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Led Zeppelin: Rising Stars

Led Zeppelin: Rising Stars

Originally published in Guitar World, March 2009

From the demise of the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page created a new band that would reshape rock and roll for the Seventies and beyond. Guitar World presents the story behind Led Zeppelin’s launch and ascent.

 

It is now 40 years since the U.S. release of the first Led Zeppelin album on January 12, 1969, but the record’s influence continues to be felt profoundly. Titled simply Led Zeppelin, the disc marked a pivotal moment in rock and roll culture, where the pop-oriented rock and roll of the Sixties started to give way to what would become the heavier-sounding artist-driven orchestrations of early Seventies rock. As our present notion of classic rock derives from the Seventies FM rock-radio programming format, the first Led Zeppelin album is also a cornerstone of the classic rock canon. Beyond this, it is one of the seminal heavy metal albums of all time. Indeed, it’s safe to say that metal probably never would have come into existence had Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham not walked into London’s Olympic Studios in the autumn of 1968 and laid down the nine hard-hitting tracks that became Led Zeppelin.

Several generations of rock guitarists have assayed Led Zeppelin classics like “Good Times Bad Times,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Communication Breakdown” in bedrooms, garages and bars around the world. If you’re a rock guitar player, those licks are part of your DNA, whether or not you’ve ever played them.

The first Led Zeppelin album, however, didn’t spring into existence from nothing. It is very much the outcome of musical and production ideas that Jimmy Page had formulated with his previous band, the Yardbirds. Indeed, when Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham were in the studio recording the disc, they were planning to call themselves the New Yardbirds.

These days, the Yardbirds are perhaps not as well known as Led Zeppelin, but in their time, they were the ultimate guitar band. How could they be otherwise, with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page passing through their ranks between 1963 and ’68?

“They were a great band,” Page says. “I was never ashamed of playing in the Yardbirds.”

The story of his alchemy in transforming the Yardbirds into Led Zeppelin is an archetypal rock narrative, filled with backroom deals and sheer brilliance wrested from rock and roll mayhem. It is also very much the story of two adolescent friends, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

“Jimmy and I have known one another since we were 14 or so,” Beck says. “My sister gave me the introduction. She went to the same art college [as Jimmy]. And she came home and said, ‘There’s a guy with a goofy guitar like yours at college.’ And I went, ‘Where is he? Take me to him!’ ’Cause there was nobody else in my block or even in my town who even knew what a Fender Strat was. So meeting Jimmy was great—like meeting your long-lost brother. And we’ve got on well ever since.”

Both friends set out to make their mark in rock and roll. Page succeeded first, becoming one of London’s most sought-after studio guitarists. The British Invasion was in full force, and young Jimmy Page went to work for many of the top producers of the day, including Shel Talmy (who produced the Kinks and the Who, among others) and Mickie Most (who racked up Number-One hits for the Animals, Herman’s Hermits and others).

“My session work was invaluable,” Page says. “At one point I was playing at least three sessions a day, six days a week. And I rarely ever knew in advance what I was going to be playing. The studio discipline was great. They’d just count the song off, and you couldn’t make any mistakes. I learned things even on my worst sessions. And believe me, I played on some horrendous things.”

In 1965, Page received an offer from the Yardbirds’ manager, Giorgio Gomelsky, to replace Eric Clapton, who was leaving the group. The Yardbirds had just scored their first Number-One hit, “For Your Love.” Page, however, was doing far too well as a session musician and calculated that he could actually make more money that way than he could as a member of a hit-making group. Instead, he recommended his old friend Jeff Beck for the gig.

Beck became the Yardbirds’ lead guitar player during the group’s golden period, from 1965 through ’66, racking up hits like “Heart Full of Soul,” “Evil Hearted You,” “I’m a Man” and “Shapes of Things,” recordings that managed to be both innovative and commercially successful. With Beck onboard, the guitar solos in Yardbirds songs started to become set pieces in and of themselves, a common practice today, but something that was unheard of until the Yardbirds came along. The group introduced the idea of mid-song tempo shifts, breaking into amphetamine-paced double-time segments or raunchy syncopations for solos, choruses or bridges. The Yardbirds became closely associated with a move called the “rave up,” which basically involved jettisoning the song’s main chord progression and resolving to the tonic root for a solo or outro, building head-rush crescendos off this simple harmonic base. Yardbirds’ bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty excelled at this kind of quick-witted rhythmic change-up. The idea of using rhythmic shifts to create episodic song structures would be a key Yardbirds legacy that Jimmy Page would invest in the creation of Led Zeppelin.

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