Watch/Hear Led Zeppelin’s Earliest Performances from 1968–69 & Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Band’s Birth

For met­al­heads and lovers of gui­tar rock dark, heavy, and chock full of ref­er­ences to sex, demons, tarot cards, and fan­ta­sy nov­els, the birth of Led Zep­pelin should be cel­e­brat­ed like Christ­mas. The 50th anniver­sary of the band should be a non­stop glob­al cacoph­o­ny of awk­ward “Stair­way to Heav­en” cov­ers. Yes, there are oth­er things going on in the world, ter­ri­ble things—things that would be that much hard­er to bear with­out music as fiery and bom­bas­tic as that con­coct­ed by the com­bo of Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham.

In 1968, the band seemed to rock­et out of nowhere—erroneously billed as “Len Zef­flin” in its ear­li­est taped gig at a Gon­za­ga Uni­ver­si­ty Gym­na­si­um as an open­ing act for “The Vanil­la Fudge” (hear the boot­leg above).

But kids in the know knew them as recent­ly-ex-Yard­bird Jim­my Page’s new project, orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to be a super­group star­ring Jeff Beck and The Who’s Kei­th Moon and John Entwistle. This “dry run,” notes music jour­nal­ist Kei­th Shad­wick, was Page’s “first attempt to put some­thing togeth­er that was real­ly heavy­weight.”

Page’s friend from his ses­sion days, John Paul Jones, end­ed up on bass for the only record­ing ses­sion, the project fell apart, and instead Page recruit­ed two not-yet-super­stars, Plant and Bon­ham from Band of Joy, to form what was first known as the New Yard­birds before a cease and desist let­ter. Accounts of who came up with the replace­ment name—first “Led Bal­loon,” a vari­a­tion on the phrase for a big flop—vary. “But it was said after­wards that that’s what it could have been called,” remem­bers Page. “Because Moony want­ed to get out of The Who, and so did John Entwistle…. Instead, it didn’t hap­pen.”

Yet, it hap­pened. Less deter­mined musi­cians might have scrapped the idea and joined anoth­er band. Page, known as “Mis­ter Cool” for his pro­fes­sion­al­ism, had a dis­tinct vision for what he want­ed and was hell­bent on man­i­fest­ing it. “Page said he had Led Zeppelin’s sound, and first songs, ful­ly formed in his mind before the Yard­birds were even done,” Andrew Dal­ton writes at The Chica­go Tri­bune.“I just knew what way to go,” said Page. “It was in my instinct.”

He con­jured the mag­ic with a cer­e­mo­ni­al instrument—a 1959 Fend­er Tele­cast­er he got from Jeff Beck, on which he paint­ed a psy­che­del­ic drag­on. He called the gui­tar “the Excal­ibur” (now a sig­na­ture gui­tar that you can buy in repli­ca next year).

After tours of Scan­di­navia and Eng­land as the New Yard­birds, Led Zep­pelin made their for­mal debut at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sur­rey on Octo­ber 25th, 1968, then they toured the U.S. and released their debut album in Jan­u­ary. Here, you can hear and see some of the band’s first intro­duc­tions to the world, in the boot­leg Gon­za­ga con­cert record­ing at the top, a filmed 1968 per­for­mance of “Dazed and Con­fused,” fur­ther up, and, just above, a killer live set from March of ’69 at the Glad­saxe Teen Club in Den­mark.

It’s no great sur­prise that they sound­ed as good as they did from the start, nor that they had such savvy and poise. Zep­pelin was “typ­i­cal,” writes Shad­wick, “of this third wave [of British bands] in that… all were expe­ri­enced and thor­ough­ly pro­fes­sion­al even though they were still very young, and they had more than a pass­ing knowl­edge of how the indus­try worked before they even signed their first deal as a unit.” But what con­tin­ues to aston­ish about Led Zeppelin’s debut is just how heavy it still sounds, 50 years lat­er. Their dis­tant prog­e­ny may have tak­en the tem­plate to absurd extremes, but even in the bleak­est, most blis­ter­ing black met­al we hear Zeppelin’s musi­cal DNA.

As one ear­ly fan who caught them at that ear­ly Gon­za­ga show lat­er remarked, “It was like, after that, psy­che­delia was dead and heavy met­al was born, all in a three-hour show.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Led Zeppelin’s First Record­ed Con­cert Ever (1968)

Whole Lot­ta Led Zep­pelin: Live at the Roy­al Albert Hall and The Song Remains the Same–the Full Shows

Decon­struct­ing Led Zeppelin’s Clas­sic Song ‘Ram­ble On’ Track by Track: Gui­tars, Bass, Drums & Vocals

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Desiree says:

    Love the ear­ly led zepp. all 4 were so pret­ty„ back in the day„ and their music was way ahead of their time, like all the oth­er groups of the 70’s.…I was born in 60, and grew up with all the hype of ledd Zep­pelin„ wish I could go back, and do it all again,as I took it all for grant­ed…💓

  • Mary says:

    Me too, i was grow­ing up in Chica­go and my broth­er brought the led Zep­pelin IV album on 8 track, i did­n’t know what the 4 sym­bols were, at the time then he saw the movie, “the song remains the same” and got a 4 chan­nel stereo sys­tem installed in his cus­tomized van, and got the sound­track on 4 chan­nel 8 track…when i heard page,tap his gui­tar with a vio­lin bow, dur­ing “dazed and con­fused,” it echoed through­out all 4 speak­ers i thought it was the coolest sound i ever heard! Now I’m old­er i know who the band is and how good look­ing they were…thank you zep! 💖

  • willaim C Wesley says:

    They mixed heavy blues styles with heavy Russ­ian clas­si­cal styles, which clas­si­cal influ­ence were not a part of the orig­i­nal blues. They also played so that not all the instru­ments or the vocals were all going at the same time like so many oth­er bands, behav­ing like an orches­tra with dif­fer­ent sec­tions com­ing in and out of a com­po­si­tion. Their qui­et inti­mate moments where Robert Plant sang or talked or just left a rest and instru­ments played very sub­tly were the most defin­i­tive attribute as a group, off­set by Jim­my pages fran­tic leads. The most cohe­sive ele­ment hold­ing often awk­ward song struc­tures togeth­er was the bass while the drums were pleas­ing­ly mil­i­taris­tic and force­ful. There is a lot of influ­ence from heavy swing music as exem­pli­fied by the James Bond theme and the like. The inter­play between vocal and gui­tar leads was a blues attribute but took on attrib­ut­es of oper­at­ic clas­si­cal with Led Zep­pelin.

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