Led Zeppelin: Rising Stars
The studio chemistry was conducive to success. The combination of two seasoned studio pros (Page and Jones) with two fresh newcomers (Plant and Bonham) made for an ideal blend of hard-won expertise and first-timers’ exuberance. It also didn’t hurt that the engineer’s seat was occupied by Glyn Johns, one of the greatest rock engineer/producers of all time and whose work with the Stones, Who and other titans is the stuff of legend.
By the time the sessions wound up in early October, the band had 12 tunes in the can. Nine of these made the final cut. The album kicks off effectively with soon-to-be-classic “Good Times Bad Times.” The arrangement builds anticipation by starting off with a simple E power chord figure spaced at two-bar intervals. The drums mark time simply with an opening and closing hi-hat and then a cowbell, but when the main guitar riff finally enters, Bonham breaks loose with one of those lurching fills for which he would soon become famous.
Most people associate Led Zeppelin with big Marshall stacks and hefty Gibson Les Paul guitars, but Page recorded the first Led Zeppelin album mainly with a Fender Telecaster, with its thinner, single-coil pickup sound. In some instances, moreover, the Tele was direct-injected into the console and sent straight to tape from there.
“But for most of the record,” Page reveals, “I used a Supro amp, a wah wah and a distortion unit called the Tonebender, which was one of Roger Mayer’s creations. [Mayer made custom effects gear for Hendrix, Page and Beck, among others, during the late Sixties.]”
From his long studio experience, Page had learned the essential recording truth that small amps, like the Supro combo he used on the album, can produce very big sounds if you know how to mic them. And when he applied his miking know-how to John Bonham’s drum kit, the results were very thunderous.
“Essentially, it came down to moving the mic away from instruments in order to give the sound a chance to breathe,” Page explains. “In my session days, I worked with this drummer called Bobby Graham, who was amazing. And you’d see him set up in this little recording booth with a mic shoved right next to his kit, and he’d be whacking the hell out of the drums, yet the recorded sound would be tiny. It didn’t take long to figure out the reason why. Drums are an acoustic instrument, and acoustics need to breathe. So when I recorded Zeppelin, particularly John Bonham, I simply moved the mics away to get some ambient sound. I wasn’t the first person to come across that concept, but I certainly made a big point of making it work for us.”
The vigorously up-tempo “Good Times Bad Times” is followed by a song that provides plenty of contrast, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Page had learned the song from a 1962 album, In Concert, by folksinger Joan Baez, whose work was quite popular in the Sixties, owning in part to her close connection with Bob Dylan. Led Zeppelin’s performance doesn’t depart much from the chord structures Baez uses in her recording of the song, but it introduces a heightened sense of drama by means of sharply articulated dynamics, something that Page would frequently refer to as “light and shade” in interviews.
Next up is the Willie Dixon song “You Shook Me,” a classic slow, 12-bar blues performed by the band with admirable panache. With this track, Led Zeppelin’s original audience would have been on very familiar ground. During the late Sixties, interest in the blues on the part of the white rock audience reached a high point. British Invaders like the Stones, Animals and Yardbirds had started the ball rolling, but Eric Clapton’s work with Cream had really focused attention on the blues and on Clapton’s work with his prior band, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.
Page’s reverb-drenched guitar work on “You Shook Me” eloquently demonstrates that he was no stranger to the blues idiom. He tosses off masterful lead lines and also doubles Plant’s vocal on slide guitar, one of several instances on the album where it seems like Page is employing the singer’s voice as an extension of his guitar. Page’s guitar solo is punctuated by dramatic pauses and drum fills. And the song’s ending introduces a ritual that would be repeated over and over again on arena rock stages in the decades to come: the “whee-whee, ahh-ahh” call-and-response riff trade between lead guitarist and lead singer.
The ending of “You Shook Me” is further enhanced by a backward tape echo effect on the guitar. It was something that Page had discovered during sessions for one of the final Yardbirds singles, “Ten Little Indians.” Desperate to do something cool with an embarrassingly uncool horn arrangement (albeit one by John Paul Jones), Page hit on an inventive idea. “I said, ‘Look, turn the tape over and employ the echo for the brass on a spare track,’ ” he recounts. “ ‘Then turn it back over and we’ll get the echo preceding the signal.’ The result was very interesting. It made the track sound like it was going backward.
“Later when we recorded ‘You Shook Me,’ I told Glyn Johns that I wanted to use backward echo on the end. He said, ‘Jimmy, it can’t be done.’ I said, ‘Yes it can. I’ve already done it.’ Then he began arguing, so I said, ‘Look, I’m the producer. I’m going to tell you what to do; just do it.’ So he grudgingly did everything I told him, and lo and behold, the effect worked perfectly. The funny thing is Glyn did the next Stones album and what was on it? Backward echo!”
The fourth song on the album, “Dazed and Confused,” ended the first side of the original vinyl album with a tour de force performance soon to become a cornerstone of the Led Zep canon. The basic arrangement is much the same as one that Page had worked out previously with the Yardbirds, but the Led Zeppelin version benefits from the full gamut of Page’s production techniques, not to mention the performances of three other musicians more conducive to the style Page was going for.
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