Led Zeppelin: Rising Stars
John Paul Jones’ bass is heard first, stating the song’s druggy, descending main riff, while Page creates atmosphere via heavily echoed guitar harmonics. Bonham comes crashing in like a bull in a china shop and the song settles into its ponderous groove like a large boat righting itself after a cataclysmic wave. Page fattens the main riff appreciably with double-tracked octaves on guitar.
The song moves through a series of tempo changes, including an up-tempo part that is clearly descended from the Yardbirds legacy of rhythmic change ups. The extended instrumental section includes some passages in which Page plays his electric guitar with a violin bow. Now at the production helm, he was able create a much more effective sonic ambience around the bowing effect on the first Led Zeppelin album than he had been on the Yardbirds’ Little Games album. Much of this ambience comes from an EMT plate reverb, an old-school, pre-digital studio reverb device. “There was a lot of EMT plate reverb on that album,” Page explains, “put to tape and then machine-delayed.”
The instrumental interlude in “Dazed and Confused” is also punctuated by much erotic moaning on the part of Robert Plant, which is also quite reverb drenched. This would soon become one of the singer’s vocal trademarks. Commentators often explicate the open sexuality of Plant’s vocal performances as an expression of the late Sixties “free love” aesthetic. But Plant was taking his cue less from hippie heart throbs like Jim Morrison and more from rock and roll’s original blatant sex icon, Elvis Presley. The Fifties rock star is one of Plant’s prime influences.
“Elvis always had these great reverbs on his voice,” Plant says, “especially when he signed to RCA [Records] and did ‘Love Me’ and ‘Any Way You Want Me.’ I mean, the vocal sound and compression are absolutely brilliant. And I’ve always wanted to get lost in the reverb, too. The effects become sort of an accompaniment. But it’s an extension of me.”
Side two of the album’s initial vinyl release commences with “Your Time Is Gonna Come.” The song boasts a classical organ intro courtesy of John Paul Jones, who used to play the organ in his local church when he was just a lad, but the high-class organ intro soon resolves into a tidy little classic rock ballad.
It’s followed by the aforementioned “Black Mountain Side,” an open-tuned acoustic guitar number with tabla accompaniment. Here, Page is clearly reprising what had been a winning formula on “White Summer,” his solo guitar turn on Little Games, evoking both Indian ragas and Anglo-Celtic folk motifs. Page even weaves a few melodic quotations from “White Summer” into “Black Mountain Side.”
A deft tape edit takes us directly from “Black Mountain Side” into “Communication Breakdown,” another all time Led Zep classic. This concise, up-tempo rocker is built on an archetypal E D A chordal motif. Page’s frenetic guitar solo is particularly bright and “Tele-castic” in timbre. It builds so much crazy momentum that it spills over into the chorus that follows, as if the guitarist couldn’t stop the runaway train he’d set rolling down the tracks.
“I Can’t Quit You Baby” is side two’s great slow blues number, a companion piece to “You Shook Me” on side one. Both songs were written by the same author, the great blues tunesmith Willie Dixon. The guitar soloing stands among Page’s finest work in the blues idiom. His tone is enhanced by slap-back echo, a tape-based delay effect frequently used on early rockabilly recordings of the Fifties, particularly those emanating form Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios. Sun’s early recordings by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and other rockabilly icons had a profound influence on Page when he was a youngster.
“I remember analyzing the records of the Fifties, especially the Sam Phillips stuff,” he says, “and listening to the echoes. I’d listen to [Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson guitarist] James Burton, ’cause I was learning off those records and listening to where they’d slide up the reverb on certain notes. And that’s exactly the same sort of techniques I used later with Zeppelin.”
The album closes with another epic recording, “How Many More Times.” The main verse structure of the tune is based around a bluesy walking bass line, but the track soon wanders off in myriad directions. The episodic journey includes breakdowns, drum fills and double-tracked guitar leads. At one point, the band goes into a bolero, creating the precedent for another enduring stock arena-rock move. And in two spots, John Paul Jones busts out classic Yardbirds/Paul Samwell-Smith “rave up” bass crescendos.
“That has [everything but] the kitchen sink on it, doesn’t it?” Page acknowledges. “It was made up of little pieces I developed when I was with the Yardbirds, as were other numbers, such as ‘Dazed and Confused.’ ”
It has often been observed that the first Led Zeppelin album is very much a document of the band’s live set at the time. It’s a testament to their musicianship that they were able to assemble such a tight set of material in the short time they’d been together before making the album. But the time frame also helps explain the relative scarcity of original material. Of the album’s nine songs, three are covers, one is a liberal adaptation of someone else’s song and one is a collage of familiar blues motifs.
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