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.”