Friday, January 12, 2018

LED ZEPPELIN I TURNS 49



Back in the mists of the late sixties, two session veterans coupled with two relatively unknown (yet very good) musicians. With all groups who are in their infancy, the first rehearsal is generally a proving ground to see if everyone will be able to work well together. For this quartet, the musical equivalent of nuclear fission happened in a small room. Their next steps would be to get tighter as a unit, then commit a set of songs to tape. In a quote from his book Sound Man (which is recommended reading), legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns takes up the narrative:

I turned up at Olympic (studio), not having any real idea of what I was walking into. I was blown off my feet. The album that we made in the next nine days was a landmark in rock and roll history, taking it to another level altogether. The stereo mix of this record is certainly one of the best sounding that I ever made, but the credit has to go to the band, as all I did was try to faithfully put down on tape what they were giving me, adding a little echo here and there to enhance the mood.

On January 12, 1969 Led Zeppelin was released in the US. It was a stunning debut that caught a lot of listeners by surprise. Three summers ahead of their contemporaries in terms of sonic impact, the innovation in sound was a revelation. Most rock-obsessed readers know the rest of the story: critics at the time didn’t get it, claims of authorship on certain pieces were questionable and the group was considered to be the product of hype as they landed a huge deal without having logged any serious time on stage. The fullness of time would sweep away these claims, reverse initial critical opinions and legalities concerning credits would eventually be sorted out.

Landing with the force of an asteroid strike, “Good Times, Bad Times” kicks in the door with those opening accents in E major, punctuated by percussive responses and proceeds to level most everything that came before it. Heavy rock had truly arrived with this grand statement, executed in just under three minutes.

Groups had put out heavy stuff before this, didn’t they?

They had, though Zep I properly captured the energy and live feel of such muscular playing in a recording studio. The key to this was a combination of factors. Jimmy Page produced and ran the sessions. Along with John Paul Jones, he had logged hundreds of hours of studio time. Both musicians knew that the secret to making a top class record was all about care in pre-production. The band was tight and all arrangements were set prior to tracking. Each player knew how to coax the best sounds from their respective instruments. In addition, Jimmy was also very savvy about mic technique and their proper placement to get the most out of the room.

So was Glyn Johns. It was on this gig that he discovered a widely imitated formula for recording drums. This again is an excerpt from Sound Man (edited for inclusion here)

It was a complete accident…we had finished a basic track and had decided to overdub an acoustic guitar on it. I took one of the Neumann U67s that I had been using on the drums to use on the guitar. Having finished, I put it back on the drums to start the next basic track. When I lifted the faders to listen to the drums, I found that I had inadvertently left the mic assigned to the track I had been using for the overdub (placed to the far left in the stereo spectrum). As the other drum mic was in the middle, it spread the sound to the left. So I wondered what would happen if I put them left and right and made the small adjustment of pointing the floor tom mic at the snare, making the two mics equidistant from it. The result sounded enormous with the completely different perspective that stereo brings…I panned each track to half left and half right ending up with the technique that I have used ever since. A prerequisite to this working is that you must have a drummer who gives you a good sound in the first place, as well as a pair of Neuman U67s or 47s, or Telefunken 251s.

John Bonham was not only an extraordinary player but also knew how to properly tune his drums. His bass foot sounds like the work of multiple pedals, yet it is just that magic right leg of his doing all of the heavy lifting. Couple that with virtuoso fret burning from Page and Jones and you have a winner. Robert Plant’s vocals were the icing on an astounding cake.

HIGHLIGHTS

Led Zeppelin I is uniformly excellent. There are multiple musical personalities at work throughout. One delivers original, uncompromising, intensity in short blasts (“Good Times, Bad Times”, “Communication Breakdown”) while the next lays back and brings acoustic guitar up front ("Your Time Is Gonna Come" sporting that glorious, church organ intro from choirmaster John Paul Jones and “Black Mountain Side” an instrumental adaptation of Bert Jansch’s reading of the traditional folk tune “Black Water Side”). They split the difference with the haunting “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” an Anne Bredon composition that Page took up from a Joan Baez LP and deftly re-arranged. This is a prime example of their versatility and an innate ability to make melodic yet ultimately powerful music. Dynamics are the secret sauce that make this one so compelling. Plant hits those notes effortlessly, supported by delicate acoustic picking from Page. When Bonham and Jones kick in, the game is raised. One of my personal favorites. Elsewhere, heavy blues workouts take up the majority of needle time, with Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” show-casing everyone’s taste and skill. The monsters are “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times”. These multi-part epics stretch out to encompass psychedelic passages, face-melting solos, vocal gymnastics and both were wisely chosen to close out each side of the disc. No descriptors do justice to the sheer power of these mind-blowing slabs of experimentation. You need only listen.

As of this writing, the album holds up beautifully, sounding as fresh in 2018 as it did nearly a half century ago mainly because they didn’t overthink their performances. On the other hand, careful consideration was applied to song sequence. Very clever it is as each selection blends into the next, with the caveat that no similar theme follows what precedes it. No minor detail, this programming approach maintains interest as each new surprise unfolds.

Majestic as it was, Zep I was merely a taste of what was yet to come. “Dazed and Confused” would become a staple of their shows, running over 30 minutes on inspired nights. It also unofficially kicked off the 1970s roughly a year in advance of the actual event. Rock music’s blueprint would be redrawn overnight, with the ever present shadow of the Zeppelin cast on everything below.


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