yardbirds when they drifted from blues toward experimental pop with their 1965 hit "For Your Love," an AM10). Clapton recommended as his replacement his friend Jimmy Page, then an enormously successful session musician, but Page declined. That led to the Yardbirds hiring Jeff Beck, who would serve as the group’s lead guitarist during its most successful and influential period. In 1966, when Paul Samwell-Smith quit the band, Jimmy Page finally agreed to join the group, initially playing bass and then teaming with Beck in a twin-guitar attack before Beck left later in the year. The transformation from Yardbirds to the New Yardbirds would take place in its many iterations during the course of 1968 and in December of that year, Led Zeppelin was born.

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