How Led Zeppelin Turned Old Blues Into Hard Rock And Heavy Metal
November 29, 2016
Led Zeppelin's influence on hard rock is unmatched. The combination of Robert Plant's soaring vocals combined with Jimmy Page's bluesy guitar has been imitated endlessly, while John Bonham's driving drums and John Paul Jones' bass set the template for what a true hard-rock rhythm section should sound like. From the moment the group's self-titled debut album dropped in 1969, it was clear that rock music was going in a new direction. Hard rock was becoming a thing, and the seeds of heavy metal were being planted.
It was a new direction, but also a return to rock's roots in the blues. Somehow, this group of four British musicians managed to mine the source material of rock 'n roll while pushing forward into a heavier sound.
All The Rock Musicians Wanted To Be Bluesmen
Zeppelin came out of a huge British blues scene -- in fact, many of the bands we now call "classic rock" got their start as blues outfits. Jimmy Page's previous band, the Yardbirds, were one of the most successful blues or blues-rock bands of the time, as were The Rolling Stones and The Animals. Cream, on the strength of ex-Yardbird Eric Clapton's guitar work, was perhaps the most commercially successful blues-rock group of the mid-'60s. Fleetwood Mac, now of course a yacht-rock staple, began as a blues band. Jethro Tull, famous for bringing the flute into rock 'n roll, began as a blues band. Even Pink Floyd played blues and R&B at first (the band's name is an amalgam of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, two blues musicians).
In short -- American blues was alive and well in London at the time Jimmy Page left the Yardbirds and set about forming his own group.
Page Was Starting A New Group; He Just Needed Three Other Guys
Jimmy Page was an accomplished session musician and certified rock star. Robert Plant wasn't -- he'd been trying to succeed as a blues singer for several years, even putting out some singles that disappeared, but had been frustrated. In the mid-'60s, he was the on-and-off lead vocalist for Band of Joy, a psychedelic-blues group that also included John Bonham on drums. Band of Joy never released any albums during its '60s run.
Page wanted Terry Reid to join his new band, but Reid turned him down, and suggested he check out a band called Hobbstweedle -- fronted by Robert Plant. Page and Plant bonded immediately, and Plant brought John Bonham on board. John Paul Jones, who knew Page from session work, asked to join as bass guitarist.
And so they were assembled: The New Yardbirds. Yes, Led Zeppelin started life as the New Yardbirds.
The Yardbirds Were Dead. Or Were They?
The Yardbirds had broken up, but were still under contract for some Scandinavian tour dates. Page and his three new bandmates played Denmark, Sweden and Norway in September 1968 billed as the Yardbirds or New Yardbirds to fulfill the commitment. The band was coming together quickly, and set about recording their debut album late in the month -- then were informed, via a cease-and-desist letter, that they were not the New Yardbirds anymore, now that the tour had completed.
The band dubbed themselves Led Zeppelin as a joke -- reportedly a reference to a derisive remark from John Entwistle and Keith Moon that such heavy blues music would go over "like a lead balloon."
Led Zeppelin Specialized In Covers And Reworkings Of Classic Blues
Led Zeppelin began building their new brand of music on a foundation of the blues that Page and Plant loved, and many of the songs they played together were reworkings of old blues numbers or new songs that played with classic blues structures. Both their self-titled debut album and the follow-up Led Zeppelin II included two covers of songs by Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon.
Led Zeppelin II has been called the first heavy metal album -- yet it's got more blues to it than metal. Throughout the band's 12-year existence, for all their innovations and experiments, they regularly returned to the blues for inspiration -- and in concert, where many of the crowd-pleasing numbers were showcases for Page's blues guitar chops and Plant's high-pitched, lamenting vocals.
10 Years After Calling It Quits, Zep Came Back With A Blues Hit
Zeppelin were famously against compilations or "greatest hits" collections, considering their albums to be listening experiences that should not be carved up or extracted. In fact, it wasn't until 1990 that a true Zeppelin compilation came out, a three-disc box set simply titled Led Zeppelin. A neglected, never-released classic from 1969 was dug out of the archives and put out as a single. The song, which reached #7 on the US rock chart, wasn't a Zeppelin original; it was a cover of Robert Johnson's 1937 "Travelling Riverside Blues," of course.