On June 29th, 1969, the British DJ John Peel opened Top Gear, his progressive-rock program on the BBC's Radio One, by spinning the Rolling Stones' new single "Honky Tonk Women." Peel then introduced the first number from a four-song studio session by a rising young band, still less than a year old.
"These are Led Zeppelin," Peel announced in his hypnotizing monotone, "who played very excellently at the amazing festival in Bath yesterday, about which more later on. And this is curiously called 'What Is and What Should Never Be' – or something."
It was only the second time anyone heard the song outside of London's Olympic Studios, where Led Zeppelin – guitarist-founder Jimmy Page, bassist and keyboard player John Paul Jones, singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham – had recently finished cutting it for their second album, Led Zeppelin II. Two weeks before Peel's transmission, the group taped a version of "What Is and What Should Never Be" for another BBC show, Tasty Pop Sundae. But Peel also had a couple of exclusives: the public debut of "Whole Lotta Love," destined for immortality on Zeppelin's next album, and a jubilant, acoustic mashup of Robert Johnson songs called "Traveling Riverside Blues."
All three numbers, along with a furious tear through "Communication Breakdown" from Zeppelin's first album, were taped for Top Gear in a single seven-hour session, in mono, at the BBC's Maida Vale studios in London. The new songs would not appear on record until October, when Led Zeppelin II was released. The Johnson medley, conceived and arranged on the spot with Page on slide guitar, would finally be resurrected two decades later, when Page included it on the 1990 box set Led Zeppelin.
"Peel was great – he obviously did champion us," Page says gratefully over the phone from London, a week before the release of The Complete BBC Sessions (Swan Song), a three-CD set and deluxe boxed edition of everything his band recorded for British radio in 1969 and 1971. "Because we spent so much time in the States in the beginning, we weren't able to do so much in England. It was slower catching up. And we didn't have radio here like what was called underground radio over there. So we got these little slots on the BBC" – almost entirely with Peel's delighted support. Of the 33 tracks on The Complete BBC Sessions, all but seven come from shows programmed or hosted by Peel.
As Page – who recorded pivotal BBC sessions in 1967 and 1968 with his previous band, the Yardbirds, – explains below, Led Zeppelin did their radio work on the run: between their own sessions for Led Zeppelin II, when they were already a phenomenon in America but still playing clubs and ballrooms in Britain. The four studio dates on The Complete BBC Sessions were all taped between March and June 1969; one of them, a three-song set for a show called Rhythm and Blues, was only heard on shortwave radio through the BBC's World Service. Two live concerts – "One Night Stand," recorded and aired in June 1969; and a legendary "In Concert" from April 1971 – were widely bootlegged on LP in the Seventies and Eighties.
Page previously compiled Zeppelin's Beeb material on a two-CD release, The BBC Sessions, in 1997. The expanded reissue rescues performances not on that set – most notably the entire Rhythm and Blues set, long thought lost and featuring the only known performance of "Sunshine Woman," an impromptu Zeppelin original.
"It had to be included," Page says, acknowledging the best-possible sound of that tape. "There is no point in putting out The Complete BBC Sessions and someone's growling that you missed something." He laughs. "I made sure they can't do that."
How did you unearth that missing session with "Sunshine Woman"?
It was the second set of recordings that we did for the BBC. It was for [blues singer] Alexis Korner's show, Rhythm and Blues. We did it because it was Alexis' show. He wasn't actually in the studio – we didn't get to see him. But we kept to the blues format for him – "You Shook Me," "I Can't Quit You Baby."
And then we did something that we made up on the spot, from a guitar riff. It was done, I guess, for amusement really – although we were playing very seriously. There's a few [old] blues references thrown in so that Alexis would hear it when he did his show, even though it wasn't as purist as maybe he would like. He was very much into the Sonny Terry type of acoustic guitar playing – very accomplished, very good but quite polite.
There is that vocal quote by Robert, from what would become "The Lemon Song" on Led Zeppelin II.
That was there for Alexis, so he would be amused, maybe think, "I wish I'd got them to do an acoustic set" [laughs]. But the thing is, the tapes get lost. I know it went to whatever department of the BBC World Service did the show. From that point, the tapes disappeared. I'd done the original CDs of BBC Sessions many moons ago [in 1997]. After that, "Sunshine Woman" starts to appear on the bootleg scene. From what I'm led to believe, it was recorded off the radio by someone in Eastern Europe. It managed to travel around, and we got a good source of that show.
What was your first session for the BBC as a guitarist, before the Yardbirds? Was it when you were in Neil Christian and the Crusaders?
Actually, it's a good punt to say Neil Christian. But Neil Christian didn't do any BBC [sessions]. The first ones I did were as a studio musician. One artist was Tom Jones. He was doing radio recordings, and I would be a studio musician, going in with him. So I was very used to the way that the BBC did recordings. But the first time, with a band that I was in, was the Yardbirds.
All of that was mono. There was no laying of sound-on-sound. There was with Led Zeppelin – for overdubs. It was still mono in the early sessions. But there were some really fine engineers.
The June 1969 session for John Peel – the one with the acoustic "Traveling Riverside Blues" – is remarkable for the vivid quality of the performances, considering they were recorded in mono with the limited studio technology available.
That one – there was a particularly good engineer [Tony Wilson]. He was really good, as you can tell from those recordings. We did actually have the chance to do some overdubs. I remember asking the BBC, when we did further stuff – "Where's that engineer?" "Oh, he's been promoted."
How it worked there – you would become a producer, but it might be a program that had nothing to do with music. It might be gardening or sports. There was this surreal thing where they hadn't really caught up with what was happening in studios. There were certain producers like John Walters and Bernie Andrews who were trying hard to establish things at the BBC. But they didn't get to stereo until late, maybe 1971.
How would you pick the songs you wanted to feature in the 1969 studio sessions? You were basically introducing the band to British audiences in these radio appearances.
With the blues, we had "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby." But whether we were doing radio for the BBC or TV in France, it would be "Dazed and Confused" and "Communication Breakdown" [both from 1969's Led Zeppelin]. "Communication Breakdown" – it was punchy and direct, with a real attitude that was different to other bands going around.
To re-emphasize that, to push the point even further, it was "Dazed and Confused, with the bowing sections, working with the vocal and guitar. It showed how the whole group is working together – the improvised sections that were so radical compared to what anyone else was doing. "Good Times Bad Times" [on Led Zeppelin] had been put to radio [for airplay] – we certainly weren't going to play that because we didn't want people to think we were a singles band.
How would you characterize your relationship with John Peel? From that comment about your show at the Bath Festival, he was clearly a fan and supporter in 1969.
At Bath, it was actually the John Peel Stage that we played on. When we went back a year later, the whole situation had changed for us in England. We were doing stuff from the third album, starting with "Immigrant Song" and all that. The audience is really there for us, as opposed to us just being part of the overall thing. But yeah, he was [a fan]. He could understand the musicianship – the way it was put together and how ambitious we were.
Peel was also suspicious of mainstream success. He went cold on Marc Bolan, originally a close friend, when his group T. Rex became a pop sensation.
John Peel made his reputation with his radio show and his record label, Dandelion, by championing the underdog. And we were certainly something undeniable when you heard it or felt it in concert. But I do see what you mean, once we started to get successful. There was so much other stuff coming through, and Peel felt it was his duty to spotlight them. Those are the sort of people you want in the music business.
The first live concert in this set, recorded in June 1969 at the Playhouse Theater, was from a then-new series, "One Night Stand," that in essence was a test run for what became the long-running program "In Concert." You were, in effect, one of the first major bands to play in that kind of extended-concert setting for the BBC.
If you saw the script for that show, it was Led Zeppelin doing some numbers. Then we'd have to stop, and the host [Peel] is doing some interviews with people. And there's another band called the Liverpool Scene. The Edgar Broughton Band were on too.
But I'd been talking to one of the producers there, saying, "Isn't it a shame that the groups can't just have a long run at it, rather than intersperse it with this other stuff, so we can get the real momentum of a show?" That's where the 1971 concert comes in – where we can do a full show.
"One Night Stand" and "In Concert" were both done with the legendary BBC-concert producer Jeff Griffin. How would you work with him to capture Zeppelin's sound, dynamic and extended improvising on the radio? So much of the live Zeppelin experience was about being in the moment, in that room. Here, you were trying to get it over the air, with the best possible fidelity.
The engineers that you came across in the early stages, the very first sessions, were really good. But you're going in there – you have a time slot. It's not like the time is your own. It's the BBC's. You're relying on the fact that you've got a good engineer. But for "One Night Stand," we'd do a soundcheck, and I would ask to hear a playback to see where it was, to make sure that you can hear everything properly and make adjustments.
Obviously you couldn't be as loud as you [normally] were. We were playing with serious amounts of amplification certainly by the time we'd come back from America. But you knew what you had to do, which was not play loud and give the engineers heart failure yet still be at a level where you could hear each other – interact and improvise.
When you did the 1971 "In Concert," you performed for well over an hour. Later, when it was broadcast on the BBC and syndicated in America, songs were cut such as "Since I've Been Loving You" and "Black Dog." Did you do the editing yourself or was that the BBC?
Don't remember. It might have been the BBC. I wanted to go through all of the source material [for this collection] and I've heard versions of the show where I heard they did edits on things and I'd go, "Ugh!" The whole object of those shows was not to get edited. So I don't know what the BBC did apart from the original broadcast. To be honest with you, we were so busy touring through those years that you couldn't keep up with things. It's not like you can now, where you can go online and check on things to see what they've done. You couldn't do that.
Is there something that Zeppelin fans, especially new ones who have never heard these broadcasts before, can learn about the genesis of the band and the music?
Considering that we only had these limited opportunities for exposure over here in Britain, it's just the fact that we were totally fearless. You can hear the energy and the attitude – and the fact that we could go in there and make up numbers but not tell the people in the control room. We were testing ourselves as much as anything else, just really going for it.
Do you wish you could have kept that relationship with the BBC going past 1971? Or was it just time to move on?
It was what it was. That last concert does pioneer something that everyone else can benefit from – one whole concert for a band. But you know what we were doing in all of those years. It was just so busy.
Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page has issued a statement thanking fans who stood by him during the "Stairway to Heaven" trial. Watch here.